Ever since mobile phones graduated to having interactive screens, games have been a key part of the phone experience. And it’s no recent thing – we’ve been playing games on phones for nearly 25 years now, since Nokia famously started including Snake on its phones and inadvertently kicked off the heads-down portable gaming era.
Gaming on phones since then has evolved, of course, as phone hardware has become more powerful; Nokia saw what was coming way back in 2003 with what was arguably the first gaming phone, the spectacularly clunky N-Gage. But it was the arrival of the iPhone 3G and its App Store in 2008 that made the idea of gaming on your smartphone a proper thing.
And what a thing it’s become. Screens on phones have gotten larger and more detailed, and processing power has increased to the point where the phone in your pocket is a powerful computer with equally powerful graphics capabilities. That power had already been leveraged for everything from streaming video in Dolby Vision to the plethora of ridiculously popular casual mobile games. But top-tier game studios have been taking note and finding a massive audience on mobile with full-fat games that don’t compromise on graphics or performance.
That’s where phones specifically built for gaming come in. Just like with a gaming PC, what you put in (in terms of the tech capabilities of the phone) is crucial to what sort of graphics performance and gameplay experience you get out.
“The latest batch of gaming phones are built with butter-smooth, widescreen, high frame rate gaming entirely in mind.”
To achieve that, these phones are all built on the Android platform, with the raw power available from Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processors leveraged to deliver game performance when it’s needed, while Android’s support for huge card storage lets gamers keep a library of stuff ready to play (and when you’ve got everything from Call of Duty to Hearthstone taking up three gigabytes or more, that’s important!) What you’re taking out into the world with you is, effectively, a full-fat mini gaming PC that laughs at Candy Crush and eats PUBG and Fortnite for breakfast, fast 5G connectivity and all.
This 2021 crop of high-end gaming phones share some things in common. They all run Android 11, all feature AMOLED screens, and all use Qualcomm Snapdragon CPUs with that company’s high-end Adreno GPUs, supporting the sort of graphics tech usually found on gaming PCs, like DirectX 12 and Vulkan. That means regardless of which of these flagship devices you choose to travel with, the answer to “Will this game run on my phone?” will always be an emphatic, “Oh hell yes.”
Which one you choose will come down to features and form as much as price and performance, but make no mistake – these phone manufacturers have looked at what gamers want from a phone and gone big, aiming for raw performance, a full bag of features and unique looks in each of these high-powered slices of gaming goodness.
ASUS ROG Phone 5
ASUS is a brand name that’s been, for years, known for its first-rate PCs, laptops, routers and more – and since they made the move into designing phones, they’ve been impressing the world with their ROG mobiles (before you ask, it stands for “Republic of Gamers”!). The ROG Phone 5 is the latest update to this range of distinctive-looking phones, and it packs a proper punch with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor delivering performance that’s 25 per cent faster than the previous generation, with Adreno 660 graphics a massive 35 per cent faster – all able to be monitored and tuned via ASUS’s inbuilt performance manager, to let you set performance profiles on a per-game basis and call them up on demand.
The screen, made by OLED experts Samsung, runs at a blistering 144Hz and boasting a touch latency of under 25ms – perfect for fast-paced action games. The phone’s body contains customisable ultrasonic triggers for easy control of games that use directional controls. The phone ships with its own clip-on external cooling fan, which can lower the phone’s CPU temperature drastically during demanding games, and this clever little cooler also adds two more control buttons. There’s also a kickstand for when you want to take a break and watch a movie.
Sound is just as vital to the gaming experience, and the ROG Phone 5’s dual front-facing stereo speakers are darn good on the fly – but the audio from the headphone jack (yes, an actual headphone jack!) is stellar, with full hi-res audio support. The cameras, headed up by a 64-megapixel Sony sensor on the main lens, are first-rate, and the entire thing’s powered by dual batteries packing enough charge to see out a demanding day of gaming.
ZTE RedMagic 6 Pro
Not to be outdone, mobile phone veterans ZTE have unleashed the latest in their incredibly well-reviewed RedMagic series of gaming phones. This year’s upgrade – the RedMagic 6 Pro – is aiming to outdo its already brilliant predecessor by adding that same Snapdragon 888 CPU found in the ROG phone, along with the same Adreno 660 graphics. Running high-end games on any phone this powerful can mean a lot of heat gets generated by all that tech in the palm of your hand, and while ASUS opts for an external clip-on fan, RedMagic’s cooling solution is all on the inside of the device, using a tiny fan, vapour chambers and copper cooling layers to make sure that the phone’s never troubled by anything you can throw at it.
The 6 Pro has built-in touch shoulder trigger buttons in its frame, which refresh at 400Hz for the kind of responsiveness you need for action games. The need to load, save and send large amounts of data hasn’t been forgotten either, with the Magic Write 2.0 system boosting both read and write speeds from both RAM and ROM by up to 10 times. When you’re dealing with games with big multiplayer maps to load between rounds, that’s something you’ll be glad they paid attention to.
All-up, the RedMagic 6 Pro is quite the surprise package – an incredibly well-designed phone that’s right on the cutting edge in terms of its hardware. Its 6.8” AMOLED display has a blazingly fast 165Hz refresh rate, easily the best in its class, and delivers in the looks department as well.
Xiaomi Black Shark 4
Not to be outdone, Xiaomi’s Black Shark 4 boasts a feature we’ve not seen on a smartphone before. While there’s been the occasional pop-up selfie camera showing up over the last couple of years, the Black Shark 4 wins all the cleverness points for its dual magnetic pop-up gaming trigger buttons, which are designed to give players more tactile control while gaming, and effortlessly pop away out of sight when using the phone as a, err, phone. There’s always something much more engaging about playing games with buttons you can feel; “virtual” buttons work great, but having a couple of real ones ready to pop out of your phone when you’re ready to play is more of a game-changing feature than you may think. Xiaomi has been quietly perfecting this idea for a while, but the Black Shark 4 marks the debut of these brilliant magnet-powered buttons, which are a smartphone first.
Xiaomi has built the Black Shark 4 with a balance of value and performance in mind, leveraging Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 870 with Adreno 650 graphics – which translates as “great bang for the buck.” Less hot and power-hungry than its sibling in the phones above (it’s liquid-cooled inside using a clever “sandwich” of cooling tech), it still delivers blisteringly fast performance, with its Super AMOLED display running at 144Hz and sensing for touch 720 times per second – which means an incredibly responsive touch delay of just over 8/1000ths of a second. It’s also one of the brightest OLED displays you’ll find on a gaming phone, with a peak brightness of 1300 nits making it ideal for streaming HDR video. Both the main rear cameras and front selfie camera can shoot in HDR as well.
When it comes to charging, the beefy 67-watt charger can take the Black Shark 4 from zero to 100 per cent in less than half an hour, with an optional 120-watt option able to charge the phone’s hefty battery to full in a mere 17 minutes.
This is also another phone that’s not only holding on to the headphone jack, but wants to make a feature out of it, with full support for hi-res audio at up to 24 bit/192Khz. If you’re looking for a phone that can handle the demands of the latest mobile games, but also want the best video and audio quality you can get for downtime with movies and TV shows, this could be the one to take a closer look at.
“No matter which one of these three phones grabs your attention, you’re getting huge gaming power for your money.”
No matter which one of these three phones grabs your attention, you’re getting huge gaming power for your money – the tech in these devices is cutting-edge and blazingly fast, and when you’re not gaming, you’ve got the most powerful phone in the room for everything from photos to phone calls. Win!