The ROG Phone is probably the most expected surprise we could have anticipated from ASUS. A leading hardware and electronics in Asia, ASUS boasts bleeding edge performance in computing and has a complete and successful range of smartphones. We’ve watched as mobile gaming has developed and got more attractive over the past few years. Little wonder, then, that they have decided to make headway in this brave (and lucrative) new world of super-charged high-octane portable gaming devices that moonlight as smartphones in their spare time. But first, we ask: what took them so long?
Just about six months ago when the Razer Phone (~SGD930/USD699) was released in November 2017, it was marketed as the world’s first gaming-centric smartphone. About a month back, the Xiaomi Blackshark (~SGD730/USD480) boasted better performance at a lower price. The ROG Phone, however, had probably been long in the works. With ASUS’s clear comparative advantage and clear signs that the smartphone market was ready for a segment for gaming-oriented devices, it clearly had been waiting out for something.
Don’t believe us? The phone speaks for itself.
ASUS’s ROG branding has been one of the most meticulously crafted we’ve observed. Why bother with marketing, if all gaming and geekdom is about specs and raw, absolute power? I politely disagree. With years of development of supply-chain relationships, the brands in this market have come to a point where specification sheets alone are difficult to differentiate their products.
With their characteristic red-and-black motif, Republic of Gamers products are instantly recognisable. Bold, slanted lines, and unabashed vents and utilitarian (almost military-looking) further add to the design language that they have been developing over the past few years. Even with its strong, bold identity, the ROG Phone is not at all ostentatious but just looks plain cool.
Its strong design element is blended with functionality. Form is function with the ROG Phone. The dual camera (the best ASUS has ever implemented on its smartphones) do away with plainly boring stadium-shaped camera modules seen on literally every other phone. The flash is neatly integrated into the design off at an angle.
Canted lines provide visual space, buffering the rhomboid fingerprint sensor. More lines, and we see two vents that help with the cooling. More on the cooling later.
A world-first, ASUS’s own brand of RGB lighting, Aura Sync, is implemented on the logo at the centre of the phone. I scoffed, but even I changed my mind. It lends some practicality by allowing users to set colours to different notifications. If it’s going to be practical, why not make it cool (and colourful)?
There are three USB-C ports on this phone. Three. That’s as many I/O points as a 2017 MacBook Pro.
Like most other phones, there’s a USB-C port and a 3.5mm jack on the bottom of the phone. And then there’s two in rapid succession on the right side of the phone.
By itself, you would be able to plug in any Qualcomm Quick charge 3 or 4 charger or a USB-C headphone for audio (they’re far too close to fit two USB-C cables at once). But they’re arranged that way for a reason.
Its Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor and Adreno 630 GPU are sure to generate some serious heat, even with its GameCool vapour-chamber cooling system and an assortment of heat management features. The AeroActive cooler module comes in the box and clamps along the middle of the phone, strapping a fan that forces cool air over the back of the phone.
On the bottom of the AeroActive cooler module, there is an additional USB-C and 3.4mm port that also allows users to game without bottom-mounted cables forcing any uncomfortable hand yoga.
The AeroActive cooler houses a small fan, not unlike those seen in PC builds. It runs whisper-quiet, and the only sensation noticeable would be cool air enveloping your fingertips.
Another headline feature on the phone is the inclusion of a left and right trigger interface located where console shoulder inputs buttons are. Powered by ultrasound, the AirTrigger is made up of pressure sensitive areas on the edge of the frame of the phone, ending the days of frantic thumb tapping or index finger acrobatics. This effectively returns more screen real estate to the game, improving situational awareness. A third AirTrigger is located oh the opposite site, intended for use in portrait orientation. It is used to initiate X Mode, which will be explained below.
In real life, however, these interfaces were not easily actuated. Without any tactile cues, it was difficult to find where the sensitive areas were. I would have preferred good ol’ buttons or an Apple-esque force-touch haptic feedback deal.
While that might be addressed with muscle memory, the AirTrigger buttons were definitely not hair triggers. They required a slight bit of force to initiate, just a tad more than you would expect to exert on a normal button. That’s slightly puzzling given official documentation show a 20g force required to activate the input, so I might be wrong.
The downside to smartphone gaming has always been the poor ergonomics these pieces of metal and glass can afford. ASUS has made it cooler to hold, and moved the cables out of the way. They’ve even eased the strain on your thumbs by invoking console nostaliga with the AirTrigger buttons.
And then they one-upped themselves by unveiling a plethora of attachments, and they (almost) all made sense.
First up is the Gamevice attachment. Originally made for the iPhone, Gamevice is a two-piece control attachment that appends to the short edges of your smartphone to turn it into a gaming device. Yes, you’re picturing the Nintendo switch, and you’re right. The ROG Phone is tall, so my hands felt wide apart when holding the control surfaces. However, in Asphalt 8, the visuals looked stunning without my palms covering up half the screen.
On board, the Gamevice controllers house twin analog thumbsticks, a D-pad, ABXY keys, L3 and R3 buttons, and left and right Triggers and Bumpers. The set-up involves mapping button inputs to different game controls. Asphalt 8 is usually controlled by tilting the phone and using the gyroscope as an input, but the precision afforded by the analog thumbsticks was a huge help in negotiating hairpin turns.
The Gamevice controller also contains the WiGig Dock, which enabled me to stream my Asphalt 8 gameplay wirelessly to a monitor across the room. There was latency, but not AirPlay latency. With 60GHz 802.11ad Wi-Fi, your gaming experience can be shared with friends and family, and could help take mobile gaming into a social setting.
Another peripheral is the TwinView Dock that turns your ROG Phone into a Gameboy instead. With an additional 6-inch AMOLED screen, this attachment is useful for streamers, hardcore gamers who play different titles concurrently, and for those who obsessively check their social media accounts.
While the TwinView Dock had few applications dedicated to test it out with, since the APK would take a while from the secretive launch to get to developers, the hardware felt fantastic. While not pocketable, the TwinView Dock was beefy and felt great to hold in my hands. Shaped like the rotund Xbox controller, the TwinView dock gives dual trigger buttons on each side but no thumb controls. Quad speakers and an enhanced haptic feedback system also ensure your experience is immersive and enjoyable.
I would be excited to see if a new release of Pokemon makes it to the ROG Phone’s TwinView Dock, or if Garena’s Free Fire delivers on its promise to provide a two-screen function on its app. With foldable smartphones and phablets on the horizon, this development might actually be more practical than it seems.
Lastly, and perhaps the most exciting peripheral is the Mobile Desktop Dock.
Playing Free Fire on the set-up, I immediately felt the scrunched shoulders and furrowed brows of mobile gaming melt away. No more tears, only a properly-sized display.
The ROG Phone Mobile Desktop Dock effectively eliminates the worst of the occupational hazards associated with mobile gaming. Seated upright, shoulders broad and head held high, I realised that there was no healthy posture for extended bouts of mobile gaming. The dock supports a 4K UHD display with the phone as auxiliary output, an a connection to wired gigabit LAN. It will also give 5.1-channel surround sound via SP/DIF output.
Wired connections that run from the dock provided latency-free inputs and outputs. The visuals, however, were not the most detailed as world rendering has its limit on a mobile system. Apart from that? Perfect, for a man filled with aches and pains. Maybe ASUS will help pain-riddled individuals like me Make Mobile Desktop Again.
If anything, its a feature-packed phone. If you’re eyeing one, you might have already scoured for the specifications sheets and all available benchmark figures.
I think most of the features speak through the experience.
Squeezing the phone round the middle activates X Mode, which essentially turns the phone into a dedicated gaming device. It does this by purging all existing RAM processes and preventing new non-gaming ones from starting, and also blocking all notifications and other distractions.
The AMOLED screen is gorgeous. While spec sheets boast colour and contrast improvements, I was unable to accurately test these claims in challenging gaming situations. However, booting up the camera showed the vividly and life-like portrayal of colour. The camera is impressive, with excellent colour reproduction and fast autofocus. Warm tones like skin look exceptional.
The demo phones were left running for an entire day, without the AeroActive cooler attached. None of them felt remotely warm.
The volume from the front-firing speakers is phenomenal, without being overly distorted. A thin top and bottom bezel house stereo speakers that drowned out the TV in the room, and had to be turned down for anyone to hear each other even with raised voices.
The phone also has support for 24-bit/192KHz high definition audio playback. DTS Headphone:X technology provides high-quality virtual surround sound that is essential for the greatest titles in battle royale.
It also sports a 4,000mAh battery, the same as the one on the Razer Phone and Xiaomi Blackshark, but much larger than other smartphone flagships.
It’s difficult to conclude a tech piece without knowing the price point, and we’ve got not reference point as this device is the first of its kind from ASUS.
However, I think it’s safe to say that this phone is one of the best thought-out phones in recent memory. Its rejection of the ‘minimalistic’ plain glass-and-metal that seems to be in vogue is highly commendable. Form for function seems to be the name of the game, with many important characteristics seemingly the result of user feedback, market observation, or perhaps cutting-edge common sense.
The AirTrigger and side-mounted USB C ports are ingenious ways to immediately improve ergonomics for gamers. ASUS then sweetens the deal with top-shelf specs and great performance from almost every category we could check. Clock speeds? Check. High-resolution, colour accurate display? Check. Amazing sound? Check – for both speakers, wired and Bluetooth. Peripherals? Check, but only if they are delivered effectively in terms of time and price point.
We don’t want to see another LG G4 with peripherals that never came.