(Pocket-lint) - Gaming's success over recent years has seen many developers looking beyond console and PC and expanding into the mobile gaming market. As titles become more graphically demanding and audiences grow, a niche has opened for gaming phone hardware to offer something altogether different to the flagship norm.
Black Shark - the Chinese giant that's 47 per cent owned by Xiaomi (thus it has good supply chain access and funding) - is one company at the forefront of this movement. If you don't know the name just yet then, let us tell you, the Black Shark 2 will be the gaming phone to get people to pay attention.
After all, we've seen the Razer Phone through two iterations with limited market impact, while the Asus ROG gaming phone's design aesthetic is so 'hyper-gamer' that it's not made waves either. The Black Shark 2, on the other hand, is an ideal balance of gaming great thanks to all its power, wrapped up in a well-considered design.
- Dimensions: 163.6 x 75 x 8.7mm / Weight: 205g
- Rear illuminating Black Shark 'S' logo
- In-screen fingerprint scanner
- No 3.5mm headphone jack
- Dual front-facing speakers
A lot of gaming devices can look somewhat 'coarse' with the design language. There are laptops with excessive flashy lights and massive vents that don't suit all tastes.
The Black Shark 2 sits somewhere in the middle on this front: there's an illuminating rear 'S' logo, much like on the Razer Phone 2, along with two side lights that can illuminate, flash, 'breathe' and cycle through colours based on different notifications. We think it's a great notification light feature that can be as subtle or as boisterous as you please based on software adjustments - so you can have subdued flagship, or all-out gaming device as you please.
We didn't think we'd be so taken by a device that's dedicated for gamers, but think that Black Shark has nailed this design - we especially love the subtle green edging and buttons that you'll only catch a whisper of in the right light. However, it's a thicker phone than your norm, with extra internal space needed for cooling. Not that it's massive by any means - we've been using it as our go-to phone for a full week and while it's bigger than our new Huawei P30 Pro, it's fine in the pocket.
Now, the Black Shark 2 lacks some of the mod cons that you'll find on other flagships - there's no notch, for example, while its 'forehead' and 'chin' bezel is larger than some - but we think the justification for this is perfectly fine. For this phone features dual front-facing speakers, unlike many of the non-gaming competition, which are positioned so you won't cover them up with your hand. However, the speakers are a little muffled in their delivery of sound - the Razer Phone 2 sounds far better.
We're not talking about the overall bezel being massive as a result of these speakers though. As there's no notch, there's no compromise for how games will fill the 6.39-inch display, while those speaker areas ensure there's some left/right bezel to grip the phone when it's in landscape orientation. There's no home button/rear scanner indent to get in the way either as there's an in-display fingerprint scanner - which works every bit as swimmingly as the one you'll find in the Xiaomi Mi 9.
- 6.39-inch OLED panel, 1080 x 2340 resolution (403ppi), 19.5:9 aspect ratio
- Fast Finger low-latency & Magic Press pressure sensitivity
If you've been following the flagship phone market over recent years then this screen size will likely sound familiar. That's because it's the same 6.39-inch OLED panel made by Samsung that you'll find in a whole variety of phones - from the Huawei Mate 20 Pro to the Samsung Galaxy S9.
No, it doesn't have the next-generation resolution of the 6.4-inch panel found in the Galaxy S10+, nor can the refresh rate extend beyond 60Hz - unlike the excellent 120Hz LCD panel in the Razer Phone 2. However, we did interview Black Shark's CEO, Peter Wu, who said that the company was in talks with its panel provider, Samsung, to investigate 90Hz and 120Hz output in the future. This would require a hardware change, though, so we're talking Black Shark 3 territory and beyond rather than something here and now.
Overall we think the BS2 has got all the clarity, colour and punch that's needed from such a screen. There are caveats though: namely the auto-brightness is over-reactive to adjusting ambient conditions and often sets itself far too dark. Within gaming settings - activated with the Shark Mode switch to the side of the phone - it's possible to fix brightness settings when playing specific titles, so there's an easy workaround. One other quibble is the way the in-screen fingerprint scanner illuminates the whole screen - other makers have streamlined to only illuminate the fingerprint area, which is a far neater and less distracting solution.
There are plenty of screen positives though, as this screen isn't just a straight copy of what you'll find elsewhere. Black Shark, with its gaming mantra, has focused on delivering low latency in what it calls Fast Finger technology (and a claimed 43.5ms response time - something we can't scientifically measure to confirm). By developing its own driver chips, modifying algorithms for touch control, and upping the recording rate of the touch point to 240Hz (it's typically 120-180Hz) this is made possible. It's been responsive for our play sessions - although we're not convinced that such minor milliseconds will affect the outcome in most mobile games.
There's another element to screen control that works a treat too. It's called Magic Press, which you can think of like Apple's 3D Touch, but formed with different intentions for its gaming focus. A firmer press on screen will trigger a different assigned action. The software permits a left/right screen division, where sensitivity can be software set between 1-7 for how sensitive the screen will be to a press - and you can test it out to gauge whether it's suitable to your press, thanks to an on-screen pressure bar. You can even draw the specific area where you want the upped sensitivity to be, making this the most customisable screen we've ever seen in a mobile phone. That's great gaming-grade customisation right there, delivered in an easy-to-use format - but it's only useful for so many titles where it can be assigned.
- GamePad 2.0 sold separately for £69
While those screen optimisations are certainly great for gamers, it's the Black Shark's gaming prowess that really impresses. In particular when using the GamePad 2.0 accessories. Black Shark sells these accessories as a single package - thumbstick and buttons for left side; touchpad and buttons for right; and rear case to clip them onto - as a single package for £69/€79.
The controllers pair by Bluetooth once they're switched on via the individual small switch to each of their undersides. This process happens seamlessly, we found, despite no NFC being present in the phone. It's an elegant solution because the phone doesn't need any design distractions for these components to clip on
On the downside, however, the controllers can't draw from the phone's battery and have to be individually charged via their own USB-C port. We also don't know how long they'll last yet (several casual sessions haven't seen them dwindle to zero yet) - but you can monitor their progress within the Shark Mode software.
Still, clipping the GamePad 2.0 components onto the phone turns the Black Shark 2 into a viable console alternative. If you've been eyeing up the Nintendo Switch then don't let this distract you, but if you've wanted to play, say, PUBG Mobile but have found the on-screen mobile controls way too taxing then this is the perfect way to get such a setup
You can also clip the two controllers together for a handheld controller, then plug the Black Shark 2 into a TV or monitor via USB-to-HDMI and play on the big screen. With the native resolution not bettering 1080p, however, you won't be getting any 4K greatness out of this little package. You'll also need to buy the cable as it doesn't come in the box.
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 855, 6/8/12GB RAM configurations
- Shark Space gaming mode & Ludicrous Mode for max CPU
- Direct Touch liquid cooling system 3.0
- 4,000mAh battery, 27W fast-charging
- Joy UI software (built on Android 9)
Being a gaming phone, Black Shark has opted for Qualcomm's top-end chipset, the Snapdragon 855. Not only that, it can be configured with up to a whopping 12GB RAM. We've only ever seen one other phone with that much memory - the Vivo Dual Display, which can run Android on both of its screens simultaneously. So the Black Shark 2 has some serious power.
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Our phone, however, is the 8GB RAM version, meaning it's not got quite as much grunt. That said, with PUBG Mobile running, it's still performed wonderfully smoothly. The GamePad 2.0 controllers being clipped on makes the game so much more accessible, while Shark Mode frees up memory for gaming only, without interruptions from other apps.
Black Shark has implemented a cooling system that covers every component of the chipset, too, ensuring efficient dissipation of heat. That doesn't stop the device from getting a little hot, though, so it's not a foolproof solution. Heat has to be generated, after all, and it's got to go somewhere. But ensuring it's well managed means the CPU can run harder for longer - something that's untapped when Ludicrous mode is activated (Tesla, yeah, there might be something to be said about that) via a swipe from the corner of the screen within Shark Mode.
Beyond the built-in liquid cooling, however, there's an optional Cooling Case accessory that has its own built-in battery, built-in fan and clips onto the back of the phone to further aid cooling and longevity. The company's CEO, Peter Wu, claimed on stage at the Black Shark 2 launch event in Beijing, that it can cool the phone by 5C in as little as 10 seconds. We've only been able to glance at this accessory though as it's not due to be out until May 2019.
With intense gaming sessions the battery is going to take a bit of beating. But with a 4,000mAh cell at its core, the Black Shark 2 has a flagship level capacity and lasts fairly well. Using the device as our day-to-day, with some gaming sessions for two-and-a-half hours, we've been getting around 16 hours of use (around eight hours of screen time within that, according to the breakdown). The battery seems to deplete quicker below the 50 per cent mark, or maybe it's just our anxiety about that.
There's also 27W fast-charging, as pulled from the Xiaomi Mi 9, which is fast enough to enable charging to occur (at a reduced rate) even while playing games - and seeing as lesser phone continue to battery drain when heavyweight apps are open, this is a likely godsend for gamers.
The last piece of the performance puzzle is the software. Now, Black Shark has what it likes to call Joy UI, which is effectively pure Android Pie with some additional gaming apps and features over the top - including Shark Mode. It's not the Xiaomi MIUI format that we had anticipated, which is a great thing, as there's nothing in the way of your day-to-day and gaming use. With Google Play available from the off in our EU-flashed handset, it's clear the Black Shark 2 will be coming to Europe sooner rather than later - despite no official word just yet.
We've also found one other issue with the phone: its connectivity is highly over-optimistic. When travelling through the Eurotunnel between the UK and France - where, for the record, there is no mobile signal - the Black Shark 2 showed presence of 3G throughout, along with connectivity, despite there being none.
- Dual rear cameras: 12MP f/1.75 main, 12MP f/2.2 2x zoom lens
- Front camera: 20MP f/2.0
When we reviewed the original Black Shark phone, we thought the cameras were so-so at best. But then we didn't really care because, after all, this is a gaming phone, designed for gamers first and foremost.
The Black Shark 2 bumps the specs in this area a little, knowing it's an important driver for any flagship phone. So you'll find a dual 12-megapixel setup with a standard wide-angle and a 2x tele lens.
The camera app is quick to focus and respond to adjustments, although swiping between modes - slow motion, video, photo, portrait, panorama, pro - is somewhat slow, so the app needs some modification in that department.
With 4K video at 30fps and automated background blur in Portrait mode there's the usual stock expectations here. It's not a best-of-best solution, but it's a step forward over the original phone that's for sure.
The results are reasonably fine too. We've spent some time in Paris, grabbing snaps in various conditions, and there's just enough detail in shots - unless you're critically looking at 100 per cent scale. There's warmth to the colours, although blue skies seem to wash-out, while light sources flare, all of which can detract from an image. It's a better result than the first phone, though, which is the main take-away point here.
The Black Shark 2 impresses on multiple levels: not only is it a super-powerful device for gaming, with great optional controller integration and a hyper-responsive screen, its design is well considered as a flagship alternative too. Sure, it's a little bit thicker than some, but as a day-to-day phone we've found it perfectly adept living in the pocket for a week. With a suggested £475 starting price it's also rather good value for a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 handset.
If we're digging for negatives then the Black Shark 2's absence of a 2K screen and faster refresh panel are downsides - especially with the existence of the Samsung Galaxy S10 and Razer Phone 2 each competing in their own ways. It doesn't have the very best camera solution either, but at this price point who really cares?
The Black Shark 2 is available now, priced £475 (6GB RAM + 128GB storage), £559 (12GB RAM + 256GB storage).
Razer Phone 2
The most successful gaming phone alternative offers a 120Hz LCD screen, which is silky smooth in many areas and improves a limited number of games too. It also has low-latency response, but the design is a bit of a brick.