“What is challenging is bringing a new feature or innovative product to the market as there might be few or no precedents,” said Wong Ding Chuen, Senior Industrial Design Specialist with ASUS Design Center (ADC). Ding Chuen was speaking about the challenges of working at a company like ASUS, which boasts an extensive lineup of products.
What’s interesting here is that Ding Chuen is a Singaporean who led the project for the ASUS ROG ALLY, which was announced recently. The project started five years ago, which according to ASUS is way before the Steamdeck was introduced. Prior to ASUS, Ding Chuen graduated from the National University of Singapore and worked at a Singaporean company that designed and manufactured electric motorcycles and portable mobility vehicles.
Handheld gaming is a space that everyone is watching but very few are willing to risk a punt. It explains why the Steamdeck was until recently, the only handheld from an established company with a gaming pedigree.
“It was five years ago when we first conceptualised a handheld Windows gaming device. We first built a low-fidelity working prototype using spare parts that we could find to test the idea. However, five years ago the technology, gaming platforms and market climate were not ready for a device like this. Sure, we could build it, but the overall experience will not have been good.”
According to Ding Chuen, it was the culmination of the introduction of Xbox Game Pass, the rise of cross-platform gaming and Windows 11, that led them to decide that the time was right.
Up to this point, the gap was filled by efforts like the Windows-based Ayaneo 2, which is priced at USD1,099 for base specifications. Although they developed a cult following, these handheld gaming devices are not cheap and you need to sink in both time and (more) money to get your handheld gaming freak on.
The ASUS ROG ALLY may not offer the same level of customisation (RAM, storage, and colours) but it’s priced at a more palatable USD700 and the promise of a more stable software platform by virtue of the ROG branding. Furthermore, ASUS Singapore has teased that the local pricing will be close, leading us to think that it will be under SGD1,000.
For that money, you’re looking at a device that supports games from various platforms, including Steam, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, EA App, Epic Games Store, and more. It even comes bundled with a three-month Xbox Game Pass Ultimate code. And with Wi-Fi E, it also supports Xbox Cloud Gaming and AMD Link.
Like most tech, the price tag is always the make-or-break factor and matching the Steam Deck while offering more features is a great start.
Taking hardware up a notch
The ROG ALLY is built around the AMD Ryzen Z1 Extreme processor, features 8 cores and 16 threads, and boasts up to 8.6 teraflops of graphics processing power, which makes it 55% more powerful than the custom Zen 2 APU found in the Steam Deck. Battery life will certainly take a hit here, but ASUS says an AMD Ryzen Z1 variant with 6 cores and 12 threads will be available later in 2023; whether or not it will be available in Singapore remains to be seen.
What’s confirmed for the Extreme variant is that will be paired with 16GB of LPDDR5 6400 MHz memory and 512 GB of PCIe Gen 4 storage. On top of that, there’s a UHS-II microSD card slot if you need to transfer files or add extra storage.
To keep things cool, the Ally incorporates the ROG Zero Gravity thermal system, which uses a mesh to increase capillary pressure by over 15% and helps to keep the device cool in any orientation. Similarly, the low-friction, fluid-bearing fans maintain their effectiveness in any orientation. (All this so we can all play in bed.)
Natively, the hardware is selected and optimised for the 7″, 1080p touchscreen display with 100% sRGB coverage. The screen has a refresh rate of 120Hz, 7ms response time and FreeSync Premium support, while the 500 nits backlight also makes it possible to play outdoors.
Option to go desktop
Ding Chuen explains that the primary difference between Steam Deck and the ALLY was that Asus wanted an inclusive gaming device where gamers can play all games, including those they already own and across various platforms. The idea was that if it can run on Windows it will also run on ALLY, and an XG Mobile port and a dock helps expand its versatility.
As the ALLY is effectively a Windows machine, you can attach a keyboard and mouse with a hub or use the optional XG Mobile module, which sports the power of an external high-performance graphics card. The latest XG Mobile features an NVIDIA RTX 4090 GPU so you can play at higher resolutions on an external monitor. This is heading into Desktop territory; attach the usual I/O devices in the form of the keyboard and mouse and you’re there. Alternatively, with the optional ROG Gaming Charger Dock, the Ally can be connected to a TV for couch co-op and competition with extra controllers.
The ALLY may not have the hardware to best some of the more budget-conscious desktop gaming machines, but it certainly asks questions about what we prefer as our primary gaming experience. Shooters that require some insane keyboard and mouse finger callisthenics aside, many games that work perfectly with a gamepad on a console should work equally as well on a handheld. Having the flexibility to play whenever you want–and for the right price–can’t be a bad thing.
Ultimately still a handheld
That said, the ALLY is realistically a handheld machine rather than a versatile do-it-all. While you can play at slightly high resolutions with a monitor, you need the XG Mobile to somewhat feel like you’re using a desktop. While that module can be shared amongst a variety of devices, it’s still an expensive proposition that costs twice as much as the ALLY. For most of us, we’ll likely just own the ALLY alone if we do jump aboard this ship; unless of course, you bought a ROG Flow along with the XG Mobile.
Ding Chuen himself certainly doesn’t expect the ALLY to replace the desktop rig.
“I feel handheld gaming is here to stay and the experience will only get better with future iterations. We are still gathering feedback from the market. There is no lack of ideas, but it still boils down to the needs of the users. I feel handheld will not replace gaming laptops as it really depends on user needs and scenarios. There is a space for both handheld and laptops, but the experience and ecosystem might evolve,” Ding Chuen concluded.
You can now register your interest in the ASUS ROG ALLY. If the price is just below SGD1,000 as teased, the ALLY will be an excellent alternative to the Steam Deck, in an iOS versus Android kind of way. The Steam Deck offers tried-and-tested stability while the ALLY gives you the flexibility to define your experience.