I’ve spent 10 days with the Asus ROG Phone 5 and I still can’t make up my mind about it.
I’ve enjoyed playing games on it, with its myriad accessories and without. I love its speakers, I love its display, and I just love how geeky and fiddlesome the phone is. But I’m still not sure if I like it enough to recommend it.
I mean, this phone does have everything. You’re getting a Snapdragon 888 SoC, 12 GB RAM, 256 GB of storage, a gorgeous 6.78-inch FHD+ 144 Hz display, the loudest speakers on any smartphone yet (and they’re tuned by Dirac), a 6,000 mAh battery with dual charging ports and support for 65 W chargers, an ‘Aura’ RGB LED panel on the rear, a host of accessories including an active cooler and detachable game controllers, a headphone jack, air triggers, a 64 MP f/1.8 primary camera, 4K 120 fps slo-mo support, a 24 MP selfie camera, and the best cooling system I’ve seen in a long time. And all of this for Rs 57,999.
This almost sounds too good to be true, but it isn’t. The phone really is this good. So why am I unsure?
Some features are sublime, others maddeningly unintuitive
This phone is an odd mix of minute attention to detail and a ‘let’s just roll with it’ vibe. For example, the maroon SIM card tray, which you’ll only ever mess with a couple of times during the phone’s lifespan, stands out against the phone’s black frame. If you look closely, there’s a ‘GLHF!’ (gamer-speak for ‘good luck have fun’) embossed on the surface.
On the other hand, the side mounted USB-C port is still covered by that same flimsy, easy-to-lose-and-I-think-I-already-lost-it rubber cover that was there on the last phone. The only acknowledgement of its misplace-ability is the inclusion of a spare cover in the phone’s box.
Display: What’s the right refresh rate?
As with the previous phone, the ROG Phone 5’s display is phenomenal. It’s bright and punchy and one of the most colour-accurate units available on any phone today. Asus claims an incredibly fast response time of 1 ms, and the display can hit a refresh rate of 144 Hz.
By default, in Asus’s so called ‘X’ mode, the display operates at 120 Hz and won’t let you switch to 144 Hz without messing around in the Armory Crate app.
Sure, I can’t tell 144 Hz apart from 120 Hz, but it’s almost like Asus is admitting that the feature is a gimmick.
Anyway, once you figure out what settings you need to tweak, you can manually set the display to a battery-friendly 60 Hz, or a gamer-friendly 144 Hz. There’s also an adaptive mode that makes the decision for you.
Then there’s that 300 Hz touch sampling rate. While the response is so quick that it almost feels prescient — perfect for gaming — palm rejection isn’t great. The side bezels on this phone are very narrow and just holding as I normally do when watching a Youtube video, has me unintentionally triggering videos or fast-forwarding clips when I change my grip slightly.
By the end of the first day, I took to permanently mounting the AeroActive cooler accessory so I’d have something other than the display to hold on to when consuming content.
Speakers: Loud, finely tuned audio, but there’s limited control
The speakers are amazing, loud enough to drown out laptop speakers, but they go from barely audible to deafening in one step.
These are ‘front-firing, 7-magnet speakers’, according to Asus. Tuned by Dirac, a company known for its skill in fine-tuning audio output, these speakers sound really good.
When gaming, stereo separation is good enough that you can isolate a gunshot or footstep. When watching movies, there’s a semblance of atmosphere and immersion, and when pushed to the limit, the speakers get loud enough to drown out some entry-level PC speakers and most laptop speakers I’ve heard.
Sadly, the lack of fine control over audio volume is frustrating. At one level — the audio is barely audible, the next — it’s way too loud. The transition from regular audio to over-amplified audio is literally a single step (the volume control bar even changes colour when this happens). I can’t understand why there couldn’t have been more granularity to this.
I’m guessing there’s a secondary amplifier of some sort at play here, it’s the only explanation I have for the very apparent bump in volume and not-so-apparent increase in battery usage. But I still wish the transition had been smoother.
Game controllers: Fun when gaming, awkward when not
The detachable game controllers are fantastic, they feel better than the Nintendo Switch’s JoyCons in fact. Most of the buttons are responsive and tactile, and there’s a nice resistance to the triggers and thumb sticks. That said, the D-pad is mushy and imprecise, and the mechanism that attaches the controllers to the body is awkward at best.
The controllers attach to a flimsy cover that a baby could destroy, and that same cover attaches and detaches to and from the phone in such an awkward manner, that I worry about scratching the phone when I put it on or pull it off.
Just leave it on, you say? That’s not an option. First, it’s ugly and awkward. This isn’t a phone cover, it’s a mounting mechanism for the controllers with exposed contacts and sharp, boxy edges that cut into the palms of my hands. Second, it makes an already long phone even longer. The phone ends up so long, in fact, that men can finally experience the frustration of not being able to fit their phone in their pant pockets.
If you opt for the charging grip — clearly inspired by the Switch’s charging grip — where do you place the phone? The grip has no phone holder, and unless you intend to somehow prop the phone up on your knees, you’ll need the AeroActive cooler accessory — and a handy table — just so you can use its stand.
It’s a shame, really. In games with impeccable controller support — like Dead Cells and Grid Autosport — the controller experience is transformative. You suddenly feel like you’re in control of your experience, more deliberate and precise in your actions; you can play with intent. You get the feeling that this is what mobile gaming should have been from the very beginning.
On a side note, the air triggers work just as well as they did the last time. If you play competitive shooters like CoD: Mobile, air triggers will give you an edge and are definitely worth paying for.
Speaking of games, where are they?
Android has a massive app-discovery problem. Good apps and games struggle to stand out in a marketplace flooded with lame cash-grabs, cheap knock-offs, and freemium rubbish. Thankfully, Asus has recognised this problem and acknowledged it. Armory Crate — the central app in the ROG Phone 5 that’s essential for managing the phone’s numerous features — maintains a curated list of games that stand out, many of which work great with a controller.
While it’s certainly no Apple Arcade, Armory Crate’s curated list is better than nothing.
To be honest, if I was serious about a portable gaming experience, I’d rather invest in Nintendo’s vastly superior platform and library of games than Android’s ad-supported nightmare.
Fast charging (and discharging)
The phone’s split 6,000 mAh battery can charge at a blistering 65 W, but Asus only bundles a 30 W charger with the device. It’s still not bad, though, and you’ll have the phone juiced up in no time whenever needed. If you’re concerned about the long term impact of fast charging on battery life, Asus includes several charging profiles that will allow you to slow-charge the phone if you feel like it.
6,000 mAh is huge, but I found battery life to be lower than it was on the ROG Phone 3. Our standard PCMark battery life test reported a time of 9 hrs 12 minutes, which is 96 minutes shy of the 10 hrs 48 minutes that the previous phone managed.
Regardless, this drop in battery life is justified and a small price to pay for the massive gains in performance. The speakers are a lot louder than they were the last time around, and the Snapdragon 888 is a faster, more powerful chip.
Additionally, ASUS’s superb cooling system keeps that chip running at full tilt over extended gaming sessions (most phones severely throttle performance after a few minutes), which ultimately draws more power, reducing battery life.
In what I can only describe as a brilliant design decision, the ROG 5 supports bypass charging when using the side-mounted USB-C port. Rather than charge the batteries while gaming and heat the phone up, potentially throttling performance and lowering battery life in the long run, bypass charging simply lets you power the phone directly off DC power without charging the battery! It’s a simple yet effective solution for keeping temperatures in check during long gaming sessions.
Throttling is the bane of a smartphone’s existence. A phone’s SoC (Snapdragon, Exynos, Apple’s A series chips) isn’t designed to sustain maximum performance for more than a few minutes. This is true for PCs as well, where CPUs rarely hit peak performance for more than 120 seconds. The ROG 5 appears to have no such limits.
To put this in context, the OnePlus 9 Pro — a flagship phone that costs Rs 10,000 more and has similar specs — sees a performance drop of nearly 40 percent over a one-hour gaming session (about 3 rounds of PUBG, say).
The ROG Phone 5 sees a performance drop of just 5 percent over the same period.
Together with features like bypass charging and accessories like the AeroActive cooler, you’re looking at one hell of a gaming phone.
I’m forgetting something
Ah yes, the cameras. They’re not very interesting so I’ll keep this short.
You only get a wide and ultra-wide on the back, both of which support long-exposure night modes. They take photos. They’re passable. Image quality and zoom simply can’t compete with the OnePlus 9 Pro or Vivo X60 Pro or iPhone 12. The cameras struggle with white balance and can get noisy indoors. If you care about cameras, buy some other phone.
The 24 MP selfie camera is, again, alright. Portrait mode is decent and there’s some amount of skin smoothing enabled by default.
The 5 MP macro camera on the rear well and truly sucks. It lets you focus a lot closer than the primary camera, but a cropped-in image from the 64 MP primary camera has more detail and less noise than an uncropped image from the 5 MP macro camera.
Verdict: Only gamers need apply
I think I’ve finally figured out why this phone has been bugging me so. Despite four generations of ROG phones, this is a platform that’s yet to mature.
Asus has made a tremendous effort to deliver the ultimate Android gaming experience, and its engineers have come up with ingenious solutions to long-standing problems, but it’s the package as a whole that falls short.
What I’m looking for is the focused, refined gaming experience I get from a Nintendo Switch. What I get instead is a haphazard collection of brilliant ideas that haven’t had the chance to coalesce into a mature platform. This is a superb phone, but it’s no flagship.
If you’re not of this group, this phone is not for you.
If you are one, I can’t think of a better phone for you than the ROG 5. Be sure to invest in the controllers if you do pick one up, they’re a bit janky, but, as I said earlier, transformative when paired with the right games.
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