Advertisement
Advertisement

Xiaomi Black Shark review: Can this gaming smartphone replace your Nintendo Switch?

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
439

Xiaomi takes aim at Razer with the Black Shark, but can this mid-price gaming smartphone earn a spot in your pocket?

Pros 
Terrific gaming capabilities
Bundled gamepad controller works well
Great-looking screen
Cons 
Design isn’t to everybody’s tastes
Camera could be better
Advertisement

Console-quality games are finally in the palm of your hand. You might have fond memories of Snake, Angry Birds and Candy Crush Saga, but those days are long gone. Now, the sort of top-notch AAA game experiences that once were only accessed with expensive, tailor-made hardware are just one tap away on your smartphone.

READ NEXT: The best smartphones you can buy

Phones such as the Honor Play recently set the benchmark for offering flagship-levels of gaming performance without those flagship-like price tags. And, in a similar vein, If you’ve been clamouring for a smartphone that’s tailored to the needs of serious mobile gaming without dipping into your rainy day fund, well, the oddly-named Xiaomi Black Shark might be just the ticket.

Xiaomi Black Shark review: What you need to know

Aside from its gaming credentials, the Xiaomi Black Shark is typical smartphone fare. It’s fitted with all the particulars you should be familiar with from a top-end smartphone in 2019: there’s a 6in Full HD screen on the front, with Galaxy S9-like forehead and chin bezels and is powered by Qualcomm’s beefy flagship processor, the Snapdragon 845.

But, most of all the Black Shark is a tempting proposition for mobile gamers. Xiaomi’s mid-price gaming phone comes bundled with a special gamepad controller, which clips onto the side of the phone and adds an analogue stick and a pair of shoulder buttons to your virtual firefights. A physical slider on the side of the phone also activates a “Do Not Disturb” mode, frees up RAM to improve gaming performance and displays your library of installed games.

Xiaomi Black Shark review: Price and competition

While gaming juggernaut Razer expects you to pay top dollar for its mobile gaming-centric phone, the Black Shark offers a welcome breath of fresh air. It may not be equipped with a buttery-smooth 120Hz screen like the £779 Razer Phone 2, but Xiaomi’s gaming smartphone costs £439. That’s £340 cheaper if you do the maths.

Sweetening the deal is the bundled £50 Bluetooth gamepad attachment. There is also a pair of Nintendo Switch Joy-Con-like left and right controller attachments available separately, but at £69 a pop this add-on is possibly out of reach of most gamer’s wallets.

Still, at that price you can expect the Black Shark to come up against the very best mid-range smartphones on the market including the terrific OnePlus 6T, which is our current flagship-killing favourite, and the notch-killing Xiaomi Mi Mix 3. It’s also quite a bit more than the £330 Snapdragon 845-toting Pocophone F1 if you really want a bargain.

Xiaomi Black Shark review: Design and features

Xiaomi has well and truly doubled down on the Black Shark’s “gamer” aesthetics. Its neon-green-accented black chassis looks remarkably similar to the sort of high-end gaming laptops that flooded popular gaming tournaments a couple of years ago. It’s rather garish, and is essentially the design yin to the Razer Phone 2’s understated, clean-looking yang.

As for the rest of the phone’s particulars, pretty much everything else is solid. There’s a Quick Charge 3-supported USB Type-C charging port on the bottom edge, which sits between a pair of speaker grilles, and a volume rocker and power button is located on the right. Take a look at the left side, and you’ll spot the dedicated “Shark Mode” slider switch, along with a nano-SIM tray that does double duty with a microSD slot.

There’s no fancy in-display fingerprint reader, though, which leads me to a few of the Black Shark’s shortcomings. There is indeed a fingerprint reader on the handset, but it's embedded underneath the screen, taking up a large chunk of the phone’s frontage. I’d have much preferred a bigger display with a rear-mounted sensor instead.

The Xiaomi Black Shark also lacks any officially-rated dust- or water-proofing and there's no 3.5mm headphone jack which, despite becoming increasingly common nowadays, is still a frustrating omission for wired headphone users, especially given this phone claims to be aimed at gamers who don’t want to worry about Bluetooth headphone battery life.

Xiaomi Black Shark review: Display

The Black Shark’s display specifications might not blow your socks off, but its 6in IPS 2,160 x 1,080 resolution panel is rather well-suited for your virtual grenade-throwing gaming sessions. It isn’t fitted with one of those fancy AMOLED screens, but the Black Shark’s display is capable of producing 95.2% of the sRGB colour gamut on the phone’s default “natural” display profile, with an average Delta E of 1.58.

What this means is that colours look splendid across the entire palette, with only a few exceptions with some slightly-overexposed dark shades of red and light pinks. Colourful games like Fortnite look lovely, and the screen is capable of reaching a maximum brightness of 506cd/m2, which is good enough for outdoor use even in the brightest of weather. A contrast ratio of 1,485:1 also ensures both text and images look as pin-sharp as can be.

Xiaomi Black Shark review: Performance and battery life

That’s all well and good, but you’re going to need a phone that can keep pace with such a lovely-looking screen. Thankfully, there’s no need to worry as the Black Shark is equipped with Qualcomm’s latest and greatest flagship processor, the Snapdragon 845 chipset, which is arranged with four 2.8GHz cores and four further cores clocked at 1.8GHz.

This top-end processor includes an embedded Adreno 630 GPU, which handles the Black Shark’s gaming capabilities. There’s also a choice of either 6- or 8GB of RAM, depending on your bank balance, as well as the option to upgrade the standard 64GB of internal storage to a more generous 128GB.

How about that performance, then? Well, it’s hardly surprising that the Black Shark’s CPU output is similar to the very best flagships 2019 has to offer so far – though that will change with the release of the Snapdragon 855. According to the Geekbench 4 single- and multi-core CPU tests, there’s very little to differentiate between them all when it boils down to raw speed. Of course, the Black Shark is still a good deal cheaper than the majority of its equally-performing competition, which is a massive bonus.

Mobile gaming is big business in 2019, with all sorts of smartphone manufacturers elbowing for a slice of that mobile esports pie, and the Xiaomi Black Shark is quite possibly the best gaming tool yet. The embedded Adreno 630 GPU copes perfectly well with all the latest Android games, producing stable frame rates close to 60fps in a wide range of titles.

Lacking the Razer Phone 2’s silky-smooth 120Hz screen isn’t a detriment, either. There are actually very few Android games that run at more than 60fps, with the likes of PUBG: Mobile capped at a maximum frame rate of 40fps. I’m certain it won’t be long until app developers and mobile hardware improvements catch up, but as it stands that 120Hz screen doesn’t enhance the mobile gaming experience, and it’s certainly not worth paying £340 more for.

However, your planned gaming sessions with the Black Shark might be prematurely cut short, as the 4,000mAh battery was only capable of lasting 10hrs 59mins on a single charge during our continuous video playback test. That’s by no means a bad score, of course, but other gaming phones like the Honor Play lasted quite a bit longer under identical conditions.

Xiaomi Black Shark review: Controller and other gaming features

What’s particularly special about the Black Shark is the bundled gamepad controller. Snapping nicely to the top edge of the phone, this Bluetooth controller adds a dedicated analogue stick and a pair of trigger buttons, and supports a wide variety of games.

Most importantly, as far as mobile gaming controllers go, this one is actually very good. The rubberised stick responds well to quick-paced inputs, and the shoulder buttons have a nice, clicky feel to them. Of course, it also has the added benefit of reducing visual clutter, moving your left thumb away from where it would usually sit on the screen, when using the joystick for movement in supported 3D shooters.

Aside from the physical controller, the Black Shark also has another handful of tricks under its sleeves. A slider switch on the left side of the phone activates “Shark Mode”, which closes all current applications and frees up RAM to help improve performance. This setting also puts the phone in “Do Not Disturb” mode, blocking all incoming notifications, and displays all downloaded games in a console-like scrollable interface for easier access.

Xiaomi Black Shark review: Camera

Dual-camera smartphones are nothing new, and the Black Shark’s arrangement isn’t particularly special, either. You’ll find a pair of cameras on the back of the phone; one is a regular RGB 12-megapixel f/1.8 effort, complete with dual-pixel phase detection autofocus, while the other is a 2x telephoto zoom, 20-megapixel f/1.8 camera. The main camera simply adds detail and colour information, while the secondary sensor allow you to zoom in a little further, although not quite as far as the 3x optical zoom offered on the Huawei Mate 20 Pro.

Results are pretty decent for the most part, although still images don’t look quite as good when placed side-by-side with the OnePlus 6T’s shots. There’s a nice amount of detail in shots captured in good light, and colour reproduction is rather good for the most part, it’s just that pictures don’t look quite as impressive.

The HDR mode wasn’t as effective, either, and failed to brighten up darker, shadowy areas as effectively as the OnePlus 6T. And, despite the reasonably-wide aperture allowing in plenty of light, pictures taken in darker conditions did suffer from some heavy-handed post-processing, producing images that looked quite soft, altogether lacking in detail and definition.

The embedded Qualcomm Spectra 280 Image Signalling Processor has also proven more than capable with other Snapdragon 845-powered phones in the past, but the Xiaomi Black Shark is actually unable to record video at 60fps. Instead, you’re restricted to 1080p and 4K footage at a not-so-smooth 30 frames per second. Image stabilisation is supported no matter the resolution, though, and footage does look reasonably crisp and detailed.

Xiaomi Black Shark review: Verdict

Xiaomi’s Black Shark offers almost everything you’d want from a flagship-beating handset. Its camera might not be as well-suited for your Instagram-worthy adventures, and its design certainly isn’t to everybody’s tastes, but the Black Shark successfully nails those crucial areas that really matter for gamers: notably top-tier performance and a great-looking screen. Most importantly, it does so at a very competitive price.

Still, I can’t help but think that the OnePlus 6T gets in the way a little bit. If you strip out the BlackShark’s gaming-specific features and disregard the bundled controller, you’re left with a phone that doesn’t quite stack up so well in some areas. However, if gaming really does sit at the top of your smartphone-buying checklist, then the Xiaomi Black Shark is still a solid choice – and with a £61 saving, to boot.

Xiaomi Black Shark specifications
ProcessorOcta-core, Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 (4x2.8GHz, 4x1.8GHz)
RAM6GB, 8GB
Screen size5.99in
Screen resolution2,160 x 1,080
Pixel density403ppi
Screen typeIPS
Front camera20-megapixel
Rear camera12-megapixel, 20-megapixel
FlashDual-LED
Dust and water resistanceN/A
3.5mm headphone jackNo
Wireless chargingNo
USB connection typeUSB Type-C
Storage options64GB, 128GB
Memory card slot (supplied)N/A
Wi-Fi802.11ac
Bluetooth5
NFCYes
Cellular data4G
Dual SIMYes (shared with microSD)
Dimensions (WDH)161.6 x 75.4 x 9.3 mm
Weight190g
Operating systemAndroid 8.1
Battery size4,000mAh

Read more

Reviews