Asus ROG Ally handheld gaming PC review

Asus ROG Ally handheld gaming PC review

Asus’s ROG Ally is a PC-based Windows 11 handheld gaming console. I’ve been putting the tiny gaming PC through its paces.

I’m pretty sure that no consumer electronics device has provided me with quite the range of emotions as the Asus ROG Ally. I borrowed one primarily to test a WD_Black SSD, but it’s been quite the journey.

Asus ROG Ally handheld gaming PC review

Out of the box, the ROG Ally looks like an oversized white Nintendo Switch, as reimagined by the people who designed the Xbox Series S controller. It’s a nice and chunky device that feels very comfortable in the hand.  The respectable, but not overly encumbering weight suggests a robust and quality construction.

Whilst marketed as a handheld PC gaming console, the ROG Ally is not quite as simple as that. Unlike the Valve Steam Deck handheld PC console, which runs on a custom Linux-based operating system, the Ally is a proper Windows gaming laptop squeezed into a tiny case. This gives the device advantages and disadvantages over Valve’s handheld machine.

Asus ROG Ally handheld gaming PC review

The Ally runs an off-the-shelf version of Windows 11 Home Edition that has no idea that it is powering a handheld gaming console. Gamers expecting a seamless gaming experience with the Ally in exchange for their cash, like that offered by the Nintendo Switch, will need to adjust their expectations. You are a PC gamer now, and you are going to need to toughen up.

Don’t expect friendly bespoke onboarding like the Switch, PlayStation or Xbox when powering up the ROG Ally for the first time. New users are confronted by the same out-of-box experience that you get with a new Windows 11 desktop or laptop PC, except on a comparatively tiny 7” screen.

After signing in to your Microsoft account, answering some questions (that could lead to new owners inadvertently configuring the Ally as a business PC), and followed by an extended “setting things up for you”, you arrive on the desktop. It’s not the most user-friendly introduction to PC gaming by any stretch.

Asus ROG Ally handheld gaming PC review

There’s also a good chance that the Windows OS, ROG Armory Crate, and another bit of software that helps take the sting out of the PC admin side of things, MyAsus, will have system and driver updates for you to download and install. The Ally doesn’t have wired Ethernet, but it is Wi-Fi 6E compatible, so if your router is up to it, you will get at least a fast wireless connection.

After the updates, it was time to start installing the various game publisher clients. I think Steam was already installed, but I still needed to install the Ubisoft, EA Games, Rockstar, Blizzard, Epic and the GOG clients. With the clients installed, it was time to download some games. If you have an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription, you can play games using the Xbox Cloud Gaming service, streaming hundreds of games to the ROG Ally without having to download or install them.

The ROG Ally is based around a bespoke AMD Ryzen Z1 Extreme Processor with an integrated Radeon RDNA 3 GPU. It has 16GB of LPDDR5 RAM and a 512GB NVMe PCIe 4.0 solid-state drive. Whilst the 16GB of RAM is very reasonable for today’s games, the size of the SSD size is a bit tight. Thankfully the SSD can be relatively easily upgraded. There’s also a MicroSD port that can be used for extra data storage, but the transfer speeds will be considerably slower than the SSD.

Asus ROG Ally handheld gaming PC review

The 7” 1920×1080 IPS-level 500nit touchscreen display is not an OLED panel, nor is it HDR, but it still looks stunning. The display is FreeSync compatible and has an impressive maximum refresh rate of 120Mhz with a reasonable 7ms response time. The glossy screen is made from tough Gorilla Glass.

The ROG Ally controller functions similarly to that of an Xbox controller. The two analogue thumbsticks are responsive, as are shoulder bumpers and the Hall effect analogue triggers. The standard D-Pad and ABXY buttons will be familiar to Xbox owners. To the rear of the device are two programmable bonus grip buttons. The Ally has built-in haptics and a 6-axis gyro. The console-style view and menu buttons are joined by special Command Centre and Armory Crate buttons.

Asus ROG Ally handheld gaming PC review

The big surprise for me was the quality of the device’s audio. It’s listed as being Dolby Atmos, but with only two speakers such labelling is usually just academic. However, the ROG Ally sounds really good, and I mean really good. The audio is not only crisp but creates the sort of 3D sound effect that I thought only existed in marketing guff. It’s absolutely superb.

Once set up, the ROG Ally is very easy to use and starts feeling more like a very versatile PC gaming console. The useful Command Centre and Armory Crate buttons help simplify the operation of the device. The Command Centre button gets instant access to the main settings of the device, allowing users to adjust performance, and switch between keyboard and mouse cursor emulation, gamepad controls or the lucky dip that is “auto”.  The Armory Crate button activates the Asus Armory Crate software.

Asus ROG Ally handheld gaming PC review

The Ally uses a version of the Asus Armory Crate software as the go-between/front-end for the Windows OS and the Ally hardware. Here you can start games and game clients without squinting at the tiny icons on the Windows desktop. The Steam client, as well, defaults to the more console-flavoured Big Picture mode. There’s very little reason to use the Windows desktop if you don’t want to.

To get the most out of the ROG Ally, certain expectations need to be set. Something that quickly became apparent to me when I started playing games.

Firing up Forza Horizon 5 for the first time had me faced with a glitchy mess and stuttering sound. The machine was having severe difficulties running the game. The same happened with Cyberpunk 2077. Things did not get off to a good start.

I’d previously played with a ROG Ally in a carefully curated preview session, so I knew that the thing could play games. Regardless, this didn’t stop me from worrying that perhaps the ROG Ally was too underpowered to be a viable gaming device.

Asus ROG Ally handheld gaming PC review

But I was looking at the ROG Ally all wrong.

I won’t lie, I usually play PC games in 4K on ultra settings on a high-end desktop gaming rig. The ROG Ally is more like a gaming laptop that’s been folded up and stuffed in a tiny case. Which is rather miraculous. The thing shouldn’t exist, and some compromises have had to be made.

Over the years, I’d forgotten the art of tweaking graphics settings. Using premium gaming rigs has made me lazy. All it really took was a few tweaks to the game settings and the ROG Ally started to shine.

The Ally has a small screen, so ridiculously high graphics settings are wasted on the device. There’s not even much need to run games at the native 1920×1080 resolution. As the device has a standard component configuration, optimised settings that work on one Ally will work on another. The Internet is full of advice and settings to get almost any game running and running well on the little console.

Asus ROG Ally handheld gaming PC review

After a few tweaks, the likes of Alan Wake II, Balder’s Gate 3, and even Microsoft Flight Simulator all ran well on the Ally. Most of the time all it took was lowering the resolution and the shadows. All the games looked superb, with no noticeable signs of compromise. Even the high-fidelity games Cyberpunk 2077 and Red Dead Redemption 2 ended up running superbly and looking stunning on the little console.

Some aspects of the Ally did continue to niggle. The on-screen keyboard doesn’t always work. The automatic switching between the desktop mouse emulation and the gamepad can be a bit flaky. There’s also the general aches and pains that come with PC gaming that you just don’t get with consoles.

Using a Windows PC for gaming comes with plenty of baggage. It’s effectively 1970s technology running a bloated operating system full of quirks. However, it does serve to point out the convenience of console gaming vs. that of PC gaming. In using the Linux-based SteamOS, Value’s similar Steam Deck provides a more streamlined user experience.

Asus ROG Ally handheld gaming PC review

The flip side of all this is that in being a “real” PC, the Asus ROG Ally can pretty much play any PC game, unlike the Stream Deck. With a hub, you can plug in a keyboard and mouse and hook the Ally up to a monitor for use as a straight-up PC with Microsoft Office and any other applications that’ll run on a modern PC.

Despite my initial misgivings, the ROG Ally won me over. It’s a little powerhouse of a Windows gaming PC. You do have to take the rough with the smooth, but once you get to grips with it, you’ll never have to make do with just a Nintendo Switch for your gaming on the go.

 

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