Asus ROG Phone 5 Ultimate review: overkill

It’s reductive to refer to the Asus ROG Phone 5 Ultimate as just a phone, even if it is one. Sure, it runs Android 11, and it can take calls, snap pictures, and do all of the other stuff every other phone can do. But if its edgy looks and tiny monochromatic OLED screen mounted on its back didn’t already give it away, this phone is different.

This is Asus’ latest attempt (technically its fourth, but it’s skipping that number in the name for superstitious reasons) at building a console-like experience into a phone for a niche but thriving global crowd of mobile gamers. It offers more power and customization than other large-screened phones, both in terms of hardware and software. It’s a real spec sandwich.

For example, it has multiple USB-C ports to let you charge it in either landscape or portrait mode. This model also includes a snap-on fan cooler (its sole job is to keep the phone from overheating when you overclock it), and the fan packs USB-C passthrough charging, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and two remappable trigger buttons. In addition to that, there are some ultrasonic sensors around the phone that can replace some touch controls to make games feel more like you’re using a controller. And for this year’s model, its Armoury Crate app can boost its processor and graphics speed, increase the screen’s refresh rate, and more on a per-game basis.

The Ultimate is Asus’ highest-end ROG Phone 5 coming in May for 1,299 euros (which is around $1,583). But other less expensive options will ship before then, starting in March for around $950. How does Asus justify the $600 price delta? This is the only configuration that has a matte white colorway with a few blue details sprinkled around the phone. And it’s the only one in the lineup — and perhaps the only phone other than RedMagic’s new 6 Pro — that has 18GB of RAM. It’s an impressive spec to find in a phone, but I’m still searching for a use case that requires having this much RAM. The cheaper versions of the ROG Phone 5 ship with 16GB and 12GB of RAM, respectively, which I’m betting doesn’t make a huge difference in performance.

  • I mean, I had to try it.

  • This phone’s 6.78-inch OLED screen is large and gorgeous, despite being FHD+ resolution.

  • Instead of two side-mounted USB-C ports, Asus swapped one for pogo pins, which the included AeroActive Cooler attaches to.

  • That little blue detail on the SIM tray says “GLHF”, which stands for “good luck, have fun” — a common phrase exchanged between only the L33test of g@m3rs

  • The headphone jack is back, and inside of it as a quad DAC for hi-res audio support.

The Ultimate, in particular, seems to be made for only the most diehard of ROG fans. The phone comes with a laptop-sized box filled with a ROG-themed ball cap, towel, face covering, stickers, and more goodies. Aside from the aforementioned specs, the ever-so-slightly less expensive (but still around $1,420) ROG Phone 5 Pro, coming in April 2021, is very similar to the Ultimate. Both phones include two additional ultrasonic sensors on their backs near where your ring fingers might rest while holding them in landscape mode, as well as the rear-facing OLED screen I mentioned earlier called “ROG Vision.” It’s a thumb drive-sized display that’s a spin on Asus’ “Anime Matrix” effect used in the Zephyrus G14 gaming laptop, possibly attracting even more eyeballs at this bizarre-looking phone.

I couldn’t really think of what else to do with ROG Vision, so I made a PSA.

Asus provides preloaded messages and graphics to use for the display that are situational depending on whether you’re gaming, charging the phone, or getting a call on your phone, to name a few, but you can crop your own images to fit within the display, as I did. Anything from a scrolling message with emoji to an image will work, and you can customize it further with an animation, like a static fade or fireworks. It’s like a souped-up version of the LEDs that companies put on the outside of flip phones, or even on Samsung’s Z Flip. The standard ROG Phone 5 has an RGB-backlit ROG logo instead. Some might actually prefer that to having the extra screen.

Asus ROG Phone 5 lineup specs

Comparison ROG Phone 5 Ultimate ROG Phone 5 Pro ROG Phone 5
Comparison ROG Phone 5 Ultimate ROG Phone 5 Pro ROG Phone 5
Colors Matte white Glossy black Phantom black or Storm white
Price 1,299 Euros (approx. $1,583) 1,199 Euros (approx. $1,420) Starts at 799 Euros (approx. $950)
Processor Snapdragon 888 * *
OS Android 11 with ROG UI * *
Display 6.78-inch 2448 x 1080 OLED with 144Hz refresh rate * *
Storage 512GB UFS 3.1 * 256GB UFS 3.1
Extra touch sensors Yes * No
Rear-facing cameras 64-megapixel with F/1.8 aperture, 13-megapixel 125-degree ultra-wide with F/2.4 aperture, and a 5-megapixel macro lens with F/2.0 * *
Front-facing camera 24-megapixel with F/2.45 aperture * *
ROG Vision support Yes, monochromatic Yes, color No
Battery 6,000mAh * *
Included charger 65W * *
Dimensions 172.8 x 77.2 x 10.29 mm * *
Weight 238 grams * *
Connectivity LTE and sub-6GHz 5G on AT&T and T-Mobile, Wi-Fi 6E, Bluetooth 5.2 * *
Included accessories AeroActive Cooler 5, Aero case * No cooler included
* represents the same spec as the Ultimate

The ROG Phone 5 Ultimate is a better gaming phone than its predecessors, as well as the competing devices I’ve tried so far from Xiaomi’s Black Shark. For one, it’s the most powerful option out there with the Snapdragon 888 processor and its 18GB of RAM. Every device in the lineup starts with 512GB of fast UFS 3.1 storage, so it flies with opening apps, switching between them, and for other tasks that access storage. Its 6.78-inch FHD+ (2448 x 1080) OLED screen is one of the best I’ve ever used, even if it’s far too large to be my ideal size. Asus kept the 144Hz refresh rate (which automatically adjusts per app for efficiency by default) from the ROG Phone 3, but its touch latency is down to 24 milliseconds here with a 300Hz touch sampling rate, meaning it checks 300 times per second to see where you’ve touched it. The OnePlus 8 Pro has a 240Hz sampling rate, for context. The new RedMagic 6 that’s expected to be far more affordable than the base ROG Phone 5 configuration uses similar display tech, but with a faster 165Hz refresh rate and a faster 500Hz touch sampling rate.

The specs and display used in each ROG Phone 5 make playing games look sharp and run smoothly, and some other features elevate the experience further, whether you’re gaming or watching movies. I particularly love the dual front-facing speakers. They offer the best stereo separation I’ve heard from a phone — to the point where, in most situations, I’m just as pleased to listen to audio aloud at home as I am through headphones. Speaking of, this year’s device sees the return of a 3.5mm audio jack that was missing from the 2020 ROG Phone 3. Asus brought it back with a vengeance, too, equipped with an ESS ES9280AC Pro quad DAC for hi-res audio.

The Game Genie overlay offers instant access to system info and settings with a swipe.

Asus has spent the year refining its Armoury Crate game launcher-meets-dedicated console UI. Its looks haven’t changed dramatically since the Asus ROG Phone II, but in case you’re hearing about this for the first time, it’s filled with so many useful features for gamers. It lets you make a “scenario profile’’ for each game, where you can tweak settings to get more out of each game and, in turn, squeeze more performance from the ROG Phone 5. A profile consists of things like what refresh rate you want the screen to run at, and how much you want to amp up the power of the processor, graphics chip, and RAM. It even lets you turn off network switching, as well as background data and app syncing on a per-game basis. If you’re familiar with gaming on PC, the closest parallel is Nvidia’s GeForce Experience.

A big part of this software — and one of the more compelling features of the phone itself — is configuring AirTriggers. These ultrasonic sensors embedded within the phone can be mapped to emulate buttons so you don’t need to use the touch screen as often. All of the ROG Phone 5 models have sensors along the right edge, so they feel like triggers when you’re holding them in landscape mode. The Ultimate and Pro models add two additional touch sensors near where my ring fingers rest on the phone.

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