Asus ROG Phone 5 Review: Mighty specs make gaming truly exciting

asus rog phone 5 review back hands

Asus ROG Phone 5 Review: Mighty specs make gaming truly exciting

“Playing games on the Asus ROG Phone 5 is more exciting than on other comparable phones due to a combination of excellent visual and audio ability, masses of power, and more.”
  • Stunning screen
  • The best audio on a smartphone today
  • Masses of power and ability
  • Very fast charging
  • Effective, well thought-out gaming features
  • Excellent software package
  • Big and heavy
  • Camera doesn't match the competition
  • No IP68 water resistance
MSRP $950.00

We play video games for lots of different reasons, but one of the crucial emotions involved is excitement. Whether it’s the anticipation of finally being able to secure a new Sony PlayStation 5, winning a hard-fought race in Gran Turismo Sport, or reacting to a jump scare in a horror game — excitement is always there. The Asus ROG Phone 5 is a gaming smartphone, and if it’s to succeed in tempting mobile gamers to buy it, it needs to invoke that same level of excitement, not just when playing games, but also when holding and using the phone in general.

I’ve been using the ROG Phone 5 for nearly a week. I’ll continue using it, and while I doubt my opinion will change overall, nuances will continue to be discovered, so this review will be updated in the near future. Most importantly, I didn’t need much time to feel the excitement from the ROG Phone 5.

Design

Yes, the ROG Phone 5 is big and heavy. It’s a whopping 238 grams, even heavier than the 227-gram Galaxy S21 Ultra, and 10.2mm thick. You’re going to have to accept that if you want a sleek and slim phone, it won’t be built to accommodate all the features Asus provides gamers, from multiple charging ports and a headphone jack to a 6,000mAh battery and so on.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Asus has upped the visual element of the ROG Phone 5 compared to the slightly too dull ROG Phone 3 (there’s no ROG Phone 4, because the number 4, when pronounced in Chinese, sounds like the word for death and is considered bad luck). Asus adds flashes of color, a larger pixel-tastic RGB Republic of Gamers logo, and other neat design elements like the red anodized metal SIM tray. I think it looks great.

Asus has adopted a central PCB (printed circuit board) design for the ROG Phone 5’s internals to help with cooling, and you may think this translates into excellent overall balance. But while the ROG Phone 5 is perfectly weighted for landscape use, it’s not so good for portrait use. You really feel the weight of the phone after awhile, something emphasized by the sheer length of the thing, which strains your thumbs when holding it to read articles, browse social media, or perform other normal phone-related tasks. It’s not made for one-handed use, due to the thickness of the chassis, and the glossy glass back panel is very slippery.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The landscape orientation is extremely well-judged, though. The screen has bezels at the top and bottom, so your palms have somewhere to rest, the touch-sensitive AirTrigger sensors on the shoulder are large and easy to locate, and there is a second central USB Type-C port for charging on the lower side of the phone. This stops the cable getting in the way when playing in landscape, and is protected by a rubber port cover. It’s not very secure, and has popped out several times through normal use already, so I’m waiting for the day when it gets lost.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Like other ROG Phones, there is an RGB logo on the back of the phone. It’s used to show the phone is in X Mode (a performance booster for games) and for notifications, and it’ll also activate when the screen is on if you so choose. You can set it to strobe or flash, or have it cycle through colors. The dot matrix design is more noticeable than the version on the ROG Phone 3. It’s fun, and nothing more, but I’d be exceptionally disappointed if it wasn’t there.

Screen and sound

You’re looking at a 6.78-inch AMOLED screen with a 20.4:9 aspect ratio, 2448 x 1080 pixel resolution, 144Hz refresh rate, 300Hz touch sampling, HDR10+, and low 24.3ms touch latency. It’s an excellent blend of the iPhone 12 Pro’s warm, natural display and the cooler, brighter panel on the Samsung Galaxy S21+, sitting somewhere in-between the two. There’s less saturation than the Samsung screen and less warmth than the iPhone, but it still delivers a beautifully neutral and natural viewing experience.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

It’s all quite sensitive, though. The screen is highly tuned with a 300Hz touch sampling rate and the low 24.3ms latency, and everything feels very immediate. It’s not a complaint, as the responsiveness is welcome, but it does take a little time to get used to. The screen is a lovely thing, but only part of the story here, as it’s the audio experience that takes media on the ROG Phone 5 to the next level, and ups a lot of the excitement I wanted from the phone.

Dual 12 x 16mm, front facing symmetrical speakers are set inside a chamber 35% larger than the one on the ROG Phone 3, and audio company Dirac is also back, providing the tuning. The speakers are powered by an ESS Sabre ES9280AC Pro Quad DAC with AptX Adaptive, Hi Res file support, and special optimization to widen the soundstage and lessen distortion. The result is glorious. It’s not just loud, it’s clear, controlled, and adds emotion and, yes, excitement to whatever you’re doing on the phone.

The beautiful screen and stunning audio come together to generate the real excitement on the ROG Phone 5, whether you’re watching video or playing games. To get this level of clarity, depth, and pitch-perfect tone from smartphone speakers is extremely impressive, and when it’s matched to the great screen, the ROG Phone 5 elevates itself beyond most other phones, regardless of whether they were expressly designed for gaming or not. This is one of the best audio/visual mobile experiences you can get.

Gaming and performance

You buy the ROG Phone 5 to play games, and the media element is only the start. It needs to have the guts to play the best games for hours on end. Asus has chosen a standard Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor — no “binned” or Plus version of the top Qualcomm chip like previous models this time — and paired it with up to 16GB of RAM. This is powered by a 6,000mAh battery, consisting of two 3,000mAh cells, with 65W HyperCharge fast charging. Those are top-end specs and make the ROG Phone 5 one of the most powerful smartphones we’ve ever used.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The ROG Phone 5 caters to every gamer, from those who just want to pick up the phone and play to those who want control over every aspect of how the game plays and how the phone handles it. Put more simply, it’s suitable for everyone from keen casual gamers to e-sports players. But make no mistake, if you only occasionally play games, the ROG Phone 5 really isn’t the phone for you, as you simply won’t make use of its vast gaming ability.

I’ve spent hours playing Asphalt 9: Legends, Genshin Impact, and a wide range of vertical-scrolling shooters, including Danmaku Unlimited 2 , Gunbird 2, ZeroVector, and Wind Wings. I can’t fault the performance at all. Genshin Impact runs smoothly and doesn’t stutter even when things get busy, which is the same experience in ZeroVector and Asphalt 9: Legends. It makes games highly enjoyable to play, and you can spend a lot of time doing so.

Game Genie on the ROG Phone 5 Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

However, games run pretty smoothly on most flagship phones, so what makes the ROG Phone 5 special? The screen and the audio play a massive part, as do a long list of adjustments, tweaks, and features all catering for the gamer. The AirTriggers, which are touch-sensitive shoulder buttons, are an excellent example of this. Upgraded over the ROG Phone 3’s AirTriggers, they support taps, slides, and swipes, and can be split into two, creating four AirTriggers rather than two. Mapping them to controls is simple, and the action is precise and latency is not a concern in my experience.

X Mode gives almost total control over system performance and preferences, and Armoury Crate provides a central location for your games. It’s a way to connect with fellow gamers and exchange tips and converse, as well as a way to alter the phone’s state to maximize game performance to your specifications. Once you’re playing a game, the Game Genie panel can be swiped to adjust everything from the AirTriggers to the call and notification settings and more. The customization and additional features go deep, but if you’re not worried about them, they’re easily ignored.

Battery, charging, and software

The 6,000mAh battery works hard when you’re pushing the ROG Phone 5, but it has the strength to cope. One day with five-and-a-half hours screen time, including two hours of Genshin Impact, an hour of Asphalt 9: Legends, some YouTube, and general phone tasks the rest of the time, it lasted from around 7:30 a.m. until 11:00 p.m., when it had 8% remaining. Take away the gaming and the phone has enough juice to easily last two normal days.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Asus’ 65-watt HyperCharge fast charging really delivers. From 8%, it was back to 100% in about 45 minutes. That’s very impressive when you consider the large capacity of the battery. There’s no wireless charging, which Asus has never adopted on an ROG series phone due to compromises in the overall longevity of the cell, preferring to offer capacity over convenience instead. There’s also an interesting bypass charge system, which only provides power to the phone and doesn’t charge the battery, helping to lengthen the lifetime of the battery.

The ROG Phone 5 has Android 11 with Asus’ ROG user interface over the top for a sci-fi look. It looks very different from Android on a Google Pixel 5, adds in all kinds of sound effects and visual flourishes, and perfectly suits the theme of the phone. If it’s not for you, Asus’ stock-looking ZenUI is there, too. Regardless of which option I used, the ROG Phone 5 had no problem with app compatibility or speed, and happily ran older games that haven’t been updated for a while — and were certainly not built for Android 11.

An AirTrigger shoulder button on the ROG Phone 5 Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The overall software package on the ROG Phone 5 is excellent, including all the many software features related to gaming, the choice of themes for Android, the reliability, and the other custom features such as extensive scheduling for making battery charging more efficient. If there was much more customization and features than this, the phone would run the risk of becoming too confusing. But for now, it’s just the right mix.

Camera

The camera is not the focus of the ROG Phone 5, but that doesn’t mean it’s terrible. It’s a Sony IMX686 64-megapixel camera taking center stage, joined by a 13MP wide-angle camera and a 5MP macro camera. A 24MP selfie camera is set in the bezel above the screen. Features include a “lossless” 2x digital zoom, a Night mode, a Portrait mode, 8K video recording, HDR video, and a Pro mode, too.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The photos are very shareable, and although I could pick away at the lack of detail in the 2x zoom shots, how color is too cool in some shots, and how the edge distortion in wide-angle mode can be distracting, there’s no point.

The ROG Phone 5’s camera isn’t supposed to take on the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s camera. Instead, it holds its own against the Galaxy S21 and S21+, and that’s more than enough for a gaming-specific phone.

Different versions and accessories

Asus has a range of accessories for the ROG Phone 5. The AeroActive Cooler 5 adds a fan to the back of the phone to further keep temperatures down, and has been enhanced this year to lower the CPU temperatures by 10 degrees, and the surface of the phone by 15 degrees. It also has a pair of additional customizable buttons built in. The Kunai 3 controller has been updated to fit the new phone.

Asus ROG Phone 5 Ultimate (top) and the Asus ROG Phone 5 Pro (bottom) Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The ROG Phone 5 is also not the only ROG Phone from Asus this year. It’s joined by the ROG Phone 5 Pro and the ROG Phone 5 Ultimate. The ROG Phone 5 Ultimate is a limited-edition model with a monochrome satin white finish, and is the world’s first smartphone to come with 18GB of RAM. That’s more than the Mac Mini M1 I’m composing this review on. It also has two additional touch-sensitive panels on the back of the phone, adding another two buttons for a total of 18 if you use the AeroActive Cooler 5, which comes in the box with both the Pro and Ultimate models.

The biggest visual change is on the back of these two models. Both have a small PMOLED screen, called the ROG Vision, which shows custom animations. This is a color screen on the ROG Phone 5 Pro, and monochrome screen on the Ultimate phone. Buy the Ultimate model and you also get a goody pack with an ROG cap, face mask, stickers, patches, and a towel.

Price and availability

Exact U.S. pricing will come at launch, which will be between April and June. In Europe, the ROG Phone 5 will be available to buy in March, the ROG Phone 5 Pro will come in April, and the ROG Phone 5 Ultimate will be released in May.

You get a choice of configurations, with the 8GB/128GB ROG Phone 5 costing 799 euros/$948 U.S., the 12GB/256GB model costing 899 euros/$1,067, and the top 16GB/256GB version costing 999 euros/$1,185. It’ll cost you 1,199 euros/$1,422 for the ROG Phone 5 Pro, which only comes in a 16GB/256GB configuration, and the ROG Phone 5 Ultimate is yours for 1,299 euros/$1,540.

We recommend buying the model with the most internal storage you can afford, as there is no MicroSD card slot on the phone.

Our take

Playing games on the Asus ROG Phone 5 is exciting thanks to a combination of the gorgeous screen, the superb audio, the massive power, and the many features explicitly designed to make games more enjoyable — and make you better at them. I played more games for a longer amount of time on the ROG Phone 5, and enjoyed them more, too. I’d say that’s mission accomplished for Asus.

Asus isn’t shy about packing the phone with the latest tech, either. There’s almost everything you could want from a flagship phone in 2021, and when you consider the basic version should come in under $1,000, it’s decent value, too. This is a phone built for a purpose: To play the latest games without breaking a sweat, and to make the whole experience more fun and exciting along the way, and it absolutely succeeds in doing so.

Is there a better option?

If you want a dedicated gaming smartphone, made by a company that understands the industry and the players, the Asus ROG Phone 5 really cannot be challenged. It’s also easily one of the most powerful smartphones out there, so there are no compromises in terms of ability.

If gaming is only one part of why you want a new smartphone, and the camera is equally important, then we recommend either the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra or the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max. The large screens and powerful hardware are excellent for gaming, but the cameras are also superb. If you want a phone that does everything very well, and aren’t likely to use the game-centric features of the ROG Phone 5, either would be better purchases.

How long will it last?

The processor, screen technology, and battery capacity mean the ROG Phone 5 will last for at least two years. Mobile games advance quite quickly, though, so if you’re very serious about gaming, you may find there’s a need to upgrade by then just to get the latest chipset. Everyone else will be able to continue using the ROG Phone 5 for another year at the minimum. There’s 5G onboard, too, plus Wi-Fi 6E, so you’re set for the latest connectivity tech.

However, we recommend putting it in a case. Not only is the body very slippery, it’s made from glass, so it may break if you drop it. Gorilla Glass Victus over the screen should provide some additional scratch protection, though. Finally, the ROG Phone 5 is not water resistant, so you will need to be careful with it.

Should you buy it?

Yes, the ROG Phone 5 is currently the ultimate gaming smartphone.

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