A big step forward for Windows handhelds — but is Windows the way forward at all?
It’s easy to forget: the Steam Deck wasn’t first.
Windows handheld gaming PCs existed before the Deck, and there’s been a parade of them in the 15 months afterward. Some are more powerful. Many boast premium build quality. Almost all have higher-resolution screens. Yet none have offered the combination of battery life, portability, and price as Valve’s portable. I won’t bury the lede: the new Asus ROG Ally, officially shipping June 13th for $699.99, doesn’t change that as of today.
Don’t get me wrong: at $700, the Asus ROG Ally is a big step forward for Windows handhelds in important ways. It’s not just a little more powerful than the Steam Deck; the AMD Z1 Extreme handheld is significantly beefier, without being thicker or anywhere near as expensive as the Windows competition. I wish my Steam Deck would run anywhere near as quiet, and I wish it had the Ally’s variable refresh rate screen to make my games as smooth.
Seriously, it’s so smooth for a computer this small, and I’m not just talking about games that run at 120Hz. In my tests, the magic of variable refresh rate (VRR) and low frame compensation (LFC) works right down to 30fps.
You’re waiting for a “but,” right? Here are three to consider before you put down preorder cash today: 1) battery life; 2) glitches; and 3) how the Windows operating system — supposedly a plus! — hamstrings the handheld experience.
In its April Fools’ Day announcement, Asus tried to have it both ways: the most powerful AMD Ryzen processor ever in a handheld but also the battery life to “never stop gaming again.” In briefings, the company showed off impressively smooth gameplay alongside claims that battery life would be comparable to the Steam Deck.
But after nearly two weeks of testing, the latter claim hasn’t held up.
The good news is that the AMD Z1 Extreme chip at its heart is a big improvement over the previous-gen Ryzen 7 6800U, especially where lower wattages are concerned. Even if it’s mostly a rebranded laptop chip, the Z1 Extreme doesn’t suffer from the “needs more gas!” slowdown I experienced in my Ayaneo 2 review.
In fact, frankly, the ROG Ally has incredible range, letting you configure it all the way down to just 7W TDP or up to a boosted 35W TDP for short periods on a handheld battery pack. You can play at one speed to maximize your battery, another for Steam Deck-plus performance, another to play games the Steam Deck can’t quite run, and you can sometimes even get a small extra boost of speed by plugging in the bundled 65-watt USB-C power cord. If that’s not enough, it’s got a special port with eight PCI-Express lanes so you can plug in an external GPU.
All values are average frames per second at 720p low, save Elden Ring where I’m measuring minimum frames per second in a particularly demanding part of the game.
That’s great, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t approach the Steam Deck’s battery life.
It’s not rocket science: Both the Steam Deck and the ROG Ally have the same battery capacity of 40 watt-hours. You probably know that means they can run at 40 watts for a single hour — or 20 watts for two hours, 10 watts for four hours, and so on. Except that, with the ROG Ally, four hours looks like the best you can bargain for. With the Steam Deck, the best-case scenario is closer to seven.
I did manage to sip just 9.8 watts in Slay the Spire, but that’s playing a 2D game with largely static images and every battery-saving measure turned on, including the lowest possible processor wattage, limited to 30fps, while playing at the minimum screen brightness in a dark room. And yet, my Ally actually turned itself off at three hours, 38 minutes, not four-plus hours, perhaps because Asus’ battery always seems to drain more quickly when it’s nearing its end.
Here’s a list of some activities I tried on the Ally and how quickly the battery was consumed:
On Steam Deck, meanwhile, the least demanding games consume as little as six watts (6.7 hours) on a charge, and I can usually manage two hours out of moderately intensive titles like Control with a tweak or two. With the Ally, I’m seeing an hour and a half. The PC port of PlayStation 2 title Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time consumed around 8.5 watts on the Deck and 12.5 watts on the Ally, to give you another point of comparison.
(Note: Asus will also sell a second version of the ROG Ally with a lower-end AMD Z1 processor. While we don’t know its price or release date quite yet, we do know it’s designed to run at the same wattages as the Z1 Extreme, so it’s likely not a silver bullet for battery.)
On the plus side, the ROG Ally is way faster to charge — I got 50 percent in 40 minutes while continuing to play. (It takes maybe 30 minutes if you leave it alone.) You can fill the system all the way to 97 or 98 percent with the bundled charger even if you’re playing games in Turbo mode, though it might take a couple of hours to do so.
And that Turbo mode is a secret weapon the Steam Deck can’t touch.
Right out of the box, the ROG Ally runs in “Performance” mode, which is slightly faster than the Steam Deck in exchange for somewhat more electricity, as I explain above. There, I feel comfortable playing games like Elden Ring at 720p and medium settings, a game my Steam Deck runs a little bit slower. But if you’re plugged in, or willing to play games for less than an hour at a time, the “Turbo” mode puts games within reach that the Deck can barely play at all.
The Last of Us Part I, one of the recent crop of disappointing PC ports, is one I’d consider unplayable on the Steam Deck. It’s not much better on the ROG Ally’s Performance mode, even with fancy upscaling techniques like AMD FSR 2.0; I might as well have been playing a mosaic at 432 x 240 resolution uprezzed to 1080p and still saw the game dip below 30fps as soon as a single enemy got close.
But turn on Turbo, and I was able to double the input resolution to 856 x 480 (which looks much better upscaled to 1080p) and push the frame rate well above 40 at all times. It was the difference between “I would absolutely not play this” and “I played through all three hours of The Last of Us: Left Behind in the kids’ bedroom.” I saw similar boosts in Elden Ring and Redfall, too.
It’s just a shame I’m averaging 53 minutes of gameplay per charge when I do — and that I generally spend a few of those minutes fighting with the ROG Ally’s controls.
On the whole, I’m satisfied with the ROG Ally’s outward physical design. Sure, the grips aren’t nearly as comfortable as the Steam Deck’s, the big black screen bezels are even larger and more obnoxious, the nice loud stereo speakers occasionally crackle, and what you can do with the joysticks’ RGB lighting is extremely limited as of today. (I can’t even manage the Portal effect.) But the Ally’s smaller, the grips don’t get overly hot like some Windows competitors, I like the pops of rainbow from Asus’ reflective CD-like material, and some of the buttons actually feel better.
Also, it takes just seven easy-to-remove Phillips-head screws and a single flick of a spudger to swap the M.2 2230 solid-state drive — quite a bit easier than the Deck.
But Asus made two unfortunate design choices I’m very much hoping you’ll never see. First, it decided to create flat ABXY face buttons that are nearly flush with the console when depressed. And second, it decided to deploy all of its gamepad controls through the company’s own Armoury Crate software. Let’s take these one at a time.
The flat ABXY buttons have a satisfying press at first: light but firm, with a nice springy return, audible feedback, and plenty of purchase for a meaty thumb. But when I started hammering on them in some friendly rounds of Duck Game, three of them kept getting stuck… again and again and again. All of a sudden, I couldn’t shoot or jump in a game where split-second reactions are everything. It’s because the keycaps can slightly tilt when you push them at an angle, and their edges can get stuck underneath the frame. Asus graciously sent me a second unit, and it had the same issue.
Asus ROG technical marketing director Sascha Krohn tells The Verge that no consumer should ever see this problem — it was already caught ahead of production, and retail units will ship with slightly larger keys that can’t move around as much and won’t get caught underneath.
The other thing Krohn says won’t ship to consumers is the current version of Armoury Crate, which is good because it tends to hang and / or crash on my review unit — at which point many of my gamepad controls stop working. Just this Tuesday, I was playing Control when, all of a sudden, I couldn’t shoot or dash or jump or run or do anything except walk and look around. I couldn’t access the controller configurator to check what had happened, either, or switch my controls between desktop and gamepad modes because the entire service had crashed. It took a full reboot to bring my controls back.
It’s also, to put it mildly, a little half-baked:
- In Windows and in games, my joystick cursors and crosshairs are constantly overshooting their targets. Armoury Crate has no sensitivity adjustment.
- No gyro aiming for precision mousing, either — even though the Ally has a gyro.
- Armoury Crate doesn’t like it when you press a trigger at the same time you’re moving a joystick and doesn’t always accept the input. More on that in a bit.
- You cannot bind any macros or even a two-key combination like Shift + Tab. There is no easy way to summon the Steam In-Game Overlay from within a game.
- When I change the Ally’s performance mode, particularly in the middle of a game, the quick settings menu will often freeze until it’s kicked everything into gear. (Asus proactively told me this will be fixed.)
- When I change any of the Ally’s quick settings, it can sometimes take multiple seconds for my controls to return after I resume a game.
- Sometimes pressing a button in the quick settings menu will simultaneously press a button in the game.
- Sometimes pressing the joystick or D-pad will move two spaces instead of one in the Armoury Crate interface.
- The frames per second limiter doesn’t always work. (Asus says there’s a known issue with games running in windowed mode, but I’ve had some in full screen also not limit their frames per second.)
- The resolution switcher (between 720p and 1080p) only affects the Windows desktop, not games, and will also affect additional monitors you plug in.
- Armoury Crate doesn’t scale properly with other Windows UI elements; going above the default 150 percent scaling adds scroll bars to a window that’s now larger than the screen.
- The “mouse and keyboard” template for non-gamepad games has default bindings that don’t make a lot of sense.
- If you select a currently running game in Armoury Crate, it won’t resume — it’ll try to launch a second copy of the game.
Frankly, the Steam Deck had even nastier issues at launch, but I have to say the same thing I said then: The Verge doesn’t review gadgets on potential. We review what we can see and touch.
And now, a word on Windows.
You should understand that Microsoft is a partner for the ROG Ally — and not just in the “it runs Windows 11” sense. The ROG Ally comes preloaded with Xbox Game Pass and includes a free six-month subscription to the Ultimate tier. When I opened a website on the Ally for the first time, I was greeted with an absolutely unskippable, un-Alt-F4-able, cannot-End-Task Microsoft Edge onboarding process. The head of Xbox devices, Roanne Sones, is speaking at Asus’ launch event; Microsoft gaming boss Phil Spencer talked up the Ally on a podcast. Asus told us that Microsoft assisted with UI tweaks and made a special exception to certify Windows 11 for this particular seven-inch display.
And yet… Windows still feels largely foreign on a seven-inch gamepad gadget. We know Microsoft is experimenting with a Windows gaming handheld mode, or at least it did in a September 2022 hackathon, but there’s nothing of the sort here. You cannot do something as simple as type in letters with the left joystick or D-pad — you either have to leave fingerprints on the touchscreen or hunt and peck each individual letter with a too-sensitive cursor controlled by your right joystick.
The split touchscreen keyboard isn’t optimized for the places your thumbs will naturally be when holding this device. Scrolling websites and documents by joystick happens in fits and starts rather than smoothly as it does on a Steam Deck. The most obvious improvement is a half-height taskbar that saves space on the Ally’s screen, but it often shows up on my desktop monitor as a normal taskbar cut in half. Windows 11 is easier to navigate by touchscreen than any previous version, but I really don’t want to have to touch my screen when the joysticks are right there.
Perhaps most importantly, there’s no Xbox button on this PC. Whether you’re playing on Steam or Xbox Game Pass or simply using Microsoft’s own Xbox Game Bar, the gamepad controls are incomplete, without an easy way to summon the controls that both Valve and Microsoft encourage you to use to launch, chat, and multitask in an Xbox gaming environment. Asus spokesperson Ester Suh says that the company “will have the option to assign the main Xbox gamepad button to different buttons on the ROG Ally” at some point in the future.
When we asked Asus “why Windows?” the answer was basically that it’s what gamers want because gamers shouldn’t have to leave any of their games behind.
But I would argue that, as of 2023, Windows handhelds like the ROG Ally play fewer games than the Steam Deck.
Yes, it’s much easier to install the Epic Games Store, Battle.net, the EA app, GOG, Genshin Impact, and a variety of anti-cheat-enabled games on a Windows handheld, without all of the workarounds you’d need on the Deck. Gamepad games generally work great! But without touchpads and gyro aiming and community-built controller profiles and a decade-plus of compatibility work, games built for mouse and keyboard are being left behind by Asus and Microsoft.
Max Payne 2 is a game that doesn’t run properly on the Steam Deck, but it doesn’t run properly on the Ally, either. The entire game is built around dodging bullets in slow-motion “Bullet Time” while you’re shooting, but I could not pull the trigger while using the joystick. The default keyboard bindings make little sense in other ways, too, completely omitting common keys like C (crouch) and E (interact) and inexplicably binding Escape to the B button while the gamepad’s View and Menu buttons (used to summon menus in XInput games!) stay completely unbound. I had to redo most of the controls and was still without a trigger or any form of precision aim (remember, no gyro and no easily customizable sensitivity) when all was said and done.
The first time I launched Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time on the ROG Ally, it crashed. Then it crashed again when I tried to access the graphical settings and again when it tried to load part of the first level of the game, sometimes throwing strange error messages. I had to download a special widescreen fixer patch to get it to run at all. Then, I ran into some of the same issues with the keyboard template and triggers: no way to land a jumping sword combo, no way to crouch or drop to a lower ledge, no way to stab with the Dagger of Time without remapping all of my controls.
The first time I launched it on the Deck, it just worked. The 2003 Windows game ran in Linux, tricky-to-render fog and all. It automatically loaded a community controller profile that bound my buttons exactly as I remembered on the PlayStation 2. The right joystick swung the camera a little too quickly, but I fixed that in 10 seconds by summoning the controller configurator and turning down the joystick sensitivity. And that widescreen Windows patch? I dropped the very same files into my Linux game folder with zero modification, and it worked instantly.
There are over 9,000 titles rated Verified or Playable on Steam alone. It’s the power of a decade of Linux gamers plugging away.
Final thoughts, for now
I fundamentally believe a portable gaming PC isn’t truly portable if the battery life and user interface aren’t built for the road. I also believe most people interested in this machine would be better off spending $300 more for our favorite gaming laptop (by Asus, no less). If you really want a portable, maybe save a couple hundred bucks by buying a $400 Steam Deck and adding your own small SSD.
But that doesn’t mean the Asus ROG Ally is a poor product overall — it’s a powerful gaming machine for $700, one that just needs a power outlet and a mouse and keyboard nearby to reach its full potential. In fact, I could see some people using this as their only desktop that occasionally transforms into a couch-locked gaming machine: I spent two full days working from the Ally, writing posts for The Verge and the vast majority of the story you’re reading now while plugged into almost all the external monitors and peripherals I use with my normal desktop gaming PC.
I hope this is a wake-up call for Microsoft. There have been a few of those recently, and maybe one of them will be the final straw. Still, the company has a long and troubled history supporting games on Windows, and (rumors suggest) it always comes down to Xbox being a separate division with conflicting incentives. As far as Microsoft actually building that new UI for handheld devices, Krohn says he hasn’t heard anything more than I have.
As far as Asus is concerned, I wonder if the stopgap solution is Steam. Maybe the Ally should default to Steam Big Picture or maybe even run SteamOS 3.0 instead of Windows when Valve makes it broadly available. Though, I admit, I don’t know how much AMD will continue to support SteamOS or whether it will fully support eGPUs — which tend to come from its rival Nvidia.
Speaking of rivalries, Microsoft may have also precluded the ROG Ally’s SteamOS possibilities: “our partner for this device is Microsoft, it’s primarily made as a Windows device, and it’s made only as a Windows device,” says Krohn. But he’s not sure if the deal precludes Asus from supporting SteamOS if users install it themselves.
I didn’t have time to wipe and debloat the ROG Ally and run it exclusively as a Steam Big Picture or dual-boot SteamOS handheld, but I’d like to see if that makes a difference for a future story. It could be that the battery life deficit has less to do with components and more to do with Windows.
Internal photography by Sean Hollister / The Verge