Gaming smartphones represent a niche market that is still struggling to find its place and appeal among the general public. While they share some characteristics with "normal" high-end smartphones, the pronoun "gaming" is more than just a marketing slang. At NextPit, I've put together this selection of what I think is the best smartphones I've tested which are designed by and for g4m3rs on the market in 2020.
If I were to use the term "gaming smartphone", it's not for nothing. So I'm going to talk about models that were explicitly designed for mobile gaming. These are logically very high-end models, with premium technical specifications. In order to propose a wide selection that is suitable for a wide range of budgets, I will therefore also list some alternatives, although some of these might seem a little odd at first.
- Asus ROG Phone 3: A Real Handheld Console
- RedMagic 5S: The more affordable high-end alternative
- Realme X50: The midrange at 120 Hz
- OnePlus 8T: The gaming smartphone that isn't a gaming smartphone
- Are gaming smartphones still too niche?
- 144 Hz screen, Snapdragon 865+, 16 GB RAM - Isn't that a bit "too much"?
- Gaming modes on a smartphone, does it work?
Its gaming assets:
- Snapdragon 865+ chipset
- 144 Hz AMOLED screen
- 12 or 16 GB RAM
- 6,000 mAh battery
- Highly advanced interface and control center
- Haptic triggers
- Cooling system
The Asus ROG Phone 3 is a high-end smartphone that is oriented towards (insert drumroll here)...gaming. It has everything to make up a full-blown flagship: a 6.59-inch AMOLED display with 144 Hz refresh rate, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Plus SoC coupled with 12 or 16 GB of RAM, and a 6,000 mAh battery.
It has sold for €999 ($1,172) since its launch on July 22 this year, which is still significantly cheaper than many of the high-end smartphones on the market today that are just as well or even less well equipped.
ROG stands for "Republic of gamers" in the moniker, Asus' latest gaming smartphone has never been more appropriately named. Not only content to be the most powerful device I've reviewed so far, but it also has everything else to be a model smartphone blueprint for the layperson. This democratization effort is certainly worth taking my hat off to.
Democratize - Republic, you got it? Apart from the pun, this is the philosophy adopted by Asus and shows that the manufacturer has understood the state of the market in which it finds itself. While being user friendly to the average user, it also does not prevent it from offering a cornucopia of options through its X mode and the "Armoury Crate" menu, a control center that gives you a unique grip on the operation and performance of your smartphone, turning it into a true gaming device.
But the ROG Phone 3 has also watered down its gaming expertise to the point where it can be used by a wider audience, which makes it more versatile. This requires the adoption of a more sober design, but also the integration of a convincing camera module, which is rare for a gaming smartphone.
If you're a gamer but don't want to carry around a 5 kg brick and want a versatile but powerful device, then the ROG Phone 3 is for you. Provided you have €1,000 ($1,172) on hand, of course.
Its gaming assets:
- Snapdragon 865 chipset
- 144 Hz AMOLED screen
- 8 or 12 GB RAM
- Temperature control
- Comprehensive Game Boost mode
Snapdragon 865, 144 Hz AMOLED display, 12 GB RAM, UFS 3.1 storage, 64 MP triple camera module, haptic triggers, and a 4,500 mAh battery: what's there not to like? The RedMagic 5S is a powerful beast at less than €600 ($703). The basic version, which comes in an 8GB/128GB configuration and is available since September 2 at €579 ($677) in Europe. There is also a 12GB/256GB version that will retail for €649 ($760) apiece.
If you are looking for an affordable flagship smartphone that retails for less than €600 ($703), there are obviously better alternatives out there. What I mean by this is that there are smartphones at the same price, with similar technical specifications but offer a far more complete experience. I'm thinking of the Realme X50 Pro or Xiaomi's Poco F2 Pro (which we still haven't received at the editor's desk).
But this is clearly not the market that ZTE subsidiary Nubia is targeting with the RedMagic 5S. This smartphone makes no excuses about catering to the gaming market. And in terms of performance and customisation of the gaming experience, it's a success.
The RedMagic is also €300 ($351) cheaper than the market leaders in the gaming segment such as the ROG Phone 3 (€999/$1,173) or the BlackShark 3 Pro (€899/$1,053).
On the other hand, where the ROG Phone 3 has achieved a certain balance, combining gaming and regular consumer smartphone capabilities so that it can satisfy a large segment of the casual gamer market while delivering a more balanced product, the RedMagic 5S unfortunately cornered itself in a very niche market segment that is mobile gaming.
Its interface needs some fine-tuning but the raw performance is there and its overheating control is impressive. So if gaming is your primary reason to pick up a smartphone, or perhaps even an almost exclusive point in using a smartphone, then the RedMagic 5S is a good choice. It is an excellent choice even and it does not even pretend to offer more.
Its gaming assets:
- Snapdragon 765G chipset
- 120 Hz screen
- A complete smartphone and not just for gaming
- Quality/price ratio
The Realme X50 has been official in France since August 11 at the price of €379 ($443), where it will arrive in a single configuration 6 GB RAM / 128 GB internal storage. But in the meantime, the OnePlus Nord has been released earlier on July 21 with very similar specifications and price (€349/399), depending on the configuration.
And if OnePlus is generally one brand that is most often associated with smartphone gaming, then the Realme X50 has done very well for itself. To make a comparison, I've performed three series of several graphics and CPU benchmarks on the Realme X50 and OnePlus Nord.
On paper, the Realme X50 does better than the OnePlus Nord. It's hard to say how well it will perform during actual gameplay, as the performance of the two smartphones is very similar. And the OnePlus Nord does have advantages when it comes to certain games such as Fortnite, which is displayed at 45 FPS while it is limited to just 30 FPS in the settings on the Realme X50.
But it's a nice surprise from Realme, offering something that you would not actually expect on the gaming front. All the more so since OnePlus is really making plenty of noise with its Fnatic mode that optimises CPU, GPU, RAM, and so on.
The game mode of the Realme X50 is limited to only a "Competitive" mode that does not indicate what kind of optimisations are made when you activate it. But I have to concede, as a fan (not at all unconditional, but a fan all the same) of OnePlus, the Realme X50 does better on this point.
The OnePlus 8T will be available from October 20 at a price of €599 ($702) for the 8GB/ 128GB version and €699 ($818) for the 12GB/ 256GB version on the official OnePlus, Amazon, and Fnac/Darty sites. It is available in two colours: Aquamarine Green and Lunar Silver, the latter being exclusive to the basic memory configuration (8GB/ 128GB).
The OnePlus 8T features a 6.55-inch AMOLED Flat Panel Display in Full HD+ with a 120 Hz refresh rate and a punch-holein the top left corner that houses the selfie camera. Underneath the hood lies a Snapdragon 865 chipset, a 4,500 mAh battery with the new Warp Charge 65 fast charge capability.
It is less expensive than the OnePlus 8 and offers a higher refresh rate (120 Hz vs 90 Hz). Last year's model, the OnePlus 7T also holds up very well even today, but I focused on models released in 2020 for this selection.
In terms of raw power, the OnePlus 8T has all of the necessary weapons to rival the best gaming smartphones in the market such as the ROG Phone 3 from Asus or the Nubia RedMagic 5S. OnePlus explained to me that by shifting its camera module, previously located in the upper left corner, this allowed the addition of new components for temperature control.
The dedicated Fnatic gaming mode is less advanced than on pure gaming smartphones, but the interface is far more ergonomic. You can make the game menu appear contextually, like a pop-up once you are gaming. You have a temperature indicator, battery, Instagram or Whatsapp availability in windowed mode (what's the point?!), the ability to block notifications, false positives, etc.
In short, it's a fairly complete high-end smartphone and is the "jack of all trades" alternative on the top end. The gaming experience is worthy of a gaming smartphone, but the device is not too gaming oriented and it can perfectly be used as a daily driver.
In order to understand each other, I really like to see gaming smartphones with steroid-injected specifications. I personally play a lot of games on my smartphone. So I know very well that none of the games available currently require such a powerful machine, whether native mobile games (available on the App Store and Play Store) or 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 manufacturers such as Asus, BlackShark, or Nubia.
What I mean by this is that the "gaming" argument on smartphones is not yet sufficient 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 the Candy Crush, Fortnite, and other mini-game players that you will find aplenty, require so much processing muscle? That's where the mainstream aspect of the ROG Phone 3 comes in to cater to this group of consumers that the gaming aspect can be off-putting for some.
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 don't 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 manage your expectations in terms of graphical performance.
- To go further: Gaming smartphones: Do you need a 144 Hz screen, 16 GB of RAM, and the latest Snapdragon chipset?
Definitely not. However, I would always advise you to choose the latest and most powerful model for an optimal experience so as not to experience any regrets. Having said that, do so only if your budget allows it, of course.
You also don't need as much RAM as you do on a gaming PC with 10, 12, or even 16 GB. The 6 or 8 GB model that is currently the market standard is more than adequate. This is surely the point at which manufacturers are milking the most out of it in terms of marketing excess.
However, if there's one thing that's not ostentatious, it's the screen refresh rate. The latter, when pushed at 90 Hz minimum, is far from being just a gimmick. And this is precisely the criteria that has a direct and significant influence on the quality of the playing experience.
So, yes, the manufacturers of gaming smartphones are overdoing it. You don't need so much power to enjoy a gaming session without having to compromise on graphical performance. But you can hardly blame manufacturers for wanting to push the envelope when it comes to technological advances on their devices to the extreme, can you?
What if we overclock our smartphones? The idea seems absurd at first, but more and more manufacturers are integrating "game" or "gaming" modes to their Android overlay that supposedly boosts or optimises the performance of their smartphones. How does it work, and more importantly, does it work? The answer can be found in the complete guide here below, which I will summarise quite briefly here.
Fnatic mode on OnePlus, Game Tools on Samsung, X-Mode on Asus, or GPU Turbo on Huawei, there is a different name that essentially, delivers the same function. For some time now on selected 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 editorial desk for our smartphone reviews.
Here is a quick disclaimer: these gaming modes are only really useful for the "Do not disturb" functions they offer. But they don't provide a fundamentally 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 there is a difference in performance that could be felt in real-world conditions when playing, and in order to do so, I focused on the number of FPS.
And I noticed that during gameplay with the gaming mode activated, the improvement brought about by such gaming modes can be quantified more significantly than through benchmark tests. The number of FPS is a key criterion for judging the quality of a gaming experience.
And the fact that game modes now allow the FPS rate to be displayed on the screen is a good argument to defend their usefulness, which however could seem anecdotal at best, and superfluous at worst.
But in absolute terms, a gaming mode will never perform real miracles and transform an old bike into a war machine. The improvements will be essentially incremental and in no way transcendental. Above all, the performance boost goes up against the notion of thermal throttling, a software algorithm that nerfs the performance in order to limit overheating.
So we can't say it's marketing bullshit in all intellectual honesty. But rather than a real boost, gaming modes at best provide a little boost.
So much for that selection. What do you think of the models listed here? What are your alternatives that should have made it in this ranking? And above all, what do you think of the "new format", with a shorter selection focused on the best models in each category only and with a "tips" section at the end? Let me know in the comments!
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