Update, May 13: We compared the Asus ROG phone to the Razer Phone 2, Nubia Red Magic Mars and Black Shark to see which is the best gaming phone. The in-depth testing covered everything from game play and processing power to cooling systems and screens..
If you can't tell from the angular lines, exposed copper heat sinks and pulsating light-up logo, the Asus ROG Phone is designed for gaming. While I can't say the looks are my cup of tea, there will be plenty of people who think this styling looks badass. And it's nice to see a phone maker go for something different.
But what exactly makes this a gaming phone? Well let's start with the AMOLED display that can refresh 90 times a second -- a first for any OLED phone. The higher refresh rate means less motion blur and faster response times. It's not as high as the Razer Phone 2's 120Hz LCD screen, but the fast refresh times are a noticeable improvement over other phones when playing certain games. And even though the ROG's screen looks nice, sometimes it was too dim even at its brightest setting.
Pressure sensitive buttons called AirTriggers
Perhaps one of the coolest and most innovative features on the ROG Phone is AirTriggers. These are pressure sensitive corners that double as bumper buttons for games. I've used phones with pressure sensitive features before like the Pixel 3 ($287 at Amazon) where you can squeeze the sides to open Google Assistant. But Asus' approach here is by far my favorite implementation of the technology on phones.
AirTriggers can be programmed for specific functions. For example in, I assigned one to fire a weapon and another to crouch. It's a curious solution to the lack of physical controls on phones and yet it's so well-implemented and feels so intuitive that I became much more immersed in the games I played.
The curved bezels and sides make the phone incredibly comfortable to hold especially in landscape. The speakers, dotted with copper colored grills, are wonderfully loud and sound fantastic. They're right up there with the amazing speakers on the Razer Phone 2 in terms of being able to produce bombastic high-quality sound.
ROG X mode and AeroActive cooler
The ROG has two USB-C ports, one on the bottom and one on the side so when you're playing games in landscape mode the power cord doesn't get in the way of your hands. The side port also supports accessories like a detachable fan called the AeroActive cooler which comes with the phone.
Now, it might seem silly to attach a fan to the back of your phone, but it makes a big difference in terms of performance, especially if you're going to be playing a game for 20 to 30 minutes without a break. The fan keeps the phone from getting too hot to hold and along with a software setting called "X mode" lets the processor run at its highest speed for longer during gameplay.
Quick break for a Patrick thought: I'm neutral on the detachable fan. I have a strong fear I'd lose it, but the gain in performance is beyond impressive especially when I played a game for a long amount of time. But then, I am attaching a fan to my phone which seems like a clunky solution.
But don't get me wrong, you don't need the fan and X mode to use this phone in everyday tasks. The phone opens apps lighting fast, even big ones like the camera. Android animations are peppy and appear smooth. There's no lag when processing and saving photos.
I ran GeekBench 4 when I first got the ROG without the fan and X mode enabled and got a single-core score of 1,413 and a multi-core score of 5,592. Then I ran it again with the fan attached and X mode turned on and got 2,556 for single-core and 8,445 for multi-core. That ranks it up there with the Razer Phone 2, Galaxy Note 9 ($369 at Walmart) and OnePlus 6 ($213 at Amazon) as one of the fastest current Android phones.
However, Apple's iPhone XS ($899 at Amazon) is in another league in terms of raw processing power and performance -- and it doesn't require a detachable fan. Check out the results of our performance tests below.
Camera and battery life
Then there's all the regular phone stuff. It has a 4,000-mAh battery that lasted an incredible 15 hours and 5 minutes battery life in CNET's battery lab test for continuous video playback on airplane mode.
Image quality from the dual rear cameras is good. They capture a nice amount of detail. HDR mode adds a bit more dynamic range without going over the top with highlights and shadows. Take a look at the photos below I took inside a cafe: one with HDR enabled and the other with it off. Notice how the HDR captures the details outside the door and windows whereas the non-HDR photo just shows a white blob of clipped highlights.