I don’t consider myself a mobile gamer. Playing games on a glass slab has never been all that comfortable for long stretches. It was an activity for subway commutes in the Before Times, but I mostly spend my free time playing games on my PC and Nintendo Switch at home. Many mobile games are … bad. There are worthwhile titles, but they aren’t easily discoverable, and if I do stumble across ’em, I still don’t love playing games on my phone for all that long.
Asus’ new smartphone, the ROG Phone 5, makes mobile gaming more tactile and fun. Two built-in touch-sensitive buttons on the side of the phone improve the experience, as does helpful software that makes physical controllers compatible with any game—and custom accessories, like a clip-on fan to keep things cool.
To be clear, you don’t need a “gaming” phone to play mobile games. Most run just fine on cheap or expensive phones. But the ROG’s raw power and helpful add-ons go a long way, like a secondary charging port to prevent an awkward cable from interrupting your grip, or a headphone jack. I can spend hours playing on this phone, and that’s a first.
Many mobile games don’t support a controller, including popular titles like Genshin Impact, The Elder Scrolls: Blades, and PUBG Mobile. There are wonky methods you can try to make it work, but this is what makes the ROG Phone 5 stand out. Asus’ Game Genie software makes mapping a game’s touchscreen controls to a controller incredibly easy.
You can do this with an Xbox, PlayStation, or Google Stadia controller if you have one lying around, but I prefer Asus’ very own ROG Kunai 3 GamePad. It operates like a traditional Bluetooth or wired controller or can be attached to the edges around the phone like Nintendo Switch Joy-Cons.
To use it, you launch a game, open Game Genie’s in-game tab, and spend a few minutes placing buttons over touchscreen controls so the controller can trigger them. You can simulate swipes and taps, and even record a gesture and activate it with a physical button, allowing you to get controls for almost every action. Trust me, games like Genshin Impact and Oddmar deserve to be played with a controller. The tactile sensation is so much more satisfying, and your hands won’t feel as strained.
If you don’t have a controller, that’s fine. The right shoulders of the ROG Phone 5 are equipped with AirTriggers, two touch-sensitive ultrasonic buttons you can configure with almost any game. I still prefer using a physical controller, but they’re helpful in titles where you often find your fingers blocking the screen. AirTriggers don’t work perfectly (I had issues with the Viking game Oddmar), but you’ll wonder why more phones don’t have them.
Game Genie can perform all sorts of other helpful tricks, like disabling calls and alerts when you’re playing, keeping your brightness at a stable level, and preventing you from accidentally closing a game. You can also use it to monitor your phone’s temperature, frames per second (fps), record gameplay clips, or pull up Google search results without interruption (in case you’re stuck on a puzzle).
Another important piece of software is X Mode, which lets you customize how the phone runs in games. Do you want the best performance possible? Enable X Mode+ to eke out as much power as you can from the CPU, GPU, and RAM, and it’ll even restrict background CPU usage from other apps. Want to make sure the battery lasts longer instead? You can tweak the profile to make it so.
This kind of granular control is unmatched, and the benefits show in the most demanding titles. Genshin Impact is noticeably smoother on the ROG Phone 5 with X Mode+ compared to Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra at the highest graphical settings, despite the two phones using the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor, the Adreno 660 GPU, and 16 gigabytes of RAM. Even in a 3DMark benchmark test, the ROG Phone 5 scored better overall. It’s one of the most powerful Android phones right now. (We did not test the 8 GB, 128 GB ROG Phone 5, but it likely won’t quite match the S21 Ultra.)
These apps and features are easily accessible in the Armoury Crate app, which is where you can also find installed games. It’s a surprisingly nice way to find good games that are compatible with features of the phone too, like the 144-Hz screen refresh rate or the Kunai GamePad. The app still sends you to the Google Play Store to install the games, but the curation is much better.
The upgraded performance can be attributed to a variety of factors, but better cooling is likely the primary helper. The hotter a phone gets, the more it will throttle performance over time. To combat this, Asus says, the phone’s internals have been reengineered for even heat dissipation. Even after an hour of play, the ROG Phone 5 didn’t feel uncomfortably hot.
In more graphically demanding games, it will still heat up the longer you play. That’s why Asus’ AeroActive Cooler 5 (sold separately) is a must-have. It’s a clip-on fan the company claims can drop the CPU temperature by up to 10 degrees, and it made holding the phone during extended gaming sessions more bearable. The fan also comes with another headphone jack, two buttons you can map to in-game touchscreen controls, and a kickstand to prop the phone up.
The battery system helps with the thermals too. There are two 3,000-mAh cells offering a total 6,000-mAh capacity. Asus says the dual design allows for lower charging temperatures, and discharging produces less heat overall as well. It’s hard to say how much this helps, but I was consistently able to play games longer than I have on other phones without dealing with excessive stutters.
Photograph: Julian Chokkattu
Asus ROG Phone 5, main camera. This shot does a solid job of handling the sunset in the background, while still offering good details. The colors look quite natural too.
Unsurprisingly, battery life takes a hit when gaming, especially with X Mode+ turned on. I lost 20 percent of juice after just 15 minutes in Dead Cells. Good thing there’s a side-mounted USB-C port so you can charge and play without a cumbersome wire in the way! The included 65-watt adapter delivers more than 50 percent in just 30 minutes.
Outside of gaming, the battery didn’t give me trouble, usually hitting around 40 percent with average use before bed. Asus’ long-term battery care features are also a nice touch. You can ensure the phone charges at a steady speed—helpful if you’re gaming at the same time to reduce heat—and you can prevent the phone from charging further than 80 percent. Keeping your battery between 50 and 80 percent is ideal for maintaining a longer life span.
The ROG’s 6.8-inch AMOLED screen is sharp, colorful, and bright enough to use outdoors and indoors. I just discovered The Last Kingdom, and it looks fantastic. The screen’s 144-Hz refresh rate is overkill, but in games that support 60-Hz or more, everything looks buttery smooth.
Rounding it off are dual front-facing speakers with a surprisingly wide soundstage and boomy bass. The headphone jack employs a quad digital-to-analog converter (like previous LG phones), so you can also get better-quality music playback, particularly if you use high-impedance headphones.
If you’re thinking there must be a problem with this phone and it’s probably the camera, you’re correct! Somewhat. Photo and video quality on the ROG Phone 5 are not all that impressive, but nowhere near as poor as I’ve seen on other “gaming” phones. They are a step in the right direction.
The 64-megapixel main camera isn’t going to dethrone the likes of the S21 Ultra or Google’s Pixel 5, but it snaps detailed photos with punchy colors. It fares decently in low light with the dedicated Night mode, and it can snap some nice portraits. The 13-megapixel ultrawide and 5-megapixel macro cameras, however, are not impressive. Overall, it’s in a league with OnePlus phones and is better than the Motorola devices in our Android phone picks.
For (Mobile) Gamers
There are so many more features in this phone only a niche group of people will care about, like the 300-Hz touch sampling rate for increased responsiveness, 5G, UFS 3.1 storage for better load times, wonderful haptic vibration, and an Esports Mode to disable special features for a fairer fight. If you’re thinking of getting it for cloud gaming, like Google Stadia or Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, it’s overkill.
But a gaming phone isn’t just about top-tier specs. It’s about making the experience more comfortable so you can feel engrossed in a game instead of thinking about an unbearably hot screen or strained wrists. The ROG Phone 5 does exactly that. Just make sure to pick up a controller to get the most out of it.
Still, no phone is without flaws. Aside from the average cameras, Asus has a poor track record with software updates. There’s also no water resistance rating, MicroSD card slot, wireless charging, or Verizon compatibility. It’s large and heavy too—not ideal if you have small hands. And the design will split opinions. RGB lighting on the back of a phone is a little gaudy for me, and that’s coming from someone with a gaming PC outfitted with RGB LEDs.
If you don’t mind all of that, and if playing mobile games isn’t something you only do in transit, then the phone’s 799 euro price (around $950) might be worthwhile. (The final US price realistically might range from $800 to $1,000.)
The ROG Phone 5 arrives in the US later this year, alongside two other models, the ROG Phone Pro and Ultimate, both of which add two more mappable buttons on the back, extra RAM, and include the AeroActive Cooler in the box.