ASUS ROG Phone Review: Blistering Performance, Intelligent Design
ASUS ROG Phone: Display, Design, And Build Quality
ASUS is not new to making smartphones by any stretch—we've spent some hands-on time with several of the company's ZenFone models over the past few years, including the ZenFone AR, the world's first Google Tango (since retired in favor of ARCore) and Daydream VR equipped handsets. Like the ZenFone AR, the ROG Phone is an attempt to branch out beyond the normal confines of a high-end smartphone, and that's reflected in its aggressive design language.
Like so many other handsets on the market, the ROG Phone is a premium handset with a large display and rounded corners. However, it's clearly injected with the ROG division's DNA, giving this phone an edgier look that is more in line with ROG's gaming pedigree, and the brand as a whole. This is a phone that ASUS says is "engineered for battle," and it shows.
This is most evident on the backside of the phone. A large ROG logo sits smack dab in the center of the rear panel and optionally glows with customizable RGB lighting. Angled lines and cutouts surround the logo, and you can even see part of the copper heatsink that's situated beneath the surface.
It's a louder design than what you'll find on a typical premium handset, but not overly done in our opinion. And if you strip away the visual bits that give the ROG Phone its sci-fi flair, you're left with a stout chunk of 2.5D and 3D curved Corning Gorilla Glass atop a metal frame, with water resistance to boot. In other words, ASUS combined form and function, rather than form over function.
The ROG Phone feels like a premium handset too, though it's heftier than some modern flagships—it checks in at 200 grams (7.05 ounces), and the included active cooler (more on that in a moment) adds another 32g (1.13oz). It's heavier than handsets like Google's Pixel 3 (148g) and Pixel 3 XL (184g), and LG's V40 ThinQ (169g). The weight isn't unprecedented though, and is about the same as Samsung's Galaxy Note 9 (201g).
On the front of the phone, ASUS decided to have nothing to do with the notch that has become so prevalent on today's handsets, and instead opted for traditional bezels on the top and bottom. They're relatively thin—more comparable to, say, Motorola's Moto Z3 or the aforementioned Galaxy Note 9, than to Apple's iPhone 8, for example.
The front is also home to dual front-facing stereo speakers, and boy do they deliver bold sound. You're not going to have any trouble hearing gun shots and explosions in games, or riffs on the guitar in songs like Ram Jam's rendition of Black Betty.
It gets even louder if you plug in a decent set of headphones. Sound quality is markedly improved, too, courtesy of DTS Headphone:X support and EQ controls. We plugged in a set of Sol Republic Tracks V8 headphones, and after fiddling with the EQ dials, the bass response sprang to life while remaning loud—with a serviceable-to-good set of headphones, there is volume to spare.
The 6-inch display on the ROG Phone is all kinds of gorgeous. It's an AMOLED screen that is capable of refreshing 90 times a second, though by default ours was set to 60Hz. You can either go into settings and manually bump this up to 90Hz, or configure individual games to automatically enable 90Hz when you fire them up.
AMOLED screens can struggle in direct sunlight, and you'll want to crank up the brightness setting if plan to use it outside on a sunny day. That said, the ROG Phone gets fairly bright—we measured between 630-680 lux, with the lower half of the screen spitting out higher numbers. As is typical of many OLED panels, content looks fantastic on the ROG Phone with bright whites, dark blacks, and colors that pop.
Let's talk buttons and connections. No, not Love Connection (if anyone is old enough to understand that reference), but the kind of physical connections you find on a smartphone. In this case, the ROG Phone wields a USB-C connector on the bottom, and also a 3.5mm audio jack so you don't have to invest in a new set of earbuds. That gets a first-bump!
The ROG Phone also has a USB-C connector on the left side, which actually becomes the bottom of the phone when playing games in landscape mode. This is a thoughtful inclusion that makes it possible to stay tethered to a power source without the cord getting in the way. This is closely flanked by a proprietary "side-mount connector" that looks like another USB-C port, but ASUS warns not to attempt to jam a USB-C cable into it, or else the phone will blow up...just kidding, we don't know exactly what would happen, but you could bust the connector.
What you can't see are the pair of AirTriggers on the top (in landscape mode) towards the left and right edges. These pressure-sensitive spots register taps and touches, essentially turning the ROG Phone into a gamepad of sorts. It's not exactly the same thing as holding a dedicated controller, but the AirTriggers do cleverly expand the control scheme beyond the display, addressing one of the challenges with playing games on a phone. According to ASUS, they have an activation force of less than 20g and a 10ms touch response time.
What makes these AirTriggers so awesome for gaming is that you can bind them to specific parts of the display. In PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG), we assigned the left AirTrigger to where the action/shoot button is placed on screen, and the right AirTrigger to the jump button. It definitely improved the experience, and it worked reliably throughout our tests.
How does ASUS manage to cool a purpose-built gaming phone with an overclocked processor? There are two things at play here. The first is the 3D vapor-chamber cooling system that's underneath the hood. Similar to traditional heatpipes, 3D vapor-chambers use liquid to cool components, except the entire apparatus is flattened to cover a larger surface area. The ROG Phone is the first smartphone to incorporate this kind of cooling.
There's also a copper heatspreader and carbon cooling pads on the actual circuit board to help keep thermals in check. This is an effective design, and it's probably part of the reason why the ROG Phone is heavier than some other similarly sized handsets.
Let's revisit the USB-C and side-mount connectors on the left side of the ROG Phone. These ports enable the use of optional accessories, such as the AeroActive Cooler that ASUS includes with the handset. It's basically a fan dongle. When plugged in, it provides active cooling to the back of the phone. There are four fan speeds to choose from (plus an automatic setting), and according to ASUS, the cooler can lower surface temps by up to 4.7C.
The two lowest settings are barely audible—we had to put our ear close to the phone to hear the fan over the ambient noise in our test environment. Cranking the fan up to the third level makes it slightly more audible, and on the highest setting, the fan makes its presence known. However, it's not obnoxiously loud by any stretch, and is easily drowned out if wearing headphones.
Is the separate cooler feasible, though? Lugging around an external cooler is not ideal, and keeping it attached is unwieldy for general use. So that's a bummer. However, it's a nifty accessory to keep at home, or to pack with your luggage if going on a trip. Active cooling isn't needed for day-to-day use, and we didn't run into any issues playing games without it attached. If it was an integral part of the ROG Phone, that would be one thing, but it's not.
If you do decide to use the cooler, you'll find that there's a USB-C port and 3.5mm audio jack on the bottom. This means you can keep the phone plugged in while gaming and wear a headset without the cords getting in the way.
ASUS sent us a few accessories to test out, the most interesting of which is the TwinView Dock. As the name implies, it's a dock with its own screen, which looks just the ROG Phone but is actually just a display. You plug the ROG Phone into the top portion of the TwinView Dock, giving you two screens to view simultaneously.
The best way to utilize this is with games that support split-screen action. In theory, you could have the main action on the bottom display and a map of the environment on the top display. Unfortunately, this isn't something that's widely supported at the moment, so we spent most of our hands-on time with the TwinView Dock staring at system vitals on the top screen and playing games on the bottom one.
If you're into streaming your gameplay, there's a bit more utility to this device. You can monitor your livestreams on the top display (the ROG Phone) while playing games on the bottom screen.
ASUS also offers a Mobile Desktop Dock so that you can use the ROG Phone as a PC, complete with keyboard and mouse support, which again might come in handy for livestreaming. There's also a Professional Dock that offers more connectivity options.