So the ROG Phone 5 has landed and it’s a great successor to the ROG Phone 3 we had a great time with last year. We’ve had it on the test bench for a couple of weeks looking at the form and features and — as the heading suggests — it’s really good.

The evolution of the phone has brought really good features as a phone, and market-leading tech for gaming which just got better.

What’s in the box?

Like the ROG Phone 3 before it, the user experience for the ROG Phone 5 begins with the packaging and builds from there. In this case, the box has a “gamer” feel to it and unlocks the Armoury Crate in the OS – more on this later.

Within the box — market dependent — you’ll find:

  • The phone itself
  • A protective case that covers all of the corners with some side gaps for button and cooler access
  • The monster of a power brick
  • Charging cable

That’s all you need for daily operation unless you decide to push the phone to its gaming limits.

The accessories

If you’re serious about gaming on your phone, you’ll probably want to grab a few of these accessories. Depending on which model of the ROG 5 you buy, some will be included but for most – it will be a list of optional extras.

The AeroActive Cooler 5 is a simple clip-on cooler for the ROG Phone 5 to keep the centre of the device (where the processor and RAM are housed) cool. On the base of the cooler, there are also connections to allow the charging and sound (yes, a headphone connection) to pass through to the device, without causing issues for you while gaming. I didn’t really feel the need to use this during my gaming, but the heat from the centre of the phone is definitely noticeable after around 15 minutes.

This brings me to my biggest design gripe about the ROG Phone 5…

The rubber plug that sits in the side port is just a ridiculous idea. There is no way, that will last for many users more than a month or two. It’s easily dislodged and lost, so much so that I deliberately removed it and placed it in the box to ensure I returned the full kit after I finished the review.

For anyone looking to spend up on accessories, there are a number of — as mentioned — optional extras.

  • ROG Strix GO BT – Over ear Bluetooth Headphones
  • ROG Cetra II – Wireless Bluetooth earphones
  • ROG Strix GO BTII – Over ear, ANC headphones with 45 hours of battery life
  • ROG Clip – connects to popular game controllers for XBox and Playstation
  • Lightning Armour Case brings RGB lighting to the rear of your case on a new level

The design and specs

There have been some excellent design and engineering decision made in the delivery of the ROG phone 5. As we outlined when the phone was released, the specs as a collective are — at the time of writing the review — unmatched by other devices, although there are several soon due. Regardless of what’s coming, this is a monster of a device that offers huge performance across daily use and gaming.

We went into specs in detail when the ROG phone 5 was released, so we won’t be covering that ground again today. For most users there are two things that need to be highlighted though:

  1. The aesthetic of the device is — while toned down from previous years — very gamer focussed, which may not be for some users
  2. The phone is physically larger (172.8 x 77.3 x 10.3 mm) and heavier (238g) than many other devices in the “ultra-premium” range right now

The specs of the device and outright performance do go a very long way to justifying the dimensions of the phone. Having shown a number of friends during the review period, I noticed that most of the women mentioned the physical size was too much and wouldn’t fit in pockets or bags easily.

The screen is just beautiful

This thing is a more than adequate 6.78-inch AMOLED display that runs at 2448×1080 resolution and 144 Hz refresh rate. In simple terms: It’s big, high resolution and very easy on your eyes. But as we saw in the Galaxy S20 this year, the higher refresh rate can be a battery pig. The ROG phone 5 can adjust your refresh down as low as 60Hz but I never felt the need because the 6,000mAh battery (2 x 3,000 mAh modules) was more than enough to power me through even a big day of calls and even a spot of gaming.

When it comes to gaming, sound is important

We explored the theory of the sound options in the earlier post about the ROG 5 release. But when it came to the actual delivery, the sound delivered on the ROG phone 5 is actually really impressive and not just for gaming. The sound reproduction is not just loud enough to be heard clearly through a reasonably sized room, but clear and even at high volume offer crisp, clear sounds for gaming, phone calls and music playback.

What interested me was how well the bezels on the ROG phone 5 were disguised with the provided themes. The dark edges of the backgrounds meant that the bezels weren’t hugely prominent, also providing adequate cover for the hole punch selfie camera. The bezels are pretty useful when you’re holding the phone in landscape mode for gaming, avoiding false touches. This is also when the side port for attaching the AeroActive Cooler 5 and charging (either full charging or passthrough) while you’re gaming.

The Software is really well optimised, but that does create some issues

In reality, the ROG UI has changed very little from the previous iteration on the ROG phone 3. It’s generally well optimised, giving users a lot of options to tweak and customise features. The phone performs exceptionally well on a daily basis, with no discernible lag or performance hassle when multi-tasking or quickly changing between apps but some users might not intially be happy.

Until you tweak and customise a few settings, the software is a bit of a tale of two worlds. In performance terms and battery life, it’s just golden – but if you’ve got background apps that need to be running for persistent notifications – the aggressive battery optimisation can cause some hassles. Let’s get the bad bits out of the way first: There’s plenty of IoT devices that need to be permanently connected to your device; security devices and video cameras in particular and until I caught onto this, I was getting notifications anything up to 2 hours after there was movement on my property. You simply need to be aware of this and add exceptions in the software to prevent issues with your devices.

The other area that stood out in terms of software this time around was the fact that (like its predecessor) the ROG 5 had no intrusive bloatware and the behaviour of the OS was largely what I would call a stock feeling until you fire up a game!

X Mode and the Armoury Crate

Once you fire up a game, X Mode automatically engages and does a few things behind the scenes. The short version is that X Mode winds up the CPU and GPU for the best performance options, forces the display from dynamic mode to its highest refresh rate, maxes out the touch sensitivity and uses dual-network acceleration to ensure the best connectivity for your games.

To make sure your gaming is uninterrupted, X Mode also disables the vast majority of your notifications. Only contacts who are listed as favourites will be able to interrupt your gaming if they call, others will silently and unknown to the gamer, be ignored and let through to voicemail.

While most of this happens in the background, unseen to the user each of these settings and how aggressively they enable are configurable in the armoury crate. So rather than have games use the full resources of the phone needlessly, you can wind up and down these settings on a game by game basis.

Can it game?

Can it ever!

I tested out a few titles that are known to push mobile devices reasonably hard and (aside from loading the games) there was nothing that really troubled it. That really isn’t a surprise though, because in terms of raw specs and software optimisation – there’s nothing currently on the market that matches it.

If you’re going to be gaming a lot you’ll notice the heat in the centre of the device at the rear. The dual battery modules are situated at the top and bottom of the device in portrait mode, or — when gaming — where you hold the device. This achieves a few things, starting with good heat management as you can clip on the AeroActive Cooler immediately over the heat source. It also means the heat is away from your hands keeping the device comfortable to hold for extended periods.

The camera has improved again, but it’s still not as good as it could be for the price

The camera is another solid effort from the ROG team but it’s not going to set the world on fire with its capabilities. There are plenty of options for both image and video capture but in brutal honesty, if you’re looking for a really good camera on your phone, move along – this isn’t the phone for you. If you’re looking for a really good phone, with a decent camera that won’t disappoint you then this is a great phone to check out. If you put the photos side by side with something shot from a Samsung, you’ll probably notice the colour is a bit warm.

The camera software is easy to use, with modes that make sense to an everyday user and even as a point and shoot camera: It produces good (being fair not brilliant) images consistently. The camera software isn’t burdened with a heap of pointless filters and modes that won’t get used and the automatic focus is pretty quick, but not to the level of other more advanced camera phones.

Probably the biggest complaints I have about the camera focus around the moment of capture vs the outcome of the images. The first issue is the adjustment to lighting conditions wasn’t particularly good. You’d have a prompt on the screen that the lighting is a bit low and you need to keep the phone still, all fine – why not prompt to turn on the night mode or flash?

The second was the time it takes to capture a photo was noticeably slower than other devices (even some that are 12 months old now) which given the processing power of the device is a bit disappointing.

The wrap up

The reality is that this is an outstanding phone, with very few devices that can go close to a toe to toe match up for raw specs. That makes it very attractive to the buyers who will be interested in “Ultra Premium” devices, but there are a couple of catches to that.

While the Republic of Gamers design and engineering teams have very much toned down the gamer looks for the ROG Phone 5, it’s still quite apparent. So there are a non-insignificant number of potential buyers who are going to simply avoid the device for its presentation. The other major factor from a physical perspective that drew many comments while using the device was the physical size, it’s not the biggest phone on the market but it is a significant size. I found many people who saw it were commenting on both the size and weight of the device, but not everyone.

Others who are more in the heavy user category started looking at things like the screen and asking about the battery life which is excellent for daily phone use. The capability of this phone as a phone is huge, the screen is honestly just stunning. It’s high resolution, high refresh and really nice size for watching streaming media – The screen is so nice, that I wasn’t grabbing my tablet out anywhere near as much as I would previously.

This is a really good phone that excels at gaming, so it’s great for heavy phone users or gamers who want a good phone. But if you’re a light gamer, with relatively low hardware need from your phone you’ll get a good experience for less with the last generation of premium devices at a lot lower cost.

Would I buy one?

I tend to gauge this question based on how I feel about a device when I’m packing up the review device to return it. In this case, I was disappointed to see it head back so yes I would buy one. I really enjoyed the complete experience that I got from the ROG Phone 5.

Now we’re not 100% sure on costs in Australia as yet, but it could be a problem for some. We’re expecting a definitive set of prices in the coming days but based on European pricing and before the Australia tax:

  • The ROG Phone 5 at 999€ equates to about AU$1,550.00
  • The ROG Phone 5 Pro at 1,199 is around AU$1,850.00
  • The ROG 5 at 1,299€ will top AU$2,000.00

Based on previous years, we can likely expect around a $200 or so increase over a direct conversion from European pricing. The ROG Phone 5 comes in at a high cost with arguably the highest specs on the market right now (minus the camera), so for the most part the cost is justified.

The software has a great gaming feel while remaining largely true to stock behaviours. As I said, I’m disappointed to be sending this back and providing you have the budget for it, wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the ROG Phone 5 to nearly anyone.