Introduction, Design Features
For years, each side has been declaring that the end of the other’s time is nigh. But it’s now clear: Big, honking PC-gaming towers and trim console game machines are both here to stay for—at least—the foreseeable future.
But if you’re looking for a happy middle ground between the two, a compact gaming PC represents the best of both worlds. A good one offers PC-grade components, upgradability, and functionality, plus better graphics than consoles are generally capable of, in a space-saving chassis.
What would look like that quintessential compromise candidate? Let’s take the Asus Republic of Gamers GR8 II. Asus’ update to the Republic of Gamers GR8 we reviewed in 2015, it’s roughly the size of the original Sony PlayStation 4, albeit a little wider. And with a design that’s clearly aiming to capture the hearts of sci-fi fans, it looks console-like—or rather, it looks equal parts console and alien artifact.
One of the points on which the ROG GR8 II and the PS4 part ways is, unsurprisingly, the price. At $1,197 at the time of this writing, the ROG GR8 II we reviewed (the specific model number is the GR8 II-T043Z) costs about three times the current price of a PS4 Pro. (Lesser configurations of the GR8 II start at around $900; we’ll get into those later.) But for that price, you’re getting a healthy loadout of parts: an Intel Core i7-7700 processor, 16GB of RAM, both a 512GB M.2 solid state drive and a 1TB hard drive, and a full-size custom GeForce GTX 1060 graphics card with 3GB of memory.
The only bit of that list that isn’t close to top-notch is the video card, though the GTX 1060 is no slouch. For more about that card, see our review of the full-desktop GeForce GTX 1060 Founders Edition, but bear in mind that our Founders Edition test card had 6GB aboard. The lesser 3GB memory allotment here in the GR8 II’s card shouldn’t be an issue unless you’re gaming above 1080p, but know that that’s what you are getting. It’s a VR-ready card, which works in the GR8 II’s favor, and Asus included a few thoughtful details that make the GR8 II good as a VR source, versus a more ordinary gaming tower.
So, is the ROG GR8 II sequel better than the original? Is it The Empire Strikes Back, or more of a Jaws II? Let’s dig in and see.
The first thing that stands out about the ROG GR8 II is its unique design. Looking like some control component you might imagine finding on an alien ship, it’s not a design that anyone would call “understated.” With its orangey-bronze center strip, multi-colored LED stripes, and engraved patterns, it sports an aggressive, in-your-face aesthetic. It is immediately clear that this system was not designed for working on spreadsheets, though it can certainly do that.
Measuring 11.1 inches high by 3.5 inches wide, and 11.8 inches deep, the GR8 II is roughly the size of a gaming console standing vertically. At 8.8 pounds, it’s light enough that you can take it with you when you want to game in a hotel, off at your summer place, or at a LAN part (or move it to a better spot in your home for flailing around in VR). The external 230-watt power supply adds a little bulk, but not much.
The front of the system is broken into three sections, with that orange center flanked by two angled black wings. The orange area has two audio jacks and two USB 3.0 ports, one that can charge other devices when the system is powered off; the “Republic of Gamers” logo appears just below these ports. The black sections flanking it are accented by etched patterns and LED traces, with the left area also housing the LED-backlit power button.
The GR8 II’s side panels sport additional patterns, with the right side including a small window…
At the top of the unit, you’ll find some venting that you’ll know is necessary as soon as you turn on the system. Even at idle, the fans are audible. And at full load, they sound a bit like a small jet turbine.
Making your way to the rear of the system, you’ll find the rest of the GR8 II’s physical connections…
Here you’ll find an audio-out jack, an S/PDIF port, an Ethernet jack, two more USB 3.0 ports, two USB 3.1 ports (one with a Type-C connector, one a Type-A), a slot for a security-lockdown cable, the jack for the external power adapter, and three video outputs. The video connectors are a single DisplayPort, and two HDMIs. As for the wireless connectivity, the GR8 II offers 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2 support. The Wi-Fi paraphernalia is all internal; no alien-looking antennae sticking out. We have no connectivity complaints here, especially considering this is a compact PC.
The two HDMI ports are important to note. Asus points out that one of the two ports can be used for a VR headset, as the GR8 II is marketed as a VR-ready system. This is key from the point of view of convenience. The two HDMIs make it possible to have a VR headset connected at the same time as an HDMI-interface monitor, without making you have to swap out cables to VR around. We like that touch. Many full-size, higher-end video cards don’t even provide two HDMI ports, making you fall back on clunky adapters.
If you’re feeling brave and want to make your way inside the chassis to assess upgrades, you’ll need to pop off a plastic panel at the top. That will give you access to three screws hidden underneath it…
Remove these first. A fourth screw, found at the bottom of the compact tower, also needs to be extracted, after which you’ll be able to slide off one of the side panels…
As far as ease of access goes, this getting-inside process is a step down from the original ROG GR8. (In that older system, you just flipped a tab to the unlock position and slid a panel off.) But in the GR8 II’s defense, you now have access to more of the innards than you had with its older sibling.
Once inside the GR8 II’s body, you’ll have the ability to swap out the 2.5-inch hard drive, the M.2 SSD, and the two laptop-style 8GB SO-DIMMS. The 3GB GTX 1060 graphics card, however, you’ll have to leave alone, as it’s a custom card. And even if it weren’t, the 230-watt power supply couldn’t handle anything much more demanding than this card. This is a bit of a shame, as even a moderate bump up (say, to a 6GB version of the GTX 1060, or to the GTX 1070) would be appreciated when gaming.
Asus managed to resist most of the bloatware urge, loading the ROG GR8 II with Windows 10 Home and a handful of utilities, including the Asus Aura software that controls its lighting. As for the basic tech support, the hardware is covered by a one-year limited warranty.
While we’re on the subject of the software, this would be a good place to get into the nuances of the Aura app and the ROG GR8 II’s front-panel lighting. The software lets you control the ROG GR8 II’s lighting as a whole, or you can get more particular and tweak the lights individually in a host of discrete zones.
How the individual zones correspond to the lit spots on the actual case is impossible to discern from within the software, mind you. Each lighting spot on the front panel is an “AREA” in the Aura interface, but there’s no indication which AREA governs which LED…
That said, experiment a bit with the settings, and you’ll figure out which numbered “AREA” works with which LED trace or light cluster on the chassis front. (Note: Some of the AREAs in Aura govern just a fragment of one of the long stripes on the chassis’ front face.) You can set the PC as a whole (or any given LED zone) to any color on the Aura RGB ring, or apply the canned lighting effects than run down the left of the Aura UI across all the zones.
There’s no shortage of pre-cooked bling here. In this list, you get a host of the expected effects (strobing, wave-like color transitions, and breathing motions), as well as some selections unique to Aura (the down-racing of lights in “Glowing Yoyo,” or the flickery “Starry Night”) that we’ve seen on other Aura-compatible gear.
There’s also a quirky Music setting that we had some fun (if little ultimate satisfaction) messing around with…
Each genre/mode preset under Music triggers a different LED color and motion scheme. But the presets don’t have a clear relationship to their musical genres. The strobing pink-magenta for Romance makes sense, but we’re not sure what’s inherently yellow and flickery about Jazz, or why the Party preset was more subdued than most. (Maybe it was our tastes in tunes.) The brightness levels of the LEDs do scale with the volume level, though.
Note that we did have some difficulties with Aura out of the box, getting it to accept settings we made, or to apply them to zones. Sometimes, the software would stubbornly revert to a “global” preset such as Rainbow despite us applying another preset; only closing and relaunching the software would shake it out of its ornery state. Updating the Aura app with a newer version from the Asus site seemed to fix the problem, so you’ll want to do that right away if you go with a GR8 II.
Also note that by default the front-LED frippery stays lit up when you power down the GR8 II, which means you may end up with an unwelcome glowing pillar in your bedroom keeping you awake. You can disable this behavior in the BIOS.