(Pocket-lint) - Lenovo's Legion brand is a regular on the PC gaming front, so it's perhaps no surprise that the company set forth under these auspices with its dedicated gaming phone.

It's a segment of the market that's seen plenty of activity in recent years, with Asus using its ROG brand to the same end, and Razer, Black Shark and Red Magic all attempting the same thing.

But can the Lenovo Legion dominate the gaming battleground?

Designed for gaming

  • Dimensions: 169.2 x 78.5 x 10mm / Weight: 239g
  • In-screen fingerprint scanner
  • Pop-up side camera
  • Stereo speakers
  • Rear RGB logo

There's nothing subtle about the Legion Phone. Lettered with the words "stylish outside, savage inside" the complex finish to the exterior of the phone is designed to catch the eye. It shimmers when the light catches it, centred around a central LED decoration, much in the same way as a gaming PC flaunts its wares with RGB lighting.

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The Legion branding can be set to illuminate and that rear logo can be set to pulse when gaming, as a notification or when charging. Thankfully, you get full control, so you can turn off the red flashing when charging at night.

The Legion is a big phone, with a flat display and healthy bezels, giving you somewhere to grip without obscuring the display and risking accidental touches, while the front-facing camera is a pop-up unit on the landscape side of the phone. Yes, to save you from notches or punch-holes - and to ensure face time in-game - the camera has moved completely.

There's some texture to rear sections of the phone to provide a modicum of grip, while the cameras, again, sit in the centre of the rear rather than at the top. That means you're not putting your fingers all over them when gaming.

From a design point of view, therefore, this phone was built to serve people who spend most of their time playing games in landscape orientation.

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Many of these decisions serve that market in a way that other phones cannot: there's no camera bump to get in the way; the wide speakers at either end of the display are hard to obscure with a hand; and there's even a charging port on the side so you can charge and play at the same time.

And much about this we love. We spend several hours of every day gaming, so many of these things appeal directly to us. The Legion Phone feels clean to hold and play, there's grip, the sound quality and volume is excellent. Normal phones compromise on gaming, but this device does not.

But there's a cost to this gaming-specific design and that's in the day-to-day experience. The other 7 or 8 hours of the day when you're not head-down in the latest shooter, you have to live with compromises that have been made to support gaming.

Those rear cameras that are out of the way when playing are covered by your hands the rest of the time. Open the camera to take a shot and invariably you'll have a hand in the way. The same applies to the pop-out front camera - if you're gripping the phone and want to take a selfie, it opens into your fingers or hand.  

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There's also no denying that this is a hefty phone at 236g and pretty chunky by design too. It's bigger and heavier than the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra - but the Samsung phone has a larger display. Again, some of the Legion's additional bodywork can be a bit of a drawback during daily use, even if it will be acceptable to seasoned gamers.

Hardware and performance

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Plus, 16GB RAM, 512GB storage
  • 5,000mAh battery, 90W fast-charge via dual USB-C
  • Heat dissipation and liquid cooling system

Performance was put at the fore of the Legion Phone experience and that explains many of the decisions behind this phone. But while there have been moves made to accommodate higher demands, it doesn't hang together quite as well as you might think.

At the heart of this phone is the Qualcomm Snapdragon 856 Plus, 5G enabled, with 16GB RAM and 512GB storage. It's a monster loadout and given how much phone you're getting, it's good value for money compared to a lot of the rest of the market.

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And we can't fault much of the performance, although we're not convinced by the heat dissipation and cooling system. Lenovo has talked this up a lot, but you can feel the heat from the Snapdragon 865 under your fingertips towards the centre of the phone. Having come from reviewing the Sony Xperia 5 II and the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE, both on Snapdragon 865 and both subjected to similar long periods of gameplay, the Legion Phone feels noticeably hotter under load.

That makes us question how much is really effective here and how much is just part of the marketing package to push the gaming angle. Certainly, the in-game experience isn't hugely different from a performance point of view when put alongside rival flagship devices.

Lenovo does have more accessories for the Legion phone, including a cooling unit, but do you really want to add more weight? At the same time, that sense of heating might just be down to the fact that your fingertips are always resting on the hottest part of the phone.

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The huge 5000mAh battery capacity is appreciated too. It's split into two cells, the sell here being that you can charge super-fast - at 90W using the two USB inputs at the same time. There's a charger in the box that will give you two USB connections too, so you don't need two separate chargers (although that also works). When connected you'll get one or two charging logos appear depending on how you've hooked it up and we have to say the charger on the side is convenient for charging while playing games or watching movies.

But the battery life isn't hugely strong. It's driving a big display, it's driving up to 144Hz refresh rate too, there's big volume and brightness, so there's plenty to drain the battery. It's not hugely different to the S20 Ultra in that sense (also a 5000mAh cell), but we've had smaller devices offer better overall endurance.

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Step out of gaming and yes, it will get you through the day easily enough, but this is still a big phone and it can suffer from big phone problems. With all that said, the Legion Phone is very much on a par with other Snapdragon 865 devices - it's fast and fluid, with very little sign of any slowdown.

Display

  • 6.65-inch AMOLED, 2340 x 1080 resolution
  • 144Hz refresh rate, 240ms response

Lenovo's big play with the display is offering a 144Hz refresh rate - the same as you'll find on many gaming PCs. Smartphones have been pushing faster refresh rates - 90Hz, 120Hz - but 144Hz is less common. Is it a big difference? Not really, but it's there for bragging rights.

What you also need to consider is the games you're playing, as not all support those higher frame rates. Some, like Real Racing 3, will run at 144Hz - and looks glorious - but PUBG Mobile is 40Hz, while Call of Duty Mobile is 60Hz (even though it's available at higher frame rates on other devices).

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What's more encouraging is that you can check the refresh rate you're getting thanks to Lenovo's software and make sure that when you make changes to the game's settings, you're actually getting that performance.

Step aside from that and the 1080p resolution isn't a surprise given that frame rate is the target rather than absolution resolution, not that Full HD+ on a 6.5-inch display is bad per se. The display itself is bright and vibrant - everything you expect from an AMOLED panel - and that plays through into other content too, like watching movies.

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Overall, it's hard to fault the display's performance. Although there is one quirk: the display settings page was completely blank. It's not the end of the world as you can adjust the brightness from the quick settings and you can adjust the frame rate within the Legion Realm settings - but it's one of a number of cracks in Lenovo's software that shows it's not on a par with the experience offered by, say, Samsung or OnePlus.

Cameras

  • Dual rear camera:
    • Main: 64-megapixel, f/1.9 aperture
    • Wide: 16MP, f/2.2
  • 20MP front camera, f/2.2

There are two cameras on the rear of the Legion Phone, a 64-megapixel main camera and a 16-megapixel ultra-wide camera. It's nice that Lenovo has spared us the trash lenses that are so common - there's not a depth sensor, monochrome sensor or macro camera in sight (although there is a macro mode on the main camera that works better than any dedicated macro lens we've seen elsewhere.)

That gives a couple of sensible cameras, the main 64-megapixel pixel combining to give 16-megapixel results. It's actually a capable camera, able to give some great shots, but it favours good lighting, unable to lift the images as you might get from something like the Google Pixel when the light drops.

That said, there is a night mode that enables longer exposures and it works well enough. Photography isn't this phone's primary focus, but you don't have to feel left out, because in most cases you'll get a decent photo.

There's an AI mode that will add HDR contrast and boost colours to give more pleasing shots, and the portrait mode works pretty well too.

There's one slight fiddle, which is the zoom button. It jumps from 1x to 2x (entirely digital), then back to 1x and then to 0.6x (the ultra-wide angle) on repeated presses. How anyone thought this was a good user experience escapes us. We'd much prefer a 0.6x button all the time to access that lens. You can of course pinch to move through the entire range from 0.6x out to 8x digital zoom.

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The front camera can be a bit of a fiddle when it comes to selfies because it needs to deploy pushes you toward landscape orientation - so portrait selfie fans might find it's just a little odd on the side of the phone. There's some beauty treatment that's on by default and needs turning off as it strips out contrast, resulting in lacklustre images. It's also worth finding the camera's watermark feature and turning it off unless you're really keen on pushing the fact you're using the Legion Phone Duel.

We also have doubts about the long-term reliability of the front camera. Throughout the time we've been using the phone, we've found dust getting in and around that camera is a common thing. We've also had the camera fail on one occasion, opening and trying to take a picture, but then making a few griding noises and crashing the camera without saving the image.

Software for gaming and life

  • Android 10 with ZUI
  • Legion Realm

The Legion Phone Duel runs Google Android 10, at the time of writing, but is skinned with Lenovo's ZUI. That's something we see less often in the US and Europe where Lenovo phones are now rare - and Motorola's phones (the company also owned by Lenovo) shipping with a close-to-stock Android offering.

Much of what you get in ZUI is themed to suit the Legion Phone. There's the choice of an aggressive gaming theme or Android theme that you're presented with on startup - but the Android theme, in our opinion, doesn't ever get close enough to a stock experience. There's some fun animated wallpapers, some meaty sound effects to match the flashing lights on the rear, to round out the sense that this device is something special.

The software is a little hit and miss, with some oddities. For example, most of the time the phone seems to wake with the lockscreen in landscape, even when you're holding it in portrait. There's very little home screen control either - you can't stop new app icons being added and creating new pages as a result, and we've had Google Discover appear and disappear from the slot to the left of the home page as if it's got a mind of its own.

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We mentioned the blank display settings page previously and if it wasn't for duplication of settings in the Legion Realm app - or the option to change some settings via the quick settings panel - then you'd be stuck.

You also have to be really careful to accept permissions you're asked for - because much of the Legion Realm experience, like the swipe-down in-game control panel, will just vanish if you don't grant permission the first time you encounter it (seriously, we spent several weeks wondering why it wasn't there until we reset the phone and tried again).

There aren't many additions and very little duplication of apps, with the mainstay of the additions here to add to the gaming options. The aforementioned swipe-down panel gives you access to features like power boost, brightness controls, screenshots and recording, as well as stats at a glance - like the frame rate and temperature, with a swipe down from the top of the screen.

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Thanks to these details, you can see what frame rate you're actually getting compared to what you expect - and you can see how much the phone is warming up. It's interesting to note that many games vary the refresh rate between lobby and in the game itself.

The Legion Realm app automatically adds games and runs when you start those games, allowing you to define some parameters - you can disable auto-brightness, for example, you can block calls and notifications and other options for games.

The good thing that Legion Realm does is provide tighter control of gesture navigation, needing a double swipe upwards from the bottom to exit a game. That's great, because it avoids the accidental swipes that can sometimes see you leave a game on other phones.

Unfortunately, Legion Realm is really guessing when it comes to adding apps - like Google Lens or the Alexa app appearing - and think they are games. When Realm mis-identifies a game, it means you then need to double swipe to exit something like Alexa. You can manually remove those apps, but we found they creep back in again, so it seems an ongoing problem.

One of the abilities you have is to deploy the front camera while you're gaming and have your face in the game. You can blur out the background, apply masks, hats and other fun stuff. It's pitched as a streamer mode, but it doesn't actually record. You can access the built-in screen recorder, however, with a simultaneous press of standby and volume up if you want to record it, as below.

There are various other in-game options, like back record, which will let you save recent clips, so you can save your memorable moments, as well as the Y Triggers on the top of the phone. These are pressure sensitive areas that you can use to launch Legion Realm, like a shortcut to the games, and can also be mapped to locations on the screen.

Like shoulder buttons on console controllers, the Y Triggers could be used as main controls, perhaps for acceleration and brake, to keep your fingers off the display or for other controls. Of course, you'll have to adapt to using them which is our biggest barrier - you have to overcome muscle memory for those games you've already put a lot of time into, so you might never use them.

Verdict

The Lenovo Legion Duel is very good at what it sets out to do. The combination of a big display, specific gaming features and amazing sound quality make for a phone that's excellent at gaming.

There are some quirks - it seems to get hotter than it's rivals - and there are some software oddities around the gaming feature. But on the whole it's a great experience when playing.

Where the phone really struggles is in the everyday job of being just a phone. It's bulky, it has a preference for landscape orientation use, and we're not convinced the pop-up camera will be totally reliable - which is going to be a downside for those wanting a phone to last them the next couple of years of daily use.

Ultimately, however, the Legion Duel offers a lot for your money. There are downsides, but there are decisions to be made: if you spend most of your time gaming, there's a lot here for you; if you're a more casual gamer then there are lighter phones with more software refinement and just as much power.

Also consider

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Nubia Red Magic 5G

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The Red Magic 5G was one of the first phones to arrive with a 144Hz display, offering a close positioning in terms of specs to the Legion Phone Duel.

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Black Shark 3

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Black Shark is Xiaomi's gaming brand, offering much the same proposition as the Legion Phone, with a range of accessories to boost the appeal of the package.

Writing by Chris Hall. Editing by Mike Lowe.