Asus ROG Phone 5 full review

Following months of whispers, Asus has unveiled the fourth-generation ROG Phone 5, completely skipping the ‘4’ branding which is often seen as unlucky in China. Though it might appear similar to its predecessor on the outside, Asus has been hard at work to improve not only the hardware capabilities of the gaming phone, but the software too.

Throw in a bunch of accessories, a new dot-matrix RGB system and Qualcomm’s latest and greatest Snapdragon 888 and you’ve got all the ingredients for a great gaming phone. But, is it worth buying a phone dedicated to gaming when there are so many capable alternatives, including Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra and Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro Max? I’ve been spending some time gaming on the ROG Phone 5, and here’s what I think.

Design and build

The Asus ROG Phone 5, available in both white and black flavours, is immediately identifiable as a gaming phone, complete with space-age graphic detailing on the glossy rear and the illuminated ROG logo that has fast become a staple of the ROG Phone design language, although it comes in an entirely different form this time around.

Asus has borrowed the dot matrix design from the popular ROG Zephyrus G14, which allows the laptop to display text and other simple graphics on the lid, and slapped it onto the rear of the ROG Phone 5. While the idea of displaying text and simple graphics in a dot-like fashion might sound exciting, hold your horses: unlike its laptop counterpart, you can only display the ROG logo on the ROG Phone 5.

Asus is keen to point out that you can now choose two colours simultaneously for a more customisable experience, and while the colour gradients are pleasing to the eye, it’s not as exciting as many had hoped – especially when the ROG Phone 5 Pro and limited edition 5 Ultimate sport an upgraded (and fully customisable) PMOLED Vision display in place of the dot-matrix logo.

You can customise the dot-matrix logo to display different colours when performing different actions, like pulsing when charging or flashing a particular colour when you get a text, which is a nice touch, but it’s arguably more for the people around you than for your own benefit. It’s not like you can see the RGB lighting while you’re gaming, after all.

That glossy RGB-enabled rear is protected by Gorilla Glass 3, while the front gets the Gorilla Glass Victus treatment. Those worried about damaging the smartphone will be happy to hear that a case – complete with cut-out for the RGB panel – is provided free of charge, found in the box alongside the phone itself.

Flip the smartphone over and you’ll notice a larger display than that of its 6.6in predecessor, measuring in at 6.8in, but there isn’t much of a difference in terms of dimensions at 172.8 x 77.2mm x 10.3mm. That’s possible thanks to the reduction of the bezels – by 25%, according to Asus – and while it is a welcome change, there is still a noticeable forehead and chin on the ROG Phone 5.

Asus claims that’s intentional, allowing for the inclusion of front-facing stereo speakers and to help reduce unintentional touches during gaming, but still. They’re there.

The display is tall, sporting a 20.4:9 aspect ratio, which does make it easier to grip with one hand, but the downside is that it’s far too long to be able to use it with one hand. I’ve got fairly large hands and even I can only just about reach the middle of the screen with my thumb, having to awkwardly shimmy the phone down my palm if I need to tap something at the top of the display. You’ll quickly find yourself reverting to two-hand use, and that’s not always ideal.

It’s also a bit of a chonk, weighing in at a rather hefty 238g, and it’s noticeable when you first pick the smartphone up. It’s not a problem if you’re gaming two-handed, but like with the tall nature of the display, it can become a bit uncomfortable in the hand during everyday use.

You’ll find a USB-C port and 3.5mm jack on the bottom, along with the return of the secondary side-mounted USB-C port. It’s a smart feature, allowing you to charge the phone while holding the smartphone horizontally, but the small rubber casing does feel a bit cheap, and without any attachment to the smartphone, I feel it could eventually come loose and get lost.

Oh, and don’t bother using the ROG Phone 5 in the rain, as there’s no IP rating and thus, it could malfunction if it gets wet.

The ultimate gaming experience

Of course, the ROG Phone 5 is designed to be the ultimate gaming smartphone, so what’s on offer? Actually, the better question is, where should I start? Because boy oh boy, there’s a lot going on here.

Hardware

Let’s start with one of the most beloved features of the ROG Phone, the AirTriggers. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the tech is present and accounted for on the ROG Phone 5, offering more sensors and better placement for an improved trigger experience when gaming, and Asus has expanded on the gesture-based offering too, allowing you to trigger actions by tilting, turning or shaking the smartphone.

AirTriggers are hands-down my favourite feature of the ROG Phone in general, providing something close to traditional controller triggers without the need for additional accessories, and you can customise the actuation points depending on whether you want touch or press-based activation too.

Those that do want a more Switch-like experience have the option of picking up the optional Kunai 5 controller, providing dual shoulder buttons, analogue sticks and other buttons to further elevate the mobile gaming experience. Both the built-in triggers and Kunai 5 are mappable to any game, not just those that support controllers, offering compatibility with most popular titles including Call of Duty Mobile and Fortnite.

It’s worth pointing out that the older Kunai 3 is compatible with the ROG Phone 5, but with minor dimension changes, you’ll need a new bumper case to do so.

The display, though slightly larger than the ROG Phone 3, is similar in many respects: it caps out at the same 144Hz refresh rate for buttery-smooth gameplay, sports a FHD+ (2448 x 1080) resolution with an impressive 1ms response time and, with a maximum brightness of 482cd/m2 in our tests, it’s more than enough for a casual game of PUBG at the park.

The refresh rate isn’t set to 144Hz by default, instead automatically optimising the refresh rate based on what you’re doing, but you can force it to always use the top-end 144Hz setting as well as lower 120Hz and 60Hz settings.

There’s also HDR10+ support, and there’s an improved 300Hz touch sampling rate on offer, providing lightning-fast response times when playing games.

The screen, flanked either side by impressively loud front-firing stereo speakers, is gorgeously detailed, buttery smooth and with Delta-E <1 colour accuracy, it’s great for watching movies and YouTube videos as well as playing the latest AAA mobile titles.

As well as great-sounding front-firing speakers, Asus has focused on improving the wired audio experience, including the ESS Sabre ES9280AC Pro DAC for Hi-Res audio playback that benefits both gameplay and the general music-listening experience on the ROG Phone 5, offering professional DAC-level performance with the ability to handle both high and low impedance loads with ease.

That’s further enhanced by Asus’ Audio Wizard software, offering four audio playback modes tuned by audio specialist Dirac alongside a customisable 10-band EQ to further customise the output to your preference, be it more bass-heavy to intensify the sound of gunfire or focused on the high-end to hear the clink of reloading weapons nearby.

Software

That’s hardware out of the way, now let’s talk software.

The ROG Phone 5 comes running Android 11 out of the box with Asus’ ROG UI applied. It’s similar in many ways to ZenUI with a gaming twist, be it the icon rings that turn red when X Mode is enabled or the gamer-focused themes available, but Asus does offer the ability to revert to the standard ZenUI look if you prefer.

Regardless of the UI you opt for, within the Armoury Crate app – the heart of the ROG gaming experience – you’ll find a redesigned performance manager, boasting system-wide performance tweaks with a single tap. Dynamic mode offers the best of battery and performance, but when it comes to gaming, X-Mode and the even more powerful X Mode Plus are the go-to.

X Mode improves performance at the detriment of battery life, allowing for higher frame rates, better GPU performance and other background tweaks to enhance the gaming experience and take full advantage of the 144Hz refresh rate on offer.

X Mode Plus, as the name suggests, takes that even further, pushing the system to its absolute limits, but it’s only enabled once you’ve attached the AeroActive Cooler 5. The cooler helps reduce the overall temperature of the phone to help keep performance steady, cooling the CPU by 10°C and the surface by up to 15°C, and it offers an additional two mappable buttons and a kickstand for gaming, but unlike the ROG Phone 3, it’s not included in the box this time around – that’s exclusive to the Pro and Ultimate variants.

If you want the best performance possible from the standard ROG Phone 5, it looks like you’ll have to fork for the AeroActive Cooler.

Alongside the preset performance modes in Armoury Crate, you’re able to tweak CPU and GPU clock speeds, display refresh rate, touch sensitivity and more on a per-app/game basis, giving you PC-like control over your mobile gaming experience. The combination allows everyday gamers to simply enable X Mode when gaming, while the more technically minded can tweak the performance to squeeze the most out of the phone in a particular title.

Asus has also introduced the Scout mode, which inverts colour on-the-fly to make it easier to spot enemies in shooters, and for supported titles like PUBG, there’s new listening-based haptic system that adjusts haptic response based on sound for a unique feel when firing different weapons.

There’s also Quick Controls, which work in a similar way to macros on PC, allowing quick access to functions like screen recording, scout mode and screenshotting while in the heat of battle.

And, like with previous iterations of ROG Phone, there are a plethora of optional accessories to further improve the gaming experience, including the Kunai 5 controller and AeroActive Cooler 5 mentioned earlier alongside the ROG Clip, the Lightning Armour case, new ROG Cetra II earbuds and the full-on ROG Strix Go BT II gaming headset too.

Specs and performance

With such gaming prowess, it should come as no surprise that the ROG Phone 5 boasts impressive specs. At the heart of the gaming phone you’ll find the top-end Qualcomm Snapdragon 888, offering a 25% boost in the CPU department and a 35% boost in the GPU department compared to the Snapdragon 865, and that’s paired with up to 16GB of LPDDR5 RAM and up to 256GB of lightning-fast UFS 3.1 storage depending on the options available in your region. For clarity, I’ve been supplied with a 16GB/256GB combo for review.  

That’s a lot of specs, but in reality, it means the ROG Phone 5 is quick. Like, rapidly quick, no matter what you’re doing. Scrolling through social media is a buttery smooth experience and thanks to the combination of a powerful processor and a large high refresh rate display, playing games on the smartphone is a joyous experience. I’ve yet to experience even the slightest hint of a stutter on the ROG Phone 5, and frankly, I don’t expect that I will anytime soon.

There is a variant of ROG Phone 5 with an incredible 18GB of RAM – the ROG Phone 5 Ultimate – and while that’s a cool badge to wear, in reality, I suspect there won’t be much of a difference in performance. You reach a point of diminishing returns when you enter the realm of 12GB+ memory on a smartphone, especially as there aren’t any games or apps designed to take advantage of such large amounts of RAM right now – it’s more an exercise in futureproofing than anything.

That impressive performance is backed by the benchmark results, putting the ROG Phone 5 in line with Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro in the CPU department and beating most of the competition in the graphics department by a country mile. You can see a complete breakdown of the results below:

I will say though, the ROG Phone 5 certainly runs hot when gaming. Asus tried to combat the effects with the GameCool 5 system, which split the battery into two segments – one located on each side of the main PCB – and put the Snapdragon 888 and other heat-generating components in the center to keep them as far away from your fingers as possible, but even the edges of the phone begin to get warm after 10-15 minutes of gameplay.

There’s also a reshaped vapour chamber and graphene sheets that help spread and dissipate heat build-up, but in reality, it’s only the AeroActive Cooler 5 that’ll keep the ROG Phone 5 cool to the touch during extended gameplay sessions.

In terms of connectivity, expect the latest and greatest including 5G, support for the super-fast Wi-Fi 6E in markets where it’s available and Bluetooth 5.2 too.

Camera

Let’s be honest, cameras are never really the focus when it comes to gaming phones, but that doesn’t mean Asus has skimped in the camera department in the ROG Phone 5.

On the rear you’ll find a triple camera setup comprised of a main 64Mp Sony IM686 sensor offering pixel-binning tech to produce 12Mp images with enhanced detail alongside a 13Mp 125-degree ultrawide lens and a 5Mp macro lens.

Camera quality, particularly from the main sensor, is surprisingly impressive, using image processing tech from the ZenFone series to enhance images, producing snaps that are sharp, detailed and offer great dynamic range when combined with the HDR shooting modes. It’s also capable of producing decent low-light results with an f/1.8 aperture. That’s further enhanced by the built-in Night Mode and, if you know your stuff, you can take things a step further still with the built-in Pro mode.

There’s a similar quality on offer from the ultra-wide lens, making it a great lens for landscape photography and group snaps (whenever they become a thing again, anyway!) and, more importantly, there isn’t a drastic difference in colour like with some main and ultra-wide pairings.

Asus ROG Phone 5 camera test

There 5Mp macro lens is good for capturing close-up shots, but it’ll likely be an afterthought for most – it’s not even one of the easily accessible shooting modes in the Camera app. Still, it’s there if you need it!

On the video front, the ROG Phone 5 offers the ability to shoot [email protected] – more than the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra – but with very few 8K-ready monitors, it’s likely you’ll be shooting in the equally-stellar [email protected] It has EIS instead of OIS, but the results are the same – gimbal-like smoothness when recording video.

Flip the phone over and you’ll find a 24Mp snapper that’s more than enough for the occasional selfie and video chats with friends, and it’s capable of [email protected] video recording for the vlogging crowd.

Battery life

Battery life is another area where the ROG Phone 5 truly excels, sporting 6,000mAh of power split across two 3,000mAh cells. That’s a serious amount of battery power, and while it’s true that the high refresh rates and high-end performance will drain more than a standard smartphone, there’s still potential for all-day battery life here.

In fact, if you keep the phone set to its dynamic mode, automatically adjusting performance and the refresh rate of the display depending on what you’re doing, you can easily squeeze a day out of the phone with moderate use. I’d go as far as to say that if you’re using the smartphone less frequently than me, who is constantly texting, checking Twitter and playing the occasional game of Call of Duty Mobile, it’s possible to extend that battery life to a full two days.

That’s backed up by the battery benchmark results, which saw the ROG Phone 5 last an impressive 15 hours and 44 minutes when on the recommended Dynamic mode.

It has to be said that, with X Mode or the even more powerful X Mode Plus enabled, battery life does begin to trickle away. It’s half the reason why Asus included a side-mounted USB-C port, allowing you to keep the phone charged during extended gameplay sessions, but of course, that’s not great for battery life.

Asus knows it, and introduced bypass charging on the ROG Phone 5, allowing you to power the system without charging the battery itself, helping extend the overall cycle of the battery and to keep the phone cool. It’s one of many battery-extending techniques employed by the ROG Phone 5, including scheduled charging and imposing charge limits, but bypass charging will likely be the most popular addition to the gaming phone.

When it comes to charging, the 30W fast charge capabilities of the ROG Phone 3 were decent, but not ground-breaking.

Asus has taken that to the next level with the ROG Phone 5, offering a 65W HyperCharge experience out of the box. That translates to an incredibly fast charging experience, going from 0-73% in 30 minutes in our tests, and Asus claims it’ll go from flat to full in 51 minutes. Considering the incredible combined 6,000mAh capacity of the phone, that’s an impressive feat and one that gamers will likely come to adore.

You’ll even get the charger and cable in the box, a stark difference to other flagships stripping the charger and headphones in the box in a bid to become more environmentally friendly.

Pricing

Asus has confirmed that the ROG Phone 5 will, unlike the ROG Phone 3, hit the UK market, and it's available in two flavours: a £799 12GB/256GB combo, and a premium £899 16GB/256GB combo. The catch is that the release is staggered: the 12GB variant is now available to buy from Asus following a late April launch, and that's to be followed by the 16GB variant at the end of May 2021.

It doesn't seem like the upgraded ROG Phone 5 Pro or the limited edition Ultimate are headed to the UK, but we'll update this once we get confirmation.

Those in the US only get access to the top-tier 16GB ROG Phone 5, now available to buy directly from Asus for $999, with no word on whether the Pro or Ultimate will eventually make an appearance.

European fans, on the other hand, are a little luckier. In Europe, the ROG Phone 5 is available in an additional 8GB/128GB combo alongside the 12GB/256GB and 16GB/256GB, coming in at €799, €899 and €999 respectively, with all three available right now. The €1,199 5 Pro will then follow in late April, and the €1,299 5 Ultimate in May.  

If you want a better idea of the wider gaming phone market, take a look at our pick of the best gaming phones.

Verdict

The Asus ROG Phone 5 undoubtedly offers one of the best mobile gaming experiences around, complete with built-in triggers, a gorgeous 144Hz AMOLED display with impressive touch response times, impressive audio chops and incredible power under the hood in the form of the Snapdragon 888 and up to 16GB of RAM.

There are plenty of accessories available, from the Switch-like Kunai 5 controllers to the AeroActive Cooler 5 to keep your phone cool during extended gameplay sessions. The software is top-notch too, offering granular per-game performance tweaks alongside system-wide performance modes.

However, while the large display means it’s great for gaming, some may find it too tall to use effectively one-handed, plus, at 238g, it’s much heavier than most flagships in 2021 – and it’s noticeable when you pick it up too.

There’s also the lack of the AeroActive Cooler 5 in the box, a required accessory if you want to get the most out of the processing power built into the smartphone. That, alongside the upgraded Vision display on the rear, are exclusive to the ROG Phone 5 Pro.

It’s also very much a premium option compared to the likes of the Red Magic 5G and Black Shark 4 Pro, so be sure you’ll make the most of the niche gaming features if you’re looking to splash out on the ROG Phone 5 and its plethora of optional accessories.

Specs

Asus ROG Phone 5: Specs

  • 172.8 x 77.2 x 10.3mm
  • 238g
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 888
  • Up to 16GB LPDDR5 RAM
  • Up to 256GB UFS 3.1 storage
  • 6.78in FHD+ AMOLED display
  • 144Hz refresh rate and 300Hz touch sampling rate
  • Gorilla Glass Victus on the front, Gorilla Glass 3 on the rear
  • Dot-matrix RGB lighting
  • AirTrigger 5 support
  • Rear cameras: 64Mp Sony IMX686 sensor, 13Mp 125-degree ultra-wide, 5Mp Macro
  • Front-facing camera: 24Mp
  • Video: Up to [email protected], [email protected] & [email protected] also available
  • 3.5mm headphone jack with ESS Sabre ES9280AC Pro DAC
  • 6000mAh battery split into two 3,000mAh cells
  • 65W HyperCharge capabilities
  • Two USB-C ports
  • 5G connectivity
  • Wi-Fi 6E
  • Bluetooth 5.2