(Pocket-lint) - As the smartphone market became saturated, some clever techie types decided what we needed was a new niche. After all, if you can get in early on a popular niche, that can spell success. For Asus, that niche was an obvious one: a gaming phone.
Having struggled to compete with its flagship phones, the company's Republic of Gamers (ROG) division already had it's legion of loyal followers, and so the ROG Phone was born in 2018.
For 2019 and the sequel, the ROG Phone 2, that concept was developed further. With all the power under the hood, the advanced cooling, RGB lighting and additional peripherals, it may just be the gaming phone to beat.
Metal Gear Solid
- Dedicated port for add-on mods
- Measures: 171 x 78 x 9.5mm
- Weight: 240 grams
- 3.5mm port
It almost goes without saying: a smartphone that's marketed as a gaming phone is going to be pretty hefty. After all, to get a great gaming experience you need a big screen and a big battery, plus some extra cooling components.
The Asus ROG 2 is, indeed, a big phone. So large that it makes the iPhone 11 look tiny in comparison. It's only a little shorter than the Huawei Mate 20 X - which is closer to a tablet than a smartphone.
Pop the ROG 2 into a pocket and its size can really be felt. But this is a gaming phone, it's not meant to be small and light. And it really comes into its own when you turn it horizontal and grip it with both hands, gaming style.
From the front, it's clear Asus' focus hasn't been to create a svelte edge-to-edge appearance that we've seen from so many other flagship devices in recent years. There's a noticeable bezel on the top and bottom of the screen, but even so, it's not the thickest we've seen. Plus it serves a real purpose: delivering quality sound. Asus equipped the phone with two powerful front-firing speakers, giving a real stereo sound effect which really adds to the gaming experience.
In what seems like a little bit of a throwback in 2019, the metal framing around the edges has an angled, polished chamfer that isn't always visible, but every now and then reflects light to create a contrasting frame to break up the otherwise all-dark appearance of the phone.
The edges themselves have a dark, matte anodised finish, with the right edge playing home to all of the buttons. That includes two touch-sensitive Air Triggers, plus the usual clickable physical power button and volume rocker switch.
It's on the left side you'll find the most unusual feature: a proprietary port which looks very much like two USB-C ports joined together into one. The left part of this can still be used as a regular USB-C port for charging the phone, but the real reason for this port is to connect the external clip-on cooling fan and a number of other dedicated add-on accessories. The only obvious negative is that the slim silicon covering this port is quite tricky to remove and very easy to lose.
Turn the ROG Phone 2 over and you'll find a rear design that's relatively restrained for a gaming phone. It's mostly one smooth surface, rather than one with unusual contours and angles. That's not to say it's dull though: a gaming device isn't a gaming device with RGB lighting effects, and this one has a glowing ROG logo that changes colour and lights up while gaming. It also has shiny lines etched into the rear metal which look like they're just plain silver on face value, but then catch the light and transform to look rainbow coloured.
- ROG Kunai gamepad
- Touch sensitive panels on edge
- Control mapping for unsupported games
One of the elements that really makes the ROG Phone 2 a proper gaming device is the additional gaming-focused add-ons. The most vital of those available is probably the ROG Kunai Gamepad, which features all the controls you'd expect from a gaming controller: left and right joysticks, a directional pad, A/B/X/Y buttons, plus shoulder and trigger buttons.
You connect the Gamepad's left and right sides by sliding them onto a relatively slim and fairly flimsy case that connects to the phone's primary USB-C port. Having this controller definitely adds an edge to gaming. Being able to use the controls versus using touchscreen means you get better control, but also means you don't ever block any of the screen with your thumbs during play.
Some games support controllers natively, and for these - like Asphalt 9 - it's just a case of playing the game and learning what the controls are. Other games don't support the controller natively, and for these you have to map the buttons to onscreen touchscreen controls. The two most notable titles that require controller mapping are COD Mobile and PUBG Mobile.
This can be a slightly time consuming process, having to programme what these joysticks and buttons do. But the advantage is that you get to pick a setup that you prefer, so there's nothing to learn. You set the controls. And for games like PUBG, having the physical controls is a major plus.
It's not a perfect experience though. With the phone being so large, it does feel like the left and right controls are unnaturally far apart - probably because we're more used to Xbox and PlayStation controllers. There's also the fact that the trigger and shoulder buttons on the ROG Phone 2's add-on Gamepad aren't pressure sensitive, they seem to be basic on/off switches, and the joystick sensitivity takes some time to get used to as well.
These physical controls are married together with an element within the software that lets you customise the gaming experience. Elsewhere, Asus' user interface is a very clean and minimal software, but with added controls for the RGB lighting, an overview of performance and temperature, plus a dedicated game-launching interface.
Super screen, super sound
- 6.59-inch 19.5:9 aspect ratio AMOLED display, 1080 x 2340 resolution
- 120Hz refresh rate, 240Hz touch responsiveness
The huge AMOLED screen and dual speakers combine to create an audio visual delight. It's genuinely one of the best out there.
It starts with the pure scale of the panel. It's a 6.59-inch display, which means there's tonnes of screen real-estate to play with. And because it's completely flat, there's no curving at the edges to distort any of the image, and no notch or hole-punch cutout of any kind to get in the way.
It's an AMOLED panel, which means it produces fantastic colour and lots of contrast. Blacks are inky and dark, with colours generally being really vibrant without going over the top and being harsh. It's visually exciting, without being extreme.
For gaming enthusiasts the big deal here is that it also has 120Hz refresh rate, which means theoretically it can keep up with frame-rates as high as 120 frames per second. Normal phones have a 60Hz refresh rate, so this is doubling-down on the smoothness factor - or, at least, potentially.
For games that support it, that means you're going to see really smooth, fast and fluid animation. Which is vital for any fast-paced game. And with its 240Hz touch response, it also means it can quickly animate whatever gestures or buttons you perform on the touchscreen. For games like Call of Duty Mobile, PUBG Mobile, or any highly intense racing games, that's indispensable.
When you add that visual performance to the two independently amplified speakers, you get multimedia performance that's virtually unmatched by any other smartphone. The speakers are loud, they don't sound tinny at all, and provide a great stereo effect - even at arm's length.
Even if you're not a gamer, but you love watching movies, music videos and TV shows on your mobile, this is a strong contender for one of the best for media consumption on the market. Even without the higher resolution QuadHD panel, it's fantastic. Although if you're out and about in public then please plug in some headphones - this phone has a 3.5mm jack too, or there's wireless, so no excuse to not use it.
Performance and battery life
- Snapdragon 855+ processor, 8GB or 12GB RAM
- 128/256/512 GB or 1TB storage
- 6,000mAh battery capacity
- Quick Charge 4.0 - 30W HyperCharge
As you'd suspect from a phone with high-end cooling and the premium Snapdragon 855+ processor, general performance is really very good on the Asus ROG 2. Gameplay and interactions are smooth and lag free. The phone is responsive at all times; we didn't once notice any serious stutter or frame dropping.
We played a number of different games on it, from Mario Kart Tour to Sim City BuildIt, PUBG, COD and Asphalt 9, just to see how it handles the different kinds of games that people play. The only time we noticed any stutter was actually on the least visually demanding game: Sim City. That was only in the initial couple of seconds of the city loading, though, the rest of the time it was as zippy and responsive as the other games.
Switching to another area of performance now: battery life. You can take what you think you know about how long a smartphone can last on a full charge and, well, throw it away. This is the one joy of having such a big phone: it has a big battery.
At 6,000mAh, it's virtually double the capacity of the norm. Consider phones like the Pixel 4 XL (3,700mAh), or the Galaxy Note 10 (3,500mAh), and the gap in capacity is clear. Using the ROG Phone 2 every day, you can tell too. You can game for hours each day and still not come close to draining it. We never once had to worry about battery life, even on the days where we gaming a lot in order to test its performance.
If, for whatever reason, you're a moderate/light user and don't anticipate using the phone more than a couple of hours each day, the ROG Phone 2 will comfortably get you through two full days, maybe into a third. It lasts ages.
The only downside is charging. With a battery this big it takes a little longer to fully charge than it would with a smaller battery. Even with the 30W Quick Charge 4.0 adapter that comes in the box, it can still take a good couple of hours to fully replenish the battery's supply. The upper 10 per cent (from 90-100) can take half an hour in itself.
Yeah, it has a camera
- Dual camera rear setup
- 48MP primary f/1.8
- 13MP secondary ultrawide
- 24MP front camera
It's unlikely you'll be thinking about buying the ROG 2 for its camera. After all, if you care more about photography than anything else, you're more likely to choose an iPhone 11 Pro, the Pixel 4, or the Huawei P30 Pro. But the fact that it has a fairly decent dual camera system is a plus.
Feature wise, it's loaded with a lot of the camera capabilities you expect to find in a modern phone. That means you get night mode drawing in more light and stabilising handheld shots when light levels are low. You also get slow-mo at 480fps, panorama, portrait mode, and timelapse.
As for the dual cameras, those are your regular or primary camera plus a wide-angle lens. Sadly, no 2x optical zoom option here. Switching between the two cameras is easy, thanks to a user friendly icon on the screen.
Results are okay, certainly good enough for the odd social media post. Those who demand the best performance from an £800+ smartphone may not be best pleased though.
We found often times that images had a slightly soft and hazy appearance, lacking a little in definition and contrast. Almost as if it was boosting the exposure or brightness just a bit too much. We also discovered that it wasn't best pleased at being asked to focus on up-close objects.
Still, if you're buying a gaming phone, the main priority probably isn't taking the best photos. As long as it has a decent enough camera for taking the odd photo here and there to share with friends and family, you're good. And this does the job.
The Asus ROG Phone 2 has a lot going for it. Its display is fantastic, while battery life is next level. You might wince at paying the required amount for a smartphone that's so big and bulky, and one with such so-so camera performance. But if you're all about gaming, this is a great choice.
It all comes down to what you expect and need from a smartphone. If you're after a phone with real gaming prowess and one that's good for all manner of multimedia, there aren't many that offer what the ROG Phone 2 can. The screen combined with those front speakers means it blows most other phones out of the water when it comes to movies, videos and games.
But if you want a phone that's an all-round fantastic device with excellent camera performance to go along with an excellent display in a sleek package, this isn't it.
With all that said, when it comes to sitting down for an hour of gaming or catching up on Netflix shows, we can't think of many phones better than the ROG Phone 2.
This article was first published 4 September 2019 and has since been updated to reflect its full review status
OnePlus 7T is an option for those who want a fast, fluid display and clean software, but want it in a sleeker package, and one with a better, more versatile triple camera system on the back. It also costs considerably less than the ROG Phone.
Black Shark 2
Black Shark is a game phone company with heavy investment from Chinese tech giant, Xiaomi. Its second phone is a incredible value for money. It performs great, but is lacking the 90Hz/120Hz refresh rate you find in some other phones like the OnePlus or the ROG.