The ASUS ROG Phone 2 still isn't a device for anyone who doesn't want their phone to scream "GAMER". But if you can get over that hump, it's an impressive phone - in certain areas.
Unlike last year's Nubia Red Magic 3, a surprisingly capable and attractive mid-range phone, the ASUS ROG Phone 2 is competing squarely with today's flagships. It's available only through JB Hi-Fi for $1699 (although there is a bit of a qualifier with that). So even after factoring in the free ASUS earbuds, the ROG Kunai Gamepad that's basically a device for turning your phone into the Switch, and the removable AeroActive II cooling fan, you've still got to weigh up whether you'd rather a 5G Galaxy S10, an S10+, Note10+ or an iPhone 11 Pro.
That's a lot of money, especially for a phone where the camera isn't the star feature - or the second best feature.
ASUS's brand is pushing hardware, gaming hardware particularly, to the limit. So it makes sense that the ROG Phone 2 would have some kind of overclocking capability, and the fine-tuning software offers the most in-depth control I've ever seen from a phone out of the box.
When you first boot the phone up, you'll notice the Google button in the bottom UI has been replaced with a red logo that looks a little akin to the Play Store. Like the Red Magic 3S, it's a launcher that lets you assign specific overclocking and memory profiles for every individual game.
If you dig deeper, however, you can really get stuck in. The "Hardcore Tuning" section, buried within the X Mode of the launcher for each individual game, lets you control the priority for every process on the CPU, GPU, IO, scheduler. That means you can manually tell every individual game what the minimum and maximum power level should be, control the minimum and maximum frequencies for each of the mobile CPU cores, memory latency ratios, and more.
Seeing this sort of a thing on a phone is wild. Mobile games are designed from the bottom up, not top down, so there's few games on the platform that could even take full advantage of this much power. You can already run games like Call of Duty Mobile at max frame rates on flagship phones if you're prepared to turn down certain settings and effects, and if you're the kind of gamer who must have the best frame rate for performance, chances are you play your shooters at low detail anyway: the reduced settings mean player models stick out more from the background, making them easier to spot at distance.
But the ROG Phone 2 is not about whether something is necessary. But something I wish was absolutely necessary on every other phone is the ROG Phone 2's beautiful, beautiful display.
The ROG Phone 2 is the first device in Australia to ship with a 120Hz 1ms AMOLED HDR display. The Razer Phone 2 shipped with a IGZO 120Hz screen last year, which can't hold a candle to the better brightness and vividness of the ROG's AMOLED screen. Even still, as users have found with the 90Hz on the Pixel 4 - when it runs at 90Hz, anyway - the extra smoothness makes everything on a phone much, much better.
It's like going from a 60Hz monitor on your PC to 120Hz or 144Hz. Every aspect of using the phone is, put simply, nicer. And while there's a definite battery cost to the higher refresh rate, ASUS has made sure to cover that with what is possibly the biggest battery in any modern Android phone.
6,000mAh. At some point, battery sizes will use numbers that stop having any meaning. For now, however, it means you can get about two days of practical battery life. In raw numbers, that was just over 16 hours for me while connected to Wi-Fi, browsing, syncing data, and regularly playing games with the extra cooling attachment at 50 percent brightness. The figures go down to about 12 hours if the screen's running at 120Hz, and while you can save a little and enjoy a slightly better experience by selecting 90Hz, you might as well enjoy the full experience. The phone can take it.
The rest of the specs can handle anything else you throw at it, provided those things aren't liquids or dust particles as the ROG 2 has no protection against either. The Snapdragon 855+ is factory overclocked to 2.96GHz, and while we're sadly still living in a world of notches, the 6.59-inch 1080 x 2340 screen is plenty of real estate. You won't have any troubles with storage or RAM, with 512GB and 12GB the default options.
The size of the phone can be an issue - it's larger than most normal size pockets, shorts especially, and that's if you've got pockets to begin with. It's heavier than the iPhone 11 Pro Max, but the Pro Max has a big advantage here: cases are readily available. Accessories for the ROG Phone 2, on the other hand, are best imported.
The ROG Phone 2 sports three cameras in total: a 48MP f/1.8 main lens and a second 13MP f/2.4 ultrawide camera for the read, and a 24MP f/2.2 lens on the front. There's no optical stabilisation in any of the lenses, like other flagships, which can prove especially necessary in low light. In some low light settings the ROG struggled to focus, and in low-ish (but not dark) scenes, photos were soft and lacked sharpness across the board.
I like this photo of a popcorn drink against the iPhone 11 because it shows just how important the post-processing algorithms - but also in-lens stabilisation - can be. The iPhone's sensor caps out at 12MP, four times less than the ROG Phone 2, but side by side, there's not a person alive who'd prefer the lack of clarity and detail in the ROG 2 shot.
That doesn't mean you can't get nice shots with the ROG Phone 2. In good light, the colours are relatively on point, not suffering from too much oversaturation. Animals come out really nicely, but the kicker I found with most scenarios was timing. Without the exact stabilisation, I found photos were always better when shooting manually where I could ensure a fast enough shutter speed. That's not something I have to worry about as much with most of the 2019 flagships, which is a kicker since it affects how many usable shots you'll get at the end of the day.
That's the trade-off you still have to make with a gamer phone. I've mentioned the lack of a dust or water rating, and while there's a headphone jack - big plus - there's no wireless charging, maybe because ASUS thought their 30W Hyper Quick Charging - which gets about half a battery in 15 minutes - was sufficient.
But do you want to be making any trade-offs when you're spending $1700? That price point is reserved for phones that aren't supposed to have any compromises, and only the smallest ones at that.
There's a kicker with the phone's gaming credentials, too. One of the biggest features is the Air Triggers located on the right side of the phone, or the top if you're holding the phone in landscape mode. It functions similarly to Nubia's implementation, but Nubia were clever enough to leave a couple of notches in the chassis to give your fingers a place to rest.
ASUS's triggers have the same problem as Nubia, though: neither of the triggers are all that comfortable to press in the heat of battle, given their placement and size of the screen. The ROG Phone 2 also doesn't have a rear button, or a fingerprint sensor that could be deputised as a third, more ergonomical button.
Beyond the air triggers, there's a 3D face unlock that is exceedingly quick. The 120Hz screen actually makes it feel faster than iPhone's 3D face unlock, but as is the case with most Android phones, ASUS's feature gets a lot less reliable once night time falls. It was basically worthless with the lights off at night, and I look forward to the day where Android's face unlock is as consistently reliable as what Apple have managed.
The ROG phone skinned with ASUS's more garish layout or, if you prefer, something closer to stock Android. There wasn't a huge amount of bloatware or ASUS apps everywhere, which is great if you want that minimalist Android Pie experience. Android 10 isn't rolled out fully for the ROG Phone 2 yet, even though a closed beta began at the end of last year. That's frustrating from a gaming perspective, given the extra controller support that Android 10 adds, but the public release should ship soon.
There's some small things about the ROG Phone 2 that are cool, but nothing that'd be a dealbreaker or by itself would immediately justify the price tag. Plugging the fan attachment in adds another USB-C and 3.5mm port that you can use, allowing you to hold the phone in landscape mode more comfortably while charging and playing. If you're not using wired headphones, the dual DTS:X stereo speakers are good enough for general YouTube, Twitch, Netflix and Crunchyroll/Animelab, and the large screen size plus the AMOLED HDR screen makes watching all of those a delight, even though the screen resolution and density isn't as world-class as the other internals.
So the ROG Phone 2 has a lot of great features, and there's one extra kicker.
What if the price wasn't $1700? What if it was around $800?
There's two options for getting the ROG Phone 2 in Australia, and the cheapest one is also the most common, because it's how people have usually gotten "gamer" phones in this country: grey imports. Catch of the Day and Dick Smith are both charging $800 to $820, which makes the ROG Phone 2 about the same price as Nubia's offering, and takes the flagship argument out of the equation.
The ROG Phone 2 certainly stacks up well in the mid-range category, although the Xiaomi Mi CC9 Pro and Pixel 3a would have the ROG beat when it comes to photography. The comparisons look a lot better for ASUS in that bracket though once you factor in the screen, the battery life, screen size and especially the guts of the ROG 2 ...
... provided you're OK rolling the dice on warranty.
The ROG Phone 2 is a fascinating piece of tech in many ways. It's the hallmark of everything people hate about "gamer" equipment: it's loud, it's brash, it's obsessed with customisable RGB lighting and, for many, it will be one of the ugliest phones on the market. Sleek, clean, minimalist is not the ASUS style.
But it's also a phone that gives you a degree of control and power that manufacturers don't offer out of the box. The 120Hz screen will become standard in a few years, and it's an absolute pleasure in any scenario: watching TV, scrolling Instagram or Reddit, playing Call of Duty, PUBG, Arena of Valor or Final Fantasy XV: Pocket Edition. You lose a chunk of battery life for it, but the battery is so big that you'd be insane not to use the phone in 120Hz all the time. ASUS's UI also had just the single crash over the month I've used it, which was a cleaner
From a gaming perspective, I really wish there was a third button on the back that doubled as a fingerprint sensor. I found with the Nubia that it was the one button I could consistently hit concurrently while playing a game regularly, and it's a feature ASUS could implement in future revisions. They'll need to rethink the design of the Kunai gamepad, too. Turning your phone into a Switch like console sounds great, but the Kunai feels stiff in the hand and uncomfortable to use in every sense. It's also never going to be a better option than using touch controls and the air triggers in games like Call of Duty or Arena of Valor - you'll always turn around, aim, flick and move around a bit quicker with touch controls with a bit of practice.
Still, ASUS has made a fascinating piece of tech. It's got the kind of hardware and features I wish other phones would have, but the user experience isn't quite where I'd want it for $1700. Would it be worth it for around $800? 120Hz is better than 90Hz, and the details and colour from ASUS's camera are nicer. But from a pure gaming perspective, not having that comfortable, bindable back button makes a hell of a lot of difference. And neither phone has 5G, which won't matter a huge amount this year, but will be damn handy to have from 2021 onwards.
Gaming phones have come a long way, but it seems we're still one generation away from a phone having truly everything.