ASUS ROG Ally review - powerhouse with an Achilles' heel

Helldivers 2 on an ASUS ROG Ally
Credit: StealthOptional

Helldivers 2 on an ASUS ROG Ally
Credit: StealthOptional

It's been over 8 months since the ASUS ROG Ally blessed the gaming handheld market, delivering a worthy rival for Valve's Steam Deck. Reports of early problems caused ASUS ROG Ally reviews to be fairly mixed between "great" and "so-so", but there's no doubt that the handheld has caused waves since its 2023 model released.

Fortunately, we've finally got our hands on the latest handheld PC from ASUS, although it seems like the company may be gearing up for an ASUS ROG Ally 2 in the future. Right now, it's hard to fully recommend the first iteration of the handheld, unless you can make do with some fairly annoying caveats.

Unlike the brick that the Steam Deck offers with its design, the ASUS ROG Ally is unapologetically gamer-fied. Sharp edges, RGB, and holographic stickers can be found across the chassis of the ROG Ally, blaring its personality the whole way. The white design is certainly more eye-pleasing than the Steam Deck, offering a lot more excitement that Valve's entry, and there are noticeable improvements over other devices on the market.

It’s clear that the team behind the ROG Ally knew how to avoid where Valve failed with the chassis, as it feels much easier to hold and a lot lighter than the hefty weight of the Steam Deck. Its slim build makes it easier to wield on longer game sessions, especially if you decide to keep it plugged in and using Turbo Mode.

Top of the ASUS ROG Ally with the ports on show
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Credit: StealthOptional

The sleek design allows for a 7-inch full-HD display, powered by the AMD Ryzen Z1 Extreme processor. It offers 512GB of NVMe SSD storage, alongside 16GB of RAM, however, I found the storage to be filled up quickly with recent triple-A games, the apps, and the Windows OS. Fortunately, you can upgrade the SSD yourself, or install a MicroSD if you don't feel comfortable messing about with internal components.

While you have your standard buttons, including some back buttons, on the controller, you also have the option to open up the control centre at an instant with the button under the select, and a Armory Crate button on the opposite side. These were very helpful in quickly changing features, especially the control centre, as I frequently found myself changing the resolution from 1080p to 900p depending on the circumstances.

Unfortunately, the ASUS ROG Ally's sticks don't feel too great, considering the overall price of the handheld as well as the premium design. They're comfortable to hold your thumbs on for sure, thanks to the concave design, but there's no real feedback to them, and no resistance. I also wish ASUS gave us Hall Effect sticks with the Ally, but there's issues with interference if you install your own, so it makes sense why they didn't come with them.

The bold face buttons, however, are sublime. They're wide enough for big thumbs to manage, with the letters individually etched under the flat plastic to avoid rubbing them down over time. They're some of the best buttons I've pressed from a controller or handheld in a while, and they're a perfect balance between squishy and tactile. Unfortunately, some users have reported the face buttons getting stuck on the r/ROGAlly subreddit, an issue we haven't been able to recreate and are actively trying to avoid doing, but it's worth noting in case you pick one up.

Back of the ASUS ROG Ally
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Credit: StealthOptional

Unfortunately, I did find myself missing the trackpad found on the Steam Deck. Having easy access to using a cursor would've made Windows a much breezier time (more on that in a few), and it's something I truly hope that ASUS will fix with the second iteration. Although, I imagine that potentially the second and third-generations of the ROG Ally will be pretty much identical aside from some component upgrades.

I can hear you asking me to get on with the actual gaming performance, since that is what the device is primarily used for, and I can say I'm happily surprised. Playing Helldivers 2 with all low settings in both Turbo and Performance Modes gave me some great framerates of between 30-40 FPS, but it felt smooth overall. Thanks to the smaller screen, I couldn't notice any major graphical differences between my 1440p RTX 4080 setup and the gameplay on the ROG Ally.

However, I cannot praise my experience with the Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League game. I had frequent stutters and framerate drops both connected to the power in Turbo Mode and in Performance Mode, running at 900p and locked at 30 FPS. Fortunately, running Dragon's Dogma ahead of the Dragon's Dogma 2 release date was a tasty and smooth 60 FPS throughout, with very few frame drops during gameplay.

I was actually very impressed with the speakers on the ROG Ally overall. They had a lot of volume without being washed out, with intense moments like being swarmed by Automatons during extraction in Helldivers 2 to really have impact despite playing on a small handheld instead of a full PC.

Battery life is definitely on the lower end, however. I had around 2 and a half hours battery life during gaming sessions before being required to plug the ROG Ally back in for charging. Fortunately, the included 65W power adapter can fully charge the powerhouse back up to 100% in under two hours from our testing.

Unfortunately, the biggest fault of the ASUS ROG Ally is the OS - Windows 11. Compared to Valve's Linux-based SteamOS for the Steam Deck, Windows 11 is unruly, tedious, and uncomfortable to use. It's difficult to manage an OS made for mouse-and-keyboard on a handheld, and while it seems like Microsoft is looking to create a handheld-oriented Windows OS, right now, I can't recommend it.

It's also worth noting that I had a fair few driver issues, which caused the Armory Crate or AMD software to not launch properly and the occasionally BSOD before a Windows update kicked into gear. They're minor grievances if you're used to PCs, but are certainly tedious and a lot of research time for those used to a console-based experience.

I love how much customisation the ASUS ROG Ally offers thanks to the Armory Crate software (which has definitely been improved since the device first released), but making your way through any of the standard Windows options is a chore. This is hardly a problem exclusive to the Ally, with the Lenovo Legion Go having the same issue, and the upcoming MSI Claw will likely fall victim to it too. But it's definitely not as good compared to SteamOS, and takes a fairly lengthy learning curve to get over.

This is combined with the fact that the ASUS ROG Ally requires a lot of altering and changing depending on the game or the program you're running. Changing power profiles frequently and messing with settings is something that most PC users will quickly adapt or already be used to, but for console gamers looking to have a balance between a console-like experience and a PC, I'd certainly recommend picking the Steam Deck instead.

Overall, I'm quite impressed with the ASUS ROG Ally when it comes to the sleek design making it easier to play games with for long sessions, as well as the performance being surprisingly incredible, but a few problems and a major Achilles' heel with Windows 11 make it hard to recommend unless you're really eager to adapt with the Ally.

ASUS ROG Ally review
The ASUS ROG Ally is a great investment for those looking for a handheld PC that offers a sleek design and some great performance. However, Windows OS and a poor battery life keep it from being the console-like experience that many gamers will want.
7 out of 10
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