It has been a long road for the Asus ROG gaming phone. Glimpsed earlier this year at Computex 2018, in prototype form at closed door events and, more recently, at a special media briefing at Asus Malaysia headquarters, the Asus ROG phone has been several years in the making. Rather than simply churning out yet another phone, the ROG phone has the most purpose-driven design that the brand has ever made. Its raison d’etre? To be the ultimate gaming phone.
In that regard, the ROG phone has trailblazed a path ahead of any contemporary smartphone currently in service in terms of what it offers in features, form and design. Here’s how.
Unboxing the Asus ROG phone
The amount of attention to detail and features that they have lavished on the ROG Phone is impressive and extends even to the packaging as its presentation and imposing footprint is unlike any other phone packaging in the market. When you acquire an ROG Phone, it comes in a distinctive angular shaped cardboard casing that looks like an angular pyramid when seen from each end and which stays closed on account of a hidden magnetic clasp in the lid.
Pop it open and the box unfolds itself to reveal three separate sections that contain almost everything you need to get gaming with the ROG phone. Contained in the centre compartment, wrapped in protective plastic is the ROG Phone itself. A smaller pyramidal shaped box contains a USB Type C to USB Type C cable along with a charger. The remaining section has a form-cut recess that holds a dedicated AeroActive cooling dock that latches on sideways onto the ROG phone to help vent heat during intense gaming. It even has its own 3.5mm audio jack and a USB Type-C port to continue supplying power to the phone.
While it’s not bundled with the box, Malaysian buyers get an extra bonus by default – a customised polycarbonate backplate designed specifically for the ROG phone.
The backplate exhibits Asus’ slavish attention to ensuring the ROG Phone is the best gaming phone that current technology can make. What makes it unusual is that it has been specially designed to have a removable central portion to allow for the aforementioned AeroActive cooling dock to snap on to the phone without having to remove the whole casing.
Unfortunately, the whole package lacks something that would have been the piece de resistance – a pair of earbuds. It’s not a major quibble and most gamers will likely already have their own preferred pair of buds on hand.
Asus ROG Phone design and specifications
Where other phones simply pack on hardware or a few firmware enhancements to label a device a ‘gaming phone’, the ROG Phone has been built from the ground up for just that purpose. Every aspect of its design from within and without has been focused on addressing all the classic pitfalls of using a phone as a mobile gaming device in terms of ergonomics and performance. The effort they’ve undertaken shows.
If there are any doubts as to the intended purpose of the ROG phone, they’re all immediately dispelled by its design that simply screams gamer in every way.
The backplate is hewn from glass with an angular cut out on the side resembling a tanto-style knife made of nickel that acts as a heat sink. Circuitry-styled angular lines are etched across its upper quadrant and serve to accentuate a quaintly designed octagonal fingerprint reader along with a rear dual camera array that consists of a 12-MP f/1.7 camera with a Sony IMX363 Dual Pixel image sensor, 4-axis optical image stabilisation and a 6P Largan lens paired up with a secondary 8-MP wide angle lens with the ability to capture 4K video. The biggest feature that draws your eye in is the Republic of Gamers logo emblazoned on the back that is – wait for it – RGB backlit so that it pulses in a variety of colours on demand which you can tweak at will in the settings.
The right side comes with a power button and volume rocker. Closer inspection however reveals one of the most revolutionary innovations to a phone – AirTriggers. Either end of the right side of the phone has tactile ultrasonic triggers. When held landscape style- these correspond to where shoulder buttons would be in a handheld console. These AirTriggers have haptic feedback and can be assigned with a host of functions for each and every game you play. Another AirTrigger is located at the opposite side of the phone as an alternative means to interact with the ROG Phone when in landscape mode.
The left side of the phone, which would be the bottom of the phone if held landscape-style hides another Air Trigger for use when the phone is held vertically in portrait mode and has a unique proprietary port that allows Asus’ custom-designed accessories to dock with the phone though it can also accept USB Type-C cables for charging duties.
This secondary side-mounted charging option means both your hands can fully grasp the phone even when it’s charging, something that has yet to be addressed in many other competing gaming phones.
The top is otherwise bare but the base of the ROG Phone possesses a 3.5mm audio jack and the primary USB Type-C port for charging and docking duties. Up front, the ROG phone has a generously size 6.0-inch notchless AMOLED panel with a 1ms response time and the ability to support either 60Hz or 90Hz refresh rate depending on what game you’re playing as well as a 550 nits brightness. Flanking it are a pair of front-facing stereo speakers with copper accents on the grilles.
In terms of presentation, the ROG Phone is unabashedly a gamer’s delight through and through from its rather gaudy RGB-lit ROG logo on the back to its design that is akin to a gaming rig.
Under the hood, the ROG Phone’s internal architecture is centred around an unusual processor – a specially selected speed-binned Snapdragon 845 capable of running at 2.96GHz which is markedly faster than a stock Snapdragon 845 processor. Paired with this is an Adreno 630 GPU, a generous 8GB RAM and 128GB of non-expandable storage. There is also a larger 512GB variant if your storage needs are particularly rapacious.
To accommodate the increased heat demands of the processor, Asus has also integrated a 3D Vapour chamber, heat spreaders and cooling pads that channel heat towards the aforementioned knife-shaped vent to allow for the speed-binned processor to continue running in a stable fashion at maximum speed even under heavy gaming. To further enhance this, you can add on the AeroActive dock accessory though it can run relatively cool on its own.
Asus ROG Phone performance
As you would likely surmise, the ROG phone is immensely well equipped for the task of playing games with their ROG user experience also designed to optimise your gaming experience with a game-centric Game Center and its Game Genie mode that allows you to modify the ROG RGB backlighting, tweak the controls and assign functions to the shoulder-mounted AirTriggers for each game.
Under synthetic benchmarks, the ROG phone with its 2.96GHz speed-binned Snapdragon 845 SoC, performed in an exemplary fashion that exceeds a stock Snapdragon 845 processor by a minor but noticeable margin. In GeekBench 4.0, it got a single-core score of 2,480 and a multi-core score of 8,651. In Antutu 3D, it got a score of 301,259 points. In PCMark, it got an impressive score of 8,883 while in 3D Mark it got a score of 4,403 in SlingShot Extreme OpenGL ES 3.1 while in Sling Shot Extreme Vulkan it got a score of 3,417.
Under practical conditions, the ROG phone proved to be fast, swift and responsive in normal usage scenarios like web browsing, videos and the like on account of its beefy processor and scads of RAM. Unfortunately, there’s quite a bit of bloatware of dubious utility on the phone but with the generous amounts of storage available, it’s not that big of an issue.
Of note on the phone is the inclusion of an ‘X’ mode that apparently optimises performance for gaming by clearing out background processes and ramping up the ‘frequency of the processor’. This also visibly changes the user interface on the phone into a red tinged hue.
In practice, even with benchmarks, we found little discernible difference with X mode on or off as the speed-binned SD845 SoC already runs at maximum capacity. Presumably this is an oversight that can be patched with the non-X mode offering better battery life in future but as it stands now, it’s essentially window dressing.
The AMOLED display proves to be responsive, vibrant and crisp with good clarity under sunlight for reading text, browsing through Facebook and the like as well as watching videos. Its vaunted ability to have up to a 90Hz refresh rate is of mixed utility though as not all games consistently support it at this point in time in which case they end up defaulting back to 60Hz. So far, only Asphalt 9 and FreeFire can run it at that rate consistently, which ought to please ardent gamers of those two games. As for other games, you’ll have to twiddle your thumbs for awhile as they’re not fully supported as yet.
During the course of our review, we field tested the ROG phone with the game genres that it was specifically designed for – MOBAS and FPS shooters such as VainGlory, League of Legends, PUBG and Free Fire. To its credit, the ROG phone was able to handle these games at maximum settings with silky smooth frame rates and excellent detail. There weren’t any discernible dropped frames and best of all, the front-facing speakers did a bang-up job with loud, relatively detailed audio and a modicum of sound staging so you can approximate the direction of incoming ordnance.
Ergonomically speaking, the ROG Phone has a few shortcomings if considered solely as a smartphone. Its rear fingerprint reader emphasises aesthetics over functionality with its oddly shaped design and shallow footprint making it hard to find by touch and it occasionally does not read your digits accurately.
The rear cameras offer good performance under daylight conditions with respectable amounts of detail and great colour rendition though performance under low light is, at best, fair with some amount of noise though they are more than sufficient for social media use.
One of the biggest pitfalls befalling a gaming phone is how it handles cooling. If a phone gets too hot, processor performance gets affected as it has to throttle down to avoid cooking off. The ROG phone comes with a triple whammy of cooling technologies built into the chassis that include a copper heat spreader, a custom-made cutout in the backplate made of nickel and a 3D vapour cooling chamber.
Even without the addition of the bundled snap-on Aeroactive cooling dock, the ROG phone managed to tackle several hours worth of PUBG gaming with maximum settings without heating up excessively and, at most, achieved a mildly warm sensation on the chassis. Attach the Aeroactive dock to the ROG phone and you’ll hear a discernible whir as an internal fan sups power off the ROG Phone’s battery to offer additional cooling capacity.
While this would likely not offer significant benefit to casual gamers, this extensive built-in cooling capability along with the bundled AeroActive cooling dock will benefit professional gamers the most who will likely encounter much more taxing gaming scenarios. If you’re getting this as a casual gamer, you’ll be bringing the gaming equivalent of a bazooka to a water pistol fight.
Asus ROG Phone AirTriggered
Where the ROG phone takes it to the next level for gaming is its AirTriggers that give you additional means to interact with a game. Rather than rely on clunk third party addons, the AirTriggers are native to the phone, have exceptional responsiveness and haptic feedback too which almost makes them feel like real buttons.
Once you’ve gone through the trouble of mapping them to a specific function in a game, they add a significant tactical advantage in response times and giving you more of the screen to work with rather than having in obscured by your thumbs.
In most FPS games such as PUBG, we assigned the left one to aim down sights and the right one to fire. In MOBAs, they came in handy for activating skills. If there is a killer feature for the ROG phone with immediate benefits that can improve your gameplay, aside from its impressive hardware that is, the AirTriggers is it.
Asus ROG Phone Price, Battery Life and Conclusion
Gaming performance aside, the ROG Phone’s generous 4,000mAh battery offers excellent endurance under normal usage scenarios. When used as a primary phone with data on all day long, with occasional Wi-Fi use, constant use of social media, a few phone calls, emails, texts and, of course, some gaming, the ROG Phone was easily able to last a whole day with enough juice to spare to make the commute home.
Of course, that’s not why we’re here for and under intensive gaming conditions – meaning Wi-Fi on, screen brightness set to two-thirds with all in-game settings set to maximum for PUBG, the phone was able to last several hours. One match of PUBG that lasted about 20 minutes resulted in about a 12% drain on the battery from a full charge.
Fortunately, the side-mounted Type C port makes charging while you’re playing a doddle rather than being an ergonomic nightmare. A full charge takes about two hours or so from dead zero. With the bundled fast charger, it got to a 60% in about 30 minutes.
As a gaming phone, the Asus ROG Phone is one of the most ambitious devices ever made and it actually has several very useful features that can give dedicated gamers a decisive edge – their AirTriggers and the side-mounted Type-C port and its extensive cooling capabilities – among them but the kicker here is that you’ll need to invest in a host of dedicated accessories if you want to bring it to its full potential like its optional TwinView dock, Mobile Desktop dock or WiGig Display dock.
When considered as a smartphone versus a gaming device, the Asus ROG Phone is pretty fair value compared against the likes of other Android flagship phones in terms of its generous storage, speed-binned Snapdragon 845 processor, decent battery life and display. This however has to be tempered with its gaudy design and lack of expandable storage as well as the need to invest in additional accessories for it to achieve its full potential.
If you’re an ardent mobile gamer and are contemplating upping your game, the ROG Phone is so far the most powerful, innovative phone for gaming that money can buy.
What We Liked – Innovative AirTrigger shoulder buttons, powerful hardware, front-facing speakers, revolutionary game-centric ergonomics
What We Didn’t – Rather heavy, gaudy glowing logo on backplate, needs a host of accessories to achieve its full potential, oddly shaped fingerprint reader
We Say – Built from the ground up as a portable Android gaming platform, the Asus ROG phone is unlike any other phone in the market and its purpose-built hardware and beefy specs make it the most powerful gaming phone that money can buy.
Price RM3,499 128GB , RM3,999 512GB
Display 6.0-inch AMOLED, 2,160 x 1080 pixels resolution, 90Hz, 1ms w/ 550 nits
Processor Speed-binned Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 2.97GHz
OS Android 8.1 with ROG UI
Memory 8GB RAM/ 128GB
Camera 12-MP w/ F/1.7 & 4-axis OIS+PDAF + 8-MP w/ wide angle lens (rear) / 8-MP w/ F/2.0 (front)
Size/Weight 158.83 x 76.16 x 8.3mm / 200g