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Review: Roku Ultra Adds Valuable, if Minor, Remote Features

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Roku has refreshed its lineup of streaming players (just in time for the holiday shopping season, as usual), and its top-of-the-line Roku Ultra gained a few helpful additions. Specifically, its remote gained helpful additions. The Ultra comes with what Roku calls its enhanced remote, which differs from its standard IR remote in that it can be pointed anywhere (it doesn't need a line-of-sight) and can control a TV's power and volume. Thanks to this refresh, the enhanced remote now includes a mute button on its right side, next to the volume buttons. This addition was already standard for remotes that ship with Roku OS TVs, but this is a first for a remote that ships with a Roku player. In testing we found the mute button a handy thing to have, mostly for quieting commercials that can't be skipped.

The enhanced remote also now includes two customizable buttons (labeled 1 and 2) which can be trained to perform just about any command. To set them, use the voice command button to do some action (like open an app, run a favorite search, or launch a Pandora station) and, once it's done, hold down one of the customizable buttons until it beeps. In our testing, the remote needed to be pointing at the TV for this part or else the training didn’t take. After the beep, the command is set. Roku remotes already have quick start buttons for four apps, but those are sponsored and don't represent everyone's favorite platforms. Having programmable buttons is handy for launching favorite apps that don't have a shortcut. Roku deserves props for adding two buttons to its remote while still keeping the design simple and sleek.

The refreshed Ultra has other new features, but no one will notice them. Roku says the player has an enhanced quad-core processor and more memory (the company never offers specifics on components), so channels now load 17% faster than before. Maybe they do, but channels already launched quickly, so no one's going to notice a 17% boost. We certainly didn't. As before, the Ultra offers 4K and HDR support, and ships with premium JBL headphones. These can be plugged into the remote's audio jack for quiet listening, perhaps to avoid waking a sleeping spouse.

The Roku Ultra remains the best choice on the market, thanks to its competitive price ($99.99), strong features, and elegantly intuitive OS. In performed perfectly during two weeks of testing. There's no reason for existing Ultra owners to upgrade, but anyone hunting for a premium player should give it a serious look.

In related news, Roku announced it's permanently lowering the price of its Streaming Stick+ to $49.99 (down from $59.99). The Stick is a good choice for those who want a slimmer player, and its remote includes a mute button.

Photo: The Roku Ultra lists for $99.99. A Walmart exclusive, the Roku Ultra LT, goes for $79.99, but lacks the new remote control buttons. It includes Roku-branded headphones, not JBL headphones.

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