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Asus ROG Phone Review – Rog Solid

Asus is no stranger to releasing what I called a “specialty smartphone” – a smartphone tied with a particular highlight feature. There’s the ZenFone Zoom focusing on the rear camera, the ZenFone Selfie fronted by its front camera and all its selfie features, and the ZenFone AR offering augmented reality tech among others. It is no surprise that in the recent renaissance of gaming phones, Asus would again release a specialty phone to the effect. With a reputable gaming sub-brand already on hand in the form Republic of Gamers (ROG), Asus naturally had their gaming division on task with creating their take on the gaming phone concept. The resulting ROG Phone is refreshingly different from all of Asus’ other specialty phones, and quite rightly represents Asus’ most ambitious and daring creation yet.

Right from the get go, the ROG Phone is a sight to behold – even before we get a glimpse of the phone. The retail packaging box and the unboxing experience is second to none. You’ll never want to throw away or discard the retail box, like you do on most other phones. It is clear that the Asus team has put a lot of thoughts into the design aspect, to offer a one-of-a-kind experience that this phone offers in spades. Since we are on the topic of design, let’s start by talking design. And boy there is a lot to talk about with the design.

The ROG Phone’s design is a polarising one. On one hand, you get this loud, garish, gamers-centric (complete with RGB element but more on that later) look that will excite the hardcore gamers to no end and seems to cater to the younger generation. But therein lies a problem – What about those in the professional line of work who would prefer something more subtle, more classy and less eyeballs-grabbing? Oh, and good luck finding any third-party case for it.

If you’re all in for the design that immediately calls you out as a gamer and you are not ashamed of it, gaming phones do not come as badass-looking as the ROG Phone. The asymmetrical back is a very interesting departure from the same ol’ same ol’ plain-jane look of today’s smartphones. But it also leads to some awkwardly-placed parts like the off-centre fingerprint sensor. It is not as bad as certain Samsung flagships but still I do not see a reason to not put it right at the middle.

The same daring design does not carry itself to the front, which looks outdated by 2018’s standard. Thick bezels surround the phone and especially so on the top and bottom. Asus was one of the first Android phone manufacturers to embrace the notch post-iPhone X launch but decided to maintain the old pre-notch look, for better or for worse. That said, it’s not all bad. You get a notch-free display and dual front-facing speakers, a gaming phone prerequisite. You can also still enjoy using the headphone jack.

The design is more than meets the eyes as Asus has cleverly hidden a couple of cool features all around it. One of most thoughtful design choices I’ve seen is the inclusion of side-mounted ports, which include another USB Type-C port. Yes, there are two USB-C ports on this device. A side-mounted USB-C port makes it easy to simultaneously game on landscape mode using both hands while charging the device. The port can also be used to attach Asus’ AeroActive Cooler external cooling fan, which comes included in the box (nice touch Asus!). The AeroActive Cooler mount has its own headphone jack too so you can ultimately game with your headphones on comfortably, all while the device is being charged.

Located at both ends of the right frame are two invisible, touch-sensitive buttons. The “AirTriggers” act as triggers/bumpers (L1/R1 on game controllers) that offer more control options console gamers will be instantly familiar. In addition, there’s another AirTrigger button at the bottom left of the frame to complement the one on the right frame. When not in use for gaming, the two bottom AirTriggers can be squeezed simultaneously side by side to initiate a customisable set of actions, much like the feature found on recent HTC and Google Pixel phones.

The ROG Phone is an all-around masculine phone – heavy and chunky. It is also worth-noting that it is among the world’s first phone using the new Corning Gorilla Glass 6 on its display. This is not a modern slim and super-sleek phone by any definition. This is a phone made by gamers for the gamers.

With top-of-the-line specs that include 8GB worth of RAM, Snapdragon 845 processor and Adreno 630 graphics chip, the ROG Phone stands right alongside the most powerful Android phones in the market today. Pity though the display measures up to “only” 6-inch large, while many flagships and even midrange phones released these days possess far larger displays. While lacking in size, the ROG Phone makes up for it with a 90Hz 1ms AMOLED display, a world’s first. Curiously, the phone comes set at 60Hz by default and you need to dive into the settings to switch things up to 90Hz. Once you do, the difference in scrolling and animation smoothness is telling. It is not day and night but the subtle difference makes for a lot more enjoyable everyday experience, and not just in gaming.

The phone is running on what Asus calls the ROG UI but it isn’t a lot different from what we see on the ZenFone 5. The new elements are mostly the color scheme and custom icons set. Asus has been guilty of loading way too many unnecessary apps onto their phones in the past but they kept things light and nice here. I am not very much into benchmark numbers but if you want to know, here are the scores based on the tests I ran on my review unit of the ROG Phone. 

Antutu Benchmark – 296,797

Geekbench 4 – 2453 (single-core) 9059 (multi-core)

PC Mark – 9016 (Work 2.0 performance score)

At the core of the whole gaming experience in this phone is the Game Center app, which serves as both a dashboard for all the important hardware information gamers will care as well as houses all the gaming tweak and settings. Information such as the CPU and GPU usage, system temperature and battery remaining time are presented in cool graphics at a glance. This is also where users can configure their game profiles, fan speed (when AeroActive Cooler is attached), AirTrigger settings, and have fun customising the glowing “Aura lighting” RGB logo at the back of the phone with various effects and tons of color combinations.

Another major gaming software component is Game Genie, a side menu overlay accessible in-game where users can quickly toggle things such lock mode, alerts, initiate game recording, stream live on YouTube or Twitch, and even speed up the game by optimising the phone memory on the fly. While casual gamers will most likely never need to use it, this could be huge for professional gamers. Asus is also including a performance-boosting feature called the X Mode. When activated, it raises the CPU frequency while also optimizes memory for gaming. And for purely cosmetic reason, it also lead to a very cool subtle change to the default wallpaper. I love the little things and attention to detail Asus provided here.

So how do all these razzmatazz translate to the actual gaming experience on the ROG Phone? Now I am not a huge mobile game player so I may not be able to provide you with the detailed commentary you may be looking for. As a casual gamer, the most important aspects I’m looking for are a good display, good sound and great performance. The ROG Phone aces nearly all of that.

First the display. While its not the best I’ve ever seen by any means, it is still one great-looking, crisp OLED display. The only thing to note is that the display is not as bright as what I normally see in other phones, even at the highest brightness level. The audio department meanwhile is superb. The dual front firing speakers really bring out the oomph with punchy surround sounds, and it gets really, really loud, which makes for a very satisfying gaming experience even sans headsets.

Performance-wise, I a tried a total of four graphically-demanding games, namely PUBG Mobile, Fortnite, Asphalt 9 Legends, and Ark Survival Evolved and the gameplay experience has been top notch as I would’ve expected. Frame rates were consistent and steady throughout the game sessions and even though there were small drops, they were few and far between. I didn’t even find myself the need to activate the X Mode. It’s safe to say that this thing will run all mobile games – even the most demanding ones – you throw at it like a champ.    

What I enjoyed the most however is the use of AirTriggers. Being an avid console gamers, AirTriggers feel right at home. You can map the two buttons to whatever controls there are in any game. For instance, in a FPS (first person shooter) game, the two buttons can be mapped as the shoot and reload button while in a racing game, they can be mapped as the speed boost and drift buttons, or whatever combinations you want. You can freely adjust their degree of sensitivity too to your liking. The flexibility opens up new ways for gamers to experience a mobile game and it can defer from one gamer to another. It also helps keep more of our fingers off the screen, which is always a win. Now this is one feature I wouldn’t mind and absolutely love to see other gaming phone manufacturers copying.

Another thing that I want to address is heat. The ROG Phone can get rather hot to the touch while gaming even though it features what Asus calls a GameCool vapor-chamber heat dissipation design. The recorded temperature gets as high as 40 degrees celsius during my gaming sessions. To help lower it down somewhat, you can always mount the AeroActive Cooler onto the phone.

Battery life is stellar, which is expected from a 4,000mAh battery. Expect to have all-day battery for most days but heavy and continuous gaming sessions will definitely drain it faster. Probably the weakest part on this phone is its camera, which is a rather standard affair. The ROG Phone packs dual rear cameras that comprise of a standard 16MP lens and a 120° wide-angle lens. On the front, it has a 8MP selfie shooter. The cameras lack many of the AI features that are pretty common in a lot of the new smartphones and there is just nothing much to shout about. They take decent enough photos in favourable conditions and is able to shoot videos in slow-mo. The absence of any IP rating on water resistance is also a minus point. Below are some of the shots taken on the ROG Phone, in their standard as well as wide-angle frames, as well as a portrait mode shot.

There are still a lot of features that we did not get to test on this phone during the short period we were allowed to have it, mostly concerning its usage on a large number of official companion  gaming accessories such as the TwinView Dock, Mobile Desktop Dock, WiGig Display Dock and others, which brings the its capabilities to an even more impressive level. On its strengths alone, the ROG Phone is rock solid, but its impressive armour is not without its chinks.

The ROG Phone is undoubtedly pricey, and it is not a phone for everybody as it is clearly made to appeal to a very specific crowd. If you are in that circle and you have that kind of money to spend, know that you are paying for a ridiculous amounts of features. Whether this is the best gaming phone currently there is highly debatable, as close competitors Razer and Xiaomi are introducing their latest gaming iterations. But the most feature-packed? Hell yes.

I applaud Asus’ willingness to try on something different. The ROG Phone is a breathe of fresh air from the cookie cutters we get so often these days. If anything, it may just be the game-changer that pushes the gaming phone industry forward and spurs more innovations from all players concerned. And that, is a win for all mobile gamers.

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