Ever since the Nintendo Switch arrived in 2017, it's been plausible to dream about carrying your entire gaming library with you. Valve’s Steam Deck comes the closest—after a buggy start, it’s become a surprisingly impressive piece of hardware. Now Asus hopes to dethrone it with the ROG Ally, a Windows-based device that promises to bring every PC game to a handheld.
It’s a bold promise, and one I was excited to see in action. I had been skeptical of the Steam Deck, but I wanted to believe, and that open-mindedness paid off. Unfortunately, after using the ROG Ally, I’m not convinced that Asus can compete with Valve’s handheld, much less Nintendo's. Basically, the ROG Ally is for those willing to sacrifice a lot of usability to play Fallout: New Vegas on the toilet.
The ROG Ally isn’t so much a Windows-based handheld gaming console as it’s just a Windows PC built inside a large controller with a screen. This is great for game compatibility and terrible for just about everything else. The very first time I tried to launch Steam from the Armoury launcher, the app crashed because I didn’t yet have an internet connection (which the device never prompted me to set up), popping up a standard, albeit tiny Windows error box.
Connecting to Wi-Fi, I found a UI problem that gave me a bad premonition of things to come: The onscreen keyboard I needed to enter my (rather long) Wi-Fi password covered half the password box. It was also finicky and failed to register several letters. To correct those mistakes, I had to hold down the “Show password” icon while stretching my fingers to tap the onscreen arrow keys.
It sounds minor, but connecting to Wi-Fi is one of the first, most basic aspects of setting up a device, and I was already annoyed. This was a theme that popped up constantly. I felt myself struggling against the form factor of the Ally. Once, while playing Doom Eternal, I was suddenly snapped out of the game to the Windows desktop, with a large black box filling half the screen. What merited such an interruption? “Your battery is running low. You might want to plug in your PC.”
Most of the UI work is offloaded to Windows-based game stores, and of those only Steam is really prepared for a handheld interface. Steam’s Big Picture mode is designed for everything from handhelds to TVs, and it's the default interface for the Steam Deck. It’s also what you’ll find when launching Steam on the Ally, but other stores like Xbox and Epic are just scaled-down versions of their desktop app.
When you install a game on the Steam Deck, you see a pop-up that lets you know what may or may not work in a handheld format—whether the game’s designed for a controller, text scaling, etc. The ROG Ally has none of that on its own. Steam will sometimes pick a controller profile for you, but when downloading games from the major stores, you’re taking a gamble on whether it will work.