Seeing the extents to which Asus has gone in customizing the hardware of the ROG Phone, it comes as a surprise that the software is pretty non-standard as well. Even after a quick glance at the UI, the gaming pedigree becomes instantly apparent, with everything covered in a distinctly Republic of Gamers coat of paint.
That's actually a pretty accurate description for most of what Asus has done here. Underneath the aggressive "FPS-monster" aesthetics lies a familiar ZenUI 5 core. A pretty sound and understandable approach and frankly the right one, seeing how that puts the ROG Phone on the same core software branch as at least a few other Asus devices. This, in itself, is somewhat of a guarantee of a certain level of support and future upgrades. Plus, it is much easier to maintain a skin, rather than an entirely new ROM.
That being said, however, ROG UI sits kind of in the middle of that scale. Sure, the core functionality comes from ZenUI 5, or rather 5.5 and in an even deeper sense, the Android 8.1 foundation. And yes, most of the instantly apparent changes are cosmetic and fairly easy to add on top. However, Asus did go the extra step, implementing some interesting features pretty deep into the OS. Things like "Game Center" and "Game Genie", which we will definitely discuss in detail since they are far more than cosmetic tweaks.
Starting our UI tour at the usual place - the locks screen and home screen do look fairly familiar. The same goes for the Google feed, located in its own screen on the far left and rocking a rather contrasting all-white style. The ROG Phone also comes pre-loaded with a standard suite of Google apps and a few apps of its own, mostly to handle core functionality. Like we said, nothing out of the ordinary.
The particular "ROG" styling of choice seems to be the most apparent trait of the ROG UI. The notification shade and quick toggles interface are definitely among the more stand-out aspects of the launcher. On the one hand, there is the bold two-tone design. But looking past that, there is the even more striking number of options and toggles the ROG Phone offers by default. Some of these unfamiliar to an AOSP user and probably even seasoned fans of other popular custom Android skins. We'll get into that later.
For now, let's focus on the particular style of the entire UI. Asus was clearly going for a full-on Republic of Gamers look and while the mission seems to be mostly accomplished, we have to say that certain visual aspects are a bit too much for our taste.
For example, certain accents in the UI are designed to be dynamic and tie in with the "X mode" toggle - one of the main gaming-geared software optimization features in the ROG Phone. Turning X mode on activates little illumination animations in the default wallpapers and also illuminates a ring around most app icons.
This pretty much explains why most themes found in the included Asus theme app seem to have the similar icon styles that include said "halo" around the icons. It is definitely a particular look intended to tie in with the whole concept of "performance mode on", but we can't say we appreciated it too much. Thankfully, there are more conventional theme options on the store as well and Asus made it so you can actually apply only certain parts of a theme you like.
Plus, the launcher supports icon packs. Most even come straight from the Google Play Store. So, if you don't particularly fancy a glowing "halo" around very game-y looking icons, you can pretty much make those go away with some customization.
Speaking of customization, the ROG UI does offer a fair bit of preferences, as well as a few advanced features. In terms of customization, there are the basics, like grid sizes and scrolling mode. There are also a couple of smart features. Suggested apps is a small row of icons featuring your recent apps. The smart group feature is kind of neat as it tries to automatically group similar app shortcuts in folders and keep your desktop clean.
The Hide apps and AppLock features are pretty self-explanatory. Still, this is a good time to mention the veritable chaos that Asus has created in placing and spreading out some of its options within various menus. The aforementioned two, for instance, are only accessible through this menu. They don't even show up when using the search bar within settings. All the while, things like suggested apps feature also get an entry within other menus. In this case, the rather odd "AI features".
Since we area already on the subject, this menu houses just a few of the more advanced features the ROG Phone has to offer. OptiPlex is a proprietary app launch optimizer that works in the usual way - caching certain resources, often times in RAM, so that they can remain easily accessible. AI charging is pretty cool. It is pretty similar to the Qnovo tech that Sony and LG have been using on their phones for quite some time now. What it does is automatically adjust battery charging speed so that when you overnight your device, it charges at just the optimal rate to keep the battery healthy and still have you wake up to a full charge. We definitely wish this was a more common consideration among manufacturers.
Smart screen on is pretty self-explanatory. AI ringtone is another nifty party trick the ROG Phone can pull off. It simply monitors the ambient noise levels in your surrounding and adjusts your ringer volume accordingly.
Continuing on our settings and features tour, we find the display sub-section of the menu also littered with a mix of both. Pretty normal settings, like brightness and color controls or the always-on mode and corresponding clock styles it can display are jumbled in with some advanced features like Lift to check phone and the system-wide navigation bar options. Kind of a mess, but we still appreciate all the available control schemes in the navigation menu.
Also here is the all-important display refresh rate toggle. By default the ROG Phone comes set at 90Hz and given the extra fluidity of motion that provides, plus having tested the battery endurance in both modes, we are fairly confident in recommending this as the mode to use. There is really no reason not to enjoy it.
Splendid is the name of choice of the color settings menu. In all fairness, it is pretty in-depth and includes things like a scheduled blue light filter, three color modes, as well as manual adjustment sliders. Still, like we already mentioned in the display section, there isn't much in the way of user adjustment that can be done to improve the color accuracy of the panel. Plus, anything other than the default "Wide color gamut" mode simply looks washed-out and terrible.
The organizational mess continues in the Security and lock screen settings menu. The obvious things are here and accounted for, like the fingerprint reader manager, thankfully backed-up by a Face recognition feature, seeing how the former is really not convenient to use on the ROG Phone. Then there are less relevant setting here, like the Wallpaper slideshow feature and the optional weather animation on the lock screen. Don't get us wrong though, both are still pretty nifty, just not very well organised.
At least the battery settings menu is less confusing overall. All the standard Android percentage and usage breakdown values are present. There is also a convenient shortcut that leads out into the Asus battery management centre - a separate app which we will discuss in a bit. Probably the most odd bit, however, is the entry for "TwinView" dock battery modes. This will surely perplex anybody who happens to own the ROG Phone, but not the optional accessory. Perhaps they should only be visible if the dock is detected? Better still, why not have them pop-up in a separate menu, only accessible once the accessory is plugged-in?
This really is rather indicative of a bigger problem concerning proper organization on the ROG Phone. We definitely get and appreciate the sheer extent of the feature set we are dealing with here, but that shouldn't be an excuse not to keep things well organized. To Asus' credit, though, they appear to be actively addressing the issue, which is really not a common sight. What we mean is that one of the OTA updates we received actually moved quite a few of these "stray" options and features under one roof in the Advanced menu.
Some of these are pretty self-explanatory and some are definitely more interesting than others. Page Marker is a web linting tool. Twin apps, deserves a shout-out for the full list of supported apps it provides, with links for you to get them from the Play Store. ZeniMoji is Asus' attempts at copying the big boys in their efforts for animated emojis.
The Mobile Manager is another clear effort to bring order to the ROG Phone and its abundance of features.
Most of the UI is actually executed like a guided tour for optimizing your device settings and introducing certain features. After a quick overall scan, the app starts suggesting relevant improvements you can make to certain settings, as well as using some features, like Super Clean mode for closing-up background processes.
The AppLock feature we mentioned earlier also gets suggested after a scan, so even if you are not the nosy type and haven't stumbled upon it by accident, it won't necessarily remain unused forever.
As for specific options within the app, some are, again, more clear in their function than others, like Data usage, Notification manager or Junk files.
Others, like the Security and permissions menu look pretty simple, but actually, hold AI-infused scanning and suggestion algorithms of their own. Pretty in-depth, overall.
PowerMaster is where things really start to unfold. Anything and everything you could want to know and do for your battery live and overall health is in here.
In fact, there are some things in here, like what seems to be a vanity screen pretending to do some checks on a list of "Power-safe technology" features that simply look there just to impress and confuse.
Still, we were never ones to turn down perfectly good graphs with information and info-boxes with tips, especially when all they want is to improve the longevity and overall health of the phone's battery. By the way, if you find AI charging too inconsistent for your taste, you can also charge the phone on a manual schedule. Just pointing it out.
Seeing how the ROG Phone doesn't skimp out on audio hardware, it only makes sense to include a powerful equalizer suite to match. Asus calls it AudioWizard and it comes packed with plenty of features to enhance both the stereo speaker output, as well as the headphones experience. Yet another really in-depth tool.
That's quite a bit of software we already went through, yet nothing really regarding gaming. Well, we're just keeping the best for last. Enter Game Center. This is the home of X Mode, among other things. It is ROG's moniker of choice for a performance-optimized mode of operation for the phone.
It effects are actually a few and include things like special priorities for the foreground application, more aggressive resource management and probably most-importantly - higher clocks on both the CPU and GPU, mostly achieved through more aggressive governors.
This is the mode you want to game on. And also the mode Asus naturally wants its phone showcased in. Hence, the ROG Phone is kind enough to automatically detect benchmarking or otherwise heavy graphical apps and pop up a notification that you probably should turn on X Mode.
And frankly, we see no reason not to turn X Mode on if you do plan on some more intensive gaming. Of course, baring that you are prepared to chew through your battery a bit quicker. It does make a difference in some cases, which we will mention in the performance section.
While in X Mode you can also expect relatively more heat, which is why you should probably snap on the AeroActive Cooler, bundled in the box. The latter really is an impressive piece of kit. Not only does it have a measurable effect on the average temperature of the phone's internals (about 4 degrees or so lower), but it also provides more convenient place for your Type-C and 3.5mm ports and even mirrors the ROG RGB logo it ends up covering up. It nothing else, it really does keep your hands cool and sweat-free while gaming.
Its speed can be controlled through Game Center. Since it is quite quiet, we just left ours on full blast all the time. But there is also an intelligent auto mode that monitors thermals and loads as best it can.
Game Center also houses all the settings for the Aura lighting software, powering the ROG Phone's RGB logo. We already went through those in the hardware overview.
Then there are the Game Profiles and these should not be underestimated. From here you can tweak settings on a per-app basis. This includes things like 60Hz or 90Hz mode selection for the display, as well as CPU frequency cap and a few other X Mode customizations. Hidden away here is also an anti-aliasing toggle. Again, we wish that this was a little more visible since it is pretty cool in its effects and can help eliminate some jagged lines in titles that struggle to do so by themselves. At the cost of some performance, of course.
Speaking of performance, as any good gamer will tell you, you probably want to be monitoring that. Not necessarily since you can do a whole lot about it on a mobile device, even one as feature-rich and actively-cooled as the ROG Phone, but so you can bask in your high frame rate glory and quantify just how awesome your experience should feel.
This is the main reason why ROG has included a Game toolbar. It hovers over your game once launched and can provide a number on real-time statistics and numbers, like an fps counter, temperatures and hardware utilization.
Like you probably noticed already, this settings menu also features entries for recording and live streaming. Yes, the ROG Phone can definitely do that for you, no added software necessary. Currently, YouTube and Twitch are both supported for instant live streaming.
Naturally, you're going to need a place to manage the video recordings and streams while in game. That interface is actually part of yet another custom ROG Phone gaming overlay and probably the coolest one of all - GAME GENIE.
You can toggle recording and streaming from here. There is also a manual speed-up, if you feel like something is hogging resources in the background. A few convenient toggles are also scattered about. The G logo at the top opens up a mini online search interface, so you can do some quick research on a game while playing, without having to close it. Game GENIE is also where you can map your two AirTriggers to certain on-screen controls. If it is a button, you can map it. There is even a macro interface, which is really powerful and can be used to map whole sequences of inputs.
If that sounds a bit like cheating to you, wait until you hear about Key Mapping. In our books, it is probably the single greatest gaming-geared software tool Asus has brought to the table with the ROG Phone. It's an incredibly in-depth interface for mapping on-screen controls to physical ones. Directional pads, buttons, sliders all work and do so really well.
So the real fun begins when you connect the ROG Phone to a compatible accessory, like the GAMEVICE. Every button on that controller can then be mapped to an on-screen control, effectively giving you console-grade physical controls inside a game meant to be played on touch screens.
In fact, it gets even better once you connect the ROG Phone to a mouse and keyboard via the Mobile Descktop Dock or the Asus professional dock. Then you can map all the controls to an actual mouse and keyboard. Imagine using a mouse to aim and look around in PUBG!
Well, that bit you can actually keep imagining since PUBG is one of the few titles that has become aware of the ROG Phone's "secret sauce" and can detect the use of control mapping. At least currently, that is. And even so, the majority of games we tested, even competitive online ones are perfectly fine with you totally owning the scene due to the huge advantage in controls precision.
One small note though, we did try to skip the Asus docks and use a third party Tyle-C dongle with an HDMI output and USB connections. And while that did work in grabbing a display output and giving us a choice between a mirror mode and an extended display mode, as the ROG Phone is currently intended to work, the control mapping never showed up. Perhaps a bug? Or maybe Asus wants a bit more of your money to give you the "Game Genie" of mobile games.
And on another side note, we are aware that other similar mapping solutions do exist on Android (most notable Octopus), but these seem to operate with a lot more restrictions and naturally all sorts of warnings for drawing over other apps and the like. What Asus have crafted for the ROG is clearly done right and on a much lower software level, making it a really added-value offer for any hardcore mobile gaming enthusiasts. Or are they even mobile once a keyboard and mouse come into play?
That's actually kind of a recurring theme with the ROG phone. Most of the features Asus imbued it with clearly take after and aspire to the glorious realm of PC gaming. While often daunting and confusing at first, we have to say that the fusion Asus has achieved here is nothing short of impressive on almost every level. This is definitely not your run of the mill Android experience.