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Despite Rocky Start, ROG Ally Made Portable PCs A Real Competition With Steam Deck

The ROG Ally didn't launch with the fanfare of the Steam Deck, but it's proven itself a viable competitor and helped open the marketplace of portable PCs.


The ROG Ally is celebrating its 1-year anniversary today, June 13, 2024. Below, we look back at how it overcame launch troubles to become a viable Steam Deck competitor, and a sign of how open the portable PC market can be.

Given how much the market for portable gaming PCs has exploded ever since Valve launched the Steam Deck in early 2022, it's remarkable to remember that its closest competitor is just a year old. Over a year after the Steam Deck hit the market, Asus followed up with the ROG Ally, a Windows-based gaming handheld that, on paper, was a big step-up over Valve's handheld. Not only was it more powerful (and potentially significantly so), it offered an experience that, at the time, was lacking on Valve's Linux-based SteamOS when it came to game and launcher compatibility. It didn't take long for the Ally's biggest draw to also be considered its achilles heel, but even with the initial teething issues of adapting Windows to a device it was never intended to work smoothly with, the ROG Ally has proven that there's more than enough consumer demand and variability for it to be incredibly successful.

Back in May 2023, Asus announced the ROG Ally just as Valve was beginning to get a grip on Steam Deck supply issues. For the longest time, it was incredibly difficult to get your hands on a Steam Deck, with a limited release across a handful of regions and demand completely outstripping supply. The ROG Ally was the antidote to that bitter pill, launching more widely across the globe given Asus' far more established distribution network, and giving those with a Steam Deck-sized hole in the heart another option. It competed on price, too, with its highest-spec model coming in at just $50 more than the equivalent Steam Deck. For that, you got a larger display, a higher 1080p resolution with a 120Hz refresh rate and, most importantly, variable refresh rate support. The ROG Ally was comparable to the Steam Deck in size and weight, albeit with slightly less favorable ergonomics as many would discover when getting it in hand. Still, with nearly eight times the theoretical power behind it thanks to the latest Z1 Extreme chip inside courtesy of AMD, it was looking like a no-brainer in a world where the weaker, and less attainable, Steam Deck currently ruled.

The ROG Ally offers similar form and functionality to Steam Deck on a Windows-based device.
The ROG Ally offers similar form and functionality to Steam Deck on a Windows-based device.

Another big draw was Windows, which made the ROG Ally compatible with anything you might want to play on a desktop. The Steam Deck launched with SteamOS, a highly customized version of Linux that allowed Valve to turn its handheld into a more console-like experience, albeit at the expense of compatibility. Many games, especially those with certain anti-cheat systems, were not compatible with the OS (and still aren't), while getting games from other launchers working required some tinkering. SteamOS was also incredibly buggy in the months after launch and flat-out didn't support Game Pass for PC given its requirement for the Windows Store. Windows support seemed like a viable solution to these problems, and one which gave the ROG Ally even more allure. Not only would Game Pass work without issue, switching between Steam, the Epic Games Store, and more would just work, as it would on any other desktop.

The problem that became noticeable after launch, however, wasn't that the ROG Ally wasn't up to the task of taking on the Steam Deck from a hardware standpoint, but that its chosen OS just wasn't up to the task of being used in the handheld format. Windows was cumbersome to navigate on the ROG Ally, and Asus' own attempt at wrapping the experience with its Armory Crate software was nowhere near as polished and seamless as the much more advanced SteamOS. The ROG Ally couldn't pause and suspend games when you turned the Ally off, a staple in the world of handhelds but a logical choice when Windows on a desktop never required this when playing games. It created a lot of friction between the freedom of choice and the user experience on the device, very quickly leading to suggestions that, despite the surprisingly small performance delta, the Steam Deck was still the preferable device.

And yet, the ROG Ally found a large, vocal audience. It was lauded for its compatibility across all launchers, specifically around making it easy to take Game Pass on the go. Its performance, while nowhere near the expected leap over the Steam Deck, was still enough to make the argument worth having, even if it came at the expense of battery life. Its display wasn't revolutionary, but the higher fresh rate and support for variable refresh rate gave it a significant advantage over the Steam Deck, with the latter especially important in a mobile device that can't always sustain a consistent framerate. Despite its inability to significantly overcome the hurdles Microsoft itself hasn't with Windows on this type of hardware, the ROG Ally became a strong choice for those with specific needs, making it exactly what it promised to be--an improvement over the Steam Deck that would provide some strong competition in this blossoming market.

Its effect has been noticeable, too. Before the ROG Ally launched, the Steam Deck was running almost unopposed given its price-to-performance ratio, but since then it's had to compete not only with Asus, but also the likes of Lenovo, MSI, Ayaneo, and new market players such as Zotac. Each one tries to differentiate itself with small iterations on the same base formula, with varying levels of success. Still, it's Asus and its ROG Ally that have come within striking distance of the Steam Deck, and remain its most popular competition. It's a product that Asus believes in too, with the announcement of a new iteration launching just over a year after the original. Targeted to fix some of the original's shortcomings, the Asus ROG Ally X comes with slightly revised ergonomics, replaceable thumbsticks, a significantly larger battery, and better cooling considerations. It's not the sequel that some might have craved, with both Asus and Valve waiting for the expected significant increase in performance from AMD's upcoming chips. When that day finally arrives, however, it'll be fascinating to see how round two of this bout will play out, with consumers ultimately being the biggest winners.

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