ASUS ROG Phone 3 preview: An upgraded gaming phone that feels familiar

It’s compatible with most ROG Phone II accessories.

COVID-19 may have canceled Computex this year, but there’s no stopping ASUS from delivering its annual upgrade to mobile gamers. Following the accessory-laden ROG Phone II, today the Taiwanese giant finally unveiled its first 5G phone, the ROG Phone 3, which is also one of the first devices to carry Qualcomm’s faster Snapdragon 865 Plus processor, offering a 10 percent boost in both CPU and GPU speeds. ASUS also made significant upgrades elsewhere, aimed at giving hardcore mobile gamers a competitive advantage.

From afar, you could easily mistake the ROG Phone 3 for its predecessor, and that’s understandable. During the planning process, ASUS decided that it wanted to use the ROG Phone II as a blueprint for its next gaming phone so that existing users can keep their accessories for their phone upgrade. Both phones have practically identical dimensions and external layout, ensuring that the ROG Phone 3 is compatible with almost all of last year’s peripherals.

Keeping the same design also means the newest phone inherits pretty much all the physical specs from before, but with some notable improvements. The 6.59-inch 2,340 x 1,080 AMOLED panel now comes with a faster 144Hz refresh rate and 270Hz touch sampling rate — both being the best-in-class at the moment. ASUS claims that over 100 games now support 144Hz gameplay, with popular titles including Forsaken World, Dead Cells, Slam Dunk and Rockman X Dive. Each display is also individually calibrated to maintain high color accuracy, and like before, it comes with an optical fingerprint reader.

The stereo front-facing speakers no longer sport orange accents, because apparently some gamers found them a little distracting. (To be honest, I didn’t actually notice their disappearance until I placed both models side by side.) What the speakers have gained, though, is an extra audio performance boost courtesy of Swedish audio company Dirac. More on that later.

There’s also the same 24-megapixel selfie camera at the top right corner, which can be used to stream yourself and your gameplay to YouTube via ASUS’ Game Genie app.

ASUS ROG Phone 3
Richard Lai/Engadget

The ROG Phone 3 comes with three rear cameras instead of two. Joining the old 13-megapixel, 125-degree ultra-wide camera is a new 64-megapixel main camera with apparently much improved low-light performance, along with a new 5-megapixel macro camera. A single sheet of glass now covers the back of the phone, with the old decorative trapezoidal piece replaced by a transparent window, which reveals the heat sink underneath. It’s a nice touch. And the ROG logo in the center still lights up with all colors and patterns you could possibly desire.

The ultrasonic shoulder triggers — now dubbed “AirTrigger 3” — are along the right side, with each marked by a “ROG” engraving. Since last year, these buttons let you do the usual tapping as well as sliding and resting your fingers on them. On the ROG Phone 3, ASUS added support for swipe input, continuous trigger (hold down to trigger multiple clicks), and dual partition buttons (doubling the number of triggers). I can set these up in ASUS’ Armoury Crate game launcher, though I had to adjust my grip to get used to the dual partition buttons in actual gameplay.

Internally, ASUS includes a generous 6,000mAh battery — which explains the same bulky 240g weight as last time — with 30W fast charging, which now reaches 4,510mAh in 45 minutes. You’ll also find an improved, redesigned cooling system, which can apparently eliminate CPU throttling and maintain a steady frame rate in ASUS’ own tests. This system features a new heat sink that’s six times larger than before to cover both the processor and the 5G modem, and this is further assisted by a redesigned 3D vapor chamber underneath.

ASUS ROG Phone 3
Richard Lai/Engadget

The phone comes with a new AeroActive Cooler 3 clip-on fan which not only blows air at the heat sink area but also adds a kickstand for landscape orientation — in case you want to use the new detachable Kunai 3 Gamepad (or its predecessor) via Bluetooth or just to watch videos on the phone.

I played a bit of PUBG and Kingdom: Two Crowns on the ROG Phone 3, and while I noted the visual and touch improvements in the former, it was the loudspeakers that impressed me the most in both games (and any high-quality video I watched). I won’t bore you with the nitty-gritty details here, but basically, this is all thanks to Dirac’s clever correction algorithms for the greater audio clarity, along with artificial overtones to make the bass feel stronger than it is. And with some tuning magic, these relatively tiny speakers can produce what feels like a much wider soundstage.

These are bold claims, but I could certainly notice the difference. I heard very fine details that would otherwise only be available on a pair of good earbuds, and with my eyes closed, I could almost pinpoint where some sounds were coming from. These are the best loudspeakers I’ve ever listened to on a smartphone.

ASUS ROG Phone 3
Richard Lai/Engadget

Building on that, a dedicated “Game Mode” automatically kicks in during gameplay to enhance specific types of in-game sounds — namely gunshots and footsteps — to give gamers a better sense of surroundings on the virtual battlefield. The company added that this Game Mode works on both the loudspeakers and headphones and said that it was exploring what it can add in the future.

In reality, many mobile gamers rely on their headphones, especially when they are commuting or when they don’t want any distraction. Interestingly, the ROG Phone 3 doesn’t come with earbuds, as ASUS assumes that most gamers would rather use their own audio gear. But for those who want to enjoy similar audio enhancements on their ears, they will have to opt for one of the ROG headsets, to leverage the Dirac-tuned sound profiles.

This is perhaps a suitable moment to mention that the headphone jack is gone on the ROG Phone 3, but you can use either the bundled USB-C dongle or the 3.5mm jack on the external cooler. ASUS claims it ran out of space, because of the new 5G modem plus antenna. It apparently didn’t want to sacrifice anything else — especially the battery — just to keep the headphone jack in this similar package. For the same reason, there’s no wireless charging here.

ASUS ROG Phone 3
Richard Lai/Engadget

When it comes to peripherals, the ROG Phone 3 is compatible with all of last year’s accessories, except for the external fan and the cases — the new third camera gets in the way for the latter. The good news is that a new Lighting Armor Case, lit up by a secondary LED near the rear cameras, looks much better than the previous one. It follows the same design language as the ROG Zephyrus G14, except you’re stuck with the ROG logo instead of a customizable LED dot matrix. If you prefer something more lightweight, the phone still comes with a black Aero Case, but you can also buy the more eye-catching orange Neon Aero Case.

Much like how LG continues to offer its Dual Screen case for its recent phones, ASUS offers the same support for its ROG Phone 3. The new TwinView Dock 3 supports 144Hz refresh rate on both screens, whereas its predecessor will cap this at 120Hz. So far, there are four games that support dual-screen gameplay: Asphalt 9 uses the second screen to show the race map, Dungeon Hunter Champions uses it to display your stats, Modern Combat 5 uses it to lay out more weapon options, and Dungeon Hunter 5 uses it to show the inventory. For other games or apps, you can use the second screen to manage your socials, watch videos or run any other app you want.

ASUS ROG Phone 3 with TwinView Dock 3 and Kunai 3 Gamepad.

The new Kunai 3 Gamepad has a more rounded, ergonomic design, and a new bumper case that fits onto the ROG Phone 3. And yes, you can still mount both the Kunai 3 and the dual-screen dock (either the 3 or II) onto the new phone together for the whole shebang.

Another new accessory here is the ROG Clip, which lets you clip your handset onto a controller for either Google Stadia, PlayStation or Xbox. This attachment is compatible with any phone, but only the ROG Phone 3 will soon support key mapping on all three aforementioned controllers. The phone comes with a three-month Stadia Pro trial subscription in markets where the service is available.

As for those who are extremely competitive, you can grab the existing ASUS Mobile Desktop Dock (around $200) to share your PC’s peripherals — including monitor, mouse, keyboard and LAN connection — with your ROG Phone 3 at a click of a button. Plus there’s an internal fan to help cool the phone. But if you want to save a bit of money, there’s also the cheaper ASUS Professional Dock, or just about any USB-C hub with an HDMI socket, USB-A ports and, if you want, an RJ-45 port will do.

ASUS ROG Phone 3
Richard Lai/Engadget

In short, the ROG Phone 3 is a much-improved ROG Phone II. As a gaming phone, last year’s model was already a solid foundation with many sensible design choices, including the front-facing speakers, shoulder triggers, massive battery and a silky smooth screen in what I found to be the right size. The trove of accessories was a pleasant bonus, too.

With the performance boost, 5G radio and various multimedia enhancements, the ROG Phone 3 will likely remain one of the top gaming phones for some time, though it would have been nice if ASUS had figured out a way to reduce the weight.

When it comes to future competition, I’m interested in seeing how Lenovo’s Legion Phone Duel — the only other contender to sport a Snapdragon 865 Plus for now — will fare with its own 144Hz display and side-mounted pop-up selfie camera. I’m sure more will join soon, as other Chinese smartphone brands like Xiaomi, Vivo and Nubia have also been aggressive in this space, which just goes to show how lucrative the mobile gaming market can be.

ASUS ROG Phone 3
Richard Lai/Engadget

While the ROG Phone 3 may not launch in the US until Q3 the earliest, folks in Europe will be able to pre-order one today and receive it starting from the end of July. There’s the €999 base model with 12GB of LPDDR5 RAM with 512GB of UFS 3.1 storage, or you can go for the €1,099 version with 16GB of RAM.

If you don’t mind the regular Snapdragon 865 chipset and losing the heat sink window, then you can save a bit of money by picking the €799 ROG Phone 3 Strix Edition, which comes with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage.

Update 7/24/20 12:14PM ET: An earlier version of this article stated that the shoulder triggers were of capacitive nature. This has since been corrected to reflect their ultrasonic nature.