A gaming phone with little compromise

(Pocket-lint) – Gaming phones have become something of a fixture in the Android space; while many flagship devices push their gaming prowess, for a select few, gaming is their raison d’être, their everything.

The ROG Phone is one such device, pushing Asus’ Republic of Gamers brand and weaving into that the experience Asus has gained from its regular phones. And in the fourth-generation of this phone Asus is more ambitious than ever.

Here’s why the Asus ROG Phone 5 is not only a great gaming phone, it’s a great phone outside of that too.

Design & Build

  • Dimensions: 173 x 77 x 9.9mm / Weight: 239g
  • Under-display optical fingerprint scanner
  • 3.5mm headphone jack
  • ROG Vision rear display

Gaming phones often show their colours when it comes to the design. Aside from being large – which the ROG Phone 5 definitely is – you’ll often find more overt graphics and emotive finishes rather than just being a safe black or grey.

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The ROG Phone 5 doesn’t go to an extreme though: from the front it just looks like a normal phone. Flip it over and you’re treated to subtle design touches etched into the rear glass, which also gives some indicator of where the touch points are for the AirTriggers (which Asus describes as “ultrasonic sensor zones that can be customised to perform different functions, such as reproducing actions in specific games and launching specific apps”. We touch upon these in more detail in the last section of this review).

The thing that gives the game away is the ROG Vision display on the rear of the phone. There are two different versions of the display, with a dot display on the regular ROG Phone models and a slightly smaller but more sophisticated display panel on the Pro and Ultimate models – the Pro is shown in this review.

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That blows the subtlety out of the water, allowing you to have RBG illumination on the back of the phone – with the Pro and Ultimate models offering a wider range of graphics and animations – all of which can be controlled through the Armoury Crate app on the phone, just like Asus PC components.

That control includes turning the Vision display off if you don’t want it – but you’ll soon forget it’s there until people mention it. It’s on the back of the phone and it’s rare to be looking at the back of the phone when you’re doing something, so let’s not dwell on it.

There are a couple of other quirks around the body: The USB-C on the base of the phone is offset to one side rather than central (and we don’t know exactly why), while there’s a secondary USB-C on the side of the phone. This secondary USB sits alongside the contact point to power the AeroActive Cooler 5 – the clip-on fan – and both have a rubber seal that presses into the side to keep out dust.

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This cover is probably the worst piece of design implementation on the ROG Phone 5. The fact that there are a couple of spares in the box tell you everything you need to know: you’re going to lose this cover, because it’s a separate piece of rubber.

We’ve found it flapping off when pulling the phone from a pocket, and just when handling the device. We’re constantly pushing it back into place and a couple of times we’ve found it missing and then located it in the bottom of a pocket.

An out of box experience all phones can learn from

One of the great things about gaming phones is what you get for your money. There are a whole range of phones on offer and none are really expensive compared to flagships from brands like Samsung and Apple. The ROG Phone 5 starts at £799 in the UK – and that’s for a 12GB RAM model with 256GB storage, not the bottom of the range loadout.

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But it’s not just about the core device, it’s about the rest of the experience. Lavishly packaged, opening the ROG Phone 5 is an event. From the cool comic book graphics of inside of the box, that flow through into the startup process for the phone, there’s a sense of theatre. It’s a reward for your custom and it’s so much better than just sliding a phone out of a box.

You also get more in the box: the 65W charger that will deliver a fast charge; the case that brings some grip to what is, admittedly, a slippery phone given its massive size; and the clip-on AeroActive Cooler 5 fan, which integrates a kickstand, two physical buttons, and another RGB logo.

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Some might baulk at this as more landfill, but some companies will make you pay for the charger – and here you’re getting a powerful charger you can use with your other devices too.

Display

  • 6.78-inch AMOLED panel
  • Up to 144Hz refresh rate
  • 2448 x 1080 resolution

There’s a 6.78-inch display in the ROG Phone 5. It’s big by any standard, with Asus hanging onto the bezels top and bottom. The top bezel integrates the front-facing camera, so there’s no need for a notch or punch-hole.


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It’s also a flat display, all practical design decisions made to give you the best gaming experience, ensuring that you get as much visual space as possible. Given how problematic we found the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra’s display, we’re just fine with the ROG Phone 5 going flat.

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The ROG Phone 5 models all stick to a Full HD resolution and while devices like the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra can technically produce finer detail, generally speaking that makes little difference. We can’t fault the ROG Phone’s display for detail.

It also offers refresh rates up to 144Hz (if you have any games that support that, there’s a full list on the ROG website), with options to select 60 or 120Hz – or Auto, which will pick the refresh rate based on the content.

HDR 10+ is supported to bring pop to the visuals for high dynamic range content, while that AMOLED panel provides rich colour visuals, with the option to tune that to your preferences.

It’s a great display and about the only thing that separates it from the best displays on the market is the peak brightness. It offers 800 nits, which is still bright enough for most, but Samsung’s top-end offerings will outshine this model – most notable when outside in sunny conditions.

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Flanking the display top and bottom are dual stereo speakers, while there’s also a 3.5mm headphone socket for those wanting to go wired. The speaker performance is stellar, amongst the best you’ll find on a smartphone. It’s rich and immersive, with substantial bass and volume that means you don’t need headphones to get the most from your content.

Hardware & Performance

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 platform
  • 8GB-18GB RAM, 128GB-512GB storage
  • 6000mAh battery, dual USB-C 65W wired charging

The fact the ROG Phone 5 houses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 platform makes it especially good value for money – as you’re getting the latest flagship hardware that will embarrass some other phones.

Of course it comes in at different price points, with RAM and storage leveraging the price, although not all models will be available in all regions. We actually tested the 16GB/512GB model (the ROG Phone 5 Pro – a model that isn’t planned for the UK; although there’s a 16GB/512GB version of the standard ROG Phone 5, the only difference being the type of display you get on the back of the phone).

The performance is also exemplary. There are a number of elements to this. It’s got that great hardware and, as a result, we’ve found the gaming performance to be outstanding.

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This is a phone that eats hours of Call of Duty Mobile or PUBG Mobile, giving solid gameplay, combined with those design elements and some software enhancements that feel like they give you edge, or at least give you the opportunity to establish new preferences thanks to the bespoke gaming options offered.

We also didn’t find the ROG Phone 5 to get excessively hot under load, despite the option of the clip-on fan.

But the important point about performance is that the ROG Phone 5 also runs fast and smooth outside of gaming. We’ve seen gaming phones that drop the ball when it comes to simple tasks, because of poor software. The ROG Phone 5 is stable, which makes for a great experience.

There’s a huge 6000mAh battery, which is fitting for a phone of this size, again with Asus splitting the battery and enabling 65W wired charging. That makes for really fast charging, with the option to bypass charging – and just have the power used for the system rather than recharging the battery.

Again, this is an option for gamers, so you’re not charging (which produces heat) and loading the system (which produces heat) and could potentially lead to a drop in performance.

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A big battery means big battery life. In regular use the ROG Phone 5 will easily see you through the day and into the next. It’s not a charge every night type of phone. Even with a couple of hours of gaming thrown in – at top brightness and max settings – battery life isn’t a worry. That’s a great position not just for a gaming phone, but any smartphone.

There are power modes available, with X Mode firing up full power to let things rip, and a Dynamic Mode to keep things balanced. You can customise the power modes to suit your preferences with things like network, display, performance, and other controls all selectable.

There’s an under-display fingerprint scanner that’s fast to unlock, while calls comes through loud and clear too – with no detected problems with Wi-Fi or 5G connectivity.

Cameras

  • Triple rear camera system:
    • Main: 64-megapixels, f/1.8 aperture, 0.8μm pixel size
    • Ultra-wide: 13MP, f/2.4
    • Macro: 5MP, f/2.0
  • Front-facing selfie camera:
    • 24-megapixels, f/2.5 aperture

The camera on any gaming phone is often something of an afterthought. The focus is on the experience of gaming – so the camera is seen as less of a focus. Despite that, Asus is pushing the ROG Phone 5 as having a triple camera system.

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The main camera is a 64-megapixel sensor, using pixel combining to produce a 16-megapixel image as standard. You can shoot in full resolution, but you have to dig into the menu to find that option, which no one is ever going to do.

There’s an ultra-wide lens, giving the equivalent of 0.6x, although the quality isn’t great, with visible blurring around the edges if there’s any detail there – but fine for open shots of expansive landscapes.

The final camera is a macro camera, which we’re generally non-plussed about. As on other devices, macro cameras seem to be thrown in to make up the numbers – and that’s what it feels like here too.

So back the main camera and the performance is reasonable, producing naturally balanced pictures, although perhaps not getting the most out of scenes and not showing as much pop as other cameras we’ve seen can offer.

Low-light shooting offers that slow exposure so you can watch the image get lighter, which we like – and it will take those shots automatically in low light, which means people will actually use it. 

There’s a portrait mode for blurring the background that works well enough, although it seems to soften the background with over-exposure which makes results look a little clumsy.

Portrait works on the front and back cameras and we generally prefer the results without portrait mode – and you can’t adjust the levels of blur after the fact, so it’s worth taking a few photos and figuring out what gives you pleasing results so you can change the settings before you take the picture. The selfie camera is generally good, although images quickly get softer in lower light conditions and aren’t good when it gets dark.

There’s no optical zoom on offer here, although you can pinch-to-zoom from the main camera out to 8x. It’s not an especially elegant system and the results are typical of digital zoom, with quality dropping as you increase the “magnification”.

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One of the reasons for the high-resolution sensor – apart from for the benefit of the spec sheet – is to allow 8K video capture, on top of the 4K 60fps option.

The important thing about the camera is that it gets the job done: while other phones will sell themselves on camera features above all else, that’s not really the ethos behind the ROG Phone 5. This phone is all about the power and the gaming experience. So, yes, there are more engaging cameras elsewhere, but at the same time, this Asus will give you perfectly good results in most situations.

Software and custom gaming options

  • Android 11
  • Armoury Crate
  • Custom gaming controls

As we’ve said previously, the software on the ROG Phone 5 runs smooth and fast. We’ve experienced no problems with the tweaks and changes that Asus has made over Google’s Android operating system, and it’s easy to swing in with Google versions of apps rather than supplied alternatives.

It’s running Android 11 too, so the latest version of Google’s OS – although Asus doesn’t quite have the update record that a company like Samsung now offers, so there’s no telling how long it would be before it moves to Android 12 once that’s released later down the line.

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What’s more relevant here is the gaming software and the options that controls. We’ve mentioned Armoury Crate, which will let you control things like the ROG Vision display on the back of the phone, and act as a launch pad for your games.

Within each game you can see how long you’ve spent playing that game, but more usefully you have a record of profiles for that game. You can, for example, restrict background CPU usage when playing a particular game, change the touch performance, turn off background network syncing – all designed to ensure you have the optimal gaming experience.

That you can customise this to each game is great. For something like a shooter where connection and touch matters more, you might want to restrict everything else. For something casual like Pokemon Go, you might be happy to have everything else on your phone happening. It’s freedom to choose, rather than one gaming mode fits all.

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Within games you have access to the Game Genie dashboard too, allowing you to perform essential things, like tweak the brightness, turn off alerts or calls, speed up your phone – and block navigation gestures so you don’t accidentally exit the game.

There’s the option to have stats always showing – CPU and GPU usage, battery, temperature, fps – and you can drag these to anywhere on the screen so they are out of the way.

But it’s the AirTriggers that are the biggest differentiator from other phones, giving you a range of touch zones around the body of the phone that you can customise. That also includes two physical buttons on the AeroActive Cooler accessory too – which might convince some people to use it, as those buttons feel more positive than the touch areas of the phone’s casing.

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The Cooler buttons are great for things like dropshotting in shooters, because you can hit the deck while still firing, and get back to your feet, all without having to touch anything on the screen – which is a real advantage during games.

There are two ultrasonic buttons on the top of the phone, like shoulder buttons, with haptic feedback. These can offer a full range of programmable options – taps, swipes, slides – and they can be divided into two buttons each side, or you can programme and assign a macro to that button for a sequence you might use in a game.

Then there’s motion support, which you can assign to controls in the game – like forward tilt to reload, or whatever you like.

There’s also (on the Pro and Ultimate models only) rear touch zones you can use for slide input for your fingers on the rear of the phone.

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The challenge is how you incorporate all these tools to make things easier for you during games – although setting them up is easy enough and each setup is unique to each game.

Even if you just find one thing that’s useful, then you’re a step ahead. That might be using an additional AirTrigger for an on-screen control you find hard to hit – or that you can then remove from the display so you have less UI in the way of the game.

Verdict

The thing that really hits home about the Asus ROG Phone 5 is that it’s not just a great gaming phone: it’s a great phone full stop.

Yes, you can’t avoid the fact that the majority of phones are now based around the camera experience – and that’s one area that the ROG Phone 5 doesn’t really go to town on. But with huge battery and display, this is a great media phone in addition to a gaming delight.

For keen gamers, there’s a market of phone choices out there – and the ROG Phone 5 should definitely be high up your shortlist. For everyone else, if you can accept that this Asus is designed for gamers first, it’s still an awful lot of phone for the money.

Also consider

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Nubia Red Magic 6

This gaming phone attempts to steal the show with a 165Hz display. Despite being a powerful device that’s good value for money, it does oversell the cameras and also brings with it some software quirks you’ll need to work around.

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Writing by Chris Hall. Editing by Mike Lowe.





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