Should a non-gamer buy a gaming phone? Find out in our ASUS ROG Phone 5 non-gamer review.
When the ROG Phone 5 was first announced, I was rather excited. Not because I’m a hardcore mobile gamer, but because it was basically the most spec-ed out phone on paper. You don’t have to be a mobile gamer to appreciate things like a 144Hz AMOLED display, dual front-facing stereo speakers, a massive 6000mAh battery, the highest-end Snapdragon 888 processor and 16 gigs of RAM.
While I am as sceptical as you are about the existence of these fabled hardcore mobile gamers, it is a fact that the mobile gaming industry is larger than both the PC and console gaming industries. Plus, this being the 4th iteration of the ROG Phone (they skipped the number 4) means that there has to be some market for these things.
Still, as someone who doesn’t do a ton of gaming on my phone, I thought it would be interesting to review this phone from the perspective of a normal user. Should you buy this phone even if you don’t play hardcore mobile games? Let’s find out.
As always, we start with the specs.
- 172.8 x 77.3 x 10.3 mm, 238g
- 144Hz 1080 x 2448 6.78” AMOLED display, HDR10+
- Snapdragon 888 processor
- 256GB UFS 3.1 storage, 16GB LPDDR5 RAM
- 64 MP, f/1.8, 26mm (wide), 1/1.73″, 0.8µm, PDAF
- 13 MP, f/2.4, 11mm, 125˚ (ultrawide)
- 5 MP, f/2.0, (macro)
- 24 MP, f/2.5, 27mm (wide), 0.9µm (front-facing)
- 6000mAh battery, 65W fast charging
- Stereo front facing speakers
- Misc: 3.5mm headphone jack, RGB notification LED (front), ROG RGB LEDs (rear), NFC, optical under-display fingerprint sensor, no wireless charging, no IP dust or waterproof rating
Design & build
Let’s talk design first. I would consider the front of the ROG Phone 5 to be ideal. No notch nor hole-punch camera cut-outs; just a thin, symmetrical bezel on the top and bottom. It’s a practical design that I adore. The bezels are there to prevent accidental touches when handling the phone in landscape mode. But they’re also there to house the 24MP front-facing camera, a notification LED, and — my favourite — dual front-facing speakers. More on those speakers later.
While the front is almost boringly utilitarian, the back is where the ROG Phone showcases its character. There’s gamer-y text underneath the camera module, as well as in the centre of the back panel. And, in true gamer fashion, two fully customisable LED lights illuminating a pixelated ROG logo. In ASUS’s Armoury Crate app, you can choose from numerous animation patterns and select any two colours for the LED lights based on certain scenarios. For instance, you can set the LEDs to flash in rhythm with any playing media sounds. You can also set the LEDs to flash a certain colour depending on what notification you get. I got it set to flash green whenever I got a WhatsApp message, and blue whenever I got a Telegram message. I think it’s an excellent setup, and one which I’m sure many people would enjoy tinkering with.
On to the build. This thing is built like a tank. It’s got Gorilla Glass Victus on the front, Gorilla Glass 3 on the back, and an aluminium frame all around. Despite having some structural integrity issues, it sure feels solid in the hand. Just make sure not to sit on it while it’s in your back pocket if you don’t want it snapping in half.
My main issue with the ROG Phone 5 is how heavy it is. At 238g, it’s heavy as hell — 28.6% heavier than my 185g OnePlus 6T, which I already find to be quite a heavy phone. It’s so heavy that using it for longer than a couple of minutes at a time can be tiring, especially one-handed. Not helping is the fact that although this phone is rather well-balanced, it’s so tall that it has the feeling of being top-heavy when held in portrait mode. It’s an unsettling feeling, one that I subconsciously feel whenever I use the phone.
All in all, excellent design and build. I just wish it were lighter.
Perhaps the number one reason you’d get an ROG Phone 5, if not for gaming, would be the multimedia experience. So let’s talk about that. In short — it’s simply amazing. The wide 20.4:9 HDR10+ display is perfect for watching movies, especially coupled with the excellent dual front-facing speakers. I watched Rocketman on the ROG Phone 5, without headphones, and it was a fantastic experience. The speakers are so good on this device that in many situations I find myself preferring the speakers over my Galaxy Buds+.
But in what way exactly are these speakers good, and how do they compare to the competition? Firstly, they are stereo front-facing. Most other phones with a stereo setup have an amplified earpiece and a bottom-firing speaker. The result is usually imbalanced audio where the earpiece speaker is quieter than the bottom-firing one. This was the case with the OnePlus 8T. Secondly, other phones like the Sony Xperia 5 II may have front-facing speakers, but they don’t sound particularly good, often lacking in bass, clarity, or loudness. The speakers on the ROG Phone 5 are clear and loud, and has clean and present bass. It brings me back to the HTC Boomsound days.
Simply put, these are the best speakers I’ve heard on a phone to date.
More on the display. When not displaying videos, the screen’s high refresh rate comes into effect. Scrolling and animations are delightfully smooth. By default, the phone is set to Auto refresh rate, but I found it to randomly throttle down the refresh rate sometimes even when I’m scrolling, so I set it to force a high refresh rate. The options are 60Hz, 120Hz, 144Hz and Auto. I’ve found that 144Hz has strange scrolling physics, where a small flick of the finger sends content flying across the screen. The physics on 120Hz feels more finely tuned, so I stuck to that.
Another issue I noticed with the display is the presence of phantom touches. Sometimes my YouTube video will randomly unpause on its own. A lot of times, the phone would register taps or long presses while I’m scrolling. These are rather frustrating and I hope they get fixed in a future update.
It’s basically unrivalled. When performing 3DMark’s Sling Shot Extreme benchmark, it literally tells you that the ROG phone 5 is too powerful for the test and it maxes out the scores. Hence, I’m not too bothered with the performance as it’s obviously not an issue. For what it’s worth, I was able to play Battle for Bikini Bottom Rehydrated on high settings at 60fps for an extended period of time with no frame drops whatsoever.
Here are some charts for comparison’s sake.
One thing that I did notice from the Wild Life Stress Test is that while the ROG Phone 5 does boast excellent peak performance, thermal throttling becomes an issue during sustained loads. At its throttled speeds, the ROG Phone 5 performs not much better than a Snapdragon 865 powered device such as the OnePlus 8T. I didn’t look too deep into it however, but I expect these numbers to get better when using the external cooling fan accessory. Still, it is rather disappointing to see such extensive throttling.
Software & battery life
My ROG Phone 5 unit shipped with Android 11 out of the box, though with an outdated March security patch (this review was written in May). In terms of UX, it’s basically the Pixel Experience. There’s hardly any additional bloatware save for the pre-installed Armoury Crate app which allows you to control things like performance modes and the RGB lights.
The main issue that I found with the software was the fact that push notifications for certain apps weren’t coming through, even after disabling battery optimisations. Gmail and Revolut in particular weren’t sending me push notifications. This was rather frustrating, and I’m unsure if ASUS will fix it in a future update.
Battery life was good. I was able to get 6-7 hours of screen-on time on a single charge. On a lighter day with 3 hours of screen-on time, I’d have more than 50% battery left at the end of the day. There’s a large charging brick in the box that tops the ROG Phone 5 up at 65W, which is extremely quick. A full charge from 0 to 100% takes roughly 50 minutes. If you’re going from say 30% to 90%, that would only take you around half an hour or less.
It’s worth noting ASUS’ software has a ton of options available for prolonging the lifespan of the battery. You can set it to charge slowly, or to cap off at 80 or 90%. These are welcome additions.
The cameras on the ROG Phone 5 are surprisingly good. On the 64MP main sensor, I was able to get excellent photos in both daylight and low light. Colours, sharpness, and details were great. Night mode kicks in automatically with a longer exposure when the camera senses that there is too little light, and it works well to reduce noise and increase sharpness and detail. The HDR on the other hand, was a bit of a hit or miss. I also noticed quite a bit of lens distortion at the corners of the image. All in all though, I think it’s a respectable camera setup, and it outperformed what I’d expect from a gaming-centric phone.
Fantastic image quality from the main sensor in both day and night
HDR is a bit of a hit or miss
There’s also a secondary ultrawide camera with a 125˚ FOV. It performs decently well, though quality is lacking behind the main sensor especially in low light, which is par for the course for ultrawides.
Here are a couple other miscellaneous things I’ve noticed with the ROG Phone 5:
- Excellent haptics — the vibration motors in this thing are excellent. Not only do you get tight, subtle feedback for things like typing, you also get localised vibrations for the left and right Air Triggers.
- Stuff in the box — the unit that I received came with a cool-looking case in the box, a 65W charger, and a USB-C to USB-C cable. ASUS also shipped me an external cooling fan accessory, though that’s sold separately.
- Ports — there’s a 3.5mm headphone jack, and two USB-C ports for charging: one on the bottom and one on the side, so that you can power the device via the port which is less obstructive while gaming.
Pricing & conclusion
- High refresh 144Hz display, HDR10+
- Best in class dual front-facing stereo speakers
- Excellent design — symmetrical bezels with no notch and no camera cutouts
- Fantastic battery life with extensive software options for battery longevity
- Surprisingly good cameras
- 3.5mm headphone jack, notification LEDs
- Software quirks — phantom touches, wonky “Auto” refresh rate, push notifications for some apps not coming through
- Questionable software support — as of the time of writing, my review unit has a security patch which is outdated by 2 months, and last year’s ROG Phone 3 has yet to receive a stable Android 11 update
- No official IP rating for water and dust resistance
The ROG Phone 5 retails for S$1,499 on ASUS’ own online store and on Lazada, with the colour options of either Phantom Black or Storm White.
So should a non-gamer purchase a ROG Phone 5?
At S$1,499, it is cheaper than other high-end flagships like the Galaxy S21 Ultra (S$1,798), but you do lose things like telephoto cameras, wireless charging, and an official IP rating.
Making things trickier is the launch of the Zenfone 8 by ASUS themselves. At S$999 for 8/256GB and S$1,099 for 16/256GB, the Zenfone is much cheaper while retaining things like the Snapdragon 888, a high refresh screen, and good stereo speakers (albeit not front-facing). The Zenfone also addresses my main issue with the ROG Phone: its sheer size and weight. Roughly the size of an iPhone 12 and weighing just 169g, the Zenfone is a lot more compact and lightweight.
If you’re not put off by the size and weight of the ROG Phone 5, and simply want a large phone with long battery life, best-in-class performance and speakers, then a case can be made for getting the ROG Phone 5. But if you want a smaller phone with similarly good performance, you might want to look at ASUS’ own Zenfone 8 offering or something like the OnePlus 9 or Samsung Galaxy S21; this would also save you a couple hundred dollars.
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