ASUS’s ROG Phone has been through it all! From a very concept-like, ROG Phone to a more usable (and affordable) ROG Phone II, to a refined ROG Phone 3 that checked all the right boxes for a gaming smartphone. And now, we have the ROG Phone 5… and a new ROG Phone 5 Pro… and another ROG Phone 5 Ultimate.
While the Pro and the Ultimate come with more AirTriggers, RAM and a second mini display at the back, it’s the standard ROG 5 that will appeal to the majority of gamers who simply want to improve their Call of Duty: Mobile kills and get an edge over... gamers using a OnePlus perhaps!
While the ROG Phone 5 looks very similar to the ROG Phone 3 before it, there’ a lot that’s changed on the inside. Also improved, are the cameras (to an extent) and the same goes for new accessories that bring some added value to this RGB-laden Godzilla.
It may be big, bulky and brutal when it comes to hardware (something that gamers want), and it’s also attempting to be an all-rounder by offering better cameras and going with a subtle design. But can it be a great gaming smartphone and your only smartphone? Let’s find out!
A design that’s great for gaming but not for anything else
A quick look at the first ASUS ROG Phone and it screamed gaming from every perceivable angle with noticeable copper accents, grilles and enough indents that would look perfectly fine sitting next to your aggressive-looking gaming laptop. Heck! It even had two large grilles on the back to help dissipate heat. The current day ROG Phone 5 looks quite “sober” or a lot more matured in comparison. Whether you like that matured look or prefer something as radical as the Nokia N-Gage, newer entrants like the Nubia Red Magic 6 or the just announced, Lenovo Legion Phone Duel 2, sure look the part. Cosmetic appeal aside, both also aim at getting you the complete package (built-in fans, tons of triggers etc.), minus the added bulk of accessories.
But as I had mentioned earlier, things have changed for the good on the inside. The chipset now sits bang in the centre when held horizontally (gaming orientation), which keeps all of that heat to the centre and away from your fingers. This new setup splits the battery on either side of the chipset also makes the chipset easier to cool down when using the optional AeroActive Cooler 05 accessory.
Now, all of the above makes perfect sense for a gaming smartphone. But not really when it comes to regular usage. Want to take a photograph? You will need two hands. Need to send a text? Two hands. Need watch a movie? One hand, but you will get tired after a few minutes of holding it up. Which is why that AeroActive Cooler makes so much sense with a kickstand. But there’s more than one reason why it’s a must buy. More on this in the performance section.
The device is quite heavy at 238 grams (almost a quarter of a kilo minus any accessories) and that unthrottled gaming experience also means more layers of stuff that keeps your phone cool (graphite sheets, vapour chamber and more) which makes this year’s ROG Phone 5 thicker than last year’s ROG Phone 3. The easy to lose rubber seal for the accessories on the side, still gets lost quite easily, but the sharp cut-out, will scrape your thumb when gripping the phone vertically, for everything apart from gaming. The phone in itself is also quite slippery as there are no indents or areas on the body that make it easy to hold. Thankfully, the flimsy plastic case that comes in the box takes care of the grip, while keeping the essential parts expose for accessories.
Bad stuff aside, I still dig the RGB dot matrix style LED setup at the back. It’s larger than ever before and will look good alongside Zephyrus G14 gaming laptop. It’s still customisable, but not as much as a secondary display that the Pro and the Ultimate feature. And there’s plenty of stuff here that gamers will appreciate. The two Air Triggers 5 buttons now offer more tap controls, swipes gestures than ever before and the 3.5mm headphone jack also makes a comeback; although I’m not a fan of its placement. Even when using the ROG Cetra II Core headset that comes with an L-shaped 90-degree pin, it still pokes into your right index finger. This is why I ended up using the AeroActive Cooler 05 with its bottom facing headphone jack, whenever I needed to plug in.
The AeroActive Cooler 05 priced at ₹2999, is the newest and biggest update when it comes to the new accessories lineup. It is a “must-buy” accessory if you are getting the phone and there’s plenty of reasons for that.
The new cooler now features two physical buttons that sit on either side of that large fan at the back. There’s improved RGB lighting at the back and the cooler gets you a 3.5mm headphone jack, where it should be. And there’s also that useful kick stand that can keep the smartphone standing up when paired with the Kunai 3 controller or when you are tired of holding it up when watching movies.
There’s a trick to using the AeroActive Cooler 05. While you can snap it on during a game, certain custom gaming profiles (or the Xmode+ profile), will demand the cooler or go ahead with a regular hardware profile instead of the custom one. Regardless, it makes sense to keep the fan hooked up to the back, as the phone can get pretty hot when playing certain games, with or without custom settings.
Genshin Impact worked flawlessly at the ‘Highest’ setting, but kept the temperatures as high as 48 degrees, which is quite hot. I could not switch to 60fps as it would have ended up blowing up the phone at High or Highest and worked best for Medium graphics. The important part here, is that the performance did not take a hit and I’m not sure how much that AeroActive Cooler helped to bring down the temps, but I’m just glad it was there, else the back of the phone would have singed my fingers.
Call of Duty: Mobile ran perfectly well, at the highest settings, with or without cooler mounted at the back. The Air Triggers worked as expected and added buttons on the cooler really helped customise the controls and gave me an edge over other players. The Armoury Crate also lets you tweak things like the Touch sensitivity of the display. I had it set on 2 (3 felt excessive) for this game and everything felt snappier than on the OnePlus 9 that features a similar hardware configuration.
Also elevating the gaming experience are the two linear speakers on each side of the display. They get crazy loud and are surprisingly clear. In most cases, I felt quite satisfied catching up on an episode of Them, without the need to plug in a pair of earphones. For gaming, the dual speaker setup is nothing short of phenomenal giving one a proper sense of space, whether there’s another racer trying to overtake you or a bullet whizzing by… you will not miss it!
If there was one smartphone that could define the word customisation, the ROG Phone 5 would be it. It’s clean, very customisable and runs super smooth without any hiccups. With the ROG Phone 5 being a gaming smartphone, I did not really expect any hiccups in day-to-day use. And this was the case. There’s no hint of lag or stutter, apps open in a split second and multi-tasking was a breeze given the speedy RAM and storage. What impressed me were the almost infinite customisation options for the games. All of this is thanks to the Armory Crate app which is the key element of the ROG gaming experience and also controls the accessories. Want to know about ROG supported games? Check the Crate! Want to tweak the thermal limit of the chipset when playing Genshin Impact? Check the Crate. There’s literally an option for everything including overclocking the CPU clock speed (for advanced users only), boosting the graphics and much more. And all of these can get overwhelming for some. But if you are not into tweaking, you should still be fine with the default settings. Still, using a smartphone like this and not making the smallest of tweaks to enhance your gaming experience would indeed be a crime.
A brilliant OLED display
Despite its FHD+ resolution spread across a good 6.78-inches, the display is quite frankly brilliant and showcases very accurate colours. The 1 billion colour AMOLED panel is sharp and delivers lovely blacks that makes it not just great for gaming but also for watching movies. Given how sharp it was, I did not hesitate to use the software interface at the smallest ‘Display Size’, that turned the UI into a tablet-like experience. The 144Hz refresh rate felt unnecessary as most games (like Real Racing 3, Project Cars GO etc.) topped out at 120fps, while games like Call of Duty: Mobile and Genshin Impact mostly stuck to 60fps. But the 300Hz touch sensitivity is what made it stand out from the rest of the regular Android flagships delivering precision touch accuracy that can be really useful in competitive gaming.
Not so impressive, was the in-display fingerprint reader, it usually struggled to read my prints most of the time and refused to unlock the phone even after several attempts. I even registered my prints again, but it’s just not a reliable way to quickly unlock the phone.
The best ROG Phone camera ever!
As mentioned earlier in this review, Asus desperately wants the ROG Phone 5 to be an all-rounder. And most of this effort is visible once you fire up the camera. The 64MP main camera is accompanied by a 13MP ultra-wide and a 5MP macro. There’s a decent 24MP selfie camera thrown in as well.
As for quality, the 64MP primary camera shoots the best photos of any ROG Phone in the past. ASUS has really worked on the quality and the photos come out clear, vibrant and quite neutral in terms of colour saturation, it’s just that dynamic range falls a bit short, leading to blown-out highlights in bright scenes. The results are similar even in low light and the photos look quite satisfactory, given the low noise. Part of the reason for this rather surprising low light performance, is the camera’s AI that chooses to keep the shutter open for longer even if the camera is set to auto mode and not in the dedicated night mode. For a gaming smartphone, all of this is surprisingly good! Switch to video and things are up to the mark, whether you are shooting at 1080p or 4K, 30fps or 60fps, it does a good job at stabilisation and gets you clear video without any over-sharpening. However, things aren’t too great in low light and the results both indoors and post sunset can get very noisy and unusable.
All-in-all, the camera both in terms of photo and video will surprise and impress. It’s just that these results aren’t in the same league as the current flagships, so no, this won’t be able to match the quality of a OnePlus 9 or a 9 Pro. But the good part is that it does come surprisingly close and for some that may be good enough!
Good battery life
Keeping in mind that I was playing games at the highest settings possible, the ROG did impress when it came to battery life. In most cases, when gaming, I also had the AeroActive Cooler 5 snapped on to the back. So, the massive 6,000mAh battery does hold up quite well and can easily deliver a whole day of battery life with hours of gaming and solid 2 days of battery life with non-gaming use, which is pretty good for a gaming smartphone. There are also plenty of gaming profiles to choose from in the Armory Crate app that can deliver better battery life by bringing down the performance and quality by a bit.
When the battery does die out, the split battery system also charges up mighty fast even with its 30W in-box charger. The phone went from 0-18% in 15 minutes, 40% in 30 minutes and 84% in an hour, completing the charge in 1 hour and 30 minutes, all while keeping the phone running quite cool. Clearly this isn’t as fast a OnePlus 9 with its 65W Warp Charge system, but it’s commendable given that Phone 5 achieves these numbers with a 6,000mAh battery and that it can also be charged while gaming.
But first, let’s get a few facts straight.
What’s missing over the OnePlus 9 (or your regular 2021 flagship)>A slim and pocketable device>A great ultra-wide-angle camera>An accurate and fast fingerprint reader that works every time>Faster 65W charging
What you will get if you are willing to deal with the ROG Phone 5’s heft>The best speakers possible on a smartphone>The best smartphone gaming experience possible>A 3.5mm headphone jack>A lovely AMOLED display for watching movies>Close to stock Android user experience>Unbeatable battery life (for non-gaming use)
Apple’s iPhone has Arcade and its exclusives (and access to every other Android game as well), Nintendo has the Switch and titles that are tailor-made for its console-like hardware. Asus has to make do with the fragmented mess that Android is, and it has done a damn good job of it! Sadly, recommending an ASUS ROG Phone 5 is not easy, it packs in premium flagship hardware that any Android user would dream of, but not in a flexible package that can be used as a daily driver. At the same time, if you want to use it as a second smartphone and can deal with the bulk, you will be treated to plethora of features (great speakers, killer battery life etc.) not possible on regular flagships.
ASUS’s ROG Phone was and always has been an incredibly niche offering. As a primary smartphone, the ROG Phone 5 is solely meant for the serious smartphone gamer who spends a several hours a day perfecting that dropshot and not anybody else. This is a smartphone meant for those who would love to tweak, experiment and max things out just to get a minor advantage in an FPS game. Someone, who needs that 300Hz touch sampling rate to win a competition. Someone, who does not mind carrying around a bulky smartphone (and its accessories) and compromising on everyday usability to get an edge over the competition. Someone, who is into emulators and can make proper use of 12-18 GB of RAM (Pro and Ultimate).
If you are not any of the above, you are a regular mobile gamer (there’s nothing bad about that) and any other regular flagship, including a OnePlus 9 (from ₹49,999) or an Apple iPhone 11/12 (from ₹54,900/ ₹69,900), will do just fine for all your smartphone gaming needs.