Updated: Sep 21
Like M&Ms, this cool, quiet beast doesn’t melt in your hands.
Nothing beats handheld gaming in my mind. From the Game Boy until now, nothing makes me happier than laying down on the couch and holding a gaming device to my face.
Today, things are way different. Platforms, such as the Nintendo Switch and the Steam Deck, have evolved the lines between “console-style” games and portable-friendly designs. Now, gaming is more homogenous, with specs and price being the difference-makers.
Handheld PCs have been a thing for a while. But, the Steam Deck has ripped away from novelty and thrust it into the mainstream arena. ASUS has stepped up with the ROG Ally, the first major competition to Valve’s monster, as a combination of high performance and low price.
I’ve spent some time with an Ally, courtesy of ASUS offering access to a review unit. For context, I own both a Steam Deck and an AYANEO 2.
The “Republic of Gamers” has made an aggressive device versus the competition, aiming to hit a sweet spot between the Thermal Design Power (TDP) compromises of the Steam Deck and the scary price tags of AYANEO devices. At the end of the day, the ROG Ally has some problems, some of which are hard to ignore.
However, it also exceeds expectations in surprising ways, making it an easy favorite among the three options in front of me. Frankly, I’m sad I have to send it back! I’m even considering selling my AYANEO 2, which I was not anticipating at all.
The biggest reason, curiously, is cooling. ASUS used a two-fan approach for the ROG Ally, and it performs magic. Unless I have the device cranked up to “Turbo” mode (30-sh TDP), I don’t notice the fans at all.
The thing doesn’t even feel warm in my hands. It’s incredible. It’s also significantly lighter than the AYANEO, and slightly lighter than the Steam Deck.
I’m used to the AYANEO especially screaming like a PS4 in most cases. But, on the Ally, I can play Honkai Star Rail smooth as silk and as quietly as the Switch. It blew my mind on day one and continues to do so around a week later.
My second reason for loving this bad boy is another one that caught me off guard. Sound! The speakers are incredible, like nothing I’ve ever experienced before with a handheld gaming device.
Not only are the speakers loud, but the sound they produce is clean, clear, and deeply stereo. Unless I’m trying to be courteous to others in the room, I feel zero need to use headphones when playing on the Ally.
I’m not even a sound guy for the most part, and never saw myself commenting on audio much. But, here I am, factoring in the speakers on a handheld with more weight than the damn screen.
To be fair, it’s a really nice screen. Not only is the screen 1080p, it also runs at 120 Hz and supports VRR. Combined with games that support FSR, or the AMD driver software’s own RSR (so many goofy acronyms!), you can squeeze some incredible visuals out without sacrificing a ton of performance.
The screen doesn’t have the color depth or gloss of the AYANEO 2, but it makes the Steam Deck’s sickly 720p display look like a toy in comparison. There’s a pretty thick bezel that makes the screen look smaller than it is, but considering everything else, that’s not a bad trade-off.
The biggest drawback that the ROG Ally has is everything else on the outside. The shell, sticks, and buttons all feel and look lower quality. The sticks feel brittle and flimsy, and the face buttons look weird and don’t feel as punchy as I’d like.
There are two alternative buttons on the back that awkwardly jut out from the plastic, and the directional pad is almost Xbox 360 levels of bad. It’s one of those circle pads with the directions raised, and it feels like it screams “Don’t play Street Fighter with me” when I touch it.
Aside from the D-pad, none of these things are bad. But, compared to other devices and controllers out today (as well as the other parts of the Ally), they pale in comparison.
In terms of software, you could do worse. Much like its gaming computers, you can use the ROG Armory Crate to tinker with settings and a halfway decent game launcher.
The smaller stuff works really well, such as the quick menu that you can call at any time with its own button. It does things like summon a virtual keyboard, alter the brightness, or snap to the desktop.
Some of the more bespoke features, like changing the settings on the stick LEDs or making custom button mapping layouts, are less friendly. Luckily, if you don’t vibe with Armory Crate you aren’t forced to use it, since this is a wide-open Windows platform.
Windows itself is a blessing and a curse in a handheld gaming device. While Steam OS has issues with game and software compatibility, everything it can do is intuitive and the Steam Deck itself is able to function as you’d expect.
Meanwhile, Windows-based devices continue to struggle with things like sleeping/hibernating, display settings, and more. Sure, with the Ally you can press the power button to make it take a nap. However, if you do that while a game is running, there’s no predicting what will happen when you wake it back up.
On the plus side, of course, you can install whatever the heck you want, from game launchers to office software. If you aren’t a Steam absolutist, you’ll be jumping through all kinds of hoops to play your other games on a Deck, if you can at all.
Meanwhile, if you have Microsoft’s PC Game Pass for example, you can install and play that content on the Ally with zero resistance. That said, you also don’t have ASUS doing compatibility work like Valve does with the Steam Deck, meaning that you’re at the mercy of native game settings.
The goofy marketing line may say you can play “all your” games. But, that doesn’t mean you can crank all the settings up on Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and expect a high frame rate.
Before now, jumping into portable PC gaming was a choice between a Steam Deck or a wide array of super expensive, confusing products that aren’t easy to shop for. The ASUS ROG Ally comes much closer to the Steam Deck in price and makes up for Windows’ various snags with shockingly great cooling and sound. There’s plenty of room for improvement, but at the moment this has been my favorite handheld for PC games.
Asus ROG Ally Review Score: 8/10
Lightweight and easy to hold for longer playtime
Excellent cooling; you don’t hear the fans unless “Turbo Mode” is on
High-quality speakers that produce loud and clear sound
Windows doesn’t have optimizations for handheld devices
Buttons and sticks don’t meet the same standards as the speakers, screen, etc.
Armory Crate software has some UI issues