Asus ROG Ally
The surprise success of 2022’s Steam Deck showed that an accessible, affordable handheld gaming PC isn’t entirely far-fetched. The next step in this category’s evolution feels natural, with the new Asus Ally adding a more-traditional Windows experience and opening up the landscape to more than just Steam games.
The Asus Ally is part of the ROG (Republic of Gamers) line of gaming products. Even though it’s only about a year after the release of Valve’s Steam Deck, the Ally looks like it fell through a wormhole from several generations in the future. The design is thinner, a bit lighter, much easier to hold and generally looks sharp and modern.
That’s just one area where the Ally surpasses the Steam Deck, although it’s not an entirely one-sided contest. The Ally is more expensive, at $699 for 512GB of storage and an AMD Ryzen Z1 Extreme CPU/GPU combo. There will also be a less-expensive model, with 256GB of storage and a less-powerful processor. The Steam Deck starts at $399 and goes up to $649, but each model has the same AMD hardware inside. Both the Steam Deck and Ally have microSD card slots for storage expansion.
Like the Steam Deck, the Asus Ally experience will likely evolve through software and game support updates. Since I’ve only had the system for about a week and game-specific patches won’t arrive until after the Ally is released, consider this a preliminary review-in-progress that will be updated as needed.
In some ways, the Ally’s biggest strength is its biggest weakness. Adding Windows 11, rather than the Linux-based SteamOS used by the Steam Deck, opens the door to playing games from almost any game storefront, from Steam to the Epic Game Store to Good Old Games to Xbox Game Pass. Yes, you can do all or most of that on a Steam Deck as well, but only through cumbersome hacks and workarounds.
But running Windows on a 7-inch handheld screen controlled by a pair of thumbsticks is about as annoying as it sounds. Navigating the operating system, Asus’ proprietary overlay software and each individual game platform can be a confusing muddle of button-mashing, stick-steering and screen-tapping. The easiest fix would be incorporating the Steam Deck’s best features — the two tiny touchpads that allow for very PC-like navigation. It’s one of the few areas where the Steam Deck design is clearly superior.
In many other areas, the Ally’s overall design and hardware is better. The display is an especially nice upgrade, going from the Steam Deck’s 60Hz, 16:10, 1,280×800 screen to a 120Hz, 16:9, 1,920×1,080 screen. Side by side, the higher resolution is a big boost, and that alone is a great reason to choose the Ally over its main competitor. The Ally screen is also less reflective than the standard Steam Deck screen, so you’ll avoid some glare (only the most-expensive Steam Deck config has an anti-glare coating).
While both platforms are built around AMD hardware, the Ally is more powerful, with a Ryzen Z1 (or Z1 Extreme)/RDNA 3 CPU/GPU combo that’s a generation of two beyond what’s in the Steam Deck. Of course, you have the overhead of running Windows 11 to deal with and running at higher resolutions with a higher refresh rate, so the actual performance while gaming didn’t always feel that different.
Getting the Ally set up and installing and running game platforms was more complex and took longer than I expected. While there’s an overlay listing most of the major PC game platforms, only Steam and Xbox Game Pass were pre-installed. The buttons for Epic, GoG, etc., took me to web pages to download and install those individual apps.
Navigating the software install process and logging into various services was like doing it on a regular PC gaming laptop — if the laptop had a 7-inch screen and no keyboard, mouse or touchpad. Sometimes I could use the right thumbstick to navigate the Windows cursor. Sometimes I couldn’t. Sometimes I could get back to the desktop or swap between apps easily; sometimes I couldn’t.
Four buttons sit next to the screen, two on each side, which offer some help. Clockwise from the top left, they are labeled: View, Menu, Armoury Crate and Command Center. The View and Menu buttons act like their counterparts on a standard Xbox-style controller at the most basic level. The Command Center brings up a customizable quick settings menu for fan controls, screen resolution and other features. The Armoury Crate button brings up a custom view, showing your most recent games and game services but also gives you access to a system settings menu. But since this is a Windows system, there are only a few things you can actually control from this menu.
Here’s the secret that will make your Ally experience so much better. The rear paddle buttons — Asus calls them macro buttons — combined with the directional pad and face buttons, get you to many of the features it would be otherwise hard to find. The main ones are as follows:
- Macro + D-pad up: Show Keyboard
- Macro + D-pad down: Task Manager
- Macro + D-pad left: Show Desktop
- Macro + D-pad right: Task Manager
- Macro + A: Take Screenshot
- Macro + B: Show Windows Notification Center
- Macro + X: Projection mode
- Macro + Y: Begin Recording
The Show Desktop command is key, and if I was having trouble launching a game or game service, dropping back to the Windows desktop usually helped me diagnose the issue.
The hands-on gaming experience with the Ally is…very similar to the Steam Deck. There’s a bit of a learning curve, and some apps and games work better than others. Fortunately, game developers and publishers have had a full year to practice with Steam Deck compatibility, and many games are already optimized for this style of hardware and these controls.
One exception is games that don’t offer gamepad support, which is increasingly rare but still exists. On the Steam Deck, the tiny touchpads help with this; on the Ally, using the right thumbstick to move the mouse cursor is tricky and hard to do with precision. The same issue occurs when navigating the Windows 11 desktop with the right stick cursor. In both cases, I did a lot more on-screen tapping to hit buttons or make selections. Hard West II is an example, which worked fine on the Steam Deck but was harder to play on the Ally.
Hogwarts Legacy is a game with decently hefty PC spec requirements. The game was playable on both the Steam Deck and Ally, and because of the small screen, it looked good even at low detail settings. Using AMD’s FidelityFX Super Resolution options, built right into the game’s menu, I could run the game at each device’s native resolution and keep the frame rate in the 30s or 40s or even 50s most of the time. However, the Steam Deck performed better in combat, mainly staying smooth, while the Ally stuttered when too much was happening on-screen. Besides the higher resolution, keep in mind the Ally is also running Windows 11, not the relatively lightweight SteamOS.
Marvel’s Midnight Suns ran great on both systems at medium detail settings, and even though it’s a very PC-centric game, it already has great gamepad support built in. More casual games like Slay the Spire work great in this handheld format, although they might make more sense on a smartphone or Nintendo Switch.
I couldn’t get the new Star Wars: Jedi Order game to launch properly on the Ally, but it apparently doesn’t run well on the Steam Deck either. Getting some new PC games to run decently can be a challenge for both these devices, although patches and updates often improve handheld PC performance after the fact.
The Steam Deck suffered from compatibility issues with many popular games at first, so there’s always a chance that a game will work better tomorrow than it did today. This is also before the Asus Ally’s release, so I don’t expect any Ally-centric patches just yet.
The Ally supports Asus’ XG Mobile, a sold-separately (about $1,200 to $2,000) line of external GPUs that can run on systems including the the Asus X13 Flow and X16 Flow laptops, and the Asus Z13 tablet. I successfully used the XG Mobile with the Ally at a recent Asus demo event, but I haven’t yet been able to get it working with the prerelease Ally hardware I have here at the CNET Labs. I’m currently troubleshooting the issue.
For non-Steam games, I tried several other game platforms and had a good experience with each. For example, I ran The Outer Worlds from the Epic Game Store, The Last Case of Benedict Fox from Xbox Game Pass and The Witcher III from GoG (aka Good Old Games). All these platforms can also be accessed from the Steam Deck but not without going into the Linux desktop mode and installing additional software, then adding hooks into your Steam library.
I easily launched the Bedrock version of Minecraft (the same version that runs on consoles, phones, iPads, etc.) from the Xbox Game Pass store. The Java version also runs on the Ally, but I found Bedrock easier to use and control. On the Steam Deck, running Minecraft, especially the Bedrock version, requires some fiddly workarounds.
Full steam ahead
Handheld gaming is undergoing a renaissance, and handheld PC gaming is an exciting part of that. The Steam Deck and Asus Ally are miles ahead of what I thought a handheld gaming PC could do even a few years ago.
Having Windows is a blessing and a curse for the Ally. On one hand, it’s much easier to access all your PC games, no matter where you purchased them. On the other hand, you’re dealing with Windows on a 7-inch touchscreen with analog sticks instead of a mouse or touchpad. And like almost any Windows system, it has OS quirks — sometimes it’ll wake up easily from sleep, sometimes it won’t.
On paper, the Ally beats the Steam Deck in many categories: better screen, better design, more powerful, better support for game platforms. But it’s not a blowout. The Steam Deck is easier to use, has those great touchpads for navigation, costs less, and so far, plays certain games better. For right now, I’d call it a draw. But with some updates, tweaks and optimizations, it’s hard to see how the Ally won’t turn into the handheld gaming PC of choice, at least until the next-gen Steam Deck arrives.