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Diablo Immortal shows gaming phones should be taken seriously

Diablo Immortal is one of the biggest mobile game releases of the year, and it’s sure to be as challenging for mobile devices to run as it is for a player to complete. Gaming smartphones are sold with the promise of having all the right technology and software tools to make games fly and, in theory, you a better player.

Is a gaming phone necessary to get the best from Diablo Immortal, or is an iPhone just as capable? To find out, we’ve played the game on the Asus ROG Phone 5 and the iPhone 13 Pro.

Power and ergonomics

The Asus ROG Phone 5 came out in early 2021, but remains the pinnacle of gaming smartphones due to Asus’s comprehensive software toolkit, a giant amount of processing ability, shoulder mounted buttons, many accessories, and a whole lot more. We tried the ROG Phone 5 Ultimate with its Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor and 18GB of RAM for power, and the 6.78-inch, 144Hz refresh rate AMOLED screen for the visuals. The 360Hz touch sampling rate should make it lightning fast to react too.

Diablo Immortal on the iPhone 13 Pro and the Asus ROG Phone 5.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The iPhone 13 Pro came out toward the end of 2021. It has Apple’s powerful A15 Bionic processor for power, and a 6.1-inch OLED screen with Apple’s ProMotion 120Hz refresh rate technology. Apple doesn’t publicly talk about RAM or touch sampling rates. It also doesn’t have a specific gaming mode like the ROG Phone 5, so you have to trust Apple to deliver the performance goods when needed. Qualcomm’s Adreno 660 Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) runs the Asus phone, while it’s Apple’s own 5-core GPU inside the iPhone.

Both are technically very different, and they’re different in design and in-hand feel too. The ROG Phone 5 is a heavyweight at 238 grams compared to the 204 grams of the iPhone, plus the phone is considerably longer in landscape orientation. The in-hand feel of the ROG Phone 5 is dramatically more comfortable than the iPhone 13 Pro though, which is let down by the chassis’ sharp edges. After playing on them both for a while, I found the ROG Phone 5’s screen a little less reflective too, helping make the endless dark scenes easier to examine.

Diablo Immortal's main screen on the Asus ROG Phone 5.
Asus ROG Phone 5 Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Neither phone came close to overheating, although the iPhone 13 Pro did get warm to the touch even inside a case when I played. The ROG Phone 5 manages its temperature well, and I could have added the cooling fan accessory if it became unmanageable at any time, but I didn’t feel it came close to needing it.

If you need to charge the phone when playing, the ROG Phone 5’s side-mounted charging port means the cable is not poking out the end of the phone as it is with the iPhone. It’s little things like this that make the ROG Phone 5 a gaming phone, while the iPhone 13 Pro (quite rightly) has to be suitable for everyone, regardless of intention. But we’re playing a game here, and the benefits of the ROG Phone 5’s dedicated design really shone through.

Audio and visual

The ROG Phone 5’s big screen makes Diablo Immortal look amazing, but it’s the audio that really stands out. The stereo separation is pronounced, giving the game a wonderful, wide soundstage. If you didn’t think a smartphone could ever sound that great, give the ROG Phone 5 a try and it’ll change your mind.

Playing Diablo Immortal on the iPhone 13 Pro.
iPhone 13 Pro Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The game runs at 30 fps and for the most part is very smooth on the ROG Phone 5’s 144Hz refresh rate screen, but there are a few stutters as you walk through the game’s world. It’s not detrimental to the game, but it is noticeable. The iPhone 13 Pro plays smoothly with no stutters, giving the game a more polished appearance, and the screen’s lovely natural colors and dynamic range make it look stunning. The audio is good but it cannot match the clarity and depth of the ROG Phone 5, often sounding a little shrill at higher volumes.

I couldn’t spot any differences between the phones regarding graphics, and at full brightness both phones make the best of the game’s gloomy color palette. The ROG Phone 5’s ever-so-slight stutters (which may be due to Android rather than the phone) let it down when compared to the beautiful smoothness of the iPhone, but the audio is most definitely a step ahead.

In-game tweaks

When you play Diablo Immortal on the iPhone, what you see is what you get as there is no way to change any of the phone’s settings to alter performance. It’s worth setting up a Focus mode to remove distractions like incoming notifications if you’re planning to play for a while, plus you have to remember to switch off silent mode if you want to hear the in-game audio.

Playing Diablo Immortal on the Asus ROG Phone 5.
Game Genie on the Asus ROG Phone 5 Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The Asus ROG Phone 5 is far more customizable. I played the game with X-Mode active so it used every bit of the available power and RAM, but I can’t say it was always noticeably higher performing than when it was turned off. The phone’s multiple virtual buttons are far more successful. I configured the right shoulder button as the general fire button, and the left for one of the special attacks. It doesn’t work for those that require you to aim once activated, but it’s fine for weapons with auto-aim. X-Mode also turns off notifications for uninterrupted gameplay.

But did these changes and special buttons actually make play any better than on the iPhone, where you’re limited to the on-screen controls? The shoulder button activating your main weapon is beneficial when strafing and firing as you can see more of the main screen. It also frees up fingers and space on the screen so you can use additional weapons (I am playing as a demon hunter, for reference) at the same time as your main weapon. It definitely makes combat more fluid, and depending on how you use the shoulder buttons, may make you more deadlier in-game too.

Playing Diablo Immortal on the iPhone 13 Pro.
iPhone 13 Pro Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The ROG Phone 5 Ultimate has virtual buttons on the back of the phone, and even more customizable buttons if you use the rear-mounted cooling fan accessory. Configuring them is simple through the Game Genie menu (it’s activated with a swipe on the left-hand side of the screen), but I personally didn’t find any benefit in configuring other buttons. Diablo Immortal’s on-screen controls are quite good already, but by handing off just two to the shoulder buttons can make the game easier to control, and give you the chance to use more than one weapon at a time.

Conclusion

Of course, we don’t expect anyone to choose a phone based on how one game performs, but what’s interesting here is how a dedicated gaming phone really can enhance a game, and how it feels to play it.

From the audio to the shoulder buttons, I felt more connected to the game on the ROG Phone 5, and while the iPhone 13 Pro’s smoother performance was noticeable, it felt like I was just “playing a game.” It’s a hard distinction to define and explain, but if I was faced with the two phones, I’d pick up the Asus device, mostly due to the superior sound and the helpfulness of the shoulder buttons.

There are definitely benefits to playing Diablo Immortal on a gaming phone, but unless you’re very serious about the game, you’ll be happy playing on the iPhone 13 Pro. If you’re interested about how the game plays on the Galaxy S22 Ultra, we put it through its paces here, and we also have some tips for beginners here if you’re just getting started.

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