There was always going to be a comparison between the ASUS ROG Ally and the Steam Deck. Of course there was! Two handhelds, both offering a PC-style experience, both at a competitive price.
In one corner you’ve got the tried and tested Linux handheld that’s had over a full year headstart, and in the other, the scrappy newcomer boasting about knockout power.
The Steam Deck and ASUS ROG Ally aren’t so much “apples and oranges” as they are “apples and apples.” Some will go for Granny Smiths, others Gala.
Where am I going with this? My point is both handhelds are exceptional at what they do, but going back to the Steam Deck after spending so much time with the ASUS ROG Ally feels like a visual downgrade. The Ally isn’t perfect by any means, and the annoyances are plenty. But when it comes to gaming, the ASUS ROG Ally is the first handheld that makes you want to stop playing with your Deck.
In This Article
Power and Performance
When it comes to power, there’s a lot of tech-speak. I won’t confuse you with everything, don’t worry. To keep things simple, let’s focus on the four areas that matter.
The ASUS ROG Ally packs in the AMD Ryzen Z1 Extreme for the CPU, integrated AMD Radeon Graphics, a 512GB M.2 SSD, and for the screen, you’ve got a 1920 x 1080 IPS display at 120 Hertz.
In simple terms, what this means is you’ve got a massive amount of power that ASUS says doubles that of the Steam Deck. How true is that claim? It all depends on the game. Cyberpunk 2077 on Steam Deck is best played at 30 frames per second. On the ROG Ally, it still can’t hit a solid and smooth 60 frames per second, but it can offer sharper and more vibrant visuals alongside a higher and more stable framerate.
“Double the power” may be oversimplifying things. In some cases that’s completely accurate. In others, the “double” isn’t as simple as 30 frames becoming 60. You’ve got to look for it. On the whole, though, I can understand what ASUS is getting at. It’s not always obvious at first glance, but dig in and play around with different settings and you’ll start to understand how and why the ROG Ally is that much more powerful.
Visually, the ROG Ally breaks boundaries in the handheld space. The color pops, the crispness revitalizes games, and the CPU and integrated graphics make games feel more fluid.
It’s important to note with the Ally, it is a handheld gaming PC, but if you’re expecting high-end PC performance in a handheld, you won’t find it here. I don’t mean that as a knock against the Ally at all, but I’ve had multiple readers message me about how they were expecting the Steam Deck to be a full-on PC experience when it’s not. So keep your expectations in check, yeah?
Making it into a Gaming PC
Now that I’ve said that, I need to quickly contradict myself. For most, the ASUS ROG Ally will be the most powerful gaming handheld they’ve played, but it won’t rival their gaming PC. I’m emphasizing “for most” here and you’ll see why.
It’s possible to hook up what’s known as an XG Mobile to the Ally. Think of an XG Mobile as basically a graphics card with its own propriety dock you can plug into specific ASUS devices. Alongside testing out the ROG Ally, I’ve also been using the XG Mobile RTX 4090 and when I tell you I screamed, I screamed.
One of the Ally reveals that always threw me was the use of the Ryzen Z1 Extreme. That’s a really advanced processor for a device that doesn’t really need it. It turns out the inclusion of the Ryzen Z1 Extreme is so you can literally turn the ASUS ROG Ally into a high-end gaming PC.
How high-end are we talking? I managed to run Cyberpunk 2077 at 45 frames with the settings maxed out and with the fancy new ray tracing and path tracing turned on – something most high-end PCs struggle with. Diablo 4 sailed to a constant 60 frames with everything as high as it’ll go, and that’s not even with the Ally in its 30-watt mode. I was running the Ally at 15 watts to keep the fan quiet. Want to play Skyrim with a sickening amount of visual mods? The Ally with the XG Mobile RTX 4090 runs 1080p at 60 frames, even with all the mods installed, like it was opening Notepad.
Of course, not everyone will want to go down this route. It’s very pricey for a start. But there’s no denying how transformative it is. It turns the Ally from a powerful handheld into a high-end gaming PC at the push of a plug. For people who can’t afford a gaming PC outright, picking up the Ally for its handheld brilliance and then looking at the XG Mobile later down the line may be a more manageable option.
Windows 11 is Great, But…
The ASUS ROG Ally shipping with Windows 11 is a smart decision. Having native apps means almost everything can be installed and it’ll work. There will be a level of incompatibility, but that’s standard and expected when you run Windows on a handheld.
Here comes the but: But! Windows 11 isn’t as smooth sailing as you’d expect. While SteamOS on the Steam Deck is intuitive and does what it needs to well, Windows 11 is still in need of taming, and the problems with Windows 11 are even more apparent on the ROG Ally.
Not having a dedicated guide button (like the Xbox or PS button) means you’ll need to manually map it to a button yourself. The Steam app also refuses to work when the input mode is set to gamepad or auto. To use the Ally’s controls, you’ll need to invoke the menu and switch to desktop mode, use Steam, then switch back to auto or gamepad.
ASUS’s Armoury Crate app is a solid addition for changing settings and launching games, but it doesn’t go deep enough. It’s basic compared with what SteamOS is capable of.
Then there’s docked mode, which requires multiple changes to get working well. The resolution switch command in the Ally’s menu works most of the time but can end up with a 1080p display inside of a smaller 720p window. Then there’s trying to get a Dualsense controller to work. I ended up needing to grab the DS4windows app and set up two profiles all because I can’t manually summon the Ally’s menu on a controller.
All of these issues are problems that can be solved if you know what you’re doing, but they’re problems that either don’t exist or are less of an issue on the Steam Deck. Of course Valve has had a headstart and a full year to iron out these problems, but it’s worth keeping in mind going into the Ally. Expect plenty of frustration until ASUS steps in and smooths everything out.
I should also add, by the end of my review period, most of the kinks I’d ironed out myself with the use of third-party apps. Not everyone will have that level of knowledge, though, so I’m really hoping ASUS continues to improve the operating system as best it can.
I’d also like to talk about 1080p gaming a bit. The ROG Ally can play games at 1080p at 120 hertz, but newer AAA games are going to run best at 720p with a framelock enabled. Older games, mainly retro stuff, can hit that 1080p target, but likely won’t support 120 frames per second.
Obviously, I’d rather have the 1080p resolution and 120 hertz than not, but don’t expect to get much usage out of it if you’re picking up the Ally to play current AAA games. For older stuff and emulation, however, it’s a boon.
Ease of Use
See that elephant? Let’s talk about it. The ROG Ally doesn’t feature touchpads like the Steam Deck. That means instead of using a pad to control the mouse cursor and click, you need to rely on the right joystick to move the mouse and the right bumper to click (you’ll instantly want to remap that function to the right trigger for ease).
How does this work in practice? It’s fine. Honestly, it’s fine! I’ve seen a few people bemoan the lack of trackpads and while they are easier to use, using a stick isn’t that difficult. Once you’ve adjusted the cursor speed to your liking and remapped the buttons to something more intuitive, it works. Not as well, but it works and does the job.
This, for me, isn’t a deal-breaker and is a lot of fuss over nothing. People have been controlling Windows with a controller (and a Steam Deck in docked mode!) for ages. It’s something most will adapt to easily.
The overall design of the Ally is solid. The trigger-to-back button ratio feels natural, and the lighter device is easier to hold than the Steam Deck. I’m not a fan of how the bumpers are pressed and how they flow directly into the shape of the triggers, but it’s a minor gripe and one I could deal with.
The fans, meanwhile, are whisper quiet at nine watts and 15 watts. At 25 and 30 watts you’ll hear them, but even then it’s more manageable than the Steam Deck. Just be careful when overclocking the device, because the fans sound like they’re going to turn the Ally into a drone.
Battery life is a bit of a sticking point. On one hand, the Steam Deck has a poor battery. On the other, the ROG Ally’s is even worse at 25 watts in handheld mode as they both share the same battery capacity of 40 watt-hours.
That means at 40 watts the Ally would last an hour, at 20 watts two hours, at 10 watts four hours, and so on. The problem we have is that to include a larger battery – and 40 watt-hours is large anyway – would raise the cost. And with more power, comes more battery drain.
It’s a problem neither Valve or ASUS has been able to solve. For gaming outside, the problem limits. But if you’re indoors near a plug socket, or are playing in docked mode, it’s less of a burden.
After spending several weeks with the ASUS ROG Ally, the biggest compliment I have is that I’ve pre-ordered one myself. Despite the irritations with the operating system, the sheer power of the Ally carries it. It’s closer to the Steam Deck dream of having a high-powered handheld that can play anything and play it to a satisfactory standard.
The Z1 Extreme version of the ASUS ROG Ally costs $50 more than the most expensive Steam Deck, and for that extra 50 bucks you get roughly double the power. As far as I’m concerned it’s the smartest $50 you’ll ever spend.
Imperfect and in dire need of tweaks it may be. But when it comes to gaming, the ASUS ROG Ally is the handheld to beat.
ASUS ROG Ally sent on loan from ASUS. | All photos captured by Wesley Copeland.