Despite rumors of their death, gaming phones are still alive and well, but they’ve got a long way to go before they’re widely adopted.
That doesn’t mean that the growing list of smartphones with features created with the gamer in mind — from a faster display to better audio to physical controls — don’t have something to teach the likes of Apple and Samsung.
Over the past several months, Variety spent time with a clutch of phones that featured everything from a massive add-on power brick, cooling system, and second screen, to hidden touch buttons and silky smooth display rates.
While each of these specialty phones had something to offer gamers on the go, not all games available on the devices could make use of those new features. Ultimately, it was the subtle, ingrained features that seemed most impactful to the experience, where the larger, more grandiose concepts fell short not because of design failures, but support shortcomings.
The best gaming phone doesn’t exist; it would be a combination of features pulled from all of the phones tested. Variety looked at Razer’s second-generation gaming phone and the ROG Phone from Asus, and spent time with a yet-to-be-released Black Shark gaming phone. From all of this time with gaming phones, we tried to settle on what would constitute the best gaming phone if it were to be Frankensteined together from the bits of each of these systems.
Razer Phone 2
Razer was the first to truly adopt the gaming phone narrative, arguing back in 2017 that people who play games on phones needed a smartphone that took into account their specific needs. Also, most importantly, that there were enough of these sorts of smartphone users to justify such a device.
It’s a little surprising to find that more than a year later, Razer’s smartphone — which improved on a wide variety of specifications — manages to still have the best refresh rate on a smartphone without having to upgrade that particular feature.
The Razer Phone 2 features the same 5.7-inch IGZO LCD screen with its buttery smooth 120 Hz refresh rate found in the original Razer Phone. It also has the same battery size and 8GB of memory of its predecessor. The biggest additions the Razer Phone 2 brings to the table is the complete redesign of the body, which is now wrapped in glass, and the inclusion of Razer’s over-the-top, colorful Chroma lighting support. The lighting can be programmed to just glow, or breath or offer other effects, but it can also be used to deliver color-specific alerts to its users, which is a neat addition.
In terms of peripherals, Razer rolled out a high-end controller for its (and other) smartphones. The Raiju Mobile is nicely designed with slightly clicky face buttons, six sorts of triggers on top, and two paddles on its back. A grip jutting out of the top of the controller can hold onto the phone and is adjustable, making it easy to find the perfect viewing angle. It’s a great controller but just doesn’t have the sort of game support needed to make its purchase make sense just yet.
So from the Razer Phone 2, we’d pluck that lush screen and the fancy use of lighting.
The ASUS Rog Phone offers a cornucopia of options to the game-centric phone owner, not just through the phone itself, but through myriad peripherals that, once attached, make the device look like a military-grade Nintendo 3DS, complete with a full-sized second screen.
While the slightly bigger 6-inch AMOLED display offers a decent 90 Hz refresh rate, it still pales in comparison to 120 Hz, especially to the discerning eye of pro gamers.
The body design, which features exposed bronze cooling vents and speaker grids, may be a little too much for folks looking to game, but not call attention to the fact that that’s how they’re using their phone. As with the Razer Phone 2, the ROG Phone features lighting built into the logo on the back of the device, though its implementation isn’t quite as clever as Razer’s.
The ROG Phone does have one major, game-changing design: a set of hypersensitive “air triggers.” The triggers are really just two touch-sensitive spots on the left edge of the phone that can be used as button presses while playing a game. Variety found the air triggers to be surprisingly sensitive and perfectly designed to work as triggers when playing a game like “PUBG” on the phone. Not only does the use of the air triggers speed up reaction time, they remove the frustration of blocking your view if you have to shoot by tapping the screen. A software suite built into the phone makes programming the triggers on the fly effortless.
Another worthwhile addition that the phone brings to the table is an included snap-on external fan meant to supplement the internal cooling system of the Rog Phone, beating back issues of heat that can slow down play at just the wrong moment.
While not necessary most of the time, it’s small and easy enough to attach that having it handy for long matches of performance-pushing games makes sense.
That clip-on also brings with it the decision to add a second charging and multimedia port to the side of the phone, making it easier to charge and play while holding the phone horizontally.
Asus also released a number of pricey, bulky add-ons for the phone. The biggest of the bunch is the Twinview Dock, which adds a second 6-inch AMOLED display, physical triggers, haptic feedback, and a bigger battery to the phone. It also makes it a much larger device and, unfortunately, I couldn’t find any games that made use of both screens at the same time. As with Razer’s Raiju Mobile, it’s a device in need of support.
What that leaves us with then is pulling those amazing air triggers, the add-on cooler, and the second side-mounting charging port for use in a perfect gaming phone.
The Xiaomi Black Shark still hasn’t come to North America, but its release in Europe has garnered some attention. Like the Razer and Asus phones, it’s built from the ground-up for gaming, with high-end specs and a software suite designed to give users a bit more control over processor speed and resolution in-game.
But what’s most interesting about the phone is its included physical controller — which has a single direction pad, thumbstick, and two top-mounted triggers — that slides into one end of the form-fitting case included with the phone. Users can also opt to purchase the “Game Pad 2.0” which includes a second slide-on accessory that attaches to the other side of the phone and features a second direction pad, two more triggers, and a circular, oversized touchpad.
The problem with the twin controllers is, as with the peripherals available for the Razer Phone 2 and ROG Phone, not enough games are available to support them to justify their use.
While there isn’t anything I’d use from the current Black Shark prototype, Xiaomi seems to be chasing the market rather aggressively and already has a third model rumored to be in the works.
The one design addition that really works for a phone that is said to be designed for gaming is the inclusion of a dedicated switch located on one side of the phone that essentially puts you in gaming mode. The landscape-only mode transforms the display into something more akin to a gaming system and reveals a number of gaming options. Perhaps not the best use of a switch for the average phone user, but for someone using it chiefly for gaming, it’s perfect.
Ultimately, in cobbling together a better gaming phone, we’d want the screen and refresh rate of the Razer Phone 2, along with its use of lighting. We’d bring in the amazing air triggers and clever inclusion of a side port from the ROG Phone and top it all off with an external add-on cooler. We’d wrap the entire package of features together with a dedicated gaming switch that turns off alerts, calls, and notifications, rocks up the resolution and refresh rate, and kicks on the air triggers along with the fan — once you snap it on.
Gaming-focused phones may seem like a step too far for most smartphone owners, but remember it was just a year ago that high-end titles like “Fortnite” starting showing up on phones.