The Taiwanese major explains why ROG Phone 5 is better than other Snapdragon 888-powered phones like Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, Xiaomi Mi 11.
The ROG Phone is an out and out gaming phone but this year, Asus wants it to be more—a holistic flagship if you will. One that can compete with, and give phones like the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, Xiaomi Mi 11, and even the iPhone 12 Pro Max, a run for their money, at slightly more affordable prices. Asus is skipping a number—the new phone is called ROG Phone 5—and let’s just say, there’s plenty to like (you can read our first impressions here).
If numbers shared by the Taiwanese major are anything to go by, the ROG Phone seems to be doing quite well, despite its seemingly ‘niche’ appeal. With the ROG Phone 5, Asus has stepped up its game—as well as ambitions. In a freewheeling conversation with Financial Express Online, Shawn Chang who is director, sales and marketing for smartphone business unit at Asus Global and Dinesh Sharma, business head, smartphone and commercial PC, system business group at Asus India, decode the ROG Phone 5 for our readers and why the brand feels it has nailed the flagship phone this year.
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FE: What is the core idea behind a product like the ROG Phone? How did it come about?
Shawn: The ROG brand was established in 2006. It is a professional brand for gamers. We got a lot of feedback from gamers that existing smartphones were not suitable for high-end gaming. This was around 2016, before the first ROG Phone was announced. PC/console gamers were used to multi-finger, high refresh rate gaming. On phones however, they could only use two fingers and play games at 60Hz. So, we started to think about how we could take the legacy of ROG brand and build a powerful device for mobile games. That is how the ROG Phone was born.
FE: Could you take us through the journey, what are some of your learnings from the market?
Shawn: The gaming phone boosted the rise of high-end mobile games. Today, several developers make mobile ports for their high-end AAA game titles. The whole ecosystem is now getting really matured. Not only the hardware, but software suppliers are now considering to launch their good quality games (on mobile) together with the PC and console. We expect more and more studios will introduce their games together on PC as well as on mobile this year.
(*Without reveling finer details, Shawn said that Asus is working with different studios to bring select AAA titles on mobile at the same time when they bring it to PC. Though many phones will be able to play these games, only gaming phones like ROG Phone will be able to give you the best experience while playing a demanding AAA title.)
FE: How far have things come from an adoption point of view? Is it right to say the ROG Phone still caters to a ‘niche’ audience?
Shawn: There are 350 million+ mobile gamers today, so is this a niche market? I don’t think so. But yes, the percentage of gamers ready to invest in a product above 50K, is small. If you look at the current situation, we are four of the key vendors, who can sustain our business in the price category of 50K+ so it’s proof that the ROG Phone has a set of clear supporters in the market just like Apple’s iPhone, Samsung Galaxy and OnePlus phones—they are willing to embrace all the high-end features we come out with.
FE: What about the India context, considering you’ve been launching these phones simultaneously here alongside other markets for the last few years?
Shawn: If you look at the Indian market particularly and compare it with the West, here the adoption rate for mobile games (and hardware) is higher because of the lack of PC and console game legacy. When we talk to Indian gamers, many of them say, they prefer mobile gaming over PC and console. So, India is an important market.
Dinesh: India is already among the top three countries globally when it comes to ROG Phone series in terms of sales. We have very ambitious sales targets and last year we have had 2x growth rate here. The ROG Phone 3 outsold ROG Phone 2 by a significant margin. The brand acceptance as well as the product acceptance is very high. We’ve been closely listening to the feedback of our consumers in India and constantly incorporating that feedback at a global level. So, when a certain ROG Phone comes to India, it is designed taking into account also the needs of the Indian market. We are also building a lot on our community activities. We have been doing virtual meets, E-sports event like Battle of Gods virtual tournament. We have casters who come and cast these events, so there’s a very deep, immersive experience, once you become part of the community. It’s not just that you bought the phone and we have forgotten about you. We’re constantly engaged with you.
FE: Coming to the ROG Phone 5, one wonders, where is ROG Phone 4?
Shawn: There are several reasons actually. The number ‘4’ is considered an unlucky number in Chinese because the pronunciation is similar to the word ‘death’ so that’s one reason. The other major reason is, if you look at the ROG Phone 5, you will see the number on the phone itself—it fits well with the design. Also, if you were to talk about hardware and features, it is a big leap from the ROG Phone 3. We believe such a revolutionary product deserves a new number.
Dinesh: When we were working on the ROG Phone 5 series, we changed a lot of things. If you see right from ROG Phone 1-3, the structural aspect of the phone(s) was moving in similar direction with major improvements happening on the component side. However, when it came to ROG Phone 5, we did not only make improvements in components, but we also changed the structural aspect of the phone significantly. For the first time in our history, we’ve also created two additional variants, Pro and Ultimate, something that we’ve never done before. This is a new chapter which is why this was one of the key thought processes internally in the company to move from 3 to 5 directly to communicate this huge leap.
FE: But why multiple models this year?
Dinesh: We’re focusing on a certain segment very clearly and we want to also offer more choice to the customer where when they upgrade, let’s say from the base variant to higher variants, they get much more than just memory increment.
FE: You’re known to work closely with Qualcomm to bring out the most out of the Snapdragon hardware. What are some of the things that you’ve worked on this year?
Shawn: The Snapdragon 888 is powerful, but also very difficult to manage. If you look at some of the competing phones, they (can) run pretty hot and it is very hard to control the thermal part. The ROG Phone 5 has a very strong thermal design. If you look at the architecture, you will see we put the CPU in the middle which allows us to dispatch the heat equally to the different areas (more efficiently). We also split the battery (into two), which allows us to ensure that the battery temperature rise is lower and with the PCB in the middle, your hands won’t go there much often. We have also re-designed the fan (AeroActive Cooler 5 accessory), to make sure it sits exactly on top of the CPU. Our tests show the ROG Phone 5 performs better (under stress) than rival phones like Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, Xiaomi Mi 11, iQOO 7 and others. It can almost hit the highest score (in synthetic benchmarks) at lowest temperature. A lot of our competitors’ testing is for something around 20 minutes, while we actually put one hour testing with heavy games.
FE: So, how important are these benchmark scores?
Shawn: To be completely honest, I think the real-world game experience is more important because benchmarks normally test the peak performance during a particular period (of time). Internally we don’t really put benchmarks as high as we do on the launch event slides. We evaluate the experience.
FE: There are phones with 165Hz screens now, isn’t that pure overkill?
Shawn: I won’t say that it’s an overkill but a higher refresh rates will—often—kill the ‘Gamma’ or the colour accuracy of the panel. We focus a lot on the colour accuracy bit so we decided to stick with a 144Hz panel (which also offers great colour accuracy). We have partnered with Samsung to tailor-make the AMOLED display for the ROG Phone 5. High refresh rate is an important parameter, but it’s not the only parameter of the display. The colour, the brightness, everything is also important in the panel, so I won’t say 165Hz is overkill, but I will say there could be some trade off with the other parameters.
FE: Speaking of which, how good is the ROG Phone 5 as a ‘regular’ phone?
Dinesh: With the kind of increments that we’re doing in the ROG Phone, we expect it would appeal also to consumers who would not be necessarily looking at a gaming phone but looking at a great flagship with great battery life, display, and audio—a holistic flagship delivering great value for money.
FE: Any particular collaborations on the software side?
Shawn: For the ROG Phone 5, we have a collaboration with more than 15 games in the market so gamers will be able to enjoy different gaming IPs. In the near future we may bring more surprising projects with different gaming titles. In some countries where Google Stadia is available, we will offer a special package for ROG Phone users to access it for free for three months. The ROG Phone 5 is Stadia-certified.
Dinesh: Inside the phone’s Armoury Crate app, we have created recommendations for games that support, for example, 120 FPS, so the consumer can actually go and download those games easily. We’re not pushing the content to them, we’re just making content discovery easy. We don’t put ads on any of our phones right now. We follow the highest of standards when it comes to user privacy.
FE: Do you have any plans to go offline with the ROG Phone 5 this year? Also, could you talk about where these phones will be made?
Dinesh: It’s very high on our radar to enable consumers who would want to experience the phone before buying. We make our phones at multiple locations globally. It depends upon the supply chain management situation. We could import them from a Southeast Asian country but we’re definitely not looking at imports from China for the Indian market.
FE: What sort of expectations do you have with the ROG Phone 5 going forward and will the ROG Phone 3 be discontinued?
Dinesh: In the year 2021, we will be looking at 2x growth rate within our ROG phones as compared to let’s say, 2020. The ROG Phone 3 will coexist (at least for a couple of months) with the ROG Phone 5 at a slightly lesser price. Both the options will be available to consumers till the time we can continue with the life cycle of the ROG Phone 3. With ROG Phone 2 and 3, the major shift was 5G. In the premium segment, our anticipation is that consumers will be looking to buy a phone with 5G now and with the ROG Phone 3 we still have a very capable phone with 5G.