The ROG Phone 3 is powered by the just recently announced Snapdragon 865+ chipset. Frankly, the ambassadorial role of the ROG Phone 3 for the speed-binned and overclocked chip is a perfect fit.
Ever since the original ROG Phone, Asus has exhibited a clear desire to go above and beyond the stock potential of Snapdragon silicon. Back in those days, Qualcomm didn't actually have a proper speed-binning process of its own, which meant that Asus had to do a lot of the heavy lifting in cherry-picking and overclocking chips. Now, we've actually come to a point where Qualcomm has embraced the process wholeheartedly and through a combination of traditional "silicon lottery"-style testing and vital improvements in production processes, tolerances and yields is able to release an entire Plus SKU of its top-end-chip for any interested OEM to use.
In the particular case of the Snapdragon 865+, we are looking at a 10% bump in maximum clock speed on the chip's Prime CPU core. It is still the same Kryo 585, as found in the vanilla Snapdragon 865, but it can now reach 3.1 GHz, instead of last year's 2.96 GHz. An incremental increase, for sure, and not one easily felt in real-world use. Still, if nothing else, breaking through the 3.0 GHz mark bears a symbolic significance in itself.
The other CPU cores in the Snapdragon 865+, including the other three lower-clocked, but still "big" Kryo 585 ones, working at 2.42 GHz and the four "little" Kryo 585 units, clocked at 1.8 GHz are essentially unchanged from the regular Snapdragon 865.
However, beyond CPU improvements, there is also a slight bump applied to the clock on the Adreno 650 GPU. It is now working at 645MHz, instead of the original 587MHz.
Probably more importantly, however, is the fact that the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865+ chipset is implemented in a rather unique, "unlocked" manner within the ROG Phone 3. Asus allows its users actual low-level access to speed controls. You can't push past the upper-speed limits and overclock, say the CPU past the 3.1GHz mark, but you can granularly, on a per-app basis, dial-back performance, and with that, lower heat, delay throttling and extend battery life. Those are much more important on a mobile chip and are the cornerstone of the Asus X Mode performance tuning platform.
Asus left nothing to chance in the RAW number-crunching department. Beyond the Snapdragon 865+ chip, the ROG Phone 3 uses extremely fast UFS 3.1 storage. Asus couldn't actually find 1TB chips of the UFS 3.1 type, which is why the top SKU of the ROG Phone 3 is capped at 512GB. That's precisely the one we have for testing. It also has a whopping 16GB of LPDDR5 RAM, which it offers 50% better data throughput rate than LPDDR4X, while also using 20% less power in the process.
For further clarity, we are aware that there is also a "Strix" edition of the ROG Phone 3, with slightly downgraded specs, including a regular Snapdragon 865, instead of the 865+. We are not currently testing that particular variant, but you can expect it to score similar to other Snapdragon 865-equipped flagships in benchmarks.
Higher is better
We're kicking things off with GeekBench and its pure CPU synthetic loads. We find the ROG Phone 3 spread-out along the top of the chart, which is going to be a reoccurring theme here. First, a few things to note about our testing methodology. To be as thorough as possible, we divided testing into four groups, with multiple runs in each and averaged results. The ROG Phone was tested without any X Mode on, followed by X Mode on Level 1, then Level 2 and 3, both with the AeroActive Cooler 3 on, to give the best possible thermal conditions.
As you will see in most of the benchmark runs, running X Mode just has a slight effect on raw max performance numbers. That's expected, since X Mode is not expected to pull-off miracles. It can't overclock what is already a speed-binned and overclocked Snapdragon 865+ chipset, out of the factory. The main benefits of X Mode tuning lie in rising thermal tolerances and fine-tuning performance parameters to sustain the highest possible performance for the longest time. It's essentially a tool to better combat and postpone the inevitability of thermal-throttling.
Higher is better
Single-core performance on the ROG Phone 3 only further illustrates the true purpose of X Mode. It is not going to matter much in short bursts of peak performance, with cool-offs in between, which is how we run benchmarks. All four results in this mode are very close to one another, with just a marginal difference. The fact that the ROG Phone 3 is near the top of the chart mostly comes down to the 10% clock-speed bump in the Prime CPU core of the Snapdragon 865+. A difference much less-visible in the previous multi-core run.
AnTuTu is, by design, a much more-compound benchmark. One that takes into account the performance of various hardware components. This is where other bits of the ROG Phone 3 puzzle can also shine, like the fast UFS 3.1 storage or the kernel-level performance tweaks.
Higher is better
AnTuTu offers a slightly clearer differentiation between the different X Mode performance levels. Though, even here, we can see that the variances are merely marginal and don't even scale exactly as expected, with an L1 X Mode score higher than the L2 X Mode one.
Higher is better
Higher is better
Graphics benchmarks come with their own set of challenges and subtle nuances on the ROG Phone 3. It hardly comes as a surprise that the Adreno 650, in its slightly boosted variant inside the Snapdragon 865+ pretty much creams all of the existing competition in the Android space. The only way to properly gauge that is by looking at offscreen rendering, since those are not burdened by the native resolution or refresh rate caps of the actual panels of the phones.
Higher is better
Higher is better
A few interesting observations worth making here the fact that, once again, X Mode, spanning across all of its three levels and with the added benefit of the AeroActive Cooler 3, in some runs, hardly make a difference to maximum fps output. Once again, sustained performance over time is the name of the game Asus is playing, not just aiming for a few points more on a scorecard.
Some other things worth pointing out - Apple's quad-core GPU solution in the A13 bionic chip still has more oomph than what is currently capable in the Android scene. Even more so when the Metal API gets leveraged properly. It's a real shame that the iPhone 11 Pro Max is equipped with a 60Hz display, since it has the potential to push past the 60fps mark.
Higher is better
Higher is better
Speaking of which, having high refresh rate capabilities is just part of the challenge of actually enjoying fames in high refresh rate. We can clearly see other devices, like the nubia Red Magic 5G falling-short in on-screen GFX tests. That phone, in particular, offered no way of actually running the GFXBench app in more than 60Hz mode.
Higher is better
The ROG Phone 3 is generally much more accommodating and flexible when it comes to enabling high refresh rates on demand, regardless of what game or app you are using. Still, it has certain idiosyncrasies of its own that might require further work. For one, it outright refused to run the GFXBench and AnTuTu apps in anything other than its maximum 144Hz refresh rate mode. It did still let us choose between the X Mode levels and other options freely, but display refresh rate was locked.
There is definitely some sort of benchmark-detection at play, as well, since every time we launched one of these benchmark suites without enabling X Mode, the phone would immediately prompt us to do so.
We get that Asus is trying to show the ROG Phone 3 is the best light it can, but we still feel like benchmarks should be treated a bit more equally with other apps and games and at least allow us to forcefully drop the refresh rate down, if we wanted to. That just seems like in the spirit of the ROG Phone line.
Higher is better
Another issue we had with the ROG Phone 3 during testing, worth mentioning is that it failed to complete certain GPU runs due to an alleged bug in 3D Mark's Vulkan test. From what we gather, it will require some fixes on 3D Mark's side before this is remedied.
That being said, our ROG Phone 3 unit is still running beta software at the time of testing and Asus is regularly seeding updates to it. This issue should be cleared-up. Plus, we had absolutely no trouble running any actual games.
Higher is better
We are closing-off the synthetic portion of testing with a 3D mark run, which falls perfectly in line with the rest of the GPU performance metrics we have seen thus far. Side note, we feel like the Motorola Edge+ should be commended for its amazing graphical performance across the board. This, once again, comes to show that the new Snapdragon 865+, in itself, is not an amazing leap ahead of its vanilla Snapdragon 865 sibling. The way any of the two chipsets is being utilized and cooled over time is actually much, much more important towards a good gaming experience.
Even in a device like the ROG Phone 3, with its massive cooling and incorporating an active fan, thermal-throttling is an inevitability. Given enough time and a solid load, the internals will eventually have to dial their performance back to keep things in check. Luckily, smartphone engineers have been dealing with this reality for a long time now and have become really good at curbing ARM heat dissipation, typically inside closed-off passively cooled systems. Things like thermal-thresholds, CPU governors and schedulers have become an intrinsic part of the Android OS.
Asus has leveraged all of this on the ROG Phone 3, plus its advanced hardware cooling solution to effectively postpone the inevitable thermal-throttling for notable periods at a time. Performance drops not only come later, on average, but are also, typically, well-controlled, consisting of gradual decreases in clock speeds to avoid jitters while gaming.
At least that's the behavior we observed in our first throttling test, conducted with X Mode off and no cooling fan on the ROG Phone 3. The app we are using ramps-up the CPU and keeps it pegged while measuring its clock speeds, temperature and arbitrary performance, using its own metric for internal comparisons. ARM Cortex cores are actually, by far, the bigger heat-generator inside a chipset, with GPU cores only contributing very, very mildly to the bottom line. Hence, while not perfect, this methodology is still solid and repeatable.
We can clearly see that in its default state of operation, the ROG Phone 3 doesn't go out of its way to strain itself too hard. The Snapdragon 865+ keeps its Prime core at the max 3.09 GHz for just around 2 minutes, after which the max speed cap gets lowered to a much more comfortable 2.45 GHz. When we say comfortable, that goes for internal temps, as well as surface temperature on the phone itself. There is no point is scorching the user's hands while they are simply browsing social media. The extra performance would simply be wasted as heat and battery life.
For our second run, we enabled X Mode on L1, without clipping on the fan. The performance and thermal behavior we see are clearly quite different. The ROG Phone 3 tries to push itself as hard as possible from the get-go. Not only doesn't it dial back after the 2-minute mark, but performance starts to actually climb and remains at a sustained max level for at least five minutes. Perhaps, the justification here is that the ROG Phone 3 is not in its optimal conditions for max performance, it does not have its fan, plus, the user is clearly not trying to squeeze the absolute max out of it since X Mode is just at L1. It makes sense then to try to at least deliver short bursts of performance for as long as it can.
Unfortunately, if we don't ease-up the constant CPU load on the ROG Phone 3 in this mode, its otherwise smart approach of delivering bursts of performance starts to fall apart after around the 7-minute mark. Thermal-throttling hits hard, leading to over 20 minutes of struggling at lower clocks. Well, to be fair, it's not too bad of a struggle in terms of actual raw output or the amount of throttling.
The next 30-minute run was conducted with X Mode and Level 2, again, without the fan attached. As expected, we got similar behavior, but the ROG Phone 3 tries to push itself even harder during the peak performance burst. Consequently, it also throttles harder afterward. With our particular, sustained max CPU load, as unrealistic as it may be, we, counter-intuitively, ended up with lower absolute average performance than on X Mode L1. Clearly, if we are to sustain such numbers, we need to draft the AeroActive Cooler 3.
Looking at the graph, as well as the results summary at the end, the fan is clearly helping in sustained stability. The ROG Phone 3 managed to sustain its initial burst of performance for a few minutes longer and they didn't experience nearly as aggressive drops during the rest of the test. You do get fluctuations more often, which is not ideal for a smooth actual gaming experience. Though, even in its low points, we are still looking at plenty of performance to throw around. Plus, a sustained, constant, unwavering load like this one is totally unrealistic for any actual game. You will definitely be getting a much smoother performance curve in real-world terms. The reported average and maximum performance, as well as performance throttling percentage, are all better in the end.
Finally, we have a full-throttle test. X Mode at its max Level 3, with the AeroActive Cooler 3 blowing at full-blast as well. Clearly the ROG Phone 3 is pushing itself to the limit. You can feel that by the surface temperature of the phone itself. The handset gets uncomfortably hot, in this mode, by design, even with the fan blowing air on them. The mandatory fan, might we add. Still, the results speak for themselves - we get the best performance figures of the bunch, plus the smallest thermal-throttling losses. This kind of impressive variance and behavior can only be achieved with the extra care and attention and the added engineering effort, as put inside the ROG Phone 3.
High refresh rate gaming on Android is still the Wild West. On the one hand, support from game developers is far from ideal and on the other - different phone manufacturers still handle high refresh rate vastly differently. We are well aware that Asus has a curated list available within the Armoury Crate app, but that is far from complete. Also, potentially deceitful, since we went through quite a few similar lists with varying success per-title.
Since that is the case, we decided to spend a little time ourselves and go through some popular games, as well as titles we found on "high refresh rate" supported lists. Just to see what sticks, with the help of the built-in handy FPS meter. Arena of Valor is a title that comes up frequently in high refresh rate lists. It does feature an aptly-named option in the settings menu, which, by the way, only becomes available after you play two whole tutorial matches. Anyway, it toggles between 30fps and 60fps. So, that's a NO on high framerate for that title.
Call of Duty Mobile features an even more-promising selector in its settings screen, labeled Frame Rate. It has a whopping five options - low, medium, high, very high, and max. Much to our dismay, though, max only topped-off at 60fps. To the game's and the ROG Phone 3's credit, it was a solid and fluent 60fps.
Free Fire had the exact same behavior. Only its setting was called "high fps", with two options - Normal and High. One being 30fps, while the other 60fps. Both noticeably less smooth and stable than what Call of Duty had offered. But the main point is that we are still nowhere in our quest to push past the 60fps mark.
We are fairly certain we saw Shadowgun Legends on at least one high refresh rate support list. Yet, just like the titles we already mentioned, it can only toggle between 30 and 60 fps. Its menu does feature a third - "Auto" option, which we had hopes for. Unfortunately, it just managed 60fps.
On with the quest for high refresh rate then and Fortnite. A title that even has its own convenient in-game fps counter. Anyway, the settings menu for Fortnite has two rather depressing FPS options - 30fps and 20fps... Before you hit-up the comment section, we did follow the popular online guides, trying little tricks like locking and unlocking the phone during game bootup to "unlock" 60fps mode with no success.
PUBG was an interesting trip of its own. Just like Arena of Valor, it has a whopping five settings levels for frame rate. Extreme just goes to 60fps. Ultra is 40, high is 30, medium is 25 and low is 20fps. Again, just like Fortnite, we know there are certain hacks and workarounds to push past 60fps and we even tried a few with no luck.
Interestingly, however, Game For Peace, which is the version of PUBG for China, crafted to comply with local content regulations, does push beyond 60fps. It's probably not a viable option for none-Chinese speakers, but the point we are trying to make here is that the limitation is not a game-engine one, but artificially imposed for some reason.
That's unfortunate and we can't understand why that might be the case. We actually ran into an even weirder issue once we started testing titles we know, for a fact, from previous experience, can go past 60fps, like Alto's Odyssey. As you can verify in our review of the Razer Phone 2, back in 2018, this particular game runs at a smooth 120fps, easy. Grabbing the current version from the Google Play Store though, we only got 60fps.
The game has no options pertaining to graphics. We tried every possible combination of settings on the ROG Phone 3 with zero luck. Then we took some other high refresh rate devices, close at hand, like the OnePlus 8 Pro and the Samsung Galaxy S20+ - not one of these managed anything past 60fps. In an act of total desperation, we dug up the Razer Phone 2, which, luckily, still had a version of Alto's Odyssey installed and that one did 120fps! After a lot of digging, turns out that the developers simply yanked support for high refresh rate at some point, for whatever unknown reason. Sideloading v1.01 of the app onto the ROG Phone 3 game us an amazing 144fps experience.
That's what we mean when we say that high refresh rate gaming is still in a state of unmitigated chaos once you actually try to make use of it in the real world. It all sounds great on paper and during flamboyant on-stage presentations, but until some major strides are made to organize the scene, we don't see the situation improving any time soon. We applaud Asus for its efforts to push things forward, but even curated lists for 120Hz and 144Hz games, as well as that with TwinView supported games contain titles that in practice failed to deliver on the corresponding promises. Perhaps it's time for Google to step in and do some proper feature tagging and filtering in the Play Store. Just a thought.
Anyway, we did have a few success stories worth mentioning. A good rule of thumb when hunting from proper high refresh rate games is to go for titles with simpler graphics first - like 1945 Air Force. It works magnificently at 144fps. The extra smoothness is really beneficial to the particular style of gameplay that requires you to flick your plane around quickly, while tracking lots of moving objects on screen.
Mortal Kombat was also more than happy to deliver 144fps. It also does a surprisingly good job of maintaining it on the ROG Phone 3. Even during the dynamic cut scene-style sequences.
Death Trigger 2 is a fairly older title at this point, but it has arguably aged rather well, due to its high-fidelity cartoon-style graphics. It happily does 144fps on the ROG Phone 3, as well, rarely dropping more than a couple of frames.
All and all, with the right attitude, enough free time and trial and error, high refresh rate is a reality on Android in 2020. But getting things to work can be frustrating.