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ROG Phone Review: So Good It Feels Like You’re Cheating

With its collection of over-the-top optional accessories — a second screen, physical controller, three flavors of docks — the Republic of Gamers’ gaming-centric smartphone from Asus sounds like a gimmick in an already borderline gimmicky niche. But the phone itself is a surprisingly adept piece of gaming tech that genuinely pushes the niche forward while still managing to deliver on the status quo of basic smartphone requirements.

Last year, Razer was the company that genuinely launched the modern gaming phone niche. The idea behind the push — now being picked up by everyone from Asus and Huawei to Samsung and Apple — is that as video games for the smartphone continue to grow in complexity and horsepower requirements, as things like esports come to the smartphone, there is a need for a device designed specifically around gaming on the phone.

With Razer, that meant high-end specs and a display that delivered an alluring, still unmatched, 120 Hz refresh rate. The response was big enough to seemingly capture the attention of the entire smartphone industry in different ways.

For Asus, which has been producing the Zenfone since 2014, it seemed like a natural fit. The company already has a strong gaming brand in Republic of Gamers and experience in making phones in general. So the company set about designing a new phone from the ground up for gamers.

While built from scratch, and not on the bones of any existing Zenfone, the ROG Phone still shows its mastery of basic functionality for a smartphone and then delivers on top of that some genuinely surprising and useful gaming tech.

Hardware

The ROG Phone uses the same Snapdragon 845 chip found in many of this year’s slate of phones, but it has been overclocked to run slightly faster, yielding 2.96GHz from a chip that typically delivers 2.8GHz. In other words, it’s a bit faster.

The ROG Phone features a 6-inch AMOLED 90Hz display (2160 X 1080), 8GB of system memory, and a 4,000 mAh battery. The system runs on the slightly outdated Android 8.1 operating system.

To keep that speed-binned processor from overheating and slowing down games, Asus built in a two-layer cooling system. A vapor chamber sits under the circuit board and a carbon cooling pad sits above it. The idea is that sandwiching the hot bits of the phone between two heat dissipating elements will help keep hotspots away from the chips.

For audio, the phone features two amplifiers packed into forward-facing speakers tucked into the edges of the screen.

The ROG Phone has an AMOLED display, which means it can delivery bright, lush colors and has a high contrast ratio. But, it also can’t hit the 120Hz refresh rate of the Razer Phone 2. It can, however, still deliver 90Hz, which still puts it above most of the competition.

Upgrades

While the ROG Phone doesn’t have the fastest refresh rate of a smartphone on the market, it makes up for that with some unexpected, ingenious tweaks and additions.

The ROG Phone still has the typical bottom-mounted USB-C charging plug and increasingly less-typical 3.55mm headphone jack. But there’s also a USB-port on the side of the phone, making it much more comfortable to charge the phone while holding it horizontally as you play a game.

The body of the phone has slightly rounded corners and edges, with minimalist, copper-highlighted speakers on the top and bottom. The back of the phone features twin copper cooling vents and a RGB glowing logo. The overall look is distinct without mimicking the often gaudy look over an over-decorated gaming PC.

While the cooling design for the phone seems to be more than adequate, Asus also includes an “AeroActive Cooler” with the phone. This little cooling fan snaps on the back of the phone, plugging into the USB-C port on the bottom. It even has its own RGB logo, USB-C port, and headphone jack.

Finally, and most importantly, Asus developed an absolute game-changer for the phone, something it calls air triggers. The air triggers are a set of sensors located on the right edge of the phone which, when the phone is held horizontally, act as physical buttons for games.

These buttons can be programmed to activate just about anything on the phone’s screen. So, for instance, you can program the left edge button to aim and the right edge button to fire. It’s hard to overstate the impact this has on gaming.

Much to my disappointment, the unique design of the phone and its extra ports and functionality means it doesn’t offer any water resistance nor does it feature wireless charging.

While there is no wireless charging, the phone does use something that Asus calls “hypercharging.” This allows the phone to be charged to about 60 percent in 30 minutes, and because Asus moved the integrated circuit that oversees the charging from the phone to the USB adapter plug, there’s no additional heat during the rapid charing.

Hands-On

Spending about a week with the ROG Phone made it clear that Asus’ first entry in the niche market of gaming phones is a well-designed, innovative piece of tech with a lot going for it.

The design does an excellent job of dissipating heat, though that’s most noticeable when the provided snap-on cooler is attached. I didn’t run into any issues playing for extended periods of time without that cooler, but the phone did start to heat up. With the cooler on, though, It seemed to completely dissipate heat. That add-on also made using headphones and charging at the same time more convenient. I’m just not thrilled about the idea of having to carry around a device the size of an old-school flip phone for optimum gaming. Even more bothersome is a tiny annoyance for me. To use the cooler or that edge mounted USB-C port, you need to pull out a rubber plug. I lost mine about 10 seconds after removing it. It’s tiny, and there’s nowhere to store it on the phone or (better still) the AeroActive Cooler.

The phone has built into it a Game Center app and a Game Genie app.

The Game Center brings up a flash display of your phone’s current CPU, GPU, Memory, and Storage status as well as allowing you to activate the system optimizing X Mode. The Game  Center also allows you to create specific settings for each game including the maximum CPU speed, refresh rate, anti-aliasing, a pre-boot memory cleaner, and turning off alerts automatically. There are also controls to manage the fan speed of the add-on cooler and the ability to tweak settings for the Aura lighting on the back of the phone and the cooler. One neat little addition allows multiple ROG Phone owners to create a group for light synchronization between devices.

When activated through settings, you bring up the Game Genie inside of games. This little pop-bar lets players tweak phone settings on the fly and lock out the navigation bar. Most importantly, though, it lets you program the phone’s air triggers and even create key mapping or macros. You can also use it to display real-time information about the phone’s frame rate, surface temperature, and such.

While the gaming features software provides a robust selection of ways to tweak performance and appearance, the phone’s more basic software still delivers on a competitive level with other more-standard smartphones.

The camera, for instance, makes use of Sony’s IMX363 12MP sensor and teamed with the app, delivers an array of interesting options on par with what you’d expect from Apple or Samsung. An onscreen button press lets you switch between the wide angle and main lenses, for instance. The depth effect can be adjusted in real time, blurring out or focusing to add depth or flatten an image. Aside from options like auto, pro and panoramic, the phone also features the ability to turn a short video instantly into a gif.

Spending a weekend with the ROG Phone as my main device, I didn’t run into any stumbling blocks in terms of general use and found gaming on it to be more compelling, if only because I seemed to win more often in matches of “PUBG Mobile.”

Conclusion

The ROG Phone is a surprisingly able, innovative approach to gaming on the smartphone. Where a faster refresh rate and high-end components are an obvious boon to gaming on the go, Asus’ take on built-in controls for a phone are a clever, much-needed addition to the scene.

The fact that the company also nailed the basics of a smartphone from a well-designed camera, to a unique, though not garishly so, design, makes the ROG Phone feel less like a perhaps too-focused gaming phone and rather a phone that happens to be very good at gaming.

Air triggers, add-on cooling, smart software design, and a great, but not amazing, refresh rate helps to place Republic of Gamers’ first smartphone at the top of the pile in the growing market of gaming phones. The ROG Phone delivers an experience that is so good that sometimes it feels like you’re cheating.

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