Inside is the mobile industry’s fastest CPU — the Snapdragon 855+ — specially tuned and overclocked for gaming, with an excessive trio of 12GB RAM, 512GB storage and 6000mAh battery. As you might expect this makes for a hefty phone. At 240g it’s heavier even than Apple’s iPhone 11 Pro Max.
Capping it all off is a 6.59-inch OLED at Full HD+ resolution, with greater than 100 per cent DCI-P3 for colour accuracy and 10-bit HDR. Most important is that this is a 120Hz screen, meaning more responsive commands in games but also incredibly smooth animation when browsing the internet or using apps. And thanks to the massive battery the boosted refresh rate didn’t stop me consistently getting more than 20 hours with heavy use.
One of the more clever hardware additions are touch-sensitive panels that act as shoulder buttons when you’re holding the phone in landscape mode. These recognise taps, holds and swipes, and you can set them to activate any part of the screen. That means while gaming you can just tap with your index finger to jump, activate an ability or input a command, rather than touching the screen.
In fact a lot of thought has been put into optimising the phone for use in landscape mode. Internally that means an unusual antenna layout so your hands don’t get in the way of your Wi-Fi, but externally it means a secondary USB-C port on the long side of the phone so you can charge while still being able to grip. Next to that port is one made specifically for the phone’s many accessories, and one is included right in the box: the AeroActive Cooler fan.
The ROG Phone II has a special internal thermal pipe to manage all that heat produced while you’re gaming, and the fan is an optional extra to help that along. Clipping on the fan will make sure everyone around you knows this is absolutely a nerdy gaming phone and not just an unconventional looking one, especially since it has its own light-up logos. But lower temperatures mean better performance, and the fan also provides a pass-through USB-C port and 3.5mm headphone jack to keep cords away from your hands. It’s even height adjustable so it will fit on a naked phone or one with the case (which is also included in the box) attached.
In Australia the phone is sold through JB Hi-Fi in a $1699 bundle that also includes another accessory: the Kunai Gamepad. This split pad, made up of two units that can be mounted either on the sides of the phone or on a handle for wireless play, essentially makes the device into an Android Nintendo Switch, and it works very well. In other regions ASUS sells additional accessories, including a dock that transforms the phone into a TV-connected console and another that turns it into a portable system with two screens. It’s unclear if these will come to Australia officially.
ASUS’ take on Android 9 is surprisingly subtle, with most of the performance-related tweaks under the hood. For example an “X mode” you can toggle on with a switch or by squeezing the sides prioritises game performance by dumping apps held in memory and optimising the hardware for speed. But when you’re not gaming this is just a smooth, sensible version of Android. You can even choose between a ROG-style home screen and a Google-style one, and both are slick in their own way.
When it is time to play, the built-in Armory Crate app acts as a launcher for all your games and offers an insane level of per-title customisation, right down to allowing users to adjust frequencies for each CPU core. During games you can also bring up a quick menu that shows you stats on your device’s performance and temperature, or lets you block calls or give more juice to the CPU with a single touch, among other things.
The phone’s main weakness is that anything not related to gaming has clearly taken a back seat. Areas like screen latency and sound amplification are highly honed, and that has benefits for non-gaming applications too, but things like the camera feel like an afterthought. The 48MP main and 13MP ultra wide sensors do an acceptible job, but not up to the standard of what you’d usually expect on a $1000+ phone. The under-display fingerprint reader, too, is slower than expected.
There’s also no water resistance rating, no microSD card slot, no wireless charging and no escaping the extra heft compared to a big but svelte Samsung or Google device.
But for anyone who’s ever wished their phone could be a little more like a gaming PC — in aesthetics or in functionality — the ROG Phone II is an extremely impressive effort that may well be worth the trade-offs.
Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.