Basically everything written about Asus’ new ROG Ally to date has extensively compared it to the Steam Deck. And that’s very fair.
They are both, after all, handheld gaming machines. They can both run games that you’d generally expect to be running on a PC. If you’re a gamer shopping for a portable device to play Control on your subway commute, the question “should I buy a Steam Deck or wait and buy this Ally thing instead?” seems a very reasonable one to ask.
But I’ve had the chance to try the ROG Ally for a few minutes, and while I can’t yet share my own benchmark results, I am going to say right up front that I don’t think this will be a difficult question to answer. These are very different devices.
I think of the Steam Deck as a handheld console — a Switch alternative, more than anything else. It’s incredible bang for your buck. Its interface is quite simple and designed around joystick navigation. You can plug it into the TV, but it’s marketed primarily as a handheld. You can install Windows on it, but that requires some messing around, and one doesn’t get the sense that it’s an explicit purpose of the device or something Valve actively encourages the average user to do.
The Ally feels — at least right out of the box — more like a miniature PC. For one, it runs Windows natively. No, it’s not some pared-down version of Windows specifically tailored for handheld gaming things. It’s Windows Windows. There’s a taskbar and a start menu, there are desktop icons, the clock is there — it’s all there. You don’t have to go through the trouble of installing it yourself, you don’t have to dual-boot, and you (hopefully, knock on wood) don’t have to worry about compatibility issues. Steam, GeForce Now, Battle.net, the EA app, and any game that can run on a Windows PC should be baseline compatible with this device without the workarounds or fixes that Valve’s handheld sometimes asks.
But as we approach the early May launch — Asus is holding a launch event on May 11th — we’ll need to keep our eyes peeled for a few important questions that I can’t answer from my brief hands-on period. First: the price difference. Second: real-world battery life. And third: any glitches.
But first, let’s talk hardware. The first thing I notice when picking up the ROG Ally is that it’s much flatter than the Steam Deck. The bottom corners are also quite large, and they dig into your hand a bit the longer you hold the thing up. In tandem, these two facts make the Ally more comfortable to use with the bottom edge (if not the whole thing) resting on a desk. Again — slightly more about power than mobility.
The Ally is also slightly lighter than the Steam Deck, though I wouldn’t say it’s noticeably so. Build quality certainly doesn’t suffer for it. The Ally’s lightweight aluminum chassis feels quite nice, and I saw nary a scratch on the various units in Asus’ demo area. (And I was coming fairly late in the day.)
The buttons are arranged in an Xbox configuration, and they all seemed responsive enough. The triggers use Hall effect sensors, but the joysticks are regular potentiometers, which is a bit of a... disappointing choice because Hall effect sensors are helpful for eliminating dead zones and drift. (Not that the Steam Deck comes with them, either, but one can dream.)
Using the Ally feels about like using... an Xbox controller. You can change the color of the LEDs surrounding the joysticks, which I very much enjoyed. There are a couple of handy UI buttons beside the screen, including one that pulls up the Armoury Crate software.
There are no Steam Deck-like trackpads on the Ally, so its controls need to serve dual purposes. They have to function as gaming controllers when you’re in game, and they also need to be able to navigate Windows, an operating system made for a mouse, once you’ve quit the game. So Asus has given the controls essentially two modes: an in-game navigation mode and an “out in the wide world of Windows” navigation mode in which the joystick emulates a mouse and the triggers emulate left and right click, respectively.
This is a change that you can force in Asus’ Armoury Crate software, but I never needed to do that; the device always knew when I was gaming and when I wasn’t and adjusted my controls automatically to match. The set of buttons on the back of the chassis also function as Fn keys for quick control switching; hold one down while you’re in game, and you’ll swap to Windows navigation. This also worked seamlessly.
On the company’s larger PCs, Armoury Crate is where you control pretty much everything about the system — performance and cooling profiles, RGB lighting schemes, key mapping, that sort of stuff. You can do many of these things in the Ally’s Armoury Crate (called Armoury Crate SE) as well. But in order to make Windows more joystick-friendly, the Ally’s version also lets you view your full game library sorted by client (Steam, Xbox, etc.) and create individual profiles (including customized operating modes, display settings, and RGB animations) for each game you’ve installed.
In my brief demo period, Armoury Crate SE seemed to work fine. But this is something we’ll have a close eye on as the review process begins because the Armoury Crate app is not everyone’s favorite software to use on PCs; it has something of a reputation for being sluggish, unresponsive, and confusingly laid out.
I think Armoury Crate is something Asus needs to nail here on the Ally, especially if people are expected to be launching their games directly from there. Ally owners are going to be spending a heck of a lot of time in this app — for those who plan to use the Ally solely for gaming, it may be the primary UI they interact with — and a program that is freezing and glitching all over the place is bound to make a whole lot of people very unhappy. (Not that the Steam Deck was a perfect peach when it first came out.)
The first thing I noticed while playing on the device was the screen. It delivered the best viewing experience I’ve ever had on a handheld gaming device. It’s sharp. It reaches 500 nits of brightness, which (if accurate) is brighter than many, many gaming laptops.
The 1080p display also has a variable refresh rate between 30Hz and 120Hz. I played Moving Out in handheld mode and had one of the best and smoothest visual experiences that I assume one could possibly have playing that game. You won’t necessarily want to be going all the way up to 120Hz if you expect exceptional battery life. But it really was a sight to see.
Overall, performance on the device itself was impressive. Running was smooth, jumps were explosive, colors were brilliant, and there was nary a stutter to be seen. I can’t emphasize enough how different of a gaming experience it is from the Steam Deck, which is lower in resolution, dimmer, and maxes out at 60fps (but will realistically only hit that on low graphics settings for many games).
There are dual front-facing speakers, which sound great. Asus also claims to have achieved a much quieter cooling system, using a “Zero Gravity thermal system” with “a dual-fan system with ultra-thin heatsink fins and high-friction heat pipes.” It’s very quiet compared to the Steam Deck (let alone most gaming PCs). I barely heard the fans running throughout my testing period. Dave2D, in his hands-on video, noted that the silence of the fans made him think there was something wrong with his unit, which I completely believe.
I also didn’t encounter any stutters or glitches during my testing period — not in Armoury Crate, not while poking around Windows, not while booting up games or messing with settings. I was only testing for a short while, of course, but that’s a good sign.
And that’s before we talk about the eGPU. That’s right — you can plug the Ally into Asus’ XG Mobile docking station, which is available with a high-end RTX 4090 laptop GPU. I’ve used the XG Mobile with other Asus PCs before, and the process couldn’t be easier; you plug the GPU in with a fat connector cable, and then it just works. eGPU connection is not something you can easily do with the Steam Deck, by contrast, and it’s certainly not an intended function of that device. Asus, again, is shooting for the high-end here.
I played some Ghostrunner on an XG Mobile-aided Ally with all settings maxed out, outputting to a desktop monitor with keyboard and mouse control, and I would not have assumed the game was being powered by a handheld if it hadn’t been sitting right on the desk. Ghostrunner looked smooth and flawless. I can’t share frame rates prior to the review process, but it was very, very playable. (And yes, the Ally can suspend and resume — that is, you can shut the device down in the middle of a game and pick up where you left off the next time you turn it on.)
The addition of the XG Mobile also greatly improves the port situation — an XG Mobile gives you an HDMI 2.1, a DP 1.4, an RJ-45 LAN, a DC input jack, three USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-A, a UHS-II SD card reader, and a USB 3 Gen 2 Type-C.
Now, the XG Mobile is not going to be cheap by any stretch. The 4090 model we tried in the demo area is currently listed at $1,999.99. Those prices are going to put the XG Mobile out of reach for many potential shoppers out of the gate — and they’ll look especially unattractive if the Ally has glitches upon release.
Still, the XG Mobile collaboration was quite nice to see in person. It shows the heights of what this device is capable of, even if plenty of shoppers may not be using its full capacity.
In terms of other specs: Asus hasn’t released specific SKUs yet, but the Ally comes with up to 16GB of RAM (LPDDR5, dual-channel) and 512GB of storage (PCIe Gen 4). It can access up to four PCIe lanes from the XG Mobile and up to eight from larger eGPUs, so there shouldn’t be as much of a bottleneck as there was during the early eGPU days.
I asked Asus to what extent it’ll be selling replacement parts for this device and was told that the company’s still figuring that out. The battery can be replaced, I was told, but not with a third-party component; the replacement process will be easy enough for enthusiasts but isn’t something Asus would expect or encourage most customers to attempt.
The final thing we have to wait and see in the review (which my colleague Sean Hollister will be doing, so stay tuned) is battery life. Asus claims that the Ally’s battery life is comparable to that of the Steam Deck when both are running at 15 watts and that the Ally’s processor will default to 15 watts right out of the box. Fair enough, but the device was running at higher wattage during many of my demos — and AMD is sharing benchmark results for its Ryzen Z1 and Z1 Extreme processors today based on its close to 30W “Turbo” mode, not 15 watts. Asus says the ROG Ally will be sold in both Z1 and Z1 Extreme configurations.
If the Ally actually sucks at running games at 15 watts — there’s precedent for that — and anyone who’s serious about their frame rates will be juicing up the GPU power a bit, that’s probably the more relevant battery life figure. The ROG Ally does let you tweak the TDP in several distinct ways, so stay tuned for more analysis from Sean in our review. For what it’s worth, AMD says the Ryzen Z1 Extreme is projected to hit 8.6 teraflops of GPU performance, which is much closer to a PS5 (10.28 teraflops) than a Steam Deck (1.6 teraflops).
Overall, I like what I’ve seen of the ROG Ally. I like it a lot. It feels like a level up from the Steam Deck in many ways.
But man, how the heckin’ much is it going to cost? Asus hasn’t told us yet. I can only assume it will cost more than the Steam Deck. The question will be whether Asus sees the Steam Deck as a competitor to the Ally — and thus feels pushed to price it competitively with higher-end Steam Deck models — or whether it sees itself leading the “handhelds that are fancier than the Steam Deck” category, in which case it might feel more empowered to go hog wild with the charges.
If I’m running Asus, I probably land closer to option two. Asus isn’t Valve; it isn’t taking massive cuts from sales of the games that people will buy to play on this thing. I don’t expect it’s hoping to play ball with the same tight margins that Valve apparently eats with the Steam Deck.
But my hope for consumers everywhere is that Asus lands on option one. Because for $600–$700 (the price of the fanciest Steam Decks), I can see this being a very competitive premium option for enthusiasts who want to spend a bit more than they’d spend on the Steam Deck for more of a luxury experience. As long as the software is good. Please, lord, let the software be good.
Photography by Monica Chin / The Verge
Update, April 26th: Asus confirms the ROG Ally will be sold in both Z1 and Z1 Extreme configurations.