Asus ROG Ally review: a nifty handheld PC with the best and worst of Windows
A respectable Steam Deck rival
The Asus ROG Ally was, in hindsight, inevitable. After the Steam Deck proved that handheld gaming PCs could flourish outside of a microscopic niche, it was surely only a matter of time before one of the big PC hardware movers would have a crack at the concept. This time, with more powerful internals, and none of the SteamOS compatibility problems that led to Valve creating a whole new verification system.
Thus, here we have the Windows 11-based ROG Ally. And, sure enough, it’s both sleeker and faster than the Deck, with a superior 1080p/120Hz screen that helps put it as close to a conventional gaming PC as you can get without having to lug around a 2kg laptop. Plus, at £699 / $700 it’s honestly about half as expensive as I thought it’d be, considering the ROG badge.
I like it, and if you’ve been waiting for a Windows handheld that’s more affordable than the Ayaneo range, I suspect you’ll like it too. However, it’s not quite the last word in portable PC gaming; as it turns out, a desktop OS can hinder, not just help, a device like this.
Physically, the ROG Ally impresses. Besides the ever-so-slightly loose-feeling thumbsticks and rear buttons, it’s just as solid and rigid as the Steam Deck, with shallower yet still effective contoured grips. It also feels lighter than the Deck, because it is, and its dual fans are quieter than the Deck’s single cooler when running games. This is true even in the ROG Ally’s default Performance profile, let alone its Silent mode.
Personally, I don’t find the lowered right stick position as intuitive as the Deck’s symmetrical controls layout. I know it’s essentially mimicking an Xbox gamepad, and you might not have this issue at all if you don’t have comically oversized clown mitts like mine. But I generally have to bend my right hand downwards to operate the stick, which means the ROG Ally’s right side doesn’t sit as snugly in the palm as the left. Granted, I rarely felt downright uncomfortable holding the thing, and the sticks themselves are nimble and accurate.
Obviously, you don’t get any trackpads like you do on the Steam Deck, and the ROG Ally only has half the supply of rear buttons. The latter are at least easier to use, though – I find the Deck’s flat, stiff buttons can be difficult to press without tensing my entire hands up. The ROG Ally’s are lighter and clickier, without being overly sensitive to accidental inputs.
Overall, the ROG Ally is rather well-built. Although that’s not to excuse it coming without a carry case, or even some kind of padded ROG sock stuffed in the box. Come on, Asus, it’s a portable computer! Even the cheapest Steam Deck model isn’t so miserly as to ship without a bundled hard case. With the ROG Ally, it’s an optional £25 extra.
What makes this omission extra-cynical is that the ROG Ally deserves protecting, especially its 7in screen. Whereas the Steam Deck’s mildly washed-out 800p display remains a rare weakness, the ROG Ally’s IPS screen is specced like Asus wanted it as the crown jewel: 1920x1080 resolution, 120Hz refresh rate (twice that of the Deck), fancypants Gorilla Glass DXC anti-glare treatment, etcetera etcetera. And this is one instance where the numbers don’t lie, as it looks fantastic.
Smaller screens don’t always benefit from higher resolutions but you can very much see the sharpness improvement that 1080p brings, and in games with sufficiently high framerates, the 120Hz refresh rate makes for a clear upgrade in smoothness over the 60Hz Steam Deck. It’s also much, much more vibrant: I recorded the ROG Ally display covering 93.6% of the sRGB colour gamut, thrashing the Deck’s 63.7% result. Contrast ratios are practically identical, with 1239:1 on the Ally and 1241:1 on the Deck, and Valve’s lil’ PC actually scored a higher peak brightness of 596cd/m2 to the Ally’s 501cd/m2.
Nonetheless, it’s the Asus screen that’s plainly nicer to look at, and that kind of lumen power is still enough to stay playable in the afternoon sun. The anti-glare coating plays its part here, too. Although the ROG Ally’s glass is more reflective than the more matt-ish finish on the top-spec Steam Deck, it doesn’t actually bounce unwanted light into your face. The only real drawback is having to having to see a ghastly visage of yourself whenever there’s a black loading screen, and similarly to the right thumbstick/hand size issue, this might not bother you as much if you don’t resemble an abandoned ostrich egg.
Actually, there’s one other concern. Running a higher, more pixel-rich resolution does – as anyone’s ever upgraded their gaming monitor will attest – put greater strain on the graphics and processing hardware, making it harder for framerates to fill out that refresh rate. The ROG Ally’s answer to this is the AMD Ryzen Z1 Extreme, an APU designed specifically to wring gaming performance out of low-voltage gaming handhelds. This is the same approach Valve took with the Steam Deck’s 'Van Gogh' APU, having AMD design a bespoke component instead of crowbarring in an off-the-shelf laptop chip, except the the Ryzen Z1 Extreme thoroughly out-specs Van Gogh. Newer architecture, more cores and threads, higher clock speeds, more GPU compute units, the lot.
So, is it enough for Deck-beating performance, even at higher resolution? First part yes, second part, ehhhhh not so much.
You can’t say the ROG Ally lacks raw horsepower compared to the Deck, but that 1080p rez really slows down the gallop. With some exceptions, including GTA V and very nearly F1 22, actually taking advantage of the ROG Ally’s maximum screen sharpness will come at the cost of below-Deck framerates.
Dial it down to 720p, though, the ROG Ally reclaims the advantage. Those two again – GTA V and F1 22 – carve out especially massive leads over the Steam Deck, though when any game is running below 60fps, even a small handful of extra frames can make a visible difference. Cyberpunk 2077, for instance, looks significantly smoother on the ROG Ally at 720p; an 8fps difference may seem like much on a graph, but it’s a 27% improvement on the Deck’s performance.
And it’s not just the easily benchmarkable games listed above. The Resident Evil 4 remake, a right toughie to get running well on the Deck, plays much more palatably on the ROG Ally when it’s set to 720p. As does The Last of Us Part 1, which with the addition of Performance-grade FSR 2 upscaling, becomes much easier to keep above a firm 30fps baseline.
However, sometimes that Steam Deck magic kicks in, allowing it to keep up when – on paper – it arguably shouldn’t. A total victory in Total War: Three Kingdoms demonstrates this aptly, as does the Deck’s 720p-rivalling performances in Dying Light 2 and Shadow of the Tomb Raider. And for those games that are outright beyond the Deck’s capabilities, the ROG Ally won’t always be able to rescue them: Returnal, even on bottomed-out settings and 720p, still can’t reach a playable framerate on the Z1 Extreme.
And yet. And yet. Even if the allure of fast 720p isn’t as strong when you’re paying for, y’know, 1080p, is the ROG Ally’s Full HD performance really all that bad? I’d say no, not really. It’s well clear of 30fps in most games and can still exceed 60fps in less demanding ones, of which there are literally thousands.
The Ally is also going to be better equipped for playing on a connected monitor, which is easily doable through any halfway respectable USB-C hub or dock. The Steam Deck can hook up to external displays too, but since they’re almost definitely going to be of higher resolution than its own 1280x800 screen, they’ll stretch the Van Gogh chip to its limits. The ROG Ally, meanwhile, was built for 1080p from the ground up – a full HD desktop monitor or TV won’t phase it nearly as much.
There are more games to choose from, too, as Windows 11 does indeed dodge the issues with incompatible anti-cheat or broken launchers that SteamOS has faced. The compatibility situation has improved on the Steam Deck over its first year, but some games remain blocked off; it’s still not possible to play your PC Game Pass games through the Xbox app, for example, unless you resort to streaming them. The ROG Ally has no such problems, so if you can install an app or game on your Windows desktop, you can install it here as well.
That’s great, especially if you want a cheap PC for desktop use as well as portable games machine. However, there is an opposite side to this compatibility coin, and one you can never really ignore: the presence of Windows Bullshit™.
Windows Bullshit™ is every little irritating moment of software infidelity you may have experienced on your desktop OS, carried over to a new handheld form factor. It’s installations getting stuck. It’s app windows switching between fullscreen and windowed mode without being asked to. It’s putting the ROG Ally to sleep when the power settings specifically tell it to stay awake. It’s bloatware, specifically Asus’. And it’s how the right thumbstick sometimes controls a cursor, and sometimes does nothing, with zero indication of why that is.
On that note, actually navigating Windows isn’t impossible (largely thanks to the touchscreen), but ultimately it very much feels like a desktop, mouse-and-keyboard OS that asks you to steer it with gamepad controls. Forgoing trackpads evidently saves on space and weight, but I absolutely started craving a more precise form of input when going through certain menus. Or, indeed, when playing certain games – anything of a strategy/RTS bent, in particular, will handle better on the Steam Deck and its haptic pads.
Asus have made a commendable effort to consolidate the gaming aspects of Windows, or at least make them a little easier to manage with thumbsticks and face buttons. The ROG Armory Crate SE software is one pre-installed application you won’t want to immediately delete, as it handily gathers and presents shortcuts to all your installed games and game launchers – and, crucially, is a doddle to navigate.
There’s also a SteamOS-style overlay, opened by a dedicated button just above the D-pad. This provides easy access to various display settings, fan profiles, the battery and performance monitor, and/or several other tools you can choose to add to it. Again, it’s helpful, though it also lacks the ultra-responsiveness of the Steam Deck overlay.
Flicking back and forth between both handhelds, I did notice that the Deck’s interface felt snappier in general, despite the weaker APU. Naturally, it benefits from being designed for pad controls in the first place, but on the ROG Ally, it often takes a moment for a button in the overlay to respond to being tapped, while games launched through ROG Armoury Crate SE sometimes take multiple clicks to start up. None of this undermines the considerable compatibility advantage that Windows 11 holds, but the Steam Deck does seem to enjoy a closer synergy between hardware and software.
It enjoys better battery life, too. Anyone could have guessed that the ROG Ally’s faster-refreshing, higher-resolution screen would make it more power hungry as well, but it’s surprising how consistently its Performance profile sticks around the 1h 30m area regardless of which game is running or whether the render resolution has dropped to 720p. The Steam Deck isn’t much longer-lived in more demanding games, but it does a far better job of adapting its power usage for when the APU and fans don’t need to work as hard.
The Silent profile can help, sometimes. This allowed the ROG Ally to run RimWorld for 2h 40m, still well shy of the Deck but better for alleviating the boredom of a long train ride. Unfortunately, the ROG Ally can be picky about which fan profile it wants to use. I wanted to try a similar test on Forza Horizon 5, but whenever I launched it, the profile would switch back to Performance automatically. Waiting and changing it in-game would then utterly hobble performance, sending it down to the 20-25fps range. I guess Silent only works on very low-resource games?
Storage, on the other hand, is a win for the newcomer. The ROG Ally matches the most capacious Steam Deck with a 512GB NVMe SSD, along with a microSD card slot, but here it uses the PCIe 4.0 interface – an upgrade on the Deck’s PCIe 3.0. That’s not to say you should expect a truly titantic difference, but the ROG Ally is usually faster at loading games.
I appreciate that I’ve been pointing out a lot of things wrong with the ROG Ally after claiming, merely several downward scrolls ago, that I like it. Sure, I wouldn’t consider it a total upgrade on the Steam Deck – more like an alternative. But it is a viable alternative, and ultimately, losing some of the ease of use and battery life you get with a Deck isn’t a terrible tradeoff when you receive a nicer screen, more powerful internals, wider game compatibility, and faster storage in exchange. It’s not even that much more expensive than a 512GB Steam Deck which, I’ll repeat, is a very pleasant surprise.
Fortunately, PC gaming is a big old place, and there’s room for both these portable PCs inside it: one light, nimble, and flexible, the other long-lasting and reliable. The best part of that, surely, is that it’s impossible to make a bad choice.
...It should come with a case, though.
This review is based on a retail unit provided by Asus.