ROG Ally review: A powerful alternative to the Steam Deck
ROG Ally review: A powerful alternative to the Steam Deck
Note: This review was first published on 12 May 2023.
When the Steam Deck hit the market in 2022, it was a game-changer for handheld gaming devices, triggering a flurry of new introductions from big names such as Razer, Logitech, and AYANEO. Each of these brands brought their unique interpretation of what portable gaming should be.
However, it's essential to remember that even before the Steam Deck's debut, Windows-based handheld gaming PCs had already made their presence felt. Some of these devices offered greater power, a top-notch build, and screens with higher resolution. Still, none of them could quite match the optimal blend of battery longevity, portability, and cost-effectiveness that the Valve's handheld delivered.
ASUS has now joined the competition with its ROG Ally. With its polished design, easy-to-use Windows operating system, and the robust power of AMD's new Ryzen Z1 Extreme chip, this handheld device presents a strong challenge to the Steam Deck. But does it deliver sufficient value to overthrow the Steam Deck from its position as the go-to handheld gaming PC?
|US$699 (Local pricing and availability to be announced separately)
|Windows 11 Home
|AMD Ryzen Z1 Extreme Processor
|Zen 4 architecture, 8-core /16-threads, 24MB total cache, up to 5.10Ghz boost
|12 RDNA3 CUs, up to 2.7GHz, 8.6 TFLOP, default 4GB RAM capacity
|7-inch FHD (1920 x 1080) 16:9 IPS-level touchscreen, 500nits, 100% of sRGB. 120Hz refresh rate, 7ms response time
|16GB LPDDR5 on board (6400MT/s dual channel)
|512GB PCIe 4.0 NVMe M.2 SSD
|HD haptics, Gyro: 6-Axis IMU
|Network and Communication
|Triple band Wi-Fi 6E (802.11ax) 2 x 2, Bluetooth 5.2
|Dimensions (W x D x H)
|28cm x 11.1cm x 2.12cm
The ROG Ally, set to start shipping officially in June and priced at S$999 (US$699.99 overseas), might not clearly surpass the Steam Deck as of this moment, but it is no lightweight. This handheld signifies a notable advancement for Windows handhelds in several vital areas. It's not just slightly more powerful than the Steam Deck; the AMD Z1 Extreme device delivers a significant performance boost without being any more cumbersome or significantly pricier than other Windows devices. I found myself longing for my Steam Deck to operate as silently as the Ally and wished it incorporated the Ally's variable refresh rate screen to enhance my gaming sessions.
So, after a couple of weeks of getting acquainted with the ROG Ally, here are my impressions
What do I think of the gaming handheld’s design?
ASUS is known for leading the pack in crafting visually impressive gaming laptop designs. The ROG Ally, their entry into the handheld market, is no exception to this trend. The Ally, with its modern and streamlined design, manages to outshine rivals like the Steam Deck, which by comparison can appear dated.
Though the exterior shell of the Ally is composed of plastic, it's far from giving off a cheap or flimsy impression. Its design includes a comfortable, textured grip on the back of both sides and gentle ridges that traverse the front and back. The rear fan vents are ingeniously molded in the form of the ROG logo, demonstrating the level of meticulousness that puts the ROG Ally a cut above the rest, resulting in a more refined product. Available only in white, the device has shown remarkable resilience, maintaining its pristine appearance even after extensive use – although it’s fair to fear that these white surfaces will not always stay this way forever.
Despite the somewhat grandiose "ROG" label, the ROG Ally is quite manageable in terms of size and weight. Tipping the scales at approximately 608g and measuring 280mm wide, 111mm tall, and just slightly over 21mm thick, the Ally is a bit lighter than the Steam Deck, a difference that becomes quite noticeable thanks to its superior weight distribution.
Interestingly, the Ally's weight seems more central compared to the Steam Deck, which feels like two separate weights, one in each hand. This difference is likely due to the Ally's more shallow grips and different hand placement. For those with bigger hands, it’s likely you find your pinky fingers dangling off the bottom of the device, sharing the weight with your palms and ring fingers. On the other hand, the Steam Deck's deeper grips provide a more comfortable hold over longer gaming sessions.
Despite these disparities, I find the ROG Ally offers a comfortable gaming experience and is easier to carry around than a traditional gaming laptop.
(Trivia: The ROG Ally was designed at the Singapore branch of the Asus Design Center, and the principal designer is a Singaporean)
ASUS has also woven RGB lights into the Ally's design, encircling both analog sticks with light-up rings. These lights can be personalised or completely switched off using the Armoury Crate app. The Ally is also decked out with a range of ports at the top, including a headphone jack, microSD slot, ROG XG Mobile connector, and USB-C power port. The ROG XG Mobile connector, a distinctive feature, facilitates connection to an external graphics solution, providing a substantial performance enhancement.
It's worth noting, however, that the ROG Mobile accessory needed for this connection is sold separately, and its requirement for an external power source somewhat undermines the Ally's portability. While this might cater to a select group of users, it's a nice-to-have feature. The ROG Ally also includes volume buttons and a power button that doubles as a fingerprint sensor, offering Windows Hello support. Furthermore, it supports Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth.
The controls and buttons can be better
The ROG Ally stands out with its unique array of control options designed to suit a variety of gaming styles. The design reminds me of the Nintendo Switch, with two joysticks that aren't symmetrical. The left one is located a little higher, while the right joystick sits just above the middle. In addition to these, you'll find the A/B/X/Y buttons, a disc-style D-pad, and triggers and bumpers on both sides. Additionally, there are two grip buttons at the back.
However, my journey with the Ally's controls was a bit of a rollercoaster ride. On one hand, the A/B/X/Y buttons sometimes got jammed and I had to exert extra force to push them back to their original position. But on the other hand, the rest of the buttons performed quite well, meeting my expectations.
As for the thumbsticks, they're a bit of a mixed bag. They worked alright, but over time, they started to feel less reliable. They're embedded deeper into the console, which changes the angle at which you maneuver them. This design choice has its pros and cons. On the positive side, you don't need to apply as much force to click them. On the flip side, this increases the risk of accidental clicks while you're moving the thumbsticks.
What caught my eye were the triggers, which come with magnetic sensors. ASUS assures that these won't wear out even after years of use. Both the triggers and bumpers are designed with grooves for a better grip and offer satisfying deep presses. What's more, the Ally comes with a pair of rear bumpers, referred to as Macro keys by ASUS. They can be adjusted for any game-specific input, providing adaptability for games that require a wide range of control combinations.
The Ally also has two dedicated buttons that activate ASUS' Command Centre and Armoury Crate interfaces on the fly – even while the game is running. The Command Centre, which is a pop-in menu on the left, is easy to dismiss if you trigger it unintentionally. However, if you accidentally press the Armoury Crate button, you could find your game minimised, and the launcher screen greeting you instead. It would have been beneficial to have a shortcut for the Windows desktop too (or at least the option to remap either of the two dedicated buttons), as it can be tricky to navigate to it when you're juggling multiple apps.
Last but not least, the Ally lacks trackpads, unlike the Steam Deck. This makes it less efficient for certain games, such as point-and-click strategy, adventure, or other similar genres. But it makes up for this by offering a touchscreen and the possibility to remap your control buttons in the Armoury Crate
I love the display even if it’s a tad overkill
The ROG Ally is a powerhouse when it comes to display capabilities, leaving competitors like the Steam Deck and non-OLED Switch in its wake. Its 7-inch IPS touchscreen panel with a Full HD resolution of 1920x1080 sets it apart from the Steam Deck's less crisp 1280x800 display. This vivid 16:9 display, coupled with a flexible refresh rate ranging from 30 to 120 Hz, a swift 7ms response time, and the addition of FreeSync, delivers a fantastic mobile gaming experience.
The brightness of the Ally's screen peaks at an impressive 500 nits, far outshining the typical 300-nit brightness found in many gaming laptops. This makes the ROG Ally an ideal companion for outdoor gaming sessions. The display's proximity to the glass (a Corning Gorilla Glass Victus technology) results in reduced light bleed compared to other systems. Hence, even though the maximum brightness is on par with that of the Steam Deck, the visual experience is starkly different, particularly under bright lights. This contrast is even more noticeable if you're not using the high-end Deck model with its anti-glare etched screen.
The touchscreen functionality of the Ally is responsive and accurate. However, it may not be utilised as often due to the device's Windows 11 OS being scaled for younger eyes and games not being specifically designed for touch controls.
One area where the Ally's display may fall short is its contrast ratio of 1000:1, which suggests a limited ability to display darker shades. This was noticeable during gameplay, such as exploring caves in Horizon Zero Dawn or traversing some of the dimly lit areas of Elden Ring, where the detail was hard to discern. An OLED screen could have addressed this concern, but it would have also significantly increased the cost of the device.
Intriguingly, ASUS chose a 120Hz display for the Ally – twice that of the Steam Deck. While this is a noteworthy addition, its utility is only evident when a game runs at a frame rate above 60fps, which, as my gaming experiences later will show, isn't a common occurrence.
The Ally's USB-C port also enables output to an external monitor or TV. ASUS provides a USB-C dock as an optional add-on to facilitate connecting the device to a larger screen, akin to the Nintendo Switch’s docked mode.
A punch above its weight
At the heart of the ROG Ally is the Ryzen Z1 Extreme processor. This powerhouse, built on Zen 4 architecture, boasts eight cores and 16 threads. The device also benefits from integrated RDNA 3 graphics, which provide support for AMD’s upscaling technology, FidelityFX Super Resolution.
To gauge how the ROG Ally performs, I played a number of games (all with the highest graphics preset option and unplugged to simulate portability) and was struck by the substantial impact Turbo mode has on gaming performance.
Turbo mode essentially pushes the chip to its limits to squeeze out additional power. However, it's not without its drawbacks. It heightens power consumption, which in turn trims down the battery life. It also prompts the fans to work harder to keep the chip cool. But on the upside, Turbo mode elevates the performance in Atomic Heart in 1080p from a decent 48fps to an impressive 65fps. In the case of Cyberpunk 2077 in 720p, Turbo mode took the performance from 26fps up to a more fluid 36fps. It really makes a world of difference.
However, Turbo mode doesn't always deliver these levels of performance boosts. For instance, with Returnal, the gain was a mere 3fps up to 23fps at a 720p resolution. This wasn't enough to make the game playable, as it repeatedly crashed during my testing on the ROG Ally. This underlines the point that not every PC game will run on the ROG Ally, especially those with hefty system requirements.
So, how does the ROG Ally measure up against the Steam Deck? While it's undeniable that the Ally is the more potent of the two, especially with Turbo mode engaged, the difference usually hovered around 10fps to 15fps. This is definitely helpful for a smoother gaming experience in titles like Horizon Zero Dawn and Cyberpunk 2077. However, I'm not entirely convinced it's enough to validate the substantial price hike – this model of the ROG Ally is double the cost of the base Steam Deck, after all.
As far as thermal management is concerned, I didn't encounter any worryingly hot temperatures, and for the most part, the fans were remarkably quiet. Engaging Turbo mode did make the fans a bit more audible, but the sound was easily overpowered by the device's robust gaming speakers. Hats off to ASUS for the impressive cooling system.
Double the power, half the battery life
The vitality of a handheld gaming device is fundamentally linked to its battery life. After all, what good is a handheld that goes flat in no time? Unfortunately, this happens to be the weak spot for the ROG Ally, even though it does show a slight edge over the Steam Deck.
While immersing myself in Spider-Man: Miles Morales with the ROG Ally in the default Performance mode, the handheld kept the game running for an hour and a half before signalling low battery. Shifting the Ally into Turbo mode for maximum performance saw the battery life dwindle to a mere hour with the same game. This outcome is far from ideal, particularly when stacked up against the Switch OLED's robust five-hour lifespan. However, it's worth noting that this level of endurance is fairly consistent with what the Steam Deck offers.
Naturally, the battery life of the ROG Ally could stretch a bit further if you're playing less demanding games like Hades and Football Manager 2023.
However, there is a silver lining. The ROG Ally doesn't take an eternity to recharge. In my tests, it took slightly over an hour to charge the battery fully. A quick 30-minute charge could also juice up the battery from zero per cent to a commendable 57 per cent.
I miss Steam Deck's compatibility ID
The ROG Ally's use of the Windows 11 operating system stands out as one of its most remarkable features. This choice makes it more approachable and user-friendly than its counterpart, the Steam Deck, particularly for those who are keen on making use of third-party streaming services such as GeForce Now.
Speaking of streaming, the ROG Ally doesn't disappoint. For example, when I played The Witcher 3 via GeForce Now, the ROG Ally's controls seamlessly linked with the gameplay, providing a smooth performance, thanks to the support of Wi-Fi 6E, assuming, of course, that you have a router that's compatible.
Starting up the ROG Ally feels similar to booting up your everyday laptop, with a familiar Windows desktop greeting you. However, navigating the small desktop icons can be a bit of a challenge for touchscreen users, and moving the mouse cursor with an analogue stick can be somewhat awkward for the first few times. Additionally, the virtual keyboard doesn't always appear when you need it, although it can be summoned with a few extra taps.
Despite these minor issues, it's refreshing to have a handheld device that essentially operates like a Windows laptop. The Steam Deck offers quite a bit of flexibility in this area, but for those not familiar with its Linux operating system, it might be a bit intimidating.
That also brings me to the point about game compatibility identification. Unlike the Steam Deck, which does an impressive job of labelling optimised games and flagging those that may not run well, the ROG Ally doesn't offer this feature. Therefore, gamers must do their own detective work to ensure a game's compatibility before buying it. This shortcoming makes the ROG Ally less appealing for younger gamers or console gamers who are not accustomed to worrying about compatibility issues.
Much like any Windows PC, the ROG Ally is capable of running any game, provided it meets the system requirements. By avoiding the Linux operating system, the ROG Ally has managed to sidestep the compatibility issues that some multiplayer games with anti-cheating software encountered on the Steam Deck.
To Ally or to Deck?
The ROG Ally undeniably ups the ante, showcasing a more refined design, an operating system that's easier to navigate, and a superior gaming prowess. However, its price tag, which is twice that of the Steam Deck, puts it in the same range as entry-level gaming laptops, making it a tough sell for some.
The performance it delivers is striking for a device you can hold in your hands, boasting an average 10fps lead over the Steam Deck. But it's not an open-and-shut case. The device has a hard time reaching frame rates high enough to take full advantage of the 120Hz refresh rate. Add to that, certain games like Returnal are unplayable, even with graphics settings dialed down. Additionally, the relatively short battery life is a concern, especially for a device that's designed to offer the convenience of portability over a gaming laptop.
On the other hand, the Ally is undeniably a triumph for its primary audience: PC gamers seeking a handheld gaming experience that echoes the Nintendo Switch. The AMD's Ryzen Z1 Extreme chip, while not exactly a game-changer, is on par or slightly outperforms the Steam Deck. But this edge is mitigated by the higher resolution, unless you opt to reduce it.
The physical design of the Ally is not only comfortable to handle but also has a charm that goes beyond mere novelty. Its broad appeal to the mainstream market is clear, and it delivers a more uncomplicated experience with Windows, aided by some handy ASUS software. Sure, there might be some finicky situations and some less than perfect pairings of input and interface, but the Ally brings solutions and flexibility to most of these challenges, as long as you're willing to put in the effort.
So, the ROG Ally may not be the go-to choice for everyone. For a good number of gamers, the Steam Deck and Nintendo Switch OLED may still hold the top spots. But for those hungry for extra firepower or the enhanced flexibility that Windows offers, the ROG Ally is a remarkable contender. With a price point of US$699.99 (Singapore's pricing will differ), it's a fair deal and is recommended for those intrigued, though with a few minor reservations. If you're mulling over a gaming laptop, the ROG Ally, with its distinctive form, may blend into your lifestyle more seamlessly. ASUS deserves a pat on the back for this endeavour, and with potential for future software enhancements and personalised DIY tweaks, it could turn out to be a real winner for the right user.
The ROG Ally, equipped with the AMD Ryzen Z1 Extreme, is available on the ASUS SG Store from June 30 onwards with a S$999 price tag.