A 144 Hz display, great-sounding speakers, and a powerful state-of-the-art SoC. Gaming smartphones represent a niche market that is still struggling to find appeal amongst the general public. While they share some characteristics with "normal" high-end smartphones, the adjective "gaming" is more than just a marketing ploy. NextPit is here to help you make your choice with this arbitrary yet scalable list of the best gaming smartphones to enjoy in 2021 according to your budget.
- Editor's Choice: Asus ROG Phone 5: The best gaming smartphone in 2021
- The best gaming smartphones recommended by NextPit in 2021
- RedMagic 5S: The more affordable high-end alternative
- Lenovo Legion Duel: The coolest gaming smartphone
- Realme X50: Mid-range performance with 120 Hz
- OnePlus 8T: The gaming smartphone that isn't a gaming smartphone
- How did NextPit select the best gaming smartphone of 2021?
- Are gaming smartphones still too niche?
- 144 Hz screen, Snapdragon 865+, 16 GB RAM - Isn't that a bit "too much"?
- Gaming modes on smartphone: Does it work?
As with every other comparison that involves a list of the best smartphones, this is a personal choice of the author, who in this case would be me. This choice has obviously been debated among the editorial staff prior to publishing and I will therefore furnish you with my colleagues' recommendations should their opinion differ from mine.
The ROG Phone 5 from Asus is all about power. The phone is loaded to the hilt with top-notch hardware and is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 SoC. It gets 16 GB of LPDDR5 RAM, boasts a 144 Hz AMOLED screen and packs a 6000 mAh battery that charges at 65 Watts. The Asus ROG Phone 5 is available in three configurations: 8/128 GB, 12/256 GB and 16/256 GB, respectively sold for 799, 899 and 999 euros as of March 2021.
In addition to the raw power of the Snapdragon 888, the main strength of the ROG Phone 5 is its excellent thermals and resistance to thermal throttling. The smartphone manages to maintain an almost constant level of performance over long gaming sessions. And it's even better when you plug in the AeroActive Cooler 5 external fan which is anything but a gimmick.
The screen of the ROG Phone 5 from Asus is fluid for games and also doubles up as a great window to consume multimedia content. This panel supports an adaptive refresh rate of 144 Hz and a touch sampling rate of 300 Hz.
The large 6000 mAh battery lasts really long and recharges quickly thanks to the supplied 65 Watt charger. You can also opt for "bypass" charging and supply your smartphone directly via the mains, without using the battery.
All these things taken into account, the ROG Phone 5 is easily the best smartphone for gaming in 2021. But it's also more powerful and cheaper than all of the other high-end Android smartphones in 2021 – including the OnePlus 9 Pro, Samsung Galaxy S21 and the Oppo Find X3 Pro.
If I mention "smartphone gaming", it is not for nothing at all. Hence, I am going to talk about models that were explicitly designed for mobile gaming purposes. Logically, these are very high-end models, with premium specification sheets boasting of top-notch hardware. In order to offer a selection suitable for all budgets, I will therefore also list some other alternatives, although do not expect those to reside on the high-end spectrum.
A Snapdragon 865 chipset, a 144 Hz AMOLED screen, up to 12 GB of RAM, UFS 3.1 storage, a 64 MP triple camera setup, haptic triggers, and a 4,500 mAh battery - what is there not to love about the RedMagic 5S? The RedMagic 5S is a real powerhouse that retails for less than £600. The basic version, 8GB of RAM/128GB has been available since September 2nd for in Europe. A 12GB/256GB version is also available.
The raw performance of the Snapdragon 865 chipset is obvious and I was really impressed by the efficiency of the temperature control. The smartphone remained almost as cold as ice even after an hour of playing Call of Duty Mobile in high graphics settings.
The interface still requires some fine-tuning but the control centre is a complete success when it comes to software implementation. In addition to tracking and setting the CPU and other clock speeds, the Game Boost menu also offers a digital wellness feature that helps track your game time. Depending on your game time statistics, the smartphone may suggest for you to take a break. An abhorrent idea for any self-respecting mobile gamer, but it is still a welcome option nonetheless.
The biggest flaw in this smartphone is undoubtedly the power button that is located under the volume knob when holding the device in landscape mode, which happens to be common on other smartphones but particularly hinders the use of the RedMagic 5S when one is about to indulge in some gaming. Not only does this button interfere with the "clips" to attach to your PS4 or Xbox One controller, but it will also lock your smartphone when you attempt to attach the "Ice Dock", which is an external fan.
But overall, Nubia's RedMagic 5S is a great and more affordable alternative to the Asus ROG Phone 5, if gaming happens to be your main criteria when purchasing a new smartphone.
Still being reviewed
Released on October 15, 2020, the Lenovo Legion Duel is the second smartphone on the market to feature the powerful Snapdragon 865+ chipset, similar to the Asus ROG Phone 3.
It makes perfect sense of having a retractable front camera that enables you to take full advantage of the 6.65-inch AMOLED screen with a 144 Hz refresh rate alongside a 240 Hz touch-sampling rate without any notches getting in the way! This pop-up camera module was also designed for content creators who want to record their gameplay (game sessions) via a selfie perspective or even for streaming.
For performance, we are obviously on the very high-end thanks to Qualcomm's Snapdragon 865+ coupled with 12 or 16 GB of RAM. The benchmarks that I was able to run clearly illustrated this raw power. The temperature control proved to be quite effective thanks to the integration of a double liquid cooling system.
The 5000 mAh battery used on this phone is based on two cells of 2500 mAh each which are recharged simultaneously by USB-C at 65 Watts. The ROG Phone 5 is a bit more complete, but the Lenovo Legion Duel has a cachet and a visual identity that is quite unique on the market, which has won over the geek that I am. It is undoubtedly the most "stylish" gaming smartphone of 2021, which will appeal to owners of gaming PCs packed with RGB LEDs.
The point here is to provide alternatives to pure gaming smartphones, which are necessarily high-end, more expensive and above all very visually appropriate to indicate it as such. Here, NextPit lists smartphones that are more versatile and/or more affordable but whose gaming possibilities are a little more extensive than those of their competitors in their respective price ranges.
The RealmeX50 5G has been available since August 11 2020, at a price of £279 for a single 6 GB RAM/ 128 GB configuration. But in the meantime, the OnePlus Nord has been released on July 21st with a very similar specifications sheet and price.
A 120 Hz LCD screen, Snapdragon 765G chipset, and 4,200 mAh battery makes it hard to distinguish the Realme X50 from its cousin, the OnePlus Nord. But in terms of raw performance, the Realme X50 does better than the Nord, which is a pleasant surprise since the latter has been considered to be more optimised for gaming.
The game mode on the Realme X50 only offers a "Competitive" mode that does not indicate what kind of optimisations are being made when it is activated. The 4,200 mAh battery provides a solid battery life for conventional use that clearly seems ridiculous when compared to other models in this selection.
The Realme X50 Pro 5G currently retails for less than 400 euros, and if you want a little more performance without completely switching to the world of purely gaming smartphones, you can opt for this phone
The OnePlus 8T has been available since October 20, 2020 at a price of £549 for the 8GB/128GB version on the official OnePlus and Amazon stores.
The OnePlus 8T comes with a 6.55-inch AMOLED flat panel display in Full HD+ resolution with a 120 Hz refresh rate and 240 Hz touch-sampling rate, which is not so common on a "classic", non-gaming flagship device.
Underneath the hood lies a Snapdragon 865 chipset, a 4,500 mAh battery with the new highly efficient Warp Charge 65T fast charge capability.
In terms of raw power, the OnePlus 8T has all of the necessary weapons required to compete with the best gaming smartphones on the market such as the ROG Phone 3 from Asus or the Nubia RedMagic 5S. In the graphical benchmarks I used for my tests, the OnePlus 8T always managed to maintain a more or less stabilised framerate of around 30 FPS and this, without ever exceeding the critical temperature reading of 39°C.
OnePlus has moved the camera module to a different place as compared to the OnePlus 8 in order to obtain a larger surface area for the steam chamber, a dozen temperature sensors, as well as 5 graphite plates, and silicone grease everywhere to limit overheating.
The dedicated Fnatic gaming mode is less advanced than what pure gaming smartphones offer, but the interface is much more user-friendly. You can make the game menu appear contextually, like a pop-up once you are in the game. You have a temperature indicator, battery, as well as the ability to have Instagram or WhatsApp in windowed mode (what's the point?!), block notifications, false positives, etc.
In short, it's a fairly complete high-end smartphone and is the understated alternative in the top end list. The gaming experience is worthy of a gaming smartphone, but the device is not too gaming-oriented and it can be used perfectly as a daily driver.
The idea behind the concept of a gaming smartphone is not to just offer a powerful smartphone. Any flagship released since 2018 is fully capable of running almost any of the most demanding mobile games in high graphics settings, as well as some mid-range models.
Logically, raw power is an essential factor, but it's not the only one. In the gaming category, we will logically find many high-end smartphones, equipped with the latest SoCs such as the Snapdragon 888 and the Exynos 2100.
But an even more important criteria would be the fluidity of the user experience. The quality of the screen will therefore be a very important point, with a majority sporting OLED displays, although it would be those equipped with especially high refresh rates that exceed 120 Hz or even 144 Hz which win out. The tactile sampling rate, which is the number of times the screen records a touch with your fingers per second, is a key factor and generally lies around the 240 Hz mark for optimal responsiveness.
The higher this rate, the more accurate the gestures you make by touching your screen will be captured. This is especially important in FPS titles to ensure more responsive and accurate aiming, translating to more accurate targeting. If you switch from 240 to 180 Hz, you'll notice the difference, as if the sensitivity of the aiming is reduced drastically. You need to make longer, more pronounced sweeps, which is far from optimal in a fast-paced FPS title.
Think of it as the DPI (dots per inch) of a PC gaming mouse. The goal being that the mouse, aka touch controls, react to the most subtle movements possible to ensure the greatest possible degree of responsiveness.
Of course, the gaming range must be equipped with a big battery and a good cooling system in order to prevent any overheating from happening. You'll find the most advanced features in the gaming segment that even "normal" flagships don't offer with liquid cooling, more advanced ventilation chambers, special graphite coatings, and batteries that have a capacity of 5,000 mAh or more.
In contrast to the classic smartphone that is used in a conventional manner, gaming usage can be rather intensive as it places the components of the smartphone through the wringer. This is all the more the case as gaming sessions tend to be rather lengthy. That's why gaming smartphones generally offer better thermal throttling management, i.e. automatic performance limitation to prevent overheating above 39°C.
I do not have precise tools to measure this notion in my tests. Recently, the 3DMark benchmark offered a test called "Wild Life". This test simulates an intense game session with graphics pushed to the maximum settings anywhere from 1 to 20 minutes long. The whole idea is to see how the smartphone behaves once it is pushed to its limits.
This benchmark then furnishes us with the temperature variation, the FPS rate, and battery consumption rate. Temperatures will always rise, it is an inevitable reality based on the laws of physics. But the more the FPS fluctuates as the temperature rises, the more you can measure the amount of thermal throttling.
In this example above, we can see that the Huawei Mate 40 Pro has heated up significantly less than the Asus ROG Phone 3, maintaining the maximum temperature at 33°C versus 40°C for the ROG Phone. But it can also be noted that the framerate is far more inconsistent than on the Asus smartphone.
Just compare the two graphs on the far left of the image above, the difference between the first loop (1 minute) and the last loop (20 minutes) is obvious on the Mate 40 Pro. The ROG Phone 3 maintains a very similar level of performance.
This is where we can see one of the impacts of thermal throttling. In order to protect against any form of overheating, the Mate 40 Pro limits performance, while the ROG Phone 3 which is better equipped with a cooling system, can afford to operate at higher temperatures for a longer period of time while maintaining a steady level of performance.
Gaming smartphones will be far more capable than "normal" smartphones of pushing that limit and maintaining consistently high performance for as long as possible.
As one reader pointed out to me, do the iPhone 12 and Galaxy S20 have all of these conditions in place? No. Their power gives them some versatility but they are not gaming smartphones. Or maybe all flagships are gaming smartphones, in which the name doesn't make sense in any case.
On the other hand, unlike more classic smartphones, gaming models often tend to neglect the quality of the camera module. They also often have a very gaming-oriented design, complete with LEDs on all sides. They have also been designed to be rather massive and heavy, which doesn't please everyone.
- 144 Hz OLED display
- 240 Hz tactile sampling rate
- Snapdragon 865 SoC
- Efficient cooling system
- Large battery capacity with an average of 5,000 mAh
- Quick charge capability
- Accessories (fan, USB-C adapter/3.5mm jack)
- Highly accurate battery and performance utilities
- Eye-catching design packed with LEDs
- Massive and rather heavy smartphones
- Unsightly gaming interfaces
- Generally expensive
- Average camera performance
Let's understand each other, I would really like to see gaming smartphones with specification sheets that are on steroids released. I personally play a lot of games on my smartphone. Hence, I know very well that none of the games currently available require such a powerful machine, whether native mobile games (on the App Store or Play Store) or even on cloud gaming.
And even if they did (but they don't), the vast majority of mobile gamers don't play resource-intensive games anyway. Gaming smartphones are simply too far ahead of their time, and the mobile gaming market is not keeping up with the technical ambitions pursued by different manufacturers such as Asus, BlackShark or Nubia.
What I mean by this is, the "gaming" argument on smartphones is not yet strong enough to make this niche a large enough consumer- and fan-base to be profitable. It's wonderful to have such a powerful monster in your hands, but who else but a geek like me would be willing to transform a handheld game console into a smartphone for everyday use?
And who among those playing Candy Crush, Fortnite, and other mini-games that are aplenty in mobile app stores require that much power? It is basically overkill. That's where the mainstream side of the ROG Phone 3 comes in to capture consumers who can get confused by the gaming aspect of things.
I have devoted an entire guide to this question which I have highlighted below and which I invite you to read if this summary is not exhaustive enough for you.
But to cut a long story short, we do not need the latest Snapdragon, Kirin, Exynos, or whatever chipset. A top-of-the-line SoC from last year or even 2018 may be all you need, provided you adjust your expectations in terms of graphics.
- Read also: Gaming smartphones: Do you need a 144 Hz screen, 16GB of RAM and the latest Snapdragon chipset?
No. However, I would always advise you to choose the latest and most powerful model for an optimal experience without any compromises. This all depends on whether your budget allows it, of course.
You also don't need as much RAM as you do on a PC game with 10, 12, or 16 GB. The 6 GB or 8 GB of RAM that is currently the market standard is more than enough. This is surely the point where various manufacturers tend to trumpet their hardware which makes it all the more ostentatious.
However, if there's one thing that's not overboard, it's the screen refresh rate. The latter, when pushed at 90 Hz minimum, is far from being a gimmick. And this precise criteria has a direct and significant impact on the quality of the playing experience.
As for the screen, another key notion would be the touch-sampling rate. Specifically, it's the number of times per second that the screen records a touch with your finger. Expressed in Hz, this data is important to ensure the best possible smoothness and response time of tactile commands. Generally, you should aim for 240 Hz for an optimal experience. This is very different from the refresh rate, which is also expressed in Hz.
So yes, gaming smartphone manufacturers are overdoing it. You do not need so much power to play under good conditions. But you can hardly blame the manufacturers for wanting to push the performance of their devices to the extreme, can you?
What if we overclock our smartphones? The idea sounds absurd but more and more manufacturers are integrating "game" or "gaming" modes to their Android skins that are supposed to boost or optimise the performance of their smartphones. How does it work and more importantly, does it work? The answer can be found in the complete guide shown below, which I will summarise in a brief manner here.
Fnatic mode on OnePlus, Game Tools on Samsung, X-Mode on Asus or GPU Turbo at Huawei, the list goes on. For some time now on some smartphones, you have been able to improve the graphical performance of your device for a better gaming experience.
To find out if they really work, I've performed several series of graphical benchmark tests as well as hands-on tests. Regarding the benchmarks, I opted for the software that we usually use at the writing desk for our smartphone reviews.
Truth be told, these gaming modes are only really useful for the "Do not disturb" functions they offer. But they don't fundamentally provide better performance.
|Game mode: on||GeekBench 5 Single||Geekbench 5 Multi||PassMark Disk||PassMark Memory||3D Mark Slingshot Extreme||3D Mark Vulkan||3D Mark Slingshot 3.0|
|ROG Phone 3||965||3351||111637||28722||7723||7026||9767|
|Game mode: off||GeekBench 5 Single||Geekbench 5 Multi||PassMark Disk||PassMark Memory||3D Mark Slingshot Extreme||3D Mark Vulkan||3D Mark Slingshot 3.0|
|ROG Phone 3||966||3320||98869||28387||7109||6385||9425|
But benchmarks are not 100% reliable, and some manufacturers cheat to obtain better scores. So I did some hands-on testing to see if a difference in performance could be felt in real-world conditions when playing. To do so, I focused on the FPS rate.
And I noticed that in use, the improvement brought by gaming modes can be quantified more significantly than through benchmark tests. The FPS rate is a key criterion for judging the quality of a gaming experience.
The fact that game modes allow more FPSs to be displayed on the screen is a good argument to defend their usefulness, which however could seem to be anecdotal at best, and totally useless at worst.
In absolute terms, a gaming mode will never perform actual miracles and transform an old bike into a war machine. The improvements will be incremental at best and are in no way transcendental. Above all, the performance boost comes up against the notion of thermal throttling, a software failsafe that clamps of performance in order to limit overheating.
So we can't say it is a form of marketing bullshit in all intellectual honesty. But rather than providing a real boost, gaming modes offer a little boost at best.
As explained in the introduction, this list is an arbitrary one since it is based on the preferences of the author (in this case, me) and the rest of the editorial staff (the list was discussed among all the reviewers).
We decided not to make a catch-all list and to select only the best gaming smartphones according to several categories so as not to make the selection confusing, with possibly the best alternatives to make a more informed comparison alongside taking into consideration the budget allocated to different consumers.
But the goal here is not to rank the list in order of greatest to the least. Purchasing a gaming smartphone meets a very specific need and use, it is a niche market, after all. It is therefore useless to include classic flagships or smartphones that were not designed for mobile gaming in the first place, although their raw power may allow limited gaming usage.
The selected models are nevertheless selected on the basis of certain objective criteria such as price, performance (as observed by benchmarks), their technical specifications, etc.
As for a review, this list is the product of several subjective opinions but is always partly supported by objective and verifiable elements. We also remain attentive to the community by taking into account readers' recommendations in the comments to populate the selection.
In essence, only models that have been reviewed at the time of publishing were selected. The smartphone is put into context with the current state of the market, taking into account possible price reductions, the release of new competing models, its availability for purchase, etc. If a model is not available, it will be replaced by a new one (deservedly so) on paper to be part of the selection. Seeing that there are models that we could not review, we have also included them by basing our recommendations on the opinion of competing tech sites that have reviewed those.
What do you think of this selection? Which models do you think we have forgotten and deserve to be included? Do you find the advice and methodology sections useful? What do you think of this new format? Give us your feedback in the comments section!