Review: Black Shark 2 gaming smartphone does the job, but at a price

Specialised gaming phones are slowly but surely becoming their own niche market segment. Huawei’s Honor came out with the Honor Play last year, and later, there was Nubia’s Red Magic.

This year has seen some exciting new entrants in the form of the Red Magic 3 and the Xiaomi-backed Black Shark 2.

Of the current market newbies, the Black Shark 2 is priced higher than the Red Magic 3, but at least prospective buyers can now compare and choose. Not just that, every flagship phone worth its salt now is touting its gaming prowess and claiming to offer superior gaming experiences. But what sets phones like the Black Shark 2 and Red Magic 3 apart are the dedicated hardware and software fixes that are made for gaming.

Gaming DNA

The Black Shark 2 is a very good-looking phone, and that’s a good thing, because it seems it’s a prerequisite for dedicated gaming phones now.

On unboxing it, we found a sleek device with cuts and contours on the back and a smooth front accented by bezels. Before you curse the bezels, you should know that they help horizontal gameplay by giving you a grip.

The back of the phone is all metal, save for an X-shaped glass area under which the antenna is housed. The glass frames an oblong strip of matte-finish metal that houses the Black Shark logo, which lights up during use and looks mean and enticing at the same time. The top left corner of the back houses a dual camera and flash assembly.

The right side of the phone has the power button and hardware switch for ‘Shark Space’, the gaming centre of the phone. The left has the volume rockers. It took some time getting used to this set-up as I ended up pressing the Shark Space switch instead of the power button as they look similar.

The sides also have light strips that illuminate during gameplay and otherwise. The colours and the patterns can be customised, of course. The SIM tray is on the bottom, next to a USB Type C port. There is no 3.5 mm jack, as more phones are losing it by the day. The phone has an in-display fingerprint sensor.

There are dual front-firing speakers that are fairly loud and should be enough if you are gaming by yourself in a room. But I would recommend headphones to make the experience better and more immersive.

The 6.39-inch AMOLED, 1080 x 2340 p display is bright and lucid, and really good for gaming and general content consumption. Sunlight legibility is also very good and the 240-hz touch sensing and a low touch latency means that the response and experience during gameplay is very prompt and smooth. HDR colours are rendered really well and the screen keeps up with maxed-out game settings too.

Powerful features

The 4,000 mAh battery can keep up with moderate gameplay and the phone can last a day with other tasks such as instant messaging, music streaming, YouTube, some light work on Google Docs or MS Word, etc. However, needless to say, heavy gaming with the phone’s software set to higher gaming modes (more on that later), drains the battery much faster. The 27 W fast charger helps juice up the battery quickly, so keep it around if your day involves extensive gameplay.

The Black Shark 2 runs on Android 9 Pie with its own Joy UI on top. Now this custom UI is close to stock Android, and the phone is mercifully free of bloatware. It is an advantage if gaming phones manage to keep their software minimalist and tidy and this is something the Black Shark 2 does a good job of, and so did the Red Magic 3 from Nubia.

Shark Space

Without a doubt, the Shark Space is the highlight. Activated with a toggle of the switch on the right side, it is a special space where all your downloaded games are catalogued and stored. Once activated, the Shark Space restricts incoming calls and messages and shuts off notifications, giving you an undisturbed gaming experience. By swiping inwards from the top corners in this mode, you can access a control panel, which also shows you battery and CPU usage stats, and lets you customise and optimise controls to suit your gameplay.

The Gamer Studio section lets you choose from different game modes, where the ‘Ludicrous Mode’ is the top performing mode. The Studio also lets you customise sound, touch, display, etc.

A very useful and innovative feature called ‘Master Touch’ lets you choose a large screen area for specific controls, instead of the in-game screen buttons. This makes gameplay easier and less cumbersome.

Heat management is good, with the Black Shark 2’s liquid cooling system doing its job well. I only felt the phone get toasty when I used the Ludicrous Mode for an extended period of time. But avoid doing that and you shouldn’t have any heating problems.

On the specs front, thanks to the top-end Snapdragon 855 processor and a minimum 6 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage (there’s a 12 GB/256 GB version too), the phone can take everything thrown at it, be it multi-tasking or hardcore gaming, without a hiccup.

The primary camera on the Black Shark 2 consists of a 48 MP-plus-12 MP set, with apertures of f/1.8 and f/2.2 respectively. While camera performance is good and it gives you well-saturated, clear and detailed images under daylight, low light and night performance isn’t near the kind that flagships give you. Now this wouldn’t matter if not for the fact that the Black Shark 2 is priced around what some of these flagships cost, and in some cases, costs more than them (OnePlus 7, Asus Zenfone 6Z, Redmi K20 Pro are all cheaper).

The front shooter is a 20 MP unit with f/2.0 aperture that is a typical selfie camera with quite a bit of software enhancement.

Overall, the Black Shark 2 does its job very well as a gaming smartphone. However, pricing is not in its favour a lot as the Red Magic 3 (the 8 GB RAM variant at that) is cheaper by about 4,000.

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