There's no doubt that, as well as decreasing notches and edge-to-edge displays becoming the norm, 2018 has also been a year for gaming phones. We've seen the Razer 2, Honor Play (gamer's edition), Red Magic and the Asus ROG phone. It's no surprise then to see Xiaomi – which is one of China's biggest companies – investing in Black Shark, a brand of gaming phone that's launched in Europe. 

Like other gaming devices, Black Shark's focus is delivering super power, efficient cooling and eye-catching design. But with its included gamepad it offers something most of its competitors don't. What's more, it comes in at a very reasonable price given the specs. Is it the gaming phone champion?

Bold, striking looks

  • Glowing logo on the rear
  • 162 x 75 x 9.3mm; 190g

From the front – with its hefty bezels and the fingerprint sensor beneath the screen on the chin – the Black Shark looks like a device from 2016.

Turn it around, however, and it's a completely different story.

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It's safe to say that there isn't a single smartphone on the market today that looks exactly like the Black Shark. Eye-catching doesn't quite cover it. It's truly something else. The rear has seemingly been designed to have almost as many textures, contours and shapes as you could fit on the rear of a single hand-held device.

Right in the middle, the centre portion plays home to the 'S' logo, which lights up bright green when notification alerts come in (not wildly dissimilar to the Razer Phone 2 in that regard). Around this, all over the phone's aluminium cover, is a tonne of small triangles designed to add grip, ensuring you don't easily let go of the phone during those intense gaming sessions.

This middle section also has two symmetrical, small ramps that protrude from the top and bottom, before metal swoops down into the slim, glossy black plastic banding that separates the middle cover from the outer edge. Look closely, or catch it at the right angle and you'll spot the subtle bright green accents on the front and back, which help break up the mostly black (or very, very dark grey) metal and plastic exterior. We have something of a large hotspot for the bright green Type-C port too – it's a really nice touch.

Hold the Black Shark in two hands, horizontally, as you would when playing most games, and it feels sturdy and grippy. Hold it like a regular phone in one hand, in portrait, and things aren't so comfortable. Because of its thickness, plus that rear design, it really doesn't lend itself to regular one-handed use. It's heavy, bulky and a little uncomfortable.

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The one other design issue that's inconvenient is the button layout on the front: the capacitive buttons are invisible. We found ourselves often accidentally touching either the recent apps or back button, which obviously results in going back or launching the carded multitasking screen.

Visually, though, it's refreshing to see something so different in a market full of devices that, for the most part, otherwise look the same as eachother.

Bezelled display

  • 5.99-inch LCD panel
  • 18:9 ratio 1080 x 2160 resolution
  • 500 nit brightness

If there's one area that we'd love to see improved for the next-generation Black Shark (if there is one) then it's the display. Compared to modern flagships, the LCD panel here is a little lacklustre. Only a little though. Its refresh rate seems top notch, but the lack of OLED means that blacks are grey, so contrast is a little lacking. Similarly, colours could do with a bit more punch. But that's not to say they're terrible – they're just not quite as vibrant as we like.

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However, during gaming we weren't left wanting, soon forgetting our nit-picking about colours and contrast. Animations are smooth, while the balance between shadows and highlights seems well judged, with enough depth that's not harsh. At 500 nits, the panel is certainly bright enough, too, but if you do end up getting one then we'd advise switching off the automatic brightness option. It seems to have trouble smoothly changing between dark and light rooms, often changing quite abruptly a few seconds after the lighting conditions have changed. 

There is the odd time during some games where there's a very slight stutter, too, but that's usually only when you've just completed one scene and it's loading the next one. It lasts for a fraction of a second, and is barely perceptible, but it's still there.

Gamepad brilliance (when it works)

  • Included gamepad controller
  • Joystick, shoulder button and trigger
  • Works over Bluetooth
  • Requires case to clip onto phone

One of the cool additions to the Black Shark is the included gamepad. To describe it simply: it's essentially half a full gamepad. It has one multi-directional joystick on the front, as well as the Bluetooth pairing/power button. On the top edge, there's a trigger and an additional shoulder button.

Interestingly, rather than clip onto the phone directly, you have to first snap-on the included bumper case. It uses Bluetooth rather than a Type-C connector, which also means it has its own internal battery and a Type-C port for charging up.

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With supported games, it's genuinely something that's hard to go back from once you've started using it, particularly for PUBG Mobile. In this game, you use the joystick to move the character on screen, using the trigger button to fire at enemies, keeping your screen mostly clear, since you only have your right thumb on the screen to adjust your field of view. It must be said, it definitely made us better at PUBG, making our shooting far more accurate and deadly.

Perhaps the only downside is that many games don't support the joystick properly. Take Real Racing 3, for example, which you'd hope would support it, replacing the need for using on screen steering or turning the device to corner. Sadly, that's not the case: it inconsistently let us flick through game menus and options, but once the race had begun, we had to resort to the built-in game controls, making the joystick a hindrance on the left side.

Still, for point-and-shoot games, nothing compares to having this physical joystick and trigger for moving, aiming and shooting. It's brilliant.

Performance and battery

  • Multi-layer liquid cooling
  • Snapdragon 845 proccessor
  • 6GB/8GB RAM
  • 4,000mAh battery
  • Quick Charge 3.0 (18W)

You'll be hard pushed to find a smartphone on the market today that outperforms the Black Shark in terms of everyday speediness and battery. It is a beast.

Inside, there's not only a top-of-the-line Snapdragon processor, but a dedicated imaging processor for boosting graphics, plus a liquid cooling system to keep everything working efficiently even under heavy load. What that means in real life is that you can play the most graphically intense games available on Android.

Just in case your app and game usage is memory demanding, there's a boatload of RAM and storage too. Depending on which model you get, that's either 6GB RAM and 64GB storage, or 8GB RAM and 128GB storage.

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In all of our time using the Black Shark, the gaming performance was as smooth and fast as we've ever seen on an Android device. It didn't matter whether we were playing PUBG, scrolling through our Instagram feed, or just keeping in touch with friends via messaging apps.

Similarly, the battery life is pretty much as good as we've seen from a modern Android phone, thanks to that beefy 4,000mAh cell inside. Granted, we played a lot more games on the Black Shark than we would on a typical device, but it still had no trouble getting to the end of a day on a single- charge.

It's clean Android, but can it be improved?

  • Stock-ish Android Oreo
  • Game Dock overlay for boosted gaming
  • Shark Space for gaming only

We like it when manufacturers don't put a heavy re-skin on top of Google's Android operating software. When skinning exists, it often makes for interfaces that are too complicated, or far too many pre-loaded applications – many of which are redundant but that you can't uninstall. In the case of Black Shark, none of that really exists.

For instance, it's loaded with Google's own Wallpapers app, so when you go to change it – in addition to the single Black Shark wallpaper – you get quick access to dozens of attractive options.

There are a couple of additions, as you'd expect. For example, there's a software-based 'Game Dock', which you can find in the main settings interface. Here you can decide if you want the dedicated PixelWork DSP chip to boost frame-rates during games, or if you want to be disturbed (or not) while you're playing games.

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As for the Game Dock itself, it's a slide-over interface you can pull down during certain games to increase performance and manage interruptions. It's pretty easy to bring down, you just need to swipe down on the fingerprint sensor when playing your game (in horizontal orientation). It's potentially very useful, but it has one significant downside: it doesn't work on all games. We tested on a selection of about 10 games and it only launched during PUBG Mobile.

One element we're sure gaming fans will love is the Shark Space, which is essentially a brand new interface within the phone that lets you focus on just games. You launch it by flicking the dedicated switch on the left of the phone, which delivers a mobile console-style interface just showing you a carousel of your installed games. You won't be bugged by notifications, and all other background tasks are killed to ensure that the processing chips are only really being used for game performance. 

The one other software irk is that rather than just display app icons as their native actual shape, Black Shark's interface puts a white circle background on anything that isn't already round, filling your home screens up with white circles. It's not a big deal, but the option to display them as their default shapes would be welcome. Or at least the native option to download and install custom icon packs. Of course, the option to download a third-party launcher is still there, so that's one way around it.

Camera: Does it even matter?

  • Dual 12MP/20MP camera
  • 4K video at 30fps
  • 20MP front camera

With a phone like this, honed and designed to appeal to and please gamers with its performance, you'd be forgiven for wondering if the camera performance even matters much. In our testing and use of the phone – primarily for outlasting our rivals in PUBG Mobile – it was rare we even thought about the cameras.

On the back, Black Shark has equipped its gaming powerhouse device with a dual camera system. It's made up of a 12-megapixel primary camera and a secondary 20-megapixel one, both with f/1.75 aperture lenses.

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The pictures you get from them don't quite match the results you'd find in a more established flagship phone, but they're certainly good enough for daily snaps and social sharing. Contrast often comes out a bit high and colours unnatural, with soft blurry details, but you expect some compromise in a phone that costs little over £400.

It does have some additional features too, like Portrait mode for shots with lots of background blur. This works on the front facing camera too. And, of course, being a 2018 Android phone from China, there's the option to have beauty effects turned on to smooth, lighten and thin your face to varying levels. 

One thing we did notice that's more of a user interface/performance issue, is there's an issue when rotating the camera. After shooting an image, then checking it in the gallery, going back to the camera interface, the camera viewfinder seems to be confused for a couple of seconds. Shrinking into the corner, showing a mostly black screen, before seemingly coming to its senses and displaying the correct interface, in the correct size, in the right orientation. 

Verdict

For just over £400, the Black Shark is among the most powerful and well-equipped devices. It's got a relatively clean software experience, great battery life and a useful gaming mode to keep you focused on play. It's not the perfect phone though – even at this price point.

Inconsistensies in the software, along with a few quirks here and there, stop it from being a truly spectactular phone. And the design, well, that's definitely a love-it/hate-it deal. It's not the easiest thing to hold in one hand like a 'normal' phone and isn't the most ergonomic shape in the world. What's more, the camera isn't too hot. 

Still, this is focused on one market niche: mobile gaming. It's great at that for some games, thanks to the additional thumbstick controller, so with further expansion with this controller and the game dock software, it could be even better in the future.

Also consider

Honor Play review image 2

Honor Play

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It's under £300, and thanks to some software/hardware optimisation also offers really steady framerates during gaming. What's more, it's slimmer, lighter and easier to carry around than the Black Shark. You do have to put up with Huawei's software though, which has plenty of its own apps, features and controls. Still, for the money it's great.

Razer Phone 2 review image 1

Razer 2

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Razer has built a brand based on building fantastic gaming accessories and laptops. Now it's on its second-generation gaming smartphone, following its buyout of Nextbit. The latest version has a glass back, wireless charging, an RGB glowing logo and lots of hardware designed purely for making sure games run smoothly. It's not cheap, but it's worth taking a look at.