I’ve always played video games for fun. From my first experience with Advanced Dungeons and Dragons on my uncle’s Intellivision console to my last run-through of Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order (4th time now and counting), video games are a hobby that I’ll happily spend hours and hours on, with no other reward than the satisfaction of a fun experience.
I’m telling you this to illustrate that video games have absolutely nothing to do with how I make a living (other than being the reason I got into programming in the first place) and so this review is from someone who loves gaming, not someone who is sponsored to create content about gaming, or makes any money off it. That being said, I do like writing, and as this is the first time in a long time that I’ve had a “new piece of tech” experience, I thought I’d write a review about it.
This will be a long two-part review. Part one covers my reasons behind choosing the ROG Ally, the unboxing, and my initial experience setting it up and using it.
I’ll follow up with part two after I’ve used it for about two weeks, during which time I’ll also have traveled with it to the US and back.
If you want to skip to sections of this review, you can use the table of contents below.
Why the Asus ROG Ally?
I’ve been watching the handheld PC gaming market with great interest over the last year or so. I’m primarily a PC gamer, and so I have a game library of over 200 games, mainly on Steam, but also in other game libraries like Epic Games, GOG Games, and Battle.net, not to mention the countless Humble Bundles I’ve purchased. However, as I’ve gotten older, and not only have more responsibilities but want to spend more of my free time in family activities, I find it harder and harder to sit in front of a gaming PC to game.
Therefore the idea of a handheld gaming console on which I could play all these games is really appealing, but so far most handheld gaming consoles I’m interested in are not available locally in South Africa. Many of them don’t even ship to South Africa, and while I don’t mind having to ship things internationally, I generally prefer to be able to buy my hardware locally so that if anything goes wrong, I have an easy way to get a replacement or a refund.
As a long-time Steam user and fan of open-source software, I was keen to get a Steam Deck, which would not only run all my Steam games but runs a Linux-based OS. Unfortunately, over a year since it launched, it didn’t look like it was ever going to be coming to South Africa. Not 100% legally anyway.
Then, in a very short space of time, at the start of 2023, everything changed.
First, in April, Asus tweeted about their new handheld gaming console, and everyone thought this was an April Fool’s joke, but it was not.
- I can purchase it from local suppliers, with local after-sales support.
- It’s cheaper than the equivalent Steam Deck.
- Being Windows-based, I’m not going to need to check if any of my games will work (they probably just will, even the GOG stuff).
- I’ll be able to play more than just Steam games (Diablo 2 Resurrected anyone?)
- I might even be able to dual-boot Ubuntu on it.
- I might even be able to do work on it.
With that decided, and with two weeks to go before my trip, I went about trying to get hold of one.
The horrible state of online retail in South Africa
I’m going to try and keep this short, but I had three options for purchasing the handheld:
It launched in South Africa on the 1st of June, and pre-orders started shipping on the 15th. At the start of July 2023, all three stores showed the product as out of stock locally, but the Asus store showed it as in stock on the 12th of July. I would need to get it by the 14th, so I tried to contact Makro. I could see from their online portals that stores in other provinces had stock, but not stores close to me.
After a bit of back and forth with their social media person, trying to figure out if I could get one shipped between branches, which got nowhere, on Friday the 7th of July at 17:00, Incredible showed the product as in stock, and I ordered it immediately. But on Monday at 16:00, I got a call to say that it was an opened item that someone had returned, and did I still want it. I wasn’t prepared to pay full price for an unopened item, so I canceled the order.
So I took a chance and emailed the Asus ZA store to find out how long it would take to arrive, and based on their advice placed my order on the 11th. By the 12th, (the date of this post) it was in my hands, and I could get it all set up! Kudos to the folks at the Asus SA online store!
It’s still amazing to me that local retailers can’t figure out that there are folks who prefer to order things online, and so being able to ship an item from a store in a different province, when local stores are out of stock, might not be a bad idea…
To be honest, I found the packaging to be a little boring, but I guess that’s the way of things these days. As you can see from the photos, my Asus ROG desk pad is black and pink, so I expected a bit of color on the box.
Inside the box, you get the ROG Ally front and center, a charger, a warranty book, a quick start guide, and the ROG Ally branded cardboard stand. I was hoping it would come with a case, but sadly that’s not the … case.
I was also supposed to see that the charger cable does not disconnect from the charging pack. I would have preferred a USB or USB-C cable, or heck, even the type of detachable cable that the Zenbook comes with would have been better, making it easier to detach for packing purposes.
Initial setup experience
The Asus ROG Ally is essentially an AMD-powered Windows gaming laptop in a small form factor with a built-in controller. So the initial experience is just about as good as you would expect from something like that; i.e. it’s pretty crap!
I’ve never used a Steam Deck before, but I can imagine this is probably one area where the Steam Deck would win, due to the fact that it’s running the custom SteamOS, which is essentially a Linux OS running Steam Big Picture mode, and so everything will be configured to support that.
Because the Asus ROG Ally is a Windows PC, it comes with all of Windows gaming PC’s irritating issues, like bloatware installed that you don’t need, random software glitches that require a reboot (turning it off and on again is still a thing in 2023) and multiple places to configure different things to get it the way you want it.
That having been said, while the Steam app supports Big Picture out of the box on the ROG Ally, the other game stores are hit-and-miss when it comes to navigating them with the controller inputs. GOG Galaxy works well, but the EA and Epic apps are developed for a keyboard and mouse interface. Fortunately, the touch screen on the Ally works well, and the option to control the mouse with the left control stick is pretty smooth.
My 2 biggest pain points were the forced firmware update and the on-screen keyboard.
Soon after I had started setting up a few game libraries, I was presented with this firmware update notification, which I could not close or ignore, unless I went into the Task Manager and force quit the damn thing. And the worst part was that I had just unplugged the device for some evening game testing, and the firmware upgrade required it to be plugged in. I would have really preferred it if I was able to delay or ignore this update until I was damn good and ready, but the notice stayed on screen, overlaying everything, until I forced it to quit, or eventually ran the update.
The on-screen keyboard issues I resolved when I remembered that given that this was a Windows PC, I could just install TeamViewer, and control it via my regular computer or laptop.
Once I had TeamViewer installed, I was off to the races, and I could install all the different game libraries where I own games. This was especially useful because I use a password manager and I needed to access it to log into my different accounts. I was even able to copy games to the device from other computers across the network, saving precious time compared to redownloading them all from the internet.
And yes, I did install (and play) Diablo 2 Resurrected (a bit).
Ultimately the ROG Ally was everything I expected it to be, and nothing I didn’t. I bought it because I wanted to use it to play all my games, and it looks like I’m going to be able to do exactly that, although I’m not sure how the onscreen keyboard’s going to work with my old Sierra adventure games!
By the end of the week, before I left for my trip, I had installed a bunch of games, some I wanted to replay and some I’d never had a chance to play since I bought them.
Want to see how it performed, after using it for about a month? Check out part 2 of this review.