Asus ROG Phone 5S review: S for slightly better

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(Pocket-lint) – Asus’ Republic of Gamers (ROG) brand is well regarded in the world of high performance laptops and peripherals for gaming. So it’s no surprise it used that brand strength to enter the emerging gaming phone market back in 2018.

Of all the gaming phones out there, it’s arguably the ROG Phone that has brought the most interest to the category, so it’s no surprise to see Asus milking it for all its worth. Earlier in 2021 we saw the ROG Phone 5. Now Asus is back with an ‘S’ version in form of the ROG Phone 5S and ROG Phone 5S Pro. So, what’s the deal exactly? 

Design 

  • Dimensions: 172.8 x 77.3 x 9.9mm / Weight: 238g
  • Finishes: Phantom Black, Storm White
  • Gorilla Glass Victus on the front
  • RGB light panel on the back

If the ROG Phone 5S looks familiar, it’s because it’s practically identical to the ROG Phone 5 that came before it. The spec sheet states the 5S is ever so slightly thinner than the 5, but if you put them side by side you’re never really going to perceive that difference. Unlike when we reviewed the ROG Phone 5, however, we were sent the regular model of the ROG Phone 5S, not the Pro.

That means instead of having a small AMOLED touchscreen on the back to display cute animations, it has an RGB light panel in the shape of the ROG logo. That’s joined by various other little details like red accents and triangular sections with dots and stripes to stop the back from looking like a featureless glossy grey surface. 

The 5S is a big phone, that’s without doubt, and being built from aluminium and glass means it’s not the lightest device in the world either. However, there’s a real benefit to this size: it’s enabled Asus to put in a couple of proper stereo speakers, a big battery, headphone port, and a screen with no notch or punch-hole cutout. The kind of things that popular big-name smartphones ditch in favour of being as compact and thin as possible.

What that means is the screen has some thicker bezel on the top and bottom, with the front-facing camera hidden in the top, and both ensuring there’s somewhere to grip onto when playing games horizontally. With that, plus the fact the screen surface is completely flat, means you don’t have to deal with any accidental touches, and that makes typing messages quick and easy.

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The only thing that works against this size is the glossy finish of the glass rear. It makes it quite a slippery fish, almost necessitating using the included plastic textured grip case. The phone will happily slide off of soft furnishings without much provocation otherwise.


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Media powerhouse

  • 6.78-inch AMOLED display
    • HDR10+ (800 nits typical, 1200 peak) 
    • 1080 x 2448 resolution (FHD+)
    • 144Hz refresh rate max
  • Stereo speakers with individual amplifiers
  • aptX HD & aptX Adaptive – 24-bit audio

There’s no doubt that the ROG Phone 5S is among the best out there as a media consumption device. It has everything you need for a great experience, regardless of whether you’re watching movies or playing games. It all starts with the huge 6.78-inch AMOLED display. 

Apart from missing out on QuadHD+ resolution, the spec sheet otherwise reads like a dream. With peak brightness up to 1200 nits and a typical brightness of 800 nits, plus refresh rates up to 144Hz, it’s among the smoothest and brightest screens on the market. 

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Load up Disney+ or Amazon Prime Video to catch the latest titles and the results are pretty impressive. There’s good detail, great dynamic range and a wide colour gamut, giving everything we watched a vibrant and attractive appearance. 

It’s not all about visual performance, because most flagship phones also feature a great screen. It’s in audio performance that the ROG Phone’s media performance is elevated above most others. A big part of that is the loudspeaker setup: the phone features a stereo front-facing speaker system, one positioned at the top edge, one at the bottom. That’s one of the big upsides in Asus swerving the trend of skinny bezels. Each speaker has its own dedicated amp, too, and the result is easily one of the best phone speaker systems on the market. 

Music from games and video is loud, but more importantly it features a good stereo separation and deftly handled frequency range. That ensures sound is not tinny and lifeless, but celebrates more of the mids and bass that so many other smartphones miss. It also immerses you in the sound – especially when holding the phone in landscape mode, as you get that true left and right channel effect. It’s not too boomy or rattly either.

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That’s not even the whole story. There’s also a 3.5mm headphone port for those who want to use their wired headphones or earphones. Just as important is support for two of Qualcomm’s highest resolution wireless audio technologies: aptX Adaptive and aptX HD (the latter encompassed in the former). With the right pair of wireless headphones, you’ll get lag-free high-fidelity audio.  

Gamer tweaks 

  • Armoury Crate app
  • Touch shoulder buttons
  • Configurable settings for games

There’s no difference in software at all between the 5S and the ROG Phone 5. So if you want a more thorough take on that, you can head over to that earlier review. 

Everything about the custom Android launcher on the ROG Phone screams ‘gamer’ though. It starts with game character-inspired graphics and animated wallpapers, plus themes which include all manner of different game-style alert tones and icon packs. You can, thankfully, switch it to a more standard theme similar to what you’d find on the ZenFone range if you want.

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Armory Crate – ROG’s dedicated game-focused app (which carries the same name as its PC installation version) – lets you adjust all manner of gaming abilities. Whether it’s changing the LED panel’s animation and breathing pattern or tweaking performance settings. What’s more it also lists games that support the 144Hz and 120Hz refresh rates that you can then download. Handy.

This software customisation is joined by a couple of physical attributes too. For instance, the ultrasonic touch-sensitive panels on the phone’s edge can be mapped to control functions within games. This can give you an advantage in that it removes your fingers from the display, giving you a clearer aim at that enemy you’re trying to obliterate with precision. 

Speed, fluidity, longevity

  • Snapdragon 888+ 5G platform, 8GB/12GB/16GB/18GB RAM
  • 5000mAh battery, 65W wired charging
  • 128GB/256GB/512GB storage

There’s a famous scene from the movie Spinal Tap in which the guitarist talks about how his amp turns all the way up to 11, rather than the usual 10. The Snapdragon 888+ has that exact energy. It’s not the first time Qualcomm has launched a ‘Plus’ version of its existing flagship processor and it probably won’t be the last. 

If you were to sit and use the ROG Phone 5 for a couple of hours, then switch and use the 5S to play all the exact same games and content, there’s a strong possibility you wouldn’t see any real-world improvements. Sure, if you run a benchmark you’ll see higher scores from the 888+. To that point that, at the time of writing, the 5S gives the highest scores of any Android phone. So if you’re in the market for the fastest, most powerful phone around, then you can’t really go wrong. But equally, if you can find the previous generation cheaper, there’s not a lot of sense in paying the extra. 

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Moving away from comparisons against older models, there’s no denying the speed available in the ROG Phone 5S. Every game it loads, it does so quickly and – once you’re in the midst of the action – it’s really quick and responsive. It doesn’t matter if you’re chilling with some light-hearted Lemmings action, racing in Mario Kart Tour, or putting all that raw power to use in games like Call of Duty or PUBG Mobile. It’ll eat them all for breakfast. 

One thing we will say is that – and this isn’t a surprise – the phone can get a little warm during long gaming sessions. It doesn’t get uncomfortably hot, though, so doesn’t ever feel like it’s overheating – it’s just warm in the hands.

Cameras

  • Triple rear cameras:
    • Main (26mm): 64-megapixel, f/1.8 aperture, 0.8um pixel size
    • Wide (11mm): 13MP, f/2.4
    • Macro: 5MP f/2.0
  • 8K/30 or 4K/60 video recording 
  • 24MP front-facing camera

While cameras definitely aren’t the star of the show here, they are good enough. Well, if you stick with the primary lens for most of your photography anyway. It’s more that for a gaming focused phone the results are better than many deliver in this category.

The main 64-megapixel sensor is joined by a 13-megapixel ultrawide, just like the ROG Phone 5, so results are pretty much the same. That’s to say: shooting in daylight with the main camera will give you detailed photos with attractive, natural colours and decent depth of field. 

In lower light situations, even when indoors during the day time, we did notice pictures started to get a little noisier. But it’s not horrendous, at least not with the main camera, which – with its f/1.8 aperture – is better at letting in light than the ultrawide. 

In fact, the ultrawide is a poorer camera in many aspects, and its usefulness is pretty much limited to taking wide landscapes. Try shooting anything relatively close-up and it’ll fail to focus on anything within a metre or so, and its colour and light processing isn’t as good as the main sensor either. Images are comparatively flatter, more washed out and noisier.

Verdict

The ‘S’ version of the ROG Phone 5 may be marketed as a gaming phone – and it is a wonderful one at that – but it’s also just a fantastic all-round device. That means it’s great for consuming media and doing pretty much everything else – it even has one decent camera. 

With its big, bright and speedy refresh screen, it’s a brilliant phone for watching movies, while its combination of practical choices like a big battery, superb audio and a headphone port mean it’s got everything you need to ensure that power isn’t wasted at any time. 

In the end, the ROG Phone 5S is a great gaming and media phone – but it’s tricky to see any tangible reason for it to exist when there’s already the earlier ROG Phone 5 model.

Also consider

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RedMagic 6S Pro

When it comes to raw power, the RedMagic is a very similar phone to the ROG, except it’s cheaper. There are some software quirks, and poorer cameras, but it’s another cracking multimedia device. 

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Writing by Cam Bunton. Editing by Mike Lowe. Originally published on .





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