Asus ROG Ally review
The handheld console market has gone through a renaissance after the incredible success of the Nintendo Switch. While Sony and Microsoft haven't responded in kind, we have seen a surprising insurgence of competitors from the PC gaming segment.
Perhaps one of the most unexpected parties to throw its hat into the ring was Valve with its Steam Deck. The combination of bespoke software tailored around the company's Steam store and reasonable quality hardware at an affordable price meant that the Steam Deck was an instant success for many.
Not willing to continue watching from the sidelines, Asus has now decided to join the fray with the ROG Ally. Like some of the other players in the market, Asus has gone with the approach of packing in the complete Windows 11 operating system. This means you are no longer tied to downloading games from just Steam and essentially have a full Windows PC with an incredibly compact form factor. Add to that the brand new AMD Ryzen Z1 series processors, a 120Hz VRR display, and customary ROG flashing lights, and we have a recipe for a rather intriguing device.
The ROG Ally has fairly simple packaging with mostly just the console and the power brick in the box. The charger, no doubt plucked from one of Asus's notebooks, has a rather long and heavy cable, which feels awkward to use and carry around for a device the size of the Ally.The cardboard stand will get you going but you will need a higher quality one soon
There is also a small stand for the console hidden under the lid of the box. It is seemingly made out of paper and very flimsy. Ours crumpled and couldn't support the console's weight after a while.
The ROG Ally features a standard handheld game console form factor with a display in the middle and split controls on the side. We are no longer in the era of split dual displays and folding hinges of early Nintendo handhelds nor are there any detachable joy-cons à la the Switch. Depending upon how you look at it, you could say it's less gimmicky or perhaps that it is less imaginative.
The ROG Ally has a clean and somewhat reserved design for an ROG product. The entire body is made up of two pieces of hard plastic shell for the front and the back. There are a few different textures here, the most common one being a fine-grain finish to give it a matte appearance. The grips on the side have a more coarse grain pattern for additional grip and the back has a few different wavy patterns.
For the controls, the ROG Ally goes for a layout that is similar to the Xbox Wireless Controller. You get four face or action buttons that have the familiar ABXY designation.
The D-pad on the left is placed below the left joystick, which may trip some people, but never bothered this reviewer even after many years of going back and forth between Xbox and PlayStation controllers.
The view and menu buttons are placed on either side of the display, along with dedicated buttons for Asus software features.
On top of the device are the shoulder and trigger buttons with a textured finish. And finally, on the back are two additional assignable grip buttons.
All the buttons and joysticks on our review unit worked fine. The face buttons worked just as well as on a proper Xbox controller with a good amount of travel and tactility. The D-pad was also very good if you leave aside the extremely glossy finish that makes it look incredibly dirty all the time. The joysticks could have used more grip around the edges, but otherwise worked well.
The bumper and trigger buttons are also well-designed. The bumper had a shorter throw as usual with a more clicky feedback and the trigger had longer travel although not as much as on proper controllers. Still, both felt good to use although they lacked the haptic feedback functionality of the Xbox Wireless Controller.
The additional assignable buttons on the back are something I was less sure about. I never really felt a particular need to use them in the games I played since most modern games are quite good at spreading the controls around on the standard buttons. I also found them very easy to press unintentionally, and even when not assigned, they would often interfere with gameplay. I feel like Asus could have made these harder to press accidentally.
The ROG Ally is a lot smaller and lighter than the Steam Deck. It never feels quite as daunting in hand and is much easier to hold for extended periods without support or to carry around in a bag. The downside of this is that it's also a bit less grippy; the Steam Deck has substantial grips that let your fingers have something to grab onto while the ROG Ally grips are somewhat shallow. It was a necessary tradeoff to ensure the ROG Ally remains compact, but those with larger hands will find the Steam Deck more comfortable.
The ROG Ally does have RGB lighting, but it's only limited to the rings around the joysticks. Each ring only has two zones, but the colors blend in well together. The lighting can get extremely bright, way brighter than the display itself, but fortunately, it is set to a much lower level out of the box and can be disabled completely. You can also set the lighting to sync with your music, compatible games, or also CPU temperature or usage.
The top of the device has a lot going on. There is a power button that also doubles as the fingerprint scanner. Then there are two status LEDs for charging and power right next to the volume controls. A large port features a proprietary Asus connector for external GPUs along with a USB-C connector. Finally, there is a microSD card slot and a headphone jack.
I am not really a fan of the power button. When holding the device normally, you can't see the button, making it difficult to use the fingerprint scanner. You are supposed to use this button way too often for it to be so small and flush with the body. Thankfully, the volume buttons are much easier to use.
Aside from the power button and the easy-to-accidentally press grip buttons, there isn't a lot to complain about the ROG Ally. It is relatively compact, lightweight, and well-built. Most of the other physical controls work well, and the device also looks nice, if that is something that matters to you. Overall, a solid effort from Asus in the design department.
Display and sound
The ROG Ally has a 7-inch, 1920x1080 120Hz IPS LCD touchscreen. The display supports a variable refresh rate with a 48-120Hz refresh window, and below that limit, low frame rate compensation kicks in. The display supports 8-bit color with full sRGB coverage, 500 nits peak brightness, 7ms response times, but no HDR.
The display on the ROG Ally is quite good. You get very good color performance out of the box with a reasonably accurate white point and color saturation. Viewing angles are also good, and the display gets fairly bright to be usable outdoors but there is no automatic brightness adjustment so you have to change it manually every time. Response time performance is also decent and there was no motion trailing or inverse ghosting happening. The touchscreen also felt responsive.
The display has 60Hz and 120Hz modes, and you can quickly toggle between the two through the Command Center. Switching to 60Hz doesn't bring so much power savings, and you'd be losing the VRR feature so it's not worth bothering with. You can also toggle between 720p and 1080p, but again, it's not worth using as it's better to reduce in-game rendering resolution or use image upscaling technologies like FSR as they maintain the HUD resolution and upscale the rendered image.
The display quality and performance on the ROG Ally are certainly on a whole different level compared to the Steam Deck. You get higher resolution, higher refresh rates, and better color performance. It makes Valve's decision to go with a bargain basement panel seem even more glaring.
However, the Ally display still cannot compete with that of the Switch OLED in terms of sheer image quality. The infinite contrast and perfect blacks of the OLED cannot be beaten, and the ROG Ally panel certainly still has the telltale gray blacks that LCD panels cannot get rid of. OLED panels also have better response times and while the Ally panel is certainly no slouch, less <1ms is better than 7ms.
Now for the audio. The ROG Ally has a set of forward-facing stereo speakers. The speakers get plenty loud but are a bit too bright and tinny by default. The Dolby Atmos app helps with this, and you can get a more balanced sound with a wider soundstage. Overall, the speakers can sound pretty good, and while I would still recommend using headphones, you can get away with using the speakers for casual gaming.
The Ally also has built-in microphones. These can come in quite handy for in-game voice chat as well as Discord calls. There is no camera, however, so the calls have to be strictly voice-only, which is fine.
Hardware and connectivity
The ROG Ally comes with AMD's latest Ryzen Z1 series of APUs. The base Ryzen Z1 has a 6-core 12-thread Zen4 CPU and 4 CU RDNA3 GPU. Meanwhile, the Z1 Extreme has an 8-core 16-thread CPU and 12 CU GPU. Asus only offers the Z1 Extreme model in some markets, and that's exactly what our review unit is running.
Aside from the APU, there are no other differences between the two ROG Ally variants. Both get the same 16GB 6400MHz LPDDR5 memory and 512GB Gen4 NVMe M.2 SSD storage. There are no other memory and storage options available, which isn't ideal if you want to upgrade your Ally to a more future-proof spec while purchasing.
While there's nothing you can do about the memory, there are ways to upgrade the storage. The easiest method is to use a microSD card. Asus claims minimal loss in loading performance compared to the internal SSD; I was unable to test these claims, but judging by the tests run on the Steam Deck with a microSD, I don't doubt them. The other method is to use an external USB-C SSD. And finally, you can also just swap out the internal 2230 M.2 SSD with a different one and Asus even has an official guide on how to do this.
With the 16GB memory split between the system and graphics, you get to decide the allocation. By default, the system allocates 4GB to the graphics, but this can be adjusted through the Armoury Crate app. You can pick between 1GB, 2GB, 3GB, 4GB, and 8GB options. A 6GB option would have been preferable as the jump from 4GB to 8GB is quite substantial and takes too much away from the rest of the system.
The Ally has built-in gyroscopes and accelerometers. These seem a bit gratuitous, considering PC games aren't designed with these features in mind. The only games that can take advantage of this hardware are mobile games like Asphalt 9 on the Microsoft Store.
The ROG Ally has a dual-fan cooling system with a single heat pipe that transfers heat across both heat sinks. Unlike vapor chambers, heat pipes are moderately affected by orientation and gravity, but Asus claims to have created 'anti-gravity' heat pipes, which maintain effectiveness regardless of how the device is held.
The two axial fans breathe through rather restricted grilles on the back, which seem to have been designed more for aesthetics than functionality. There are further mesh air filters placed behind the grilles. Asus claims the back cover doesn't affect temperatures much, but I did notice an 8-10 degree improvement with the cover removed while stress testing, which isn't insignificant.
In terms of connectivity, the ROG Ally offers a single USB-C 3.2 Gen2 port, which is part of a larger ROG XG Mobile Interface, Asus's proprietary connector for plugging in external GPUs. The USB-C port supports data, power, Ethernet, as well as video output through DisplayPort 1.4 connectivity using the right adapters. The single port does seem restrictive at times as even some of Asus's ROG phones have two USB ports. If you want to plug in your Ally to an external display and connect a keyboard and mouse, you have to get a USB dock with multiple ports or an Asus ROG XG Mobile unit.
For wireless connectivity, there's triple-band Wi-Fi 6E 802.11ax and Bluetooth 5.2. Both worked fine during testing.
The ROG Ally can be used in five different performance modes. The first three are Silent, Performance, and Turbo, which can be quickly toggled through Asus's overlay. You can also create a Manual profile with custom power limits and fan profiles, and finally, you can also use the default Windows performance profile where the OS handles the power limits and fans.
The first three modes are the most relevant ones here. The Silent mode targets 10W, and the Performance mode targets 15W. The Turbo mode works at 25W on battery but switches to the 30W mode when plugged into a power adapter rated for 65W or higher. The rated numbers are only rough indicators of how much power will be consumed; the 10W mode can pull as high as 15W, the 15W can pull upwards of 20W, and the 30W mode can go as high as 50W. They can also pull less than the rated numbers depending on the load.
For my testing, I focused on the 15W and 30W modes. The 15W mode makes the most sense for portable use on battery power, while the 30W mode makes the most sense when plugged into power. The 10W mode has very limited use as it greatly starves the chip of power, and outside of 2D visual novels and side-scrolling platformers, there aren't many other genres that can be played at this power mode without incurring heavy performance losses. The 25W mode on battery also doesn't make much sense, as you will be using way too much energy, and the ROG Ally doesn't exactly have the battery capacity to deal with such a power draw.
All testing below was done at 1080p at medium settings or equivalent. All games were run with the API that performed the best, which in most cases was DirectX 12 except in rare cases like Fortnite and Control, where DirectX 11 performed better. All testing was done with BIOS version 322, which was the latest at the time of testing. A newer version 323 was available at the time of publishing. However, all testing had been completed by that time, so any changes it brings over 322 are not covered in this review.
|A Plague Tale Requiem
|Dead Space (2023)
|Forza Horizon 5
|God of War
|Grand Theft Auto V
|Horizon Zero Dawn
|Need for Speed Unbound
|Red Dead Redemption 2
|Resident Evil Village
|Spider-Man: Miles Morales
|Shadow of the Tomb Raider
|The Last of Us Part I
|The Witcher 3
When operating at the 30W mode, the ROG Ally often provided a performance that exceeded the base PS4. This was especially evident when testing Sony's first-party titles such as God of War, Death Stranding, and Horizon Zero Dawn at 1080p using console equivalent settings, where the Ally was often comfortably over the 30fps mark that the PS4 ran at in these games.
At 15W, the Ally gets close to PS4 performance, which is not bad considering the inefficiencies of using DirectX as compared to the native APIs that games can use on the consoles.
Compared to the Steam Deck, the ROG Ally is much more powerful. The GPU is a generation newer, and the CPU is two generations newer. Both the memory and SSD are also faster. Not to mention the fact that the Ally can also supply over twice as much power to its APU, and the games are running natively and not through a compatibility layer. When put together, it means that the ROG Ally can offer similar or better performance at 1080p than what the Steam Deck can manage at 720p. The Switch isn't even in the same discussion; most modern smartphones are more powerful than that hardware.
So what's it like playing on the ROG Ally? As mentioned above, you get essentially a PS4-like experience in the palm of your hand when plugged into the wall. This means native 1080p resolution, moderate settings, and a mostly stable 30fps. This might not feel like much to PC nerds, but neither the Steam Deck and certainly not the Switch can come close to matching this experience. At that resolution and even with the reduced settings, games look stunning, and a consistent 30fps frame rate can still provide a perfectly enjoyable experience in many games, especially when you consider what you are playing on.
In the 15W portable mode, you have to be more aggressive with reducing settings and enabling image upscaling technologies like FSR to maintain that 30fps. I'm going to be honest, this is not the mode to play big AAA titles with. There isn't enough power to go around for both the CPU and the GPU, and the system prioritizes GPU performance, causing the CPU to struggle. This can be seen in the 1% and 0.1% results, which suffer due to a CPU bottleneck. The 15W mode works best with simpler indie games that look great and run at high frame rates, even with this limited power budget.
|A Plague Tale Requiem
|Dead Space (2023)
|Forza Horizon 5
|God of War
|Grand Theft Auto V
|Horizon Zero Dawn
|Need for Speed Unbound
|Red Dead Redemption 2
|Resident Evil Village
|Spider-Man: Miles Morales
|Shadow of the Tomb Raider
|The Last of Us Part I
|The Witcher 3
In reality, this is where I found the most joy and value while using a portable console. The idea of playing the latest and greatest AAA titles on the go is certainly enticing and the ROG Ally does make it possible, certainly more than anything else that came before it. However, I don't really want to play the next major installment in the Spider-Man franchise on a handheld at a cafe somewhere as these games are best suited to big screens with more powerful hardware attached. I'd rather solve another case in the Ace Attorney Trilogy or grind for an S-Rank in Cuphead. In a similar vein, I wouldn't want to play sweaty multiplayer shooters on the Ally as the controls are not suited for it, nor are you going to see your enemies as well on a small screen.
There's also the issue that several major AAA titles just don't work well on hardware like this. The benchmark results may seem fine in the tested area with a warmed shader cache but there could be other places in the game where the performance completely falls apart, especially in the first run. Elden Ring can be quite temperamental even on the best PCs and on the Ally, it would randomly have large frame time spikes. Death Stranding was often just unplayable when riding on the motorcycles as the game tries to stream in data rapidly. Fortnite had comically long shader compilation stutters that affected the gameplay but not the replay mode that was used for benchmarking.
A lot of AAA PC games today suffer from stuttering due to real-time shader compilation. Many have also greatly increased their VRAM and CPU requirements. Neither of these are an issue for the consoles since they get tailor-made software, but they certainly are an issue for devices like the ROG Ally, which is essentially a PC. Hogwarts Legacy, for example, has the trifecta of shader compilation and traversal stuttering, high CPU usage, and high VRAM requirements. Playing this title on the Ally can often be painful due to the constant stuttering and long loading times when entering or exiting areas. No amount of setting adjustment can save the day when this happens as the issue is with the game code.
To be fair, this isn't a problem specific to the ROG Ally. However, these specific issues affect slower PCs disproportionately, and thus, the Ally is hit harder than a desktop PC or a powerful gaming laptop.
This is one area where the Steam Deck has an advantage over the Ally or any traditional Windows PC as it behaves more like a console. Valve uses the fixed hardware of the Steam Deck and Proton's shader pre-caching system to its advantage and pre-builds the shaders on its servers and includes them with downloads for popular titles. With the shader cache pre-built, the games then have to spend fewer resources building them in real-time, which results in fewer shader compilation stutters on the Steam Deck, something even the fastest PC gaming hardware running Windows can't boast of. The Ally has no such advantage, so it stutters just the same on these games as any other Windows PC.
However, just because modern AAA titles don't work that well doesn't mean older ones don't. For example, the new remake of Dead Space was borderline unplayable until I made it look worse than the original game, but the original game ran incredibly well with all the settings turned up. There is so much fun to be had with older PC titles, which are now perfectly within reach of even portable hardware like this.
The ROG Ally has good SSD performance from the dinky Gen4 Micron drive. Loading time speed in games was respectable as a result, but the main bottleneck during gameplay will likely be the shared LPDDR5 memory, as there is no dedicated video memory for the GPU. This means you will see more obvious pop-ins as assets stream in from the memory and more pronounced traversal stutter in games that have this issue.
In case you are wondering about the ROG Ally as a PC, it's certainly usable once you plug in an external display as well as a keyboard/mouse. The performance from the Z1 Extreme is also quite decent, and you can get a fair amount of work done if you so desire.
You can also connect an external GPU to the ROG Ally using the ROG XG Mobile unit and then plug into an external monitor. This to me just doesn't seem like a realistic scenario in which anyone would want to use the Ally. You are much better off building a gaming PC or using a laptop.
The Ally has lackluster haptics; while both the Switch and Steam Deck do better in this regard, the Ally haptics feel more like faint buzzing that at first experience made me think was coming from the speakers. It's very weak and really doesn't add anything to the experience.
A final note on the cooling. Despite my earlier observations of the back cover stifling the fans a bit, the cooling remains impressive, both in terms of effectiveness and noise. Sure, the chip will hit 90+ degrees Celsius under load even in colder environments, but it never thermal throttles unless you are out in the hot sun.
The fans also make a pleasant whooshing sound that, while certainly audible, is never offensive and not even audible when you plug in the headphones. And this is on the Turbo mode; the 15W Performance and 10W Silent modes are virtually inaudible even without headphones. I will note, however, that the display gets very hot during gameplay, but the parts you actually touch are unaffected.
The ROG Ally has a 40Wh battery that is split into two cells. When playing at the 15W mode, the best I could get out of the system was about an hour and a half of gameplay time while using headphones, and the display set to 70% brightness. The less usable 10W mode should fare better, but with a 40Wh battery the best you are looking at is four hours, and realistically, it will be lower than that.
The battery life puts a dampener on the usability of the device. The testing above was done with an unlocked frame rate and 100% GPU load, but even with frame limiters and reduced settings in place, you aren't looking at more than a couple of hours with the 15W mode, which, once again, I consider the bare minimum for most games.
Asus provides a 65W charger in the box that looks more like one of their laptop chargers. The charger takes about an hour and forty minutes to completely charge the Ally when switched off. There are options in the MyASUS app to prevent the battery from charging beyond a certain point to increase its longevity but that will cut into the already limited battery life.
I've left the section covering the software for the last as this is easily the biggest point of contention with the ROG Ally. Unlike the bespoke OS and software found on consoles as well as Valve's homegrown SteamOS, Asus has opted to install the full version of Windows 11 Home on the ROG Ally.
The advantages of this approach are easy to see. Windows is possibly the best platform to play games on right now due to the incredibly diverse range of titles, both old and new, available to play on it along with the potential to do things like emulation and modding. Being a full-fledged desktop operating system, there are essentially no limits to what you can do, and with a bit of resourcefulness, you can get any game running.
Asus also plays up this aspect of the Ally in its marketing. Unlike the Switch, which is limited to the titles developed natively for it, and the Steam Deck, which can't actually play every title on the Steam store, the Ally has virtually no limits.
Unfortunately, that's where the praise ends for the software. Windows on a 7-inch touchscreen with only gamepad controls is a usability nightmare. You do not get the same ease of use that you find on the Switch or even the Steam Deck, both of which have fully usable touch and gamepad-based navigation system that are very easy to use.
Even basic things like setting up the device can be quite difficult. Windows 11 may be more optimized for touch than previous versions but it was never designed for a screen this small. More often than not, you are trying to hit a target on screen that can be completely covered by your fingertip. Tap a text field and the keyboard that pops up covers 2/3rd of the screen, including the text field. And this is with the modern UI apps; at the core of the OS still lives the old Windows UI that harkens back to the XP days and is even more frustrating to use with a touchscreen.Steam Deck UI is much more streamlined in comparison
The contrast between this and the Steam Deck couldn't be more stark. While both are running a full-fledged desktop OS underneath, the Steam Deck really feels like a console while the Ally just feels like using a Windows PC, except much worse since it begs to be used with a mouse and keyboard that don't exist. The only thing preventing this from being a complete disaster is that most people should at least be somewhat familiar with Windows to make this work.
It doesn't help that the version of Windows on the ROG Ally is really just the bone stock version you download from Microsoft's website with a couple of Asus apps. This means you get all the bloatware, including the Microsoft Office trial, which is barely tolerable on a desktop PC, let alone on a handheld gaming console.
The two Asus apps include MyASUS and Armoury Crate SE. MyASUS app is where you go to update your drivers, change a few settings, and find support information. It's the app that comes with all of Asus's notebooks. It's also unchanged for this device and is borderline unusable due to its tiny UI that was clearly not designed for such a small touchscreen.
Armoury Crate SE does all of the heavy lifting here. It manages your games from all the different stores you downloaded them from, change your performance and cooling parameters, adjusts your gamepad controls, as well as adjusts the lighting. Armoury Crate is thankfully usable with both touchscreen and gamepad controls and is literally the only app that feels at home on the device.
Armoury Crate also enables the Command Center, which can be accessed by the button on the left of the screen. Here, you can do things like change the power profile, switch game profiles, launch the real-time monitor (which is pretty decent), limit FPS, change resolution and refresh rate, and more. These can be customized through the app.
Unfortunately, the Asus software was quite buggy during testing. The toggles in the Command Center often don't work. The real-time monitor stopped working at one point. The Show Desktop and End Task shortcuts also mysteriously stop working on some occasions. The FPS limiter function literally never worked even once. The Game Library page also continued to show titles long after they were uninstalled and manually removing them caused them to come back after the app was relaunched.
The Armoury Crate app also once decided that it will run the device at full power even when idle on the desktop. It took a while to figure out what the culprit was, and eventually uninstalling and reinstalling the Armoury Crate SE app fixed the issue. The other time, it did the exact opposite and decided all games would run only at 9W, and the solution was once again to uninstall and reinstall the application.
In the end, I was disappointed with the software experience on the ROG Ally. When I think of a handheld console, I think of a streamlined software experience designed around gaming. The ROG Ally sure looks like a console but in reality is just a PC, and not a great one at that. This is not a simple device for people who just want to play games. It's a computer for nerds who understand how computers work and are willing to work around their quirks and limitations to get things working the way they want.
The ROG Ally is a very competent device when it is at its best. Dive into a game, and you will appreciate how good the performance is from the Ryzen Z1 Extreme, how good the 120Hz VRR display looks, how well the controls work, and how quiet the cooling is. Once in its zone, the Ally is unbeatable and far exceeds what you will find on other devices.
What lets the device down are the software and the battery life. Windows 11 on a 7-inch touchscreen is clumsy and frustrating, meaning any time spent interacting with the Ally outside of playing games is unpleasant. Making matters worse is the battery life, which puts very real limits on where and when you can use the device and how much value you can get out of carrying it around or spending $700 on it.
The Ally is certainly a niche product, even within the already niche handheld console market. If you are already a PC gamer who can no longer spend enough time in front of your PC but need a way to continue playing your games whenever and wherever, then this device will certainly scratch your very specific itch. But it will need better software and longer battery life to have a broader appeal.
- Relatively compact and lightweight with good build quality.
- Great display performance.
- Best in class performance from the Ryzen Z1 Extreme processor.
- Comfortable and well-functioning gamepad controls.
- Good cooling performance.
- Flexible and unrestrictive software.
- Unimpressive battery life.
- Poor UI experience.
- Awkward fingerprint sensor placement.
- Weak haptics.
- 26 Aug 2023
The who what now? Ayathingy? Gpd... That's all chinese right? Can't walk in a store and buy it? No thanks
- 08 Aug 2023
not to mention the gpd win 4 and the ayaneo air 1s are much smaller yet more powerful again with the stock 7840u chip the z1e is based on, so yes there are more powerful devices and in a much smaller form factor than the rog ally
- 08 Aug 2023
lol what? yes there are and on the contrary the 7840u chips (that z1 extreme is based on) on all the other pc handhelds such as the gpd win 4 7840u version, ayaneo 1s and 2s, aokzoe a1, onexfly, etc have actually all performed better/netting higher f...