Asus ROG Phone 2 hands-on review

The new Asus gaming phone certainly isn't a beauty, but it performs like a beast

Asus ROG Phone 2

Asus ROG Phone 2 hands-on

“The exciting Asus ROG Phone 2 will appeal to more than hardcore gamers.”
  • Beautiful 120Hz AMOLED screen
  • Superior performance
  • Giant 6,000mAh battery
  • Promising software and camera
  • Wide range of accessories
  • Striking design may not appeal to everyone
  • Heavy
  • Only gamers will see full benefit of its power

Asus isn’t playing around with the ROG Phone 2. This is a serious gaming phone, heaving with power and performance, more add-on parts than a new car, and for the obsessive completist, Asus will even sell you a giant ROG-branded (Republic of Gamers) suitcase including the phone and a mountain of accessories.

But rather than solely targeting gamers, Asus thinks three groups of people are going to lust after the newly-unveiled ROG Phone 2. Fans of the ROG brand who play games for at least six hours a week; then hardcore gamers playing for 16 hours or more a week; and finally the tech fan who wants a fun, powerful phone and wants to be a part of a growing community. But can Asus  achieve the almost impossible and make a specialist phone that appeals to the less-committed tech lover? The answer is yes, if you can get past the design.

RGB! And a 120Hz screen

Asus has retained the striking, individual look of the original ROG Phone for the sequel, with a few alterations that make it a little more visually appealing The offset fingerprint sensor has been removed from the back and replaced by an in-display sensor, which I didn’t get to try out on the early model I used.

The fake vents have also been taken away, but there’s now a single, smaller, and subtler functional vent. The phone is still a loud-and-proud Republic of Gamers device, right down to the RGB-lit ROG logo on the back.

Around the front is a 6.59 inch AMOLED screen with a 19.5:9 aspect ratio; it’s flanked with bezels at either end. Why isn’t there any attempt at a bezel-less design like on the OnePlus 7 Pro? Asus has packed in stereo front-facing speakers in the bezels on both ends; they support DTS:X Ultra, and are set inside larger chambers for 2.5x the volume over the original ROG Phone. The company also said bezels make it easier to hold and use the phone in landscape mode.

Here’s where the gaming credentials start to shine through. The bezels are joined by a flat piece of glass rather than one with curved edges, because again, in landscape orientation, it’s better to hold. The AMOLED panel has a 120Hz refresh rate and a 1ms response time — similar to the iPad Pro. Fast-moving games are clearer with less blur, and are easier on your eyes. The 120Hz refresh rate works throughout the phone, so you’ll see smoother scrolling in apps and the browser too. We’ve recently swooned over the OnePlus 7 Pro’s 90Hz screen, so look forward to enjoying the ROG Phone 2’s screen more.

The benefits are evident even using the phone for a short time. It’s so slick, and instantly reminded me why the OnePlus 7 Pro’s screen is such a winner. There’s no lag and no stutters, regardless of what you’re doing. Whether a 120Hz refresh rate provides a noticeable improvement over 90Hz will only become clear with additional testing, but even before knowing this, the higher refresh rate generally, compared to other screens, is a big bonus for anyone using the phone on a regular basis and not just for gamers.

The ROG Phone 2 is tremendously capable and genuinely exciting, provided non-gamers can get past the design.

The ROG Phone 2’s screen tech continues. It has a 240Hz touch sampling rate, which means touch input on the phone will feel much more responsive. Specifically, Asus claims an ultra low touch latency of 49ms, which is impressive. In Asus’ tests, the Samsung Galaxy S10 returned a time of 87ms, and 85ms for the OnePlus 7 Pro.

The screen is also calibrated in the factory to show the most accurate colors, and uses 10-bit HDR for 1073.74 million colors, instead of an 8-bit SDR with 16.77 million colors. The means you see what the developer or content creator wants you to see, and more details are revealed in the darker, shadowy areas too.

I like the ROG Phone 2’s design. It satisfies the sci-fi enthusiast inside me, and avoids looking exactly the same as any other smartphone available today. It embodies what’s cool about the Republic of Gamers brand, while not pandering to fans by trying to cash-in. The phone is on the heavier side at 240 grams — the iPhone XS Max weighs 208 grams, for example — but the weight is evenly distributed, and the 78mm width means it’s holdable without being too large.

The side-mounted USB Type-C charging port genuinely improves the ergonomics too, especially in landscape mode, and screen again is oh so fantastic.

Unlimited power!

The Asus ROG Phone 2 will be the first to utilize the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 Plus processor, which on the CPU side is 4% more effective than the standard version with a maximum speed of 2.96GHz.

More importantly, the Adreno 640 graphics processing unit (GPU) has a 15% improvement over the standard Snapdragon 855. Also onboard is UFS 3.0 memory for faster write and rewrite speeds, so you should see 15% faster speeds for loading games and opening apps. There’s up to 12GB of RAM, and 512GB of storage space as standard.

Asus ROG Phone 2
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

In an impressive feat of engineering, Asus has stuffed a massive 6,000mAh battery inside the ROG Phone 2. With 4,000mAh batteries becoming common, and the Asus ZenFone 6 taking on a 5,000mAh battery, this is the logical next step for Asus’ flagship device. The compromises come in the weight of the phone and no support for wireless charging — but none of this really matters when the phone simply won’t need charging every day.

Megapixel-packed cameras, and software

I was unable to take photos outside during my hands-on time with the phone, and the environment wasn’t suitable for any other meaningful pictures to be taken, so it’s unfair to comment on the ROG Phone 2’s camera performance. Early signs are good though, as it uses the Zenfone 6’s dual-lens setup — a 48-megapixel main lens and a 13-megapixel ultra-wide lens — plus a 24-megapixel selfie lens too.

It’s also great news on the software front. International versions of the phone will have the option at startup to use a custom ROG user interface, or the new ZenUI look we loved on the Zenfone 6 (which is very similar to stock Android).

The software you see in our video and photos is not final, but the look is close to what it will be like. Again, like the camera, it’s not fair to judge the performance yet, but the decision to use the new ZenUI is wise, and shows Asus is listening to those commenting on not just the positive Zenfone 6 experience, but also negatives against the first ROG Phone. 

Accessories and partnerships

After buying the phone, Asus wants you to accessorize, and hasn’t held back on the number of additional toys you can buy for the ROG Phone 2, all ready to make it the ultimate on-the-move gaming device. There are various official cases, one of which incorporates the RGB lighting effect to light up the ROG logo, and a clip-on fan to keep the temperature in check.

More interesting is the Kunai controller system with its Nintendo Switch-like joypads, and the Twin View Dock 2, which has a second 120Hz screen, a fan, and a 5000mAh battery inside.

A viable option for casual gamers as well as the hardcore.

Asus will even pack all this, and more, into a special ROG suitcase, along with the phone and a custom backpack, if you simply have to own it all. The ROG Phone 2 isn’t just a gaming smartphone, it’s an entire gaming experience. Using these accessories with the phone is fun, and all feel high quality and robust, but they are all likely to be a further expensive addition to what we expect to be an already pricey flagship phone. The financial investment will be representative of your personal investment in the ROG brand, and mobile gaming in general.

In China, Asus will launch the ROG Phone 2 with Tencent, the internet giant responsible for everything from WeChat to gaming-sensation PUBG Mobile. Internationally, Tencent won’t be involved, but there will be a few special goodies with selected games, including a car with Asphalt 9. Asus told us that partnerships are important to the phone’s success, but many of the features are developer-agnostic — such as the cooling and the touch latency — so even when not playing specially-adapted games, the phone will still provide a superior gaming experience. But developers do need to support accessories like the twin screen and the Kunai controller, and information on further future support was not available.

Playing games and using the phone

The monster performance is not immediately obvious when just using Android, but is so when playing games. Everything happens just a tiny bit quicker than phones not tailored for gaming, and those milliseconds can count. I’m certainly not a gamer, but playing on the ROG Phone 2 is incredibly comfortable, helped massively by the 120Hz screen and lower touch latency, and I felt the ROG Phone 2 returns a slicker gaming experience than many other flagship phones. That’s a commendable achievement.

I played Asphalt 9 for a while (because I’m rubbish at PUBG), and enjoyed every moment, particularly when using the Kunai controller joypads connected to the side of the phone. The larger footprint spreads out the weight, making it feel really light in your hand, and the analog joysticks are responsive. These will be worth picking up as an extra, and for added versatility can be used as a separate controller connected to the phone with Bluetooth.

Asus ROG Phone 2
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

During my hands-on experience, dozens of ROG Phone 2 pre-production models were used extensively by many journalists, and not one I picked up ever felt anything other than cool to the touch. The new vent on the back, and an internal 3D vapor chamber, clearly keeps the phone’s temperatures in check. This means the Snapdragon 855 Plus processor won’t throttle itself when you need its performance most.

I also carried one around in my pocket while shooting video of other devices, and the weight never made it feel annoying. The phone is very well-balanced in my hand too, another essential aspect of making the ROG Phone 2 a desirable gaming phone, and one that’s suitable for using normally too.

Price and availability

The Asus ROG Phone 2 will launch in China on July 23, but the rest of us will have to wait for the global version, which launches on September 4.

Price has not been announced, but expect to pay around $1,000, just like the first ROG Phone. The accessories don’t have final prices yet, but speaking to Asus representatives during my hands-on time, I was informed the suitcase with the phone and accessories could cost around $1,500.

Conclusion

Asus has listened to the criticism levied against the ROG Phone, then applied much of what we liked about the Zenfone 6 to create the ROG Phone 2 — a flagship smartphone that has desirable features and masses of performance to ensure its appeal extends beyond gamers. Now we must wait to see if the camera performance, the software, and the price is all as hoped, to make the ROG Phone a viable option for casual gamers as well as the hardcore.