The second generation of gaming smartphones is upon us and with the Black Shark 2, we get a powerful device that offers some unique gimmicks to give it the edge in gaming. We’ve put it through its paces to see if it belongs with the big fish.
- ✓Powerful hardware
- ✓Good battery life
- ✓Excellent gamepad
- ✓Touch input customization
- ✓Attractive price
- ✕No NFC
- ✕No IP rating or waterproofing
- ✕60Hz display
Black Shark 2 release date and price
Black Shark, while its own company, is backed by Xiaomi and thus can take advantage of the latter's supply chain to offer the tempting prices we already associate from the Chinese brand. In the UK the Black Shark 2 with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage costs £479, and £559 for the version with 12GB of RAM and 256GB storage. In mainland Europe, the device costs 549 euros for the 8GB RAM / 128GB internal storage model, and 649 euros for 12GB RAM and 256GB internal storage.
The first model comes in the Shadow Black color (which is more dark grey than black), the second is Frozen Silver (which is light grey).
It's unlikely that the Black Shark 2 will be offered in the US, and connectivity will be limited with most carriers, although T-Mobile supports Bands 2 and 4. If you're on other carriers you may find coverage spotty, and in the case of Sprint, non-existent.
A sleek shark that can't swim
The Black Shark 2 has a design that manages to look quite nondescript from the front and eye-catching on the back . The screen is bordered by relatively slim bezels, which house the selfie cam in the traditional way. No notch, drop, pop-up cam or other such camera housing tricks here.
On the back and sides it gets more interesting, a combination of matte-painted metal and a reflective glass frame with green reflective accents that houses a rather pronounced dual rear cam and surrounds the ‘S’ logo in the center. Of course, the S has customizable RGB lighting, and the sides of the phone also hold 2 RGB strips. As typical for gaming phones, it’s not exactly subtle, but it’s a matter of taste. In a world where smartphones are looking more and more alike, a gamer’s pride in their hardware offers some market for a little flair. In idle moments it was a small pleasure to see the green glints around the sides of the phone.
The Black Shark 2 measures 63.6mm x 75mm x 8.77mm and is on the heavy side (208g) for a phone of its size. Nonetheless, it feels nice and solid in the hand and the angles on the back are very grippy. There are very subtle front-firing speaker grills tucked into the top and bottom bezels, but there’s no audio jack, although a USB-C to 3.5mm dongle is boxed in. On one side we have the volume rocker, and on the other the power key and rugged ‘Shark Space’ switch, which toggles a full-throttle gaming mode. SIM tray (Dual SIM, no expandable memory) goes on the bottom.
An important note, and an ironic downside to a device called 'Shark'. There's no IP rating or waterproofing for the Black Shark 2, so maybe don't take it to the beach.
A display that gets to know your touch
The Black Shark 2 ditches the LCD of its predecessor for a Full HD+ (2,340 by 1,080) 6.39 inch AMOLED display in 19:5:9 format. A welcome improvement, thanks to the generally richer color representation on OLEDs. The Black Shark 2 display has a vivid look in the default ‘cinema’ mode but that can be customized to look more natural or easier on the eyes. Max brightness is 430nits which struggles in the sunny weather, and the adaptive brightness isn't great..you'll often need to tweak it yourself to suit light conditions. There’s an in-display fingerprint scanner with a neat animation that I always found responsive, although face unlock is also an option.
But in terms of gaming smartphones, the Black Shark 2 display has a particular weak point - the refresh rate is 60Hz, meaning a 60 FPS cap on games. A disappointment for fans of action games who were hoping for a faster framerate potential to rival the Razer Phone 2 (120Hz LCD) or Asus ROG Phone (90Hz AMOLED) and the new Nubia Red Magic 3 (90Hz AMOLED). Unfortunately, our shark lags behind in this particular category, but don’t discount it on this factor alone.
The Black Shark 2 screen ramps up the Hertz in a different way. Black Shark claims to record the touch point on the display at 240Hz to have achieve reduced input latency on the touchscreen to claimed 43.5ms. This should make the touchscreen more responsive than rivals, but where to draw the line on whether a few milliseconds made the difference between life and death last time you got ganked in PUBG?
An additional feature on the display is what Black Shark calls Magic Touch. Basically, the display can distinguish between a light tap and a more forceful press, like Apple’s 3DTouch. This can be assigned for different functions in games.
While the screen was plenty responsive most of the time, when it comes to action games I preferred to use the gamepad wherever possible. However, it’s nice to know that even if you stick with just the touchscreen, you have a few to customize controls how you want.
The gamepad really makes a difference
The Black Shark gamepad has left and a right module. They slot onto a special case placed over the phone and connect via Bluetooth after being switched on, and charge separately via USB-C. Each pad has 4 face buttons and two shoulder buttons, with a thumbstick on the left and trackpad on the right. The gamepads and case are sold separately from the main phone and will set you back £79.90. Still, if you're splurging on the Black Shark 2 as a gaming phone, I'd recommend you go all-in and get them to make the most out of it.
Docking these in and activate Shark Mode and voila, you’ve transformed your smartphone into a bona fide handheld console . Don’t get me wrong, it’s not going to give the Nintendo Switch anything to worry about, but it’s impressive for a smartphone.
Once your gamepads are connected, you’ll want to map out the inputs yourself, via the game studio options and a simple drag-and-drop interface.
This works optimally with action games that use virtual buttons, such as PUBG and Fortnite. But it’s not only for shooters. I found the gamepad to be fantastic fun with fighting games like Street Fighter IV and Samurai Shodown. Action RPGs or Metroidvania style games like Grimvalor ran like an absolute dream. My fingers quickly settled into a flow than it can be tricky to achieve purely on a touchscreen. It wasn’t long before I didn’t want to play these games any other way.
By and large input latency was imperceptible but your mileage may vary depending on the game. For example when trying some of SEGA’s classic side scrollers or even the more modern Shadowgun Legends, the games weren’t accurately tracking the thumbstick, which is a pity, because they would have really benefited from the gamepad experience.
Swipe or gesture-based controls are also awkward to map onto the gamepad. The trackpad on the right can effectively be assigned to a swipe or long press so long as things don’t get too complicated though.
Android Pie with gamer filling
Software is basically stock Android 9 Pie with some specialist gaming-focused additions . The Game Dock in the settings has some handy features to optimize framerate and in-game voice chat, but the real fun comes in when you hit that ‘Shark Mode’ slider.
This puts you into ‘Shark Space’, a landscape only mode that serves a virtual dock for your mobile games and allows you to turn off calls and notifications so you can focus on your gaming. In addition, a long swipe down from the top corner in this mode brings up some additional options. This is a tricky gesture to master and I ended up accidentally opening quick settings more than once.
The extras you can activate include an FPS counter, performance management tools (it goes up to...ludicrous?) and the ability to keep the game running with the screen off (HangUp mode).
Most importantly though, are the customization options to assign the Magic Touch function, and gamepads, which are optional but highly recommended extras.
Top class performance
Qualcomm’s top Snapdragon 855 powers this predator, and even the lower specced version has 8GB RAM on board, so it’s no surprise that the Black Shark 2 ends up being a performance powerhouse , handling the most demanding Android games with ease, and being nicely future proofed too. In fact, the price-performance ratio is simply excellent.
The Black Shark 2 absolutely kills it in our benchmark results, smoking the competition from gaming smartphones and the latest mainline flagships alike. It’s an open secret that benchmarks don’t always translate directly to use performance - many manufacturers, Xiaomi included, have been caught ‘cheating’. But, at least in this case, it seems to bear out. Multi-tasking with different apps, graphically demanding games like Shadowgun Legends or Darkness Rises, Asphalt 9, etc., all come off without a hitch on max settings where possible.
Black Shark 2: benchmark comparison
|Smartphone||3D Mark Sling Shot Extreme ES 3.1||3D Mark Sling Shot ES 3.0||3D Mark Ice Storm Unlimited ES 2.0|
|Black Shark 2||5504||7319||72727|
|Razer Phone 2||4001||5084||63325|
|Asus ROG Phone||4376||4963||62481|
|Samsung Galaxy S9+||4731||4503||56128|
Black Shark 2 audio
Black Shark 2 has front firing speakers but they aren’t the chunky bezel-fillers you’ll find on the Razer smartphones. They look, and sound, more subtle. Still, they are more powerful than most regular smartphones and do their job admirably, whether you’re listening out for footsteps in PUBG or casually listening to music around the house.
As mentioned, there’s no audio jack so you either have to dongle up or use Bluetooth headphones.
A gaming phone with decent cameras
On the rear we find a dual camera array: 48MP primary sensor, (f/1.75 aperture) plus a 12MP telephoto sensor 2x zoom (f/2.2 aperture). The front selfie snapper has a 20MP sensor, (f/2.0 aperture).
The first wave of gaming phones were characterized by underwhelming cameras but the Black Shark 2 is a pleasant surprise in this regard . Not the best, mind, but nothing to be ashamed of. AI is really in your face here (and literally, if you take selfies with the beauty mode), stepping in to sharpen things up, add background blur and so on, but it can be turned off.
Although the camera can’t hope to match mainstream flagships like the Galaxy S10, it acquits itself well. Keen photographers will find quibbles quickly, like with grainy detail in zoomed shots, the occasional washed out color. It really struggles in difficult lighting conditions.
There’s also a pro mode to give you more customization options and a few fun features like Tilt Shift. Gamers who want to play around a little with their camera from time to time will find a few things to experiment with. 4K video recording is possible at 30 FPS, slow-motion at 120 FPS.
The Black Shark 2 battery has a capacity of 4000 mAh with a 27W fast charge, and it stands out as another impressive point in its favor. Not only did it frequently get me through the day of 'normal' phone use and a couple of gaming sessions in the evening, but it took 11 hours for the PCMark Work 2.0 battery test to take it down to 20%, and it recharged to full in just over an hour.
Wireless charging isn’t possible, but in all other respects, the battery is excellent .
Black Shark 2 technical specifications
|Dimensions:||163.6 x 75 x 8.77 mm|
|Battery size:||4000 mAh|
|Screen size:||6.39 in|
|Screen:||2340 x 1080 pixels (403 ppi)|
|Front camera:||20 megapixels|
|Rear camera:||48 megapixels|
|Internal storage:||128 GB
|Chipset:||Qualcomm Snapdragon 855|
|Number of cores:||8|
|Connectivity:||HSPA, LTE, NFC, Dual-SIM , Bluetooth 5.0|
Power at the right price
The Black Shark 2 may be the most interesting gaming phone on the market thanks to its excellent performance and well-rounded feature set at an affordable price. Admittedly, I’d recommend the gamepad set to get the most out of it, so...that’s about £560 total, but still miles cheaper and more versatile than the expensive ROG Phone and Razer Phone 2, and more than enough power to handle anything you’d ask of a smartphone.
If what you’re looking for is a lightweight smartphone with a top camera, then I’m impressed you made it this far. This isn’t for you. But if you prefer to spend your leisure time with your smartphone on action games rather than social media, the Black Shark 2 is a worthy weapon of choice. When you're not gaming, you can enjoy the quality experience of a clean Android powered by flagship-grade internals that you didn't pay a grand for.
If the display had a faster refresh rate and 2K resolution, the Black Shark 2 could be the perfect gaming smartphone. As it stands though, it’s still one of the best options, with an unmatched price-performance point.