At this time mobile gamers have access to a wide array of phones like the Razer Phone 2, Asus ROG, Nubia Red Magic Mars and Black Shark. The specs on these phones match higher priced flagships like the Galaxy S10, Pixel 3 and OnePlus 6T, just not the price. Gaming phones are designed specially for gaming. They offer a combination of features, like super-fast processor speeds, advanced cooling systems, gaming-specific controls, and displays with a high refresh rate. Interestingly enough all of these phones run on Android.
The iPhone XS and XR have a more powerful processor and access to newer and exclusive game titles. But Apple’s phones lack gaming features to make the phones more compelling to play on. And like Android flagships, the iPhone is expensive – a baseline iPhone XS starts out at $999.
Fortunately for consumers, the four phones I have chosen have a wide variety of options: price. Of the four gaming phones I looked at the prices ranged from $400 to $900: Razer Phone 2, , Xiaomi Black Shark and Nubia Red Magic Mars.
I evaluated each phone in terms of design, specs, performance and, most importantly, gameplay. (P.S.: All of them have the Snapdragon 845 chipset that’s found in the Note 9, OnePlus 6T and Pixel 3.) Below are my recommendations and an in-depth breakdown of gameplay, design, battery life and cooling systems on each phone. Read on to see what phone comes out on top.
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But first, some notes on price
At this time, three of the phones cost under $500. The Razer Phone 2 is a steal right now, especially since its originally retailed for $800. Compared to the other phones, the ROG is the most expensive. For the price of one ROG, you could buy the Red Magic Mars and Black Shark and still have a few bucks left in your pocket.
Even if you got an upgraded Black Shark with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, it is still just $425. Also, as of the writing of this review, there are discounts on the Black Shark and Red Magic Mars as new models are expected to be released in the US at the end of May/June.
I’m not saying don’t buy the ROG at all (as you will read soon, I highly recommend it). But the phone you’ll buy will most likely depend on your budget.
Best overall gaming phone: Asus ROG
The Asus ROG phone (which stands for the Republic of Gamers) offers the most power, the best ergonomics and the most thoughtful design. Its 6-inch AMOLED display refreshes 90 times a second — a first for any OLED phone. The higher refresh rate means less motion blur and faster response times. It’s not as high as the Razer Phone 2’s 120Hz LCD screen, but I still saw a noticeable improvement over other phones when playing games.
The phone’s innovative AirTriggers which are pressure sensitive corners that double as bumper buttons for games, expand game control beyond the screen. Its dedicated X mode gives you an optimized gaming experience that can be made even more comfortable when using the phone’s detachable fan accessory, which is included in the box. The ROG also has the longest battery life in the group, and has the most gaming accessories that you can buy — though the detachable fan comes included with the phone.
The downside is that, at $900, you’re going to pay a lot for these refinements and innovations.
Best gaming phone for the everyday: Razer Phone 2
If you’re looking for a gaming phone that can double as a daily driver, I recommend the Razer Phone 2. It looks the part of a gaming phone, but doubles as a terrific phone to use everyday, the rest of the time. The Razer Phone 2 is the only phone in the group with IP67 water resistance and wireless charging.
Out of the four, I like the Razer Phone 2’s design the most. There are many people who will be turned off by the “monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey” looks. But the marquee feature on the Razer Phone 2 is its bright 120Hz screen. Whether you’re gaming or not, animations like scrolling pages look super smooth and graphics are crisp. It has amazingly loud built-in speakers and seems as designed for gamers as it is for anyone who lives on a diet of movies and music.
In my initial review the battery wasn’t great, but with the update to Android 9 Pie, the battery life has improved quite a bit. Best of all, this phone is only $499 right now.
Best value gaming phone: Nubia Red Magic Mars
The Nubia Red Magic Mars is the followup to 2018’s Red Magic phone. A Red Magic Mars with 64GB of storage and 6GB of RAM originally cost $399. Now that gets you a model with 128GB of storage and 8GB of RAM.
The Red Magic Mars crams a lot of features like capacitive shoulder buttons, an innovative cooling system and a terrific game mode at a wallet-friendly price. Aside from its custom gaming mode, the phone runs stock Android 9 Pie. Its biggest downside though is the screen. It’s just OK, and it can’t compete with the Razer and ROG phone.
Other than that though, the phone is solid. But if you’re interested in grabbing a Red Magic Mars, I’d wait, or at least shop around. First, the Black Shark is often discounted and recently its price has been hovering between $380 and $400.
Second, Nubia announced the Red Magic Mars 3 last week. It packs an upgraded Snapdragon 855 processor, a 90Hz OLED screen and an internal fan. These are enormous upgrades. It just launched in China and is expected to hit the US at the end of May. Best of all is the price; a model with 64GB storage and 6GB of RAM will be 2,899 yuan or roughly $430.
Best gaming phone with the best accessory: Black Shark
The Black Shark comes with a Gamepad that slides onto the end of the phone. Having a physical joystick made a huge difference in gaming for me. Unfortunately, it felt lopsided when I used it, so there is a Gamepad 2.0 for $89 that has a more symmetrical design. Similar to the Nintendo Switch, it has a left and right controller that slides and locks onto either end of the phone.
Like the Red Magic Mars, the Black Shark runs close to a stock version of Android. However it’s Android 8.1 Oreo and not Android 9 Pie. Though using the phone’s UI for non-gaming stuff felt like using a Pixel 3 when it first came out.
There are some downsides though, like the lack of a headphone jack and the very “cheap” plastic feel to the gamepad accessory.
At launch the Black Shark cost $499 but you can find it for around $380 these days. In March, Xiaomi announced the Black Shark 2. It includes an updated Snapdragon 855 processor, a touch-sensitive screen similar to Apple‘s 3D Touch, an in-display fingerprint reader and mappable onscreen left and right controls. Currently it’s on sale in China for 3,200 yuan, which converts roughly to $475. No word though on US availability.
Shall we play a game?
I played a variety of games on all of these phones from RPGs and side scrollers to puzzles. Below are five games I played on each phone and my notes on the experience.
Black Shark: After seven minutes, the phone got warm. The physical buttons on the Gamepad were nice, but I didn’t find much of an advantage over screen taps.
Razer: After eight minutes, the phone warmed up on the sides and corners. The screen made the constantly shifting graphics look amazing.
Red Magic Mars: In darker scenes, it was difficult to see details on the display. Like the ROG, the touch shoulder buttons were OK, but I preferred the onscreen controls for this game.
ROG: After four minutes the fan accessory kicked in. The phone remained lukewarm throughout gameplay though. The main game control is tapping and tapping/holding the screen. I tried using the pressure sensitive AirTriggers instead, but for fast jumps and holding flips I found more nuance from the onscreen controls.
Black Shark: Having the joystick on the Gamepad accessory and actual buttons changed PUBG for me. It was so easy to run and move. With my fingers off the screen I could see the game better, too. Note that the Gamepad kind of bends and feels like it’s a sneeze away from breaking. It makes the Nintendo Switch feel like a robust piece of German engineering.
Razer: After 12 minutes the phone was very warm. Game control was OK, but when I played with the optional $150it was a far more enjoyable experience — especially since I didn’t have to hold onto a warm phone with my bare hands.
Red Magic Mars: The phone got warm after 20 minutes. The capacitive shoulder buttons are great to have, especially for gun fire and kneeling.
ROG: The fan popped on right away at a low speed, but the phone never got hot. Mapping onscreen controls to the pressure sensitive shoulder buttons (AirTriggers) was easy and made playing PUBG much easier.
Black Shark: Within minutes the phone got really hot.
Razer: The music and effects sounded full over the built-in speakers. But man oh man did the phone get hot.
Red Magic Mars: The audio was thin and when the volume grew louder it also sounded muddy. Without a case, this is my favorite phone to hold for playing Sdorica.
ROG: The phone remained warm but never got hot.
Black Shark: Sometimes the joystick on the Gamepad 2.0 accessory would send me in the wrong direction. Re-calibrating didn’t help.
Razer: The phone was warm bordering on hot. I used the included USC-B DAC headphone dongle and a pair of Sennheiser over-the-ear headphones and was amazed by the quality of the sound.
Red Magic Mars: It was surprisingly comfortable to hold without getting hot. I didn’t feel any real advantage using the capacitive shoulder buttons over onscreen controls.
ROG: Shadow Legends got the ROG cooking pretty hot and the fan turned on high immediately. Shoulder buttons weren’t needed for this game.
Nimian Legends BrightRidge
Black Shark: This was another game where the joystick accessory hugely improved gameplay.
Razer: I topped out the quality of the graphics, effects and frame rates with this game. The Razer got hot instantly. At least the game looked gorgeous on the display.
Red Magic Mars: The capacitive shoulder buttons helped in certain aspects of the game.
ROG: The AirTriggers were nice for gameplay.
That ‘gamer look’
If you want a gaming phone, it needs to look the part. Angular lines, exposed copper heat sinks, a touch of neon or bright colors are all hallmarks of a gaming phone. The metallic red color of the Red Magic Mars screams for you to pick it up and play.
The ROG phone looks like something Frank Gehry would have designed if he were a gamer. Somewhere underneath all the exposed copper heat sinks, carbon fiber and angular cutouts lies a smartphone. Its different textures and asymmetrical grooves don’t feel like any phone I’ve ever used. An informal poll of friends and coworkers showed that people were divided on the look though. Half loved it, but half hated it.
The Black Shark looks the most like a normal phone. The smooth angled back has a raised area like contour lines on a topographic map — that’s where its lights are hidden.
Out of the four, the Razer Phone 2 has the most minimalist design. It has a rectangular shape with right-angled corners and edges. I realize this approach isn’t for everyone, but out of the bunch, I find it the most appealing.
Does the phone unnecessarily light up?
- Black Shark: Yes, the logo and four bowtie-looking corners on the back.
- Razer: Yep, the back Razer logo glows the color of your choosing.
- Red Magic Mars: Yes, there is a long LED strip on the back.
- ROG: Yes, the Asus logo on the phone and the detachable fan light up any color you choose.
Built-in physical game controls
Three of the phones use buttons and/or capacitive or pressure sensitive touch to help improve gameplay. The Red Magic Mars and Black Shark phones each have a physical switch that triggers a game mode to organize your games, optimize settings and protect your gaming sessions from interruptions. The Black Shark calls its gaming mode “Shark Space”. Every time I played on the Black Shark I felt inclined to whisper to myself, “Going into Shark Space.”
The ROG and Red Magic Mars have faux shoulder buttons which can be mapped to different actions for games like triggering a gun. The ROG also has a second USB-C port on the side, so you keep the phone plugged in while playing it in landscape, though the cable does fall between your hands. The other three phones only charge at the bottom, which made them awkward to hold while gaming and charging at the same time.
The Razer Phone 2 is the only phone of the group that doesn’t have a physical feature to improve game controls or ergonomics.
After playing games for hours on each phone most of these additions were nice, but didn’t yield enormous improvement when it came to controls. I found that good mobile games should be played with onscreen controls. However, having capacitive touch buttons for playing games originally designed for a console was useful.
There is one feature I’d add if I were to design a gaming phone: a joystick. I’d want a thumb stick that could lie flat when not in use and telescope up for gameplay. Imagine something like an iPhone 8, where the home button popped up to be used as a mini joystick.
As phones move away from having bezels, foreheads and chins around the screen, my joystick dream doesn’t seem like it could become a reality. But since gaming phones tend to eschew mainstream trends, perhaps there’s hope one day.
Same processor but one is faster
All of these phones use a Snapdragon 845 processor, which is pushed beyond normal speeds for gameplay. For example, the ROG can get a sustained 2.96GHz out of the processor while all the other phones max out at 2.8GHz. For perspective, the Pixel 3 tops out at 2.5GHz.
Cooling systems is the key to a gaming phone
All of these phones have an internal cooling system to keep things from getting too hot. This is probably the most important aspect of a gaming phone.
The Razer Phone 2 and ROG use a vapor chamber cooling system to maximize the area to dissipate heat. The result is that there’s not a specific part of the phone that feels hot to the touch. The ROG also uses a built-in cooling pad and copper heat sink to combat heat. And if that weren’t enough, there’s also a tiny fan that attaches to the back of the ROG that Asus calls the AeroActive Cooler.
The Black Shark uses a liquid cooling system. As it gets hotter, special liquid evaporates into gas and collects into cooler areas of the chamber, eventually becoming liquid again. The Red Magic Mars uses a vapor heat sink too, along with four air in-takes to keep things cool.
As expected, all four phones got warm when I played games but these cooling systems are all about longevity. I found the ROG with its fan accessory and the Red Magic Mars were the most comfortable to hold for long durations of gameplay.
Which gaming phone is the fastest?
Each phone has performance enhancement tweaks that keep the phone fast and sustain that speed during extended gameplay. In terms of performance, all four phones perform pretty close to each other and all four were plenty fast. But, the Razer ultimately has the edge over the other phones on paper.
High refresh rate display
Pretty much all phones have screens that refresh 60 frames per second (fps). The Razer Phone 2 has a refresh rate of 120 fps, which leads to sharper images and text as well as smoother animations. There aren’t a ton of mobile games designed for 120 fps, but the ones that were looked wonderful. And even games designed for lower refresh rates looked good.
The only other phone with a high refresh rate is the ROG, which has a 90Hz screen. Like the Razer, things are sharper and animations are smoother. The Razer Phone 2 has a much brighter screen while the ROG’s OLED display had better colors that were more vibrant.
The Red Magic Mars screen is the weakest part of the phone. It’s dim and feels lower quality when viewed next to the other phones.
Android 9 Pie and Android 8.1 Oreo
- Black Shark: Android 8.1 Oreo. It’s not known exactly when Android 9 Pie will be available.
- Razer: Android 9 Pie.
- Red Magic Mars: Android 9 Pie.
- ROG: Android 8.1 Oreo: Asus announced it will upgrade to Android 9 Pie sometime this year.
Solid battery life even when gaming
The Razer Phone 2 and Black Shark both have a 4,000mAh battery and during our test for continuous video playback on airplane mode, the phones lasted nearly the same amount of time. The Black Shark stayed on for 10 hours and 25 minutes and Razer Phone 2 lasted 10 hours and 31 minutes. It’s worth noting that when I first reviewed the Razer last fall, it only lasted 9 hours and 11 minutes. That impressive extra hour or so is thanks to the Android 9 Pie update.
The ROG also has a 4,000mAh battery but lasted even longer in our tests at 13 hours and 40 minutes. I think a lot of that has to do with the phone’s OLED screen, instead of an LCD one like the other three phones.
The Red Magic Mars has the smallest battery of the four at 3,800mAh, but managed a time of 14 hours and 7 minutes in our tests.
In everyday use, all four phones got through a day on a single charge just fine.
Quick Charge support
- Black Shark: Quick Charge 3.0
- Razer: Quick Charge 4.0+
- Red Magic Mars: Quick Charge 3.0
- ROG: Quick Charge 4.0
Big speakers equal big sound
The built-in speakers on the Razer and ROG are loud and offer a rich audio experience whether playing a game or watching videos. The Razer also has 24-bit digital-to-analog converter (DAC) via a USB-C dongle. With a good pair of headphones, audio sounded warmer and fuller.
Why we didn’t consider the Galaxy S10E and iPhone XR
My priority was comparing phones designed around the gaming experience first and foremost. Would the Galaxy S10E or the iPhone XR be an excellent phone for gaming? Absolutely. They both have powerful processors, lots of RAM and are a tad more affordable than their flagship siblings, the iPhone XS and Galaxy S10.
But neither is focused solely on the gaming experience and culture. The iPhone offers an interesting predicament because iOS tends to get new games first, and many games remain iOS exclusives. To that end, Apple announced it would offer a gaming subscription service filled with exclusives called Arcade. The platform offers some amazing gaming experiences that were built exclusively for the iPhone. At this point, there is no word on when the service will launch or how much the subscription will be.