If you're on a quest to find the best gaming phone out there, you have a wide array of specialist options to consider, including the Asus ROG, Razer Phone 2, Nubia Red Magic Mars, Redmi Note 7 Pro and Xiaomi's Black Shark.
The best gaming phones are designed especially for playing games, with features including Super AMOLED screens, large screens, superfast processors, advanced cooling systems, stereo speakers, gaming-specific controls and displays with a high refresh rate. The specs match higher-priced flagships such as the Pixel 3, Samsung Galaxy S10 and OnePlus 6T. And every phone on this list is an Android device.
Apple/s iPhone XS and XR have more powerful processors and access to newer and exclusive mobile game titles. However, gamers should know that the iPhone X lacks the features to make the gaming mode compelling to play in.And like flagship Android phones, iPhones are expensive -- a baseline iPhone XS starts out at $999.
The four phones reviewed here, the Razer Phone 2, Asus ROG, Xiaomi Black Shark and Nubia Red Magic Mars, have prices ranging from $400 to $800. Gaming on your phone doesn't have to break the bank -- it just has to be fun.
I evaluated each gaming smartphone in terms of design, specs, performance and, most importantly, mobile gameplay. (P.S.: All of them have the Snapdragon 845 chipset that's found in the Galaxy Note 9, OnePlus 6T and Pixel 3.) Additionally, I mentioned camera capabilities where necessary, as a good camera can be very important. Below are my recommendations and an in-depth breakdown of the gameplay, design, battery life and cooling systems of each smartphone. All had a large screen. Read on to see which of these gaming phones is the best buy.
At this time, three of the phones cost about $500 or less. The Razer is the most expensive of this group of phones. For the price of one Razer Phone 2, you could practically buy both theRed Magic Mars and the Black Shark.
Even if you got an upgraded Black Shark gaming phone with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, it would still be less than $400.
I'm not saying don't buy the Razer Phone 2 at all (as you will read soon, I highly recommend it). But the best phone for you will most likely depend on your budget.
The Asus ROG phone (ROG stands for Republic of Gamers) offers the most power, the best ergonomics and the most thoughtful design of this group. Its 6-inch AMOLED display refreshes 90 times a second -- a first for any OLED phone with an AMOLED screen. The higher refresh rate means less motion blur and faster response times. It's not as high a rate as the Razer Phone 2's 120Hz LCD display has, but I still saw a noticeable improvement over other phones when playing games.
The phone's innovative AirTriggers are pressure-sensitive corners that double as bumper buttons for games, expanding your control beyond the screen. Its dedicated X Mode gives you an optimized gaming experience that's 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 (more battery means more playing time!) in the group and has the most gaming accessories that you can buy -- though, again, the detachable fan comes included with the phone. Image quality from the rear camera is good.
Read more: CNET's Asus ROG phone reviewSee at Amazon
If you're looking for a gaming phone that's also a good everyday phone, I recommend the Razer Phone 2. It looks the part of a gaming phone, but doubles as a terrific Android phone to use every day when you're not gaming. 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-refresh-rate and display. Whether you're gaming or not, animations like scrolling pages look smooth and graphics are crisp. The device has amazingly loud built-in speakers and seems as designed for mobile gamers as it is for anyone who lives on a diet of movies and music. Its rear camera has improved hardware, but image quality on the rear camera is just OK (it's no selfie camera).
In my initial Razer phone review, the battery wasn't great, but with the update to Android 9 Pie, the battery life has improved quite a bit.
Read: CNET Razer Phone 2 reviewSee at Amazon
The Nubia Red Magic Mars is the follow-up to 2018's Red Magic phone. A Red Magic Mars with 64GB of internal storage and 6GB of RAM originally cost $399. Now that gets you a model with 128GB of storage and 8GB RAM.
The Red Magic Mars crams in 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 is the screen: It's just OK, and in that area, the Red Magic Mars can't compete with the Razer and ROG phones.
Other than that, 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 its price for a while was hovering between $330 and $400.
Nubia's Red Magic Mars 3 packs an upgraded Snapdragon 855 processor, a 90Hz OLED display and an internal fan. These are enormous upgrades. Best of all is the price; a model with 64GB storage and 6GB of RAM will be roughly $418.See at Newegg
Xiaomi's 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, but there is a Gamepad 2.0 for $89 that has a more symmetrical design. Similarly to the Nintendo Switch, the device has a left and right controller that slide and lock onto either end of the phone.
Like the Red Magic Mars, the Shark runs close to a stock version of Android. It's Android 8.1 Oreo and not Android 9 Pie, but using the phone's UI for nongaming stuff felt like using a Pixel 3 when it first came out.
There are some downsides to Shark gaming, though, like the lack of a headphone jack and the very "cheap" plastic feel to the gamepad accessory.
At launch, the Shark cost $499, but you could find it for around $320. The Xiaomi Black Shark 2 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.See at Amazon
I played a variety of mobile 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 7 minutes, the Shark got warm. The physical buttons on the Gamepad were nice, but I didn't find much of an advantage over screen taps.
Razer: After 8 minutes, the phone warmed up on the sides and corners. The display 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 4 minutes the fan accessory kicked in. The phone remained lukewarm throughout gameplay though. The main game controls are tapping and tapping-and-holding on 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 PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds 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 $150 Razer Raiju Mobile game controller it 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 gunfire 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. Recalibrating 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.
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.
If you want a gaming phone, it needs to look the part. Angular lines, exposed copper heat sinks, a touch of neon and 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 found that people were divided on the look: Half loved it, half hated it.
The Black Shark looks the most like a normal phone. The smooth angled back on the Shark 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.
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 mobile games, optimize settings and protect your mobile gaming sessions from interruptions. The Black Shark calls its gaming mode Shark Space. Every time I played on the Shark I felt inclined to whisper to myself, "Going into Shark Space."
The ROG and Red Magic Mars have faux shoulder buttons that can be mapped to different actions for mobile 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 I found most of these additions were nice but didn't yield enormous improvement when it came to controls. In my opinion, good mobile games should be played with onscreen controls. However, having capacitive touch buttons for playing mobile 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 thumbstick 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 display, my joystick dream doesn't seem like it could become a reality. But since gaming phones tend to eschew mainstream trends, perhaps it could happen one day.
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 Google Pixel 3 tops out at 2.5GHz.
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 isn't 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 the 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 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 intakes 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 periods of gameplay.
Each phone has performance enhancement tweaks that keep the phone fast and sustain that speed during extended gameplay. All four phones perform pretty close to each other and all four were plenty fast. But on paper, the Razer ultimately has the edge in gaming performance over the other phones.
Pretty much all phones have screens that refresh 60 frames per second. The Razer Phone 2 has a refresh rate of 120fps, which leads to sharper images and text as well as smoother animations. There aren't a ton of mobile games designed for 120fps, 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 refresh rate. Like on the Razer, things are sharper and animations are smoother. The Razer Phone 2 has a much brighter display 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.
The Razer Phone 2 and Black Shark both have a 4,000-mAh battery and during our test for continuous video playback in airplane mode, the phones lasted nearly the same amount of time. The Shark battery stayed on for 10 hours and 25 minutes and Razer Phone 2 battery lasted 10 hours and 31 minutes. It's worth noting that when I first reviewed the Razer, the 4,000-mAh battery only lasted 9 hours and 11 minutes. That impressive extra hour or so of battery time is thanks to the Android 9 Pie update.
The ROG also has a 4,000-mAh battery, but the battery lasted even longer in our tests at 13 hours and 40 minutes. I think a lot of that has to do with the phone having an OLED screen, instead of an LCD one like the other three phones.
The Red Magic Mars has the smallest battery of the four at 3,800 mAh, but the battery 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 battery charge just fine.
The built-in stereo speakers on the Razer and ROG are loud and offer a rich audio experience whether you're playing a game or watching videos. The Razer also has 24-bit digital-to-analog converter (DAC) via a USB Type-C dongle. With a good pair of headphones, audio sounded warmer and fuller.
My priority was comparing phones designed around the gaming experience first and foremost. Would the Samsung Galaxy S10E or the iPhone XR be an excellent phone for gaming? Absolutely. They both have powerful processors and lots of RAM and are a tad more affordable than their flagship siblings, the iPhone XS and Samsung 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 has released its gaming subscription service filled with exclusives called Arcade. The platform offers some amazing gaming experiences built exclusively for the iPhone.