Asus ROG Ally Z1 Review: A Gaming PC That You Can Take Anywhere

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When I had the chance to review Asus’s ROG Ally earlier this year, I was genuinely impressed by its outstanding performance. This handheld device made its debut with the AMD Ryzen Z1 Extreme chip, leaving the Steam Deck in the dust and solidifying Asus’s position as the new king of performance in the handheld gaming arena.

Now, let’s talk about the base Z1 model. It’s essentially a scaled-down version of the chip we encountered earlier this year, and the most intriguing part is that it comes with a more affordable price tag – $600 instead of $700. While it may pack a tad less processing power, it retains the same generous 512GB of storage, the ample 16GB of LPDDR5 memory, and that stunning 1080p, 120Hz display we all admired.

So, how does the ROG Ally Z1 fare in real-world use? Well, it’s not a complete letdown, but it’s evident that it lags behind its more extreme counterpart, the Z1 Extreme. In a direct showdown with the Steam Deck, it falls short as well. This is where things get a bit perplexing – it seems like the ROG Ally Z1 exists simply because it can, rather than because it fulfills a specific niche.

Now, when it comes to recommending the ROG Ally Z1, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher. While it’s certainly not a bad device, it struggles to find its footing in the market. With the Z1 Extreme delivering a more robust gaming experience and the Steam Deck offering formidable competition, it’s challenging to pinpoint exactly who the ROG Ally Z1 is designed for.

Talking about the Ryzen Z1

You might assume that the Ryzen Z1 Extreme is an upgraded version of the Ryzen Z1, but interestingly, the line moves in the opposite direction. The Z1 Extreme sets the bar, and the Ryzen Z1 takes a significant step back.

First and foremost, the Ryzen Z1 only comes equipped with six Zen 4 CPU cores, a reduction from the eight available in the Z1 Extreme. However, the more notable cutback comes in the GPU department. The Ryzen Z1 features just four RDNA 3 GPU cores, which is only a third of what the Ryzen Z1 Extreme boasts.

This substantial step backward in hardware is quite evident in the performance of the ROG Ally Z1. There’s also a minor reduction in cache, moving from 8MB of L2 on the Z1 Extreme to 6MB of L2 on the Z1. While not a major issue, I did find it necessary to allocate more of the shared 16GB of LPDDR5 memory to get games like Returnal to run smoothly.

While the Ryzen Z1 is certainly capable of running games, it represents a significant downgrade compared to what the Z1 Extreme offers. It even falls short when compared to the Steam Deck. Valve’s handheld device boasts twice as many graphics Compute Units (CUs). Although they use an older architecture, the higher core count translates to the Steam Deck edging out in terms of performance, as my testing has shown.

By the Numbers

Let’s dive right into the Steam Deck comparison because it really sets the stage for understanding the performance of the ROG Ally Z1. From my comprehensive testing, it’s quite evident that Asus’s new handheld falls behind the Steam Deck across the board in every game I examined. While there are some minor variations, like in Horizon Zero Dawn, in titles such as Dying Light 2, the performance gap is significant and can mean the difference between a playable and an unplayable experience.

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In fairness to the ROG Ally Z1, it does have a pricing advantage over the Steam Deck. The ROG Ally Z1 offers 512GB of storage at a $600 price point, whereas you’d need to shell out $650 for a Steam Deck with the same storage capacity. However, it’s worth noting that you can snag a Steam Deck for as low as $400 with 64GB of storage and expand it using a micro SD card. Speaking of which, it’s reassuring that you won’t have concerns about bricking your micro SD card like you might with the ROG Ally.

So, in the comparison with the Steam Deck, while the ROG Ally Z1 may have a price edge, its performance falls short in several key gaming scenarios. Keep in mind the trade-offs and priorities that matter most to you when making your decision between these two handheld gaming devices.

Let’s take a closer look at how the ROG Ally Z1 stacks up against the Z1 Extreme model. When you delve into the details, at the default 15-watt Performance mode, the ROG Ally Z1 exhibits a performance lag of approximately 37% compared to the Z1 Extreme model in 3DMark Time Spy. Similarly, in Fire Strike, it registers a notable 30% decrease in performance when compared to its more extreme counterpart.

But here’s where things get even more interesting. When you kick both devices into Turbo mode and have them plugged in, providing a hearty 30 watts of power, the Z1 Extreme truly outshines the base Z1 model. In this configuration, the ROG Ally Z1 ends up trailing behind by a significant margin, clocking in at a whopping 51% slower in Time Spy and a substantial 42% slower in Fire Strike compared to its more potent sibling.

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The contrast between the Performance and Turbo modes is quite substantial, and this trend was consistent throughout my testing. In the chart above, you can see a detailed breakdown of performance across the different modes available in the ROG Ally Z1. Interestingly, there are certain games, like Strange Brigade, where the extra wattage does make a noticeable difference. However, in the majority of cases, the performance gains are only a few frames, and it comes at the cost of significantly faster battery drain.

Interestingly, we observe a different scaling pattern with the Ryzen Z1 version of the ROG Ally compared to the Ryzen Z1 Extreme model. In the Performance mode, you can see that the Ryzen Z1 lags behind by roughly 20% when compared to its more extreme counterpart. However, when you make the leap to the Turbo mode, the Ryzen Z1 model experiences a more significant drop, clocking in at 35% slower than its high-performance sibling.

Throughout my extensive testing, it becomes quite evident that the Ryzen Z1 version of the ROG Ally struggles to fully harness the additional power available. It seems to be hitting a performance barrier, likely due to its lower core count. Unlike the ROG Ally with the Z1 Extreme, you don’t have the same level of flexibility and options to enhance performance on the Ryzen Z1 model.

Our subjective Experience

While the numbers are crucial for making comparisons, the real-world experience with devices like the ROG Ally and Ayaneo 2S often involves some tinkering with settings and upscaling to achieve playable performance. So, how does the overall experience fare on the ROG Ally with the Ryzen Z1 chip? Well, it’s not exactly a walk in the park.

Let’s begin with a significant concern: battery life. I didn’t notice any major differences in battery performance between the ROG Ally Z1 and its counterpart with the Z1 Extreme chip. This means you can expect to get around four hours of battery life when playing less demanding indie games, about two hours with more resource-intensive AAA titles capped at 30 frames per second (fps), and approximately an hour when you push it to Turbo mode, letting those frames run wild.

The battery life issue became particularly glaring when I was engrossed in playing Sea of Stars. This 2D indie RPG can keep chugging along for hours on a device like the Steam Deck without any hiccups. However, the ROG Ally with the Z1 was already half-drained after just 90 minutes of gameplay. While some of this could be attributed to Windows 11 running in the background on the ROG Ally, the primary culprit is the screen.

Much like its Z1 Extreme counterpart, this version of the ROG Ally boasts a dazzling 1080p screen with a 120Hz refresh rate. It’s just as visually stunning as before, showcasing the intricate pixel art in games like Sea of Stars. However, it’s also a substantial drain on the battery, even when running less demanding titles.

As a solution, Asus does provide options to conserve battery life, such as lowering the refresh rate or reducing the display resolution. However, this somewhat defeats the purpose of having the ROG Ally for games like Sea of Stars. If I have to compromise on resolution and refresh rate to extend battery life, I might as well opt to play the game on my Steam Deck. At least there, I have access to features like the Steam overlay and the ability to put the device into rest mode, offering a more seamless gaming experience.

Now, let’s talk about how the ROG Ally with the Ryzen Z1 chip handles more demanding titles. I spent some quality time with both Red Dead Redemption 2 and Lies of P to gauge its performance. In Red Dead Redemption 2, I finally managed to achieve a stable 30 fps, but it came at the cost of dialing down the settings to Low and resorting to the built-in Radeon Super Resolution (RSR) for upscaling. While it made the game playable, the constant flickering caused by upscaling was rather distracting.

Likewise, in Lies of P, I was only able to hit a respectable 60 fps by cranking up the game’s Ultra Performance mode of FidelityFX Super Resolution (FSR) and going full throttle with the Turbo mode. However, within just 30 minutes of gameplay, I had already drained half of the battery, and that was even with the screen brightness dialed down.

I also took a stab at Starfield, but the messy 720p image quality, combined with performance hovering around the 15 fps mark, made it hard to endure for long.

All in all, it’s tough to make a solid case for the ROG Ally with the Ryzen Z1 chip. With the Z1 Extreme model, you do have to navigate around Windows 11 and contend with shorter battery life compared to the Steam Deck. However, in exchange, you get a considerably more capable device in terms of performance. But with the base Ryzen Z1, the ROG Ally essentially falls slightly behind the Steam Deck in terms of performance, while still carrying the same quirks that hold it back.

Difficult to Recommend

I find it rather challenging to wholeheartedly recommend the ROG Ally Z1 to anyone. It occupies a space that’s already covered by both the Steam Deck and the ROG Ally with the Z1 Extreme, and it doesn’t quite carve out its own unique niche. In fact, the $600 price tag for the base model seems almost like a nudge to encourage you to consider the slightly pricier $700 model, which, in my opinion, is more than worth the extra investment.

When you compare the Steam Deck and the ROG Ally Z1 Extreme, you’ll notice that each has its own set of trade-offs. The Steam Deck may not pack as much raw power, but it makes up for it with a more stable performance, user-friendliness, and a lower price point. In my personal experience, these factors were compelling enough for me to stick with the Steam Deck.

On the other hand, the ROG Ally Z1 Extreme comes at a higher cost and can be a bit bulkier to handle. However, it offers the versatility to run virtually any Windows game and delivers a higher peak level of performance. It even throws in some extras like the ability to connect the Asus ROG XG Mobile for desktop gaming.

Regrettably, when it comes to the ROG Ally Z1, I can’t identify any significant factors that tip the scales in its favor. It seems to make the same compromises as the model with the Z1 Extreme but lacks the compelling advantages that its counterpart brings to the table.

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