by Goran Damnjanovic, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 3rd October, 2019
Many Android manufacturers released so-called "gaming phones" in a recent couple of years. But, are those smartphones really suited for gaming and which one is the best choice? Find out here.
Mobile gaming was always considered inferior to PC and console gaming, especially since the market massively expanded and most popular mobile titles became free-to-play games that asked lots of money to stay competitive. But in recent years mobile gaming is living through its second youth, both on the Android and especially on iOS.
We have massively popular free games such as PUBG, Fortnite, Auto Chess, and Dota Underlords that do not sell items that give players competitive advantages and instead only offer cosmetics for real money. We have more and more paid games that come with a one-time payment and then offer the full experience with zero in-app payments.
We have free games that offer full experience with in-app purchases including cosmetics and/or ad removal. And we have the fantastic Apple Arcade, recently released subscription service by Apple, which offers tons of full games that come with zero in-app purchases, all that for a super affordable price of $5 per month.
Mobile gaming is experiencing a renaissance and mobile brands recognized that. That's why we have more and more so-called "gaming phones" coming out each year, featuring stuff like high refresh rates, "liquid cooling" bumped up CPU clocks, massive amounts of RAM, and aggressive "gaming" design.
Even Apple started to talk more and more about video games, even placing them as one of the top reasons to get an iPhone with the Apple Arcade being a clear sign that the company finally started embracing gaming after treating mobile games as a bastard child of the App Store for more than a decade.
But which phones are actually best for gaming? Are those specced up gaming phones really the best way to play video games on Android? And which iPhones are the best choice for gaming, in case you want to try the amazing offer that is Apple Arcade? Find out below.
A few remarks before we begin. Firstly, when it comes to the screen resolution, each of the smartphones featured on the list has more than adequate resolution, with the lowest sharpness being found on the iPhone 8 and iPhone XR.
Even though the two pack sub-1080p resolutions of 750 x 1334 and 828 x 1792 respectively, their sharpness is more than enough for enjoyable gaming and media consumption. So remember, forget about resolution when searching for your next phone, every model sans extremely low budget ones (sub $150 category) has more than adequate resolution.
What you should be looking at are display type (AMOLED and OLED displays are much more suited for gaming with their vibrant colors and amazing contrast) and refresh rate. You should aim for 90Hz refresh rate if you want the best gaming experience, the difference is night and day compared to regular 60Hz displays found on most phones. Animations are unreally smooth, the phone feels fasters, and games feel much more responsive.
Next, all these "liquid cooling systems," "active cooling systems" and "vapor chambers" are usually marketing gimmicks. These are mostly Heatpipe systems that can lower the temperature of the chipset by a few degrees but overall, they won't do any miracles. So, if you're interested in getting a gaming phone you should look for a powerful chipset (Snapdragon 845 and 855 or Apple A11 Bionic or higher) and ignore liquid cooling systems.
Further, all models featured here support fast battery charging so don't worry about that. Also, most base models shown here start with 64GB of storage, which should be enough for most gamers.
But in case you take lots of photos and videos look for 128GB models. They are a bit expensive than the base models but 2x increase in storage is usually worth it. And finally, 6 gigs of RAM is more than enough on Android and will be for the foreseeable future so don't worry if your favorite model doesn't come with 8GB of RAM or more.
The following smartphones are excellent choices for anyone who wants to dive deep into mobile gaming. They feature serious specs, are equipped with excellent screens, and they sport relatively high prices. Pick these if you want an excellent gaming phone or a phone that's great for gaming but also excel in other areas like the camera.
The premium gaming phone from the known Chinese brand is all about gaming. Its design is gaming to the bone (but too "gamer" for us) with aggressive patterns on the back and lots of radioactive green (again, too much).
The phone packs Snapdragon 855, the latest and greatest chipset used on Android phones that features monstrous CPU and equally monstrous GPU. In other words, Snapdragon 855 is a superb choice for gaming and will remain top choice for the next couple of years. There's also 6 gigs of RAM, more than enough to guarantee fluid gaming experience.
The 4000mAh battery isn't a beast but is more than enough to last you a whole day even if you spend the better part of the day playing Fortnite or PUBG.
The AMOLED screen measures 6.4 inches but it features the same old 60Hz refresh rate. While it isn't anything bad by itself, 60Hz refresh rate isn't as suited for gaming as 90Hz seen on the OnePlus 7 Pro or 120Hz found on the ASUS ROG Phone II.
Luckily, the touch sensing is clocked at 240 Hz meaning that the phone handles touch input at lighting fast speed. Xiaomi has a whole lineup of gaming accessories such as controllers, cooling cases, stands, or headphones but these are hard to come by if you're not living in China.
The Black Shark 2 sports an okay camera, just don't expect performance in the range of the Google Pixel 3, Huawei P30 Pro, or the iPhone 11 Pro and you'll be fine.
Next, the phone sports very aggressive gaming design that is too much for most mobile users but on the other hand offers amazing grip because of the materials used for the body. Luckily, the Xiaomi Black Shark 2 sports a digestible price of about $550, which is a great price for such powerful specs.
The only problem is that the phone is hard to find in the US, with the price probably being higher than for Asian and European markets.
The best-selling Android phone series, the Samsung Galaxy S devices offer excellent specs, superb design, vibrant screen, and pretty solid camera making them solid choices for gamers who want the whole package in their Android phone.
The phones come with Snapdragon 855 (the EU versions ship with Samsung's own Exynos chipset that is equally as powerful but less energy efficient) combined with 8 gigs of RAM, more than enough for any game. Their excellent AMOLED screen is second only to OnePlus 7 Pro's and it comes in either 6.1 or 6.4-inch size but sadly it only offers 60Hz refresh rate.
The design is much less aggressive than on full-on gaming phones, without sharp edges, super-saturated colors, and RGB lighting. It is suited for gamers and regular users who aren't into the whole "gaming" design philosophy that includes lots of crimson red, radioactive green, and tons of RBG lighting.
The Galaxy S10 line sports excellent cameras that don't offer super realistic image quality. Instead, they take saturated and processed images that still look amazing when viewed on a phone screen. You also get the headphone jack, which is always a nice addition.
Batteries are quite large (3400mAh on the S10, 4100mAh on the S10+) and should provide enough juice for long gaming sessions, especially the one found on the bigger model. Further, the new One UI by Samsung looks great and is way close to stock Android than before.
The price of the regular S10 is about $650 while its bigger brother sells for about $800. And in case you want a Samsung Galaxy S10 phone for gaming but aren't ready to spend a fortune on it the Galaxy S10e model sports the same specs, slightly smaller 5.8-inch screen, slightly less battery power (but still quite large, 3,100mAh battery), slightly less capable camera (that still puts out excellent images), 6 instead of 8 gigs of RAM, and it comes without the curved screen (a plus in our book). All that for less than $550.
Apple unveiled its latest iPhone line and the iPhone 11 is an excellent choice for everyone who wants to game on iOS. It comes with a large 6.1 LCD screen, which is excellent but lacks the vibrancy of the OLED screen used on the iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max. It also comes with 60Hz refresh rate but that's same for all iPhone models.
The chipset is the monstrous Apple A13 Bionic combined with 4 gigs of RAM, noticeably more powerful than any chipset used in Android phones at least when it comes to the CPU (the GPU is on par with the Adreno 640 found in Snapdragon 855) meaning that any current and any game coming out in the next 2-3 years will work perfectly on the iPhone 11.
The camera is also excellent, with a superb night mode that comes extremely close to what Google does on the Pixel 3 and with natural images that are way better than the super-processed mess with zero contrast that were the photos taken with the iPhone XS/XS Max. The battery is larger than the one found in the iPhone XR and sports 3,000mAh.
Not amazing but enough to last you through the day with moderate gaming usage. And finally, the iPhone 11 comes with an attractive price of $700, which is $300 less than the iPhone 11 Pro with the only noticeable difference between the two being the screen.
The models featured in this section won't provide the best specs, the best design, the best cameras, or the best gaming experience but they all have one thing in common - an affordable price point combined with powerful chipset and plenty of RAM, the most important ingredients to look for in a gaming phone.
Razer Phone 2 is all about gaming which is understandable since it is made by, well, Razer. It comes with a bit old but still more than capable Snapdragon 845 chipset that offers superb graphics performance while its CPU is more than enough for any modern mobile game.
The newer Snapdragon 855 saw mostly CPU improvements (its GPU is about 20 percent faster than Adreno 630 seen in Snapdragon 845) along with better energy efficiency. The battery sports 4000mAh and it should last through the whole day even with a couple marathon gaming sessions. The phone also sports huge dual front facing speakers that pack a serious punch.
The main selling point of the Razer Phone 2 is its excellent screen. It's an AMOLED screen that features old school 16:9 screen ratio making its 5.7-inch size quite big compared to other smartphone screens.
They may sport larger diagonals but when you include the super-wide 18:9 (or even larger) screen ratio the actual screen real estate is the same or even smaller than it is on the Razer Phone 2.
The screen offers massively high (for a phone) 120Hz refresh rate that makes animations buttery smooth and games much more pleasant to play than on regular 60Hz displays found in most other phones. The gaming specs are finalized with 8 gigs of RAM along with the RGB Razer logo placed on the back.
While the phone is great for gaming, it's a poor choice in case you want a phone with a great camera. Razer Phone 2's camera is average at best, with very poor video recording quality.
Further, the phone is quite large since it sports a bulky 16:9 screen. But it least it features clean Android UI that looks and works great. Luckily, Razer Phone 2 got a price cut recently and now you can find the 8GB/64BG for as low as $400.
The Zenfone 6 from ASUS is a relatively affordable phone that comes with the latest and greatest Snapdragon 855 chipset and 6 gigs of RAM, a match made in heaven for gaming on Android.
The screen is a 6.4 LCD that isn't AMOLED and that doesn't support high refresh rates (it comes with the classic 60Hz refresh rate) but that's more than solid for the price of the device. Another plus is that it doesn't have any notch or camera cutout, it's just screen with zero bezels.
The main camera is a motorized unit that hides in the back when playing the role of the back camera. But when you need a selfie camera it will rise from the back of the phone, placing itself above the screen.
It looks cool and will automatically move into its natural position on the back in case you drop the phone. Camera quality is above average, with sharp images and solid colors, just don't expect wonders from it. The battery is a massive 5,000mAh one, excellent for long gaming sessions and an absolute beast for regular usage scenarios. Expect it to last two days with moderate gaming usage.
The design is striking, with zero bezels and glass on both sides. The zero-bezel design may be a problem when playing games, in theory. In practice, the phone can be used for playing games without any issue.
And as a neat bonus, the Zenfone 6 comes with a headphone jack along with the UI that looks almost identical to the stock Android skin, which we always consider a plus. And the price of the phone is $500 (although it can be found for less) making it an excellent gaming phone for gamers on a budget.
This is the ultimate bang for the buck when it comes to phones used for gaming. The Poco F1 can be found online for as low as $240 and it's a beast of a phone for the money.
It sports last year's Snapdragon 845 that's still a prime choice for every single game available on Android along with 6 gigs of RAM. It also has surprisingly good 60Hz IPS display that doesn't have the vibrancy of an AMOLED but looks more than decent when compared to, let's say an iPhone XR.
And its plastic body doesn't bear that fancy flagship feel but the polycarbonate used for it provides superb grip, it feels pleasant to the touch and offers ruggedness that glass body would never be able to match.
The Poco F1 has more than solid camera that will be enough for most users (as long as you don't record video, which is average at best) and its Android skin (the infamous Xiaomi-branded MIUI) is too colorful and a bit kitsch but a third-party launcher such as Nova Launcher will fix most UI problems.
The icing on the cake is a large 4,000mAh battery. More than enough for the whole day of usage, multiple heavy gaming sessions included. There's the thick combination of a huge bezel and huge chin but that's the price you have to pay if you want a super affordable phone that sports powerful insides.
The two budget options for gaming on iOS are the iPhone 8 and iPhone XR. The A11 Bionic chipset found inside the iPhone 8 is still pretty solid for most games and should remain so in the next 12-18 months.
Now that Apple went all-in on gamin with the Apple Arcade it's fair to assume developers will try populating the service with more technically demanding games but at the moment the iPhone 8 is great for any current game available on the iOS. It can be bought from Apple for just $449 or you can get a used one for an even lower price.
The screen is okay, the camera is enough for taking solid daylight pictures, and the phone is snappy and responsive during everyday tasks.
The second option is the $600 iPhone XR packing a powerful Apple A12 Bionic chipset. This is an excellent chipset and will remain competitive for gaming in the next couple of years, even longer.
The screen is a superb 6.1-inch LCD one, lacking only in color vibrancy and contrast compared to AMOLED ones found on the iPhone XS and iPhone 11 Pro.
The camera is okay; the problem with the last year's lineup of iPhones was the overt postprocessing that aggressively removed details from images, creating lifeless pictures without almost any contrast.
They look nice and are sharp but are way below the quality of last year's Android flagships. Anyway, the iPhone XR is a solid choice but we would add $100 more and go with the latest iPhone 11. Faster chipset, way better camera (the camera on the iPhone 11 series is amazing, check it out), an additional gigabyte of RAM (it will matter in a year or two), and better battery life are worth the extra investment.
The best of the best. These are our top gaming phone choices at the moment.
The OnePlus 7 Pro is the best Android phone at the moment and that's a fact. It costs noticeably less than most other flagship devices (the base model starts at $669) while offering the same features sans waterproofing.
And its 6.67 AMOLED screen is the best on the market. Colors are amazing, contrast is out of this world and the 90Hz refresh rate makes every action smooth as running a hot knife through butter.
Especially gaming since the phone comes with the latest Snapdragon 855 and 6 or 8 gigs of RAM. The 4,000mAh battery isn't the stamina king but it should provide enough juice for one day of heavy usage.
The camera comes really close to the leaders in the form of the Huawei P30 Pro, Google Pixel 3, and the iPhone 11 Pro and it should satisfy almost any user.
The phenomenal all-screen design is perfect for gaming with the front-facing pop-up camera hiding inside the phone until used. The phone is a bit slippery, like every other smartphone with the all-glass design but a grippy case should solve all of your problems.
If you're looking for a gaming phone that excels in every single area and doesn't feature the aggressive gaming design, we recommend getting the OnePlus 7 Pro. You can't get a better Android phone at the moment.
But in case you want the ultimate gaming phone and don't care about sleek design and tolerable size and weight you should definitely consider getting the ASUS ROG Phone II.
This is a gaming phone beast that packs the ultimate hardware found in any Android phone. You get Snapdragon 855+, an overclocked version of the latest and greatest chipset for Android phones that will chew and spit out any game you throw at it, and then go to the future and chew and spit any game that comes out in the next 24 months.
The base model comes with 12 gigs of RAM and 256GB of storage, which is insane. The phone's also huge and it weights a lot, good luck trying to use it with one hand. Remember this if you have a problem with bigger phones because this one's a Godzilla compared to any other device.
Next, we have the only cooling solution that's not a complete gimmick. The phone packs a working air went for throwing out hot air from the phone and it really helps dissipating heat from the overclocked CPU and GPU.
The design keeps top and bottom bezels to make gaming more comfortable (so you have sides to grip on) and to host dual front speakers. Speakers are loud and have amazing sound. The back is made of matte glass that's till slippery a bit and there's a huge ROG logo that lights up in RGB.
The star of the show is a massive, 6.6-inch AMOLED screen that features a 120Hz refresh rate and 240Hz touch response. This is the ultimate screen for gaming, featuring true HDR, amazing color gamut, and super smooth animations.
The camera is quite good but it cannot match leaders in the field. Great for most users. UI has the default theme that is aggressively gaming but you can pick a "normal" theme that is very near the stock Android, which is a great option to have.
And the battery, oh the battery. At 6,000mAh it can last you a whole day even if you spend 8 hours gaming.
And if you use it without marathon gaming sessions the battery can last for three days straight without any problem.
And you also get a headphone jack, touch-sensitive triggers on the sides, plenty of gaming software to optimize the games you play, and a plethora of accessories such as controllers, secondary display, or special cases that will make your gaming sessions even more pleasant.
This is the Spec King, the ultimate Android gaming phone and if you have $900 to spend and want the ultimate gaming machine just get this one.
And finally, we have the top choice for iOS gaming. The iPhone 11 Pro Max is a huge, 6.5-inch device with a beautiful OLED screen that shines in every way.
The refresh rate is still locked in at 60Hz, which isn't great but it isn't like you have the choice in case you want an iOS gaming phone. You also get the best camera at the moment, the monstrous chipset in the form of A13 Bionic (its CPU is a beast but the GPU is on par, or a bit slower than the Adreno 640), plenty of storage and RAM, and a huge (for an iPhone) 4,000 mAh battery.
The only downside of the iPhone 11 Pro Max is its price, which starts at $1100. If you want a smaller, 5.8-inch screen but still aim for the best gaming experience on the iOS get the iPhone 11 Pro, which packs the same features sans the battery (3,200mAh) for a starting price of $1,000.