Mobile gaming is hardly a new concept, from Snake slithering through to Royale’s clashing or battling, and with each passing month the increasing power of modern phones sees them capable of pushing higher quality graphics and more in-depth experiences. Few phones make gaming their primary concern, but there’s a growing niche and audience that want a powerful slab of silicon and glass that’ll stand up to what modern mobile games ask of it, with Xiaomi’s second attempt at perfecting it spawning the Black Shark 2.
Budget price, premium specs
Despite the modest £450 asking price, mobile phone fans can dine out on the Black Shark 2’s seriously impressive specs, with a top tier Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chipset nestling up to 8gb of RAM, 128gb of storage, liquid cooling and a huge AMOLED screen. While it may be a gaming phone, it doesn’t utterly ram that down your throat design-wise either. Built from black frosted metal and glass with a pleasingly subtle metallic green trim, the Black Shark 2 looks every inch a flagship phone.
If you absolutely have to show off your “G4m3r” credentials, there’s an RGB strip down each side and a glowing S on the back which you can set to perform different functions depending on the type of notifications you’re getting. You can turn these things off, but I have to admit to finding myself thinking that they’re pretty cool. Then again, I’m a big fan of the Fast and the Furious films.
The AMOLED screen is fantastically vibrant, offering an excellent level of colour reproduction, including deep blacks and bright whites. That’s helped by the system’s baked-in HDR and its HDR mapping which can take SDR content and boost the output, meaning that just about anything will look its very best. There’s a small, flat portion of bezel at either end of the screen if that’s of concern, but personally I’d rather have that than a notch or a pinhole any day.
The ultra-wide 6.39” display looks great, though boasting a resolution of 1080×2340 with a ppi density of 403 might mean it’s not quite as dense as phones like the iPhone XS or Samsung S9, at least on paper. Then again, not only is it half the cost but there’s diminishing returns once you get past a certain dot pitch anyway. While that extra screen real estate is perfect for gaming, you’ll probably find the phone peeking out of your pockets at times, sitting somewhere similar in size to the Galaxy Note 9.
All that extra space is great for a multitude of tasks and I found it a pleasure to use day to day. The aspect ratio can feel a little odd at times, but you’ll start to appreciate the fact that you’re not obscuring any part of a movie or TV series with your hands, and it leaves more than enough space for your thumbs when gaming.
Perhaps one of the most crucial elements is the 4000mAh battery. While that’s obviously been stuck in with an eye on extended gaming sessions, for somebody that’s just set to put it to standard mixed mobile usage this is a phone that can last for the best part of a day and a half, and it felt great not having to worry about where the next USB socket could be found. There’s sadly no wireless charging, but then is it really too much bother to find the extra five seconds to stick a cable in?
At 205g the Black Shark 2 certainly has some heft to it though, and while two-handed gaming is a doddle I can imagine it becoming fatiguing for plenty of people after extended use in one hand. It wasn’t ever something that bothered me – if anything the weight adds credence to the phone’s largely metal construction – but it’s definitely something to be aware of.
What is perhaps less impressive is the dual camera system, and considering the effort that’s gone in elsewhere it’s the weakest part of the package. While there’s nothing particularly wrong with the dual set-up of a standard 43 megapixel camera paired to a 12MP telephoto lens, the results lack the detail seen at the top end of the marketplace, and dark settings cause even more problems. You’ll be able to snap things as you go along for sure – there’s also the obligatory 20MP selfie camera if you’re that way inclined – but don’t expect to be troubling Google or Huwawei’s recent handsets for picture quality.
While the Black Shark 2 is undoubtedly a spectacular amount of phone for the money, there are some notable omissions that might be deal-breakers depending on your outlook. Alongside the missing wireless charging there’s also no NFC which seems like a major oversight when more and more people are opting to make contactless payments. There’s also no expandable storage, and while the 128gb and 256gb flavours on offer should be enough for most people, some will be disappointed at not having the option.
The Black Shark 2’s screen plays host to its fingerprint sensor, and while it’s a great idea I found the technology far too picky over whether it was going to open the phone or not. I had to learn a very prescribed way of pressing my finger to the screen in order to unlock it, but even then I was probably only successful around eighty percent of the time. This wasn’t helped initially by the software telling me that the fingerprint scanner was on the rear of the phone, but I got there in the end. Eventually I opted to use face unlocking instead, which was lightning fast in all but the darkest situations. If you’d rather there’s good old pin and pattern options too.
The rest of the Android 9 experience is otherwise very straightforward, and Xiaomi have largely left things alone, with virtually no bloatware and only the gaming-specific software to set it apart from other phones in their range. Thanks to the 8GB of RAM and the power of that top end Qualcomm chip it all runs incredibly smoothly, no matter what you’re trying to do.
“Flagship” connectivity and audio
One of the biggest challenges I had to get used to with the Black Shark 2 was the lack of a headphone socket. I’m still of the belief that despite the improvements to Bluetooth connections you can’t beat the quality you get from plugging in a wired set of cans, and I stilall of my most recent personal phones from HTC and LG were bought due to their excellent audio playback and the inclusion of a headphone socket. You do at least get a USB-C headphone adaptor included in the box, though it feels cheap and somewhat fragile in comparison to the rest of the package, so it’s good to hear that Xiaomi have already said that their next Black Shark phone will see the return of a headphone jack.
That said, I came to enjoy the freedom of wireless during my two weeks with the Black Shark 2, and thanks to its support for aptX HD and Bluetooth 5.0 its capable of pumping out pretty much the best level of wireless audio you’re going to find. Try as I might to find fault with the playback, my Tidal playlists still sounded pretty damn great, and I was nearly convinced that I could think about leaving some of my wires behind. Nearly.
If you prefer to inflict your taste in music on everyone else, The Black Shark 2 sports two of the loudest mobile phone speakers I’ve ever heard. The dual front-facing speakers sound great, particularly when gaming, and even if you’re playing on the touchscreen with the phone clasped in both hands the audio still comes through loud and clear. There’s a tiny hint of distortion at maximum volume, and a slight lack of bass at that level, but as far as phone speakers go they are pretty damn impressive.
A Game of Phones
Whatever other features the handset might sport if you’re buying into the Black Shark 2 it’s likely that you’ve got mobile gaming on your mind. Just like Razer’s two attempts and the Asus ROG, the Black Shark 2 aims to be the top place to experience the absolute best of Android gaming. There’s two varieties out there, either of which are going to chew through the most challenging games; our review unit sported 8gb of RAM and 128gb of storage, while the top spec cranks that up to 12gb and 256gb. Combined with the Snapdragon 855 and a 4000mAh battery the Black Shark 2 has all the hallmarks of being a mobile gaming behemoth and the more time I spent with it the more that played out.
Everything that I tried ran without even a hint of a hitch, from mobile MOBA Vainglory to the triple shooter showdown of Modern Combat 5, PUBG and Fortnite, and that was without entering into the Black Shark 2’s dedicated gaming mode. When things get really serious you can flick the green-highlighted Shark key which’ll take you into the elegantly named Shark Space.
This shuts off notifications and pretty much anything else your phone might normally do in the background, and instead throws its whole power behind whatever you’re trying to run. From here you’ll find a list of your installed games, as well as access to a bunch of gamer-centric controls and options that you can tweak to your heart’s content so that you get out just what you want from the phone.
Our review unit came with the Black Shark 2 Pro Kit, an £80 optional extra that really makes things interesting. Besides a Kevlar material case you get two Bluetooth controllers that slide into place and in essence turn the Black Shark 2 into a Switch-like console.
The left controller plays host to an analogue stick, directional buttons and two shoulder buttons, while the right hand side houses a trackpad, four action buttons and two more shoulder buttons. Thanks to them matching the width of the phone they’re a little on the dinky side but they make playing a number of action-focussed mobile games into a completely different experience.
At any point while playing, a diagonal swipe down from the right of the screen will open the Black Shark 2’s gaming control centre, and from here you easily map each of the controller’s buttons to on-screen inputs. Injustice 2 may not suddenly become the full-fat console version, but it plays a hell of a lot like it with the physical controls in place. I had a similarly great time reliving my gaming past while playing Crazy Taxi, which, in the absence of my cupboard-bound Dreamcast was definitely more than close enough.
No matter what I was playing the Black Shark 2’s liquid cooling – the Mille-Feuille Full Area Liquid Cooling System as it’s impressively named – did a decent job of stopping the handset from turning into a glowing piece of molten metal. That’s not to say it doesn’t get warm – it definitely does – but it remains comfortable when some handsets would be giving you contact burns.