The Asus ROG Ally beats the Steam Deck at all but the most important things

The Asus ROG Ally beats the Steam Deck at all but the most important things
May 2023

Geralt of Rivia looked good, moved smoothly, and responded swiftly to commands. There was just one problem: He was constantly sucker-punching the villagers of White Orchard. Over and over again, he raised his fists against tavern keepers, kids running in the street, and detachments of Nilfgaardian soldiers. That last one begat a brutal death. Sometimes, right after taking an unprovoked swing, the camera would furiously spin around my white-haired avatar, making me feel like I, too, had caught one in the head.

I played the latest version of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt on Asus' new ROG Ally handheld gaming PC ($700, available June 13, preorders start today) as a personal benchmark. Having completed the game three times previously (Xbox/PC/Switch, Yennefer/Triss/neither), I was looking to spot differences on this emerging platform. Asus' new device can run The Witcher 3--and Assassin's Creed: Odyssey, Forza Horizon 5, and Hitman 3--more powerfully than the Steam Deck or almost any other "portable" device around, minus questionably portable gaming laptops. The device runs Windows, so it has fewer game compatibility issues than Valve's Steam Deck (however admirably far that system has advanced). What would make The Witcher or any other playthrough different on the Ally, a Switch-sized device that boasts 7-13 times the power of that platform? "Random violence" wasn't the answer I expected, so I dug in.

My first thought was that the thumb sticks could be the problem, as they seem to have bigger dead zones and feel less sturdy than the ones on the Steam Deck. Or maybe it was pre-release video hardware reacting to a game known for uneven performance. I updated everything I could, recalibrated the sticks, and double-checked my in-game settings. I played the same build of the game on a Steam Deck with Windows loaded, in the same location, but couldn't recreate the problem.

Eventually, I figured it out: It was the touchscreen. The Ally's right stick is too shallow, and it's too close to the right side of a screen with small bezels. Whenever my thumb glanced too close, the overly sensitive touchscreen picked it up as a left click. The default left-click mouse action in The Witcher 3 is an attack. Like some malevolent specter of Polish folklore, the Ally had made Geralt's world richer, but it whispered violent thoughts to him whenever the Thumb Moon cast its shadow over the 1080p sea.

The Asus ROG Ally beats the Steam Deck at all but the most important things

You can, of course, disable a touchscreen in Windows 11 through a series of tiny-target Device Manager taps on the Ally's 7-inch screen. Someone could even make a batch script or tiny executable that enables or disables the touchscreen on the fly. Or Asus could add a touchscreen toggle to the Command Center, which pops out roughly 95 percent of the time that you click its left-side button, or it could allow me to set that up in the Ally's confusing per-game profile system.

But when I have time to devote to involved, graphically intensive games, the last thing I want to do is fix up a Windows installation--and an awkwardly scaled one at that. I find it easier to install, launch, and configure games on Valve's Steam Deck, a handheld PC rooted in Arch Linux, than on the Ally's combination of Windows 11 and Asus' own Armoury Crate software. I legitimately forgot my Steam Deck had a touchscreen until I ran Windows 11 on it for side-by-side comparisons. Asus has a lot more work to do before its device reaches that kind of game-focused flow.

When you're inside a game, the Ally performs better than nearly any device its size--you'll see that in the benchmarks. But everything else about my experience with the Ally makes it hard to recommend as a $700 device you can buy from Asus this month. If you want to get 39 frames per second in Cyberpunk 2077 instead of 33 with the same settings on the Steam Deck or eke out some ray tracing at just over 30 frames per second, the Ally can do that. The same goes if you're desperate to play Windows-only, cheat-detecting PC games like Destiny 2 on your couch (and you've decided against high-end streaming).

But most people should probably wait until Asus, like Valve before it, gets a lot of feedback and hopefully improves its software. Not that some hardware fixes couldn't help, too.