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Asus ROG Phone II Review – Higher, Further, Faster

The Asus ROG Phone released last year gave an impression of being an experimental phone. Asus really went wild with it – giving it a bombastic gamers-esque design and introducing all sorts of crazy contraptions with first-party gaming accessories. It was such a wild departure from the common (boring) smartphone form factor that Asus has created something truly memorable here.  The experiment worked. Mobile gamers love it. Tech observers were in awe (even though the design divides opinions) The whole thing was a success. And now here we are, a year later with the ROG Phone II, ready to up the ante in the increasingly-heated battle going on in the dedicated gaming smartphone ring.

We started off our ROG Phone’s review with a quick unboxing look, and we are doing the same here, just because it is quite an unique experience. The triangle-shaped box remains similar, but instead of having a flap-like opening, the new packaging slides out like a capsule. In it, you have the AeroActive Cooler II and Aero Case bundled in besides the usual array of accessories, which also include a 30W wall adapter.

The ROG Phone II looks, well, underwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, I was kind of wishing Asus to come out with another eye-grabbing design and the ROG Phone II doesn’t look all too different from the ROG Phone at first glance. At first glance. Because the moment you hold it on your hand, you will immediately notice the first big difference. With a 19.5:9 ratio display, it is a taller and bigger phone than its predecessor. Not only that, it is also thicker and heavier. The ROG Phone II is one of the biggest and heftiest phone I have ever held on my hands.

The overall design of the new phone is a more refined version from the original. All the things you love from the ROG Phone is here – the absence of display notch or any hole-punch, the dual front stereo speakers, the extra side-mounted USB-C port and of course, the customisable glowing ROG logo. Changes come in the form of the removal of the rear-mounted fingerprint scanner into an optical in-display one while the cooling vents at the rear are much more discreet. I also appreciate that the power/lock button and volume rockers are placed low enough that they are easily reachable by the fingers, despite the unusual large nature of the device. All in all, a cleaner-looking device but one that still largely preserves the ROG identity.

Once you get past the the relatively-minor changes to the exterior, you will be floored by what the ROG Phone II has to offer on the inside. The specs sheet basically reads like an honorific list of the best smartphone hardware available today – 120Hz OLED display, 12GB of RAM, Snapdragon 855+, up to 1TB of UFS 3.0 storage and 6,000mAh battery, plus a headphone jack. If there’s an award for the best overall smartphone specs to be given out today, the ROG Phone II would have scoped it up effortlessly.

The 6.6-inch OLED display is great. What it lacks in pixels compared to the top-tier smartphones, it makes up for it with high refresh rates. The ROG Phone II takes things up another level by having a display capable of outputting 120Hz refresh rate, up from 90Hz on the original phone. When enabled, everything on screen move at a super silky smooth rate. By default, the device is set on 60Hz out of the box and you will need to dive into the settings to turn things up. Of course, you can go all the way up to 120Hz but if the battery taking a hit concerns you, you can dial things down to 90Hz, which still offers a very-smooth experience. You can put up a quick toggle in the notification tray to switch up the refresh rate on the fly, which is handy, and a notification icon up top will let you know which setting you are currently on.

Of course, the best way to enjoy the high refresh rates is through games. Not all games work in 120Hz though. Asus has published a list of 120Hz-supported games and the bad news is some of the wildly popular mobile games like PUBG Mobile aren’t supported. It isn’t a big list, but you can still find some gems such as Alto’s Adventure (and it’s sequel Alto’s Odyssey), and Minecraft in there. You can find most of the games in the Armoury Crate app, which is essentially a hub for all gaming-related controls, settings and information. If you do find some of the games there enjoyable, playing them at a high refresh rate will further elevate the experience. Mortal Kombat 11 especially plays gorgeously in 120Hz.

Good visuals can only do so much if the accompanying audio is not up to scratch. Fortunately, the ROG Phone II’s dual front stereo speakers deliver with aplomb. It is not an exaggeration to say that it is one of the best-sounding smartphones I have ever heard. If you want loud, you get plenty loud. It is one of those things that having a rather thick top and bottom bezels is justified.

One of the features that made the ROG Phone such as unique gaming phone is AirTrigger, which are two touch-sensitive panels that line along the right side of the device. They provide additional button inputs beyond what is on the screen and mimics modern game console controllers. It also happened to be my favorite feature on the first ROG Phone. On the new phone, AirTrigger II works even better. The controls feel tighter all around and Asus has even added slide motions into the mix. While I haven’t encounter many gaming situations that warrant the use of slide motions, AirTrigger continues to be a fun as well as very-handy gaming tool. Like previously, you are able to map the pair to any on-screen buttons and adjusts their sensitivity. They work best on shooter games, which make up some of the most popular mobile games all around the world today. Its hard to go back to playing on any other smartphones once you get used to the console-like controls.

But the ROG Phone II does not stop there. You can have an even closer console experience by attaching the phone to some form of external accessories. The ROG Kunai Gamepad was launched alongside the phone and it offers a proper gamepad experience for those who prefer to game with their fingers away from the screen. I do not have the Kunai Gamepad on hand for this review so I couldn’t tell you how gaming with it is like, but my point is that gaming accessory hardwares form part of the whole appeal of the ROG Phone line in the first place. Just like its predecessor, there are a myriad of official gaming accessories available for the ROG Phone II – like a second display hardware that transforms the phone into something like the Nintendo DS. You can have the phone as a perfect standalone gaming machine without any of these of, but if you are willing to splash that extra bit of cash, the ROG Phone II can be so much more than just a standard gaming smartphone.

One of gaming’s unavoidable inconvenience is heat and Asus laid claims that the ROG Phone II is better at managing temperatures thanks to its second-generation GameCool II cooling system. I remembered the first ROG Phone not staying exactly cool in the heat of gaming (pun not intended) and I hate to tell you that the ROG Phone II is not a block of ice either. But it does a better job (even if slightly) in keeping the heat down as far as I’m concerned. Throughout my testing, only the upper part of the device which is close to the top front speaker gets rather hot to the touch whilst running graphic-intensive games. You can alleviate the heat a little by easily attaching the AeroActive Cooler II which comes with a built-in fan.

The 6,000mAh battery is pretty much self-explanatory. You can be assured to have many long gaming sessions before the phone needs to go to the charger. It is made even better by the fact it supports up to 30W fast charging – one of the fastest in a smartphone. It also greatly benefits the “phone” side of the device. On days with minimal or no gaming, you will go to bed at the end of the day with battery to last a good part of the next day. Massive battery plus (very) fast charging are always a winning combo.

Yes, the ROG Phone II might be leading in all things specs and gaming, but when it comes to the camera department, it is playing catch up instead. One can certainly argue that a primarily gaming phone does not really need to compete in the camera ring and in its favour, the narrative does support the idea that specs-chasing hardcore gamers regard things like the camera with secondary importance. So what we have here is dual cameras at the back with the main shooter packing 48 megapixels accompanied by a 13MP ultrawide lens, a pretty tame affair in the world of  four or even five rear cameras. Over at the front, it gets a 24MP selfie camera.

The ROG Phone II is not going to be in the same league as the iPhones and Pixels in this regard, that’s for sure. It may not take the best-looking photos of all but the cameras do a pretty fine job overall for a smartphone in 2019. It is not an afterthought either as Asus has baked in a lot of the features you will find in any modern smartphone these days. It even comes with a dedicated Night Mode and is able to shoot 4K 60fps videos.

Gaming phones generally are not known for having great cameras, but the ROG Phone II might buck the trend a little. It is one of the better ones. The advantage of being a gaming phone is that no one is going to make a huge fuss about the camera aspect like they do on non-gaming phones, not least the owners.  The shots below were taken on our review unit.       

With the ROG Phone II, Asus has not only created its most impressive smartphone in its roster yet, but also solidifies ROG’s position as the leading name in the dedicated gaming smartphone space. It is an all-around improvement over the first ROG Phone in almost every way.  Powerful as it may be, it is still far from being the perfect smartphone. The lack of any water-resistance and wireless charging are glaring misses. Its massive and heavy form factor may also too much for tiny hands. But for those who are clear on the type of smartphone they want, the gamers who desires the so-called “ultimate” gaming smartphone, the ROG Phone II is the closest thing they can get their hands on today.

Round two. ROG wins again.

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