Reviews

ASUS ROG Phone 5 review: Unashamedly powerful

Gaming computers are so much a part of the computing landscape that there’s whole retailers dedicated to them. When it comes to gaming phones however, there’s really only one name that comes to mind: ASUS. The company released their fourth generation of gaming phones now with the ASUS ROG Phone 5. 

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As you’ve probably picked up on, this is the fourth generation but it’s called the ROG Phone 5 series. Where’s the ROG Phone 4? Well, the similarity of the Chinese word for four to death means that the company made the decision to simply skip that name, and now we have the ASUS ROG Phone 5 series. 

When announced, ASUS Australia confirmed that all three models – ROG Phone 5, ROG Phone 5 Pro and ROG Phone 5 Ultimate – are coming to Australia, though no pricing or dates have been announced just yet, but we do expect the ROG Phone 5 from March.

As a fourth generation, the ROG Phone 5 gives ASUS a chance to reflect on their previous models and define, refine and upgrade the phone based on their previous models. This has led to some incompatibility with older accessories – TwinView Dock II and Mobile Desktop dock no longer fit the ROG Phone 5 – which will be contentious for some, but a non-issue for new users.

The reason for a gaming phone is based on the growing trend of money spent on mobile gaming – $77.3 billion last year – which has begun eclipsing money spent on PC and console titles. With that sort of growth, having a phone capable of keeping up is worth it – though PUBG seems to be the main focus of mobile eSports gaming currently, there’s sure to be more options in the future, and ASUS will be well positioned when they do.

ASUS has sent over the base model ROG Phone 5 – SD888/16GB/256GB – for review and after just over a week, here’s how it went.

Hardware and Design

For a start this is a BIG phone, it’s taller than the ROG Phone 3 – hence some accessories are incompatible – and it’s somewhat cumbersome to use one handed. But the ASUS ROG Phone 5 isn’t meant to be a one-handed use, instead it’s supposed to be gripped with both hands which of course gives you access to all the touch sensitive controls built-in, but we’ll get to those soon.

The phone is still very obviously an ASUS ROG product, though they’ve toned down the distinct gamer aesthetic to a design more appealing to a broader audience. There’s still the gamer style in the mix with the introduction of the ROG Vision rear display which can light up in a range of RGB colours on the ROG Phone 5 – or can display fully customised animations on the ROG Phone 5 Pro and Ultimate. 

The phone includes a fairly small camera island by todays standards, which contains a triple rear camera array, though ASUS isn’t looking at the camera as a focus for their ROG phones. The island is another way to reinforce the Asus ROG design aesthetic of angled modules, but it all fits in there, how it goes is something we’ll get to shortly.

The rear of the phone is made from glass which gives it a smooth finish and yes, it’s a fingerprint magnet. 

Where a lot of phones come with a clear TPU case these days, ASUS includes a black plastic bumper. It adds some protection, but there’s gaping holes in the case and so you see fingerprints on the rear. It provides ok protection – though I did have the phone slip about a foot and there’s now a small scratch on the display. 

On the device sturdiness there’s no IP protection, so don’t get the phone wet, or too dusty. It’s an odd feature to be ‘missing’ from the spec list given flagship phones, and even a good number of mid-range phones come with at least basic ingress protection. Gamers aren’t traditionally huge outdoor enthusiasts, but we do have varied tastes, so this is definitely something that needs addressing in any follow up phones. 

Unlike a lot of phones, there’s a lot happening in terms of ports and buttons on the ROG Phone 5. You have the traditional volume rocker and power button on the right, 3.5mm and one of the two USB-C ports on the phone at the bottom. The other USB-C port is on the left, where you also get a custom accessory port for their AeroActive Cooler 5 accessory. 

I have one note on the side port setup, the silicon insert. The insert doesn’t stay in at all once you pop it out for the first time, so be prepared to lose it. I ended up popping it back into the box for the review period. 

The screen on the phone is 6.78-inch AMOLED FullHD+ resolution with up to 144Hz refresh rate. There’s a small bezel either side of the screen, with a larger one at top (which houses the 24MP front-facing camera) and bottom. 

You won’t need to manage refresh rates on the display, though you can manually set it if you want – the theory is higher refresh rates will burn through the battery faster so you can change it if you need.

There’s not a lot of games that support 144Hz – Forsaken World is but one – however there are loads that support 90Hz refresh rate, and they look smooth as silk. 90Hz has become almost a standard for mid to high tier phones, so seeing Asus include this spec shows they’re committed to giving gamers any additional spec they need, even if it’s not quite used everywhere.

The display includes an under-glass fingerprint sensor which, like most of them can be a little slower than the rear-mounted counterparts. There is the option for lightning fast facial recognition to unlock your phone but it’s simply camera based, so there’s no IR face mapping like on an iPhone, so use this one at your own risk. 

One thing the ROG Phone 5 has, which has been ‘missing’ on a number of phones is the front-facing speakers. It’s surprising how much you miss this feature until it comes back. 

ASUS has worked to create a gaming experience when it comes to audio on the ROG Phone 5. The phone includes a 3.5mm headphone jack, but they haven’t stopped there, partnering with ESS on a pro-level Quad-DAC that includes a headphone amplifier. 

For the software, they incorporated Audio tuning from Dirac which supports four sound modes, one of which is a 10 band customisable Equaliser. 

While a lot of phones simply throw in Bluetooth support, or, at the low to mid tier, just add a basic headphone jack and they’re done, the ASUS ROG Phone 5 actually does sound well. The quality is notably good too, so if you enjoy music or great sound this is excellent.

A notable inclusion this year is haptic audio. We’ve seen haptic audio incorporated into Sony phones previously where the feature didn’t exactly set the world aflame. For their launch, ASUS has worked with the PUBG developers to use haptic audio intelligently, with things like Scout Mode. Scout mode lets you hear, and feel when someone is sneaking up behind you, or you can also differentiate between different guns. It’s an interesting take, and one ASUS is keen to get other developers into – and I like it. 

Battery and Charging

The mobile phone battery design is something that’s been fairly consistent through the short years we’ve been using them. Asus has offered a slightly different configuration for battery, splitting the 6,000mAh battery into two, and seating them either side of the CPU. This split design has benefits for charging, and it also has benefits in terms of heat dissipation. 

The phone includes a massive 65w Charger, which charges the phone astonishingly fast – as you’d expect for a phone with Power Delivery 3.0 and Quick Charge 5.0 support. ASUS says you can recharge 70% of the 6,000mAh battery in just 30 minutes, or fill it completely in under an hour (52 minutes).  

In testing the phone charges astonishingly quickly. I generally charge overnight, however being able to top up 30% in a few minutes before taking the dog for a walk or heading to the footy is brilliant. 

In terms of battery life the ROG Phone 5 is a beast, easily holding up over a day, and mostly well into the second day. I’m a fairly heavy mobile user, so that’s a decent spec to have.

The battery is split, but there’s also dual USB-C connectors on the ROG Phone 5. There’s one a the bottom – offset to the left, and another on the right hand side of the phone. This dual setup lets you hold the phone in landscape mode while you game, a handy inclusion.

ASUS also lets you bypass charging the battery as well. This lets you draw power so you can game, but doesn’t stress out the battery by charging and dissipating it at the same time. 

Overall, the battery and charging setup on the phone is great. It lasts a loooong time, and if it needs a top-up you can do so in short order. 

Camera

As far as a camera on the ASUS ROG Phone 5, the ASUS line is: it has one. Well, technically it has four, with a triple camera array on the rear with 64 MP main sensor, 13 MP ultrawide with 125˚ lens and a 5 MP macro lens, while on the front you get a 24MP selfie camera.

In terms of quality, the camera suffers from a lack of priority. ASUS has put a lot of effort into the phone, but the camera is obviously not the focus for ASUS.

The 64MP main sensor does the job, and produces a decent shot in the right light. That said, it can also completely fail to scale the white balance correctly on occasion and loses detail. There’s a decent night mode if you’re in low-light, though it’s not quite as good as the results you see from the likes of Samsung, Apple or Google.

The ultra-wide angle lens adds a different perspective, however you lose much of the clarity you get from using the higher resolution camera. 

I’m still not sold on the macro lens, and looking at some shots taken with this lens it’s not exactly ideal.

The camera app has some decent functions including Pro photo and video modes. Video can be captured at up to 8K quality which is a good option to have though it’s 30fps, however you can record in 4K/60 if you need that.

Gaming

Well, it’s a gaming phone. The big question is how much of  a market is there for a gaming phone? 

While desktop gaming eSports are very well established, mobile gaming leagues aren’t quite as well known.  There exists a number of eSport leagues, but trying to find a mobile gaming league is a harder proposition. That said there are any number of mobile gaming streamers out there who stream their mobile games, and apparently make a decent amount of money doing so. 

All that said, the gaming side of the ROG Phone 5 offers a LOT in the way of customisation and leverages any potential benefit to improve the mobile gaming experience.

The first is the performance loadout – Snapdragon 888 processor with Adreno 660 GPU and 16GB RAM – the current best config available on Android mobiles. These specs mean you won’t see performance drops or any bumps while loading games, apps or anything. 

Next is the display, which as I’ve gone over offers a refresh rate up to 144Hz. While most games only want 90Hz, mostly due to phones coming with these higher refresh rate panels. 120Hz has only begun becoming more popular as pricing decreases, and so we expect to see more games supporting this higher refresh rate. As one of the only devices using a 144Hz panel, there’s not going to be a lot of games supporting it, though if 144Hz gains more popularity, we will see more software supporting it.

One other gaming feature ASUS has incorporated is the Air Trigger 5 system. This Air Trigger 5 system incorporates a bunch of different things including invisible ultrasonic buttons & Motion sensor triggers to effectively turn your phone into a gamepad with virtual bumper buttons and motion controls. 

In theory, the Air Trigger system sounds great letting hit certain things while in gaming – similar to macros in desktop gaming. In practice, very few games actually use these additional triggers. When you do – Forsaken World – they’re neat.

ASUS has also released a new Cooler accessory – the Aeroactive Cooler 5 – which can reduce heat up to 10° on the CPU and up to 15% lower overall. In practice, the cooler actually does feel like it cools the phone – even if you just use it with the Wifi hotspot enabled it’s still a good option.

The Aeroactive Cooler uses the accessory port on the side of the phone to power the fan – which automatically starts spinning when attached. It’s an easy accessory to add and remove and the fans aren’t noisy, in fact I had to move my hand over the fan to ensure they’re spinning it’s that quiet.

The cooler also adds two more physical buttons to the phone, as well as a bonus headphone jack which makes playing in landscape a little more ergonomically friendly.

Clipping the Aeroactive Cooler 5 to your phone, automatically enables XMode+ on the phone – a branded mode, which steps up from the default ‘XMode’ setting in the ‘Armory Crate’ game tuning app on the phone.

XMode+ runs the CPU and GPU running at higher clock speed, as well as ensuring the higher refresh rate is used on the display and the touch input sensitivity settings and Network connection settings are all ramped up as well.

Of course Armory Crate is a big deal for Asus and the ROG Phone series. The system tuning software lets you set profiles on a per-game basis to kill potential interruptions or performance issues, ensuring that it’s simply you and your skill against the game.

Asus will share Armory Crate profiles for games through their community, so if you find you have a game that’s not quite optimised, there may be something in the Armory Crate app. 

Software 

The ASUS ROG Phone 5 uses Android 11, though you’ll find a number of Over-The-Air updates to install straight out of the box. The phone sits on the January 5th 2021 security patch. This isn’t ideal given we’re in April now, but ASUS has been generally good about delivering security updates quarterly so we should be due any day now.

The ASUS software experience offers you two modes out of the box, a stock ‘Zen UI’ interface which offers a stock Android like experience, or you can use the ASUS ROG Android experience. 

The difference is in how far down the path of ASUS ROG you want to go. If you’ve fully bought into the branding then a whole world of themed wallpapers etc. await you, but if you’re more inclined to want something a bit more classic, you can still use all the Armory Crate features available, just with a clean Android look.

There’s features like the rich theming engine on the ASUS ROG Android version, but if you’re not particularly interested then this visual look doesn’t particularly add anything to the mobile gaming experience. 

What it comes down to is the software is fairly standard Android, or at the very least it can be. What may not come across is how much ASUS has invested in Armory Crate. There are so many settings you can change in Armory Crate that it’s actually overwhelming, and often takes far too long to find the setting you want. 

There’s a lot to like about Armory Crate, but the layout isn’t one of them. The app is visually busy, and a lot of focus seems to be on the ASUS ROG community than the phone itself. Armory Crate really needs a more focused layout in the next version, even if only to make some of the particular system tweaks available easier to find. 

Should you buy it?

If you’re a mobile gamer the ROG Phone 5 is assuredly one of the best options you have. As an all round phone though, there’s a few places that ASUS needs to work on. 

The camera on the ROG Phone 5 is disappointing. Even with ASUS advising that the camera is not a priority doesn’t stop the need for a decent camera on a mobile. There’s also other aspects like the lack of ingress protection, or even wireless charging that are ‘missing’.

What it boils down to is performance, and the ASUS ROG Phone 5 is the very best you can get. 

The nascent mobile gaming market is still finding its feet but given the rise in popularity of eSports over recent years, the mobile gaming market has the potential to explode in viewers and ASUS, with their Republic of Gamers (ROG) audience is well suited to take advantage. 

For any budding mobile gamers out there, the ASUS ROG Phone 5 is definitely the gaming phone you want. The only caveat to that is if you’re at all interested in mobile photography, in which case this is definitely not the phone for you.

ASUS has created a phone that’s as powerful as you could want for mobile gaming and they don’t care who knows it. It has the best of everything a mobile gamer could want, nothing more.

ASUS hasn’t yet announced Australian pricing or availability for the ROG Phone 5, but we should start seeing the ROG Phone 5 begin hit Australian shelves this month. 

ASUS ROG Phone 5 review: Unashamedly powerful
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