There’s a reason I spent months monitoring my place in the Steam Deck shipment queue. Obsessively checking the latest unofficial shipment data on Reddit every Monday, trying to pinpoint exactly when the DPD guy will deliver my new toy. Myself, and thousands of others, knew that if any company was going to nail the handheld gaming PC experience, it was Valve.
That is precisely what Valve did. My Steam Deck benched my PS5 for months as I cleared my bulging Steam backlog of unplayed games bought in sales over the last decade.
The wizardry Valve used to make Doom Eternal run on high settings blew my mind. My brother in law, who had passingly heard of the Steam Deck, let out an audible “wow” when I started slaying some demons. I had the exact same reaction when I started running Gotham Knights on my Asus ROG Ally.
The new Steam Deck competitor absolutely earned that “wow”. The top, Z1 Extreme, model packs more of a punch and pushes the handheld gaming industry forward. The Steam Deck is packing a custom AMD “Van Gogh” chip to the Ally’s more powerful AMD Ryzen Z1 Extreme.
The Ally has a 1080p display to the Deck’s 800p, with a 120Hz refresh rate to the Deck’s 60Hz. Both have 16GB LPDDR5 RAM. For the Ally, that translates to an obscenely high performance ceiling in a device that’s smaller, lighter, quieter and cooler than the Steam Deck.
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As I mentioned, I was beating up some generic baddies on the rooftops of Gotham on the highest settings preset and the game ran smoothly. The Ally has three performance modes to choose from; performance, turbo and silent, which can be switched in-game. There’s also a fourth 30w turbo mode for an extra performance boost when plugged in.
So for Gotham Knights, on battery turbo mode, I was hitting 55fps on medium settings consistently at 1080p. Pushing the Ally further I tried the highest settings at 1080p, 120Hz on 30w turbo mode (plugged in) and I hit 30fps, but it will dip below in action areas.
Performance mode at 720p comfortably hit 30fps on the high settings, but push it to 1080p and you will get something closer to what you see on Valve’s device. The Steam Deck will hover around 30fps at medium settings (and frequently dip below in action areas). If you ask for much more the fan will angrily huff and it visually turns into a flipbook animation.
That isn’t slight on Valve’s tech, this is a next-gen game, so it shouldn’t really run on a handheld device at all, which makes it impressive that the Ally can do it so well. I found similar results with other demanding games like Horizon Zero Dawn, which hit highs of 70fps at 720p on the Ally in Turbo mode at medium settings, or a solid 50fps on performance mode with the same setup.
There is a limit, though. The PC enhanced edition of Metro Exodus runs, but you will need to be plugged in for it to play and you will struggle to keep 30fps in turbo mode. But it is just about playable. It doesn’t run on the Steam Deck at all.
For less intensive games like Hades, or Nex Machina—or even older AAA games—you can max out the settings on both devices without performance issues. The difference between the two is at the top end of the gaming pyramid. The options of higher resolution and a faster refresh rate also vastly improve the experience across all games on the Ally.
The Ally is a genuine power machine. It became a game itself to see what titles could run smoothly and at what settings, with the Ally handling almost everything thrown at it. For this reason, and this reason alone, the Asus ROG Ally has comfortably benched my Steam Deck and PS5 for the last two weeks. But I have come to realise that the Ally’s greatest feature could also be a poisoned chalice.
That 1080p, 120Hz display eats power, as does turbo mode. Even in performance mode at a higher resolution you will see that battery drain rapidly. For those AAA games, I get less than an hour of playing time before reaching for the charger. I will get two out of the Deck, but it doesn’t look as good. That isn’t a surprise. Without a major technological leap in battery technology this was always going to be the case. At home it’s a trade-off I’m happy to make because I’m close to a charger or I play plugged in. But if I’m travelling and I have to drop settings to conserve power, the downgrade is a bitter pill to swallow because I know what the device is capable of.
It’s a huge first world problem, but also an interesting one. Console gamers aren’t used to tweaking settings to get games to work. PC gamers are, of course. But once they have a game working, that’s usually it. Switching between the best graphics, or battery saving graphics, is a new problem created by a new category of consoles. This has been less the case on the Steam Deck because its performance ceiling isn’t as high as the Asus machine. As new devices come out from competitors, and from Valve, this will become a more common issue – if you can even call it that.
The Steam Deck really comes out on top here. It appears to be more power efficient with less demanding games. I have played simpler titles, like Next Machina and Super Monkey Ball, for up to four hours on the Deck with optimised settings. I was getting more than two hours of Doom Eternal at 60fps, high settings and limiting TDP.
Like I said, I have raced through my backlog at home, on trains and planes without ever being fully caught short. I’m less confident about the Ally’s ability to do this. There’s also a very active community of hardware modders—who mainly gather in the r/steamdeck Reddit sub—who 3D print and sell mounts for your portable batteries. Head over to Etsy, search “Steam Deck”, and you will see the enthusiasm and creativity of that community. Valve’s machine has the kind of consumer support that should be included when comparing the two devices outside of raw performance data.
I’ve talked almost exclusively about performance for a reason, that really is the standout feature of the Asus ROG Ally. My time with this and the Steam Deck has also made me realise that we’re watching a new battle bloom between two potential future greats of the handheld gaming scene. Two devices with two vastly different experiences.
The Steam Deck is a smooth, polished, well-thought-out experience that just works. While the Ally is a specification powerhouse with infinite customisation options thanks to Windows. If that sounds a bit iOS versus Android, or iPhone versus Samsung, it’s because there are similarities here. Valve in no way operates a wall-garden like Apple, but it does have the foundation in place to create a seamless user experience that Asus’ device is missing.
SteamOS is excellent. Yes, as an early adopter, there were issues like connectivity problems, Linux compatibility frustrations or extreme frame rate drops in games after waking from being in standby mode. But the overall experience feels premium because of things like how the library is organised, or how quickly settings can be tweaked mid-game. It is a proper console that has the sole function of playing video games. The ROG Ally is a computer that runs full fat Windows. It’s busier, clunkier and replete with all of the quirks of Windows.
There are some nice touches like the fingerprint reader on the power button and the aforementioned performance mode options. The fact that the Ally can run my Windows games without having to either buy them again on Steam, or go through the rigmore of trying to stream games to my Deck from my desktop, is a nice touch. Xbox Game Pass, Epic Store and other platforms work without any additional processes too. Windows gives you options and that is undoubtedly welcome.
But the ultimate selling point is that the Ally can access a tier of games that the Steam Deck simply can’t. The Ally sheds the core tenet of handheld gaming to make that possible – battery life, but it is possible. That is unquestionably true and there is a distinct difference between the two devices. That higher performance isn’t practical for portable gaming, but it is fun to see it in action. It feels like driving an F1 car to Sainsburys for my weekly grocery shop. A wildly fun but wholly impractical, unrealistic, experience.
I don’t know if Asus can create a smooth OS like Valve’s and beef up the device’s battery life, but I do know that Valve will release a device with improved specifications at some point. Valve has the tools, the community and reputation to kill off more powerful pretenders in the future. But right now, the Asus ROG Ally is getting all of my gaming time.
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