A few notable “gaming phones” have hit the mobile market over the last year. But any phone can play games, right? So, what’s the deal?
We’re seeing an interesting shift here. Smartphones became a popular platform for games because, well, it’s easy to play games on them. In the ’80s and most of the ’90s, PCs were only thought of as “game machines” in an ancillary, secondary way, when compared to the more singularly focused game consoles. PC gamers became so enthusiastic that specialized parts—and, eventually, entire machines—were dedicated to gaming.
Mobile gaming crossed that threshold, perhaps, even faster, since the smartphone is now the primary focus of most people’s digital interaction. But what makes a “gaming phone” different from a more conventional model, especially since top-of-the-line iPhones and Android phones already use the most powerful hardware around? The answer is a set of small, but sometimes crucial, design choices.
Bigger, Faster Screens
With the touchscreen being almost the sole point of interaction for mobile games, it makes sense that gamers want that screen to be as big as possible. Indeed, most of the new crop of gaming phones have screens above six inches diagonal, putting them among the largest on the market. ASUS has its ROG (“Republic of Gamers”) Phone, Xiaomi has Black Shark, at precisely six inches, and Huawei’s Honor Play is 6.3 inches. In that field, Razer’s self-titled Phone and Phone 2 are almost small at a mere 5.7 inches.
There’s another element about the display that puts a gaming phone above the competition: the refresh rate. Most phone screens use a 60 Hz refresh rate, the same standard used on most monitors and televisions. But just like the bigger screens, a faster refresh rate means you can see more frames per second. Razer’s signature feature is a 120 Hz LCD screen. The Asus ROG Phone uses 90 Hz, as does the lesser-known Nubia (ZTE) Red Magic 3. To be fair, though, this feature is leaking into more conventional, high-end phones, like the OnePlus 7 Pro.
Most current mobile games look for a standard 60 frames per second performance rate, so the difference might be unnoticeable. But both Razer and Huawei are partnering with mobile game developers to make more games compatible with these speedy screens.
Naturally, sound is almost as essential to video games as, well, video. As more mainstream phone manufacturers are minimizing mono speakers to make their products even slimmer and free of bezels, gaming phone manufacturers want them big, clear, and loud. Most of the models currently on the market feature dual stereo speakers—the Razer Phone has particularly prominent front-facing blasters.
Fast Processors, Lots of RAM
To boost performance, gaming phones boast the latest-generation processors and plenty of memory. Again, this is not necessarily a big difference when compared to flagship phones, and plenty of those are even using the same processors from Qualcomm. But gaming phones often tune them differently, sacrificing battery life and efficiency for pure speed. This way, they can also feature custom cooling solutions for the extra heat, including liquid/vapor chambers or external coolers.
Of course, lots of speed and heat means…
Mobile gaming is pretty tough on a battery. A 3D game is about the most draining program you can use, short of a benchmark test (which, coincidentally, gamers are also partial to). Throw in a fast processor, a big, bright, high-refresh screen, and powerful stereo speakers, and you’ve got a phone that sucks down juice like a hummingbird covered in LEDs.
Of the Razer Phone 2, the ROG Phone, the Huawei Honor Play, and the Xiaomi Black Shark 2, none have a battery smaller than 3500 mAh. (Compare that to the 6.5-inch iPhone XS Max at just under 3200 mAh). The Razer Phone 2 and the ROG Phone are tied for first with a generous 4000 mAh. That’s enough for a couple of days charge—at least, it would be if the user weren’t constantly playing Fortnite.
Which brings us to the next thing gaming phones have over their more buttoned-down brethren: hardware extras and accessories. Gamers love extra stuff to play games on, and phones are no exception. ASUS takes the cake on this one, as the ROG Phone offers the aforementioned cooler, a desktop dock to play games and apps on a monitor, and even a full second screen to turn it into something like a high-powered Nintendo DS. All of that’s on top of the unique dual charging port (the better to play in landscape mode) and “air triggers,” which simulate the feeling of controller shoulder buttons.
Xiaomi’s Black Shark and Black Shark 2 have optional dual Bluetooth controllers, reminiscent of the Nintendo Switch. Razer will sell you a shockingly expensive controller designed just for its Razer Phone, and Motorola is still trying to make its Moto Mods a thing with the, admittedly, very appealing controller add-on.
And that’s just the stuff that attaches directly to your phone. ASUS and Razer both include RGB lighting on their phones—that’s LED lighting on the back of the phone, not, you know, the screen.
Granted, it’s not as if other phones don’t have add-ons. Apple’s first-party accessories are pretty ritzy, as are Samsung’s. But for those who want a more customized mobile gaming experience, gaming phones fit the bill. That’s particularly important for Android users, who can’t always rely on enough interest in their specific model for a good selection of accessories.
So that’s the hardware—what about the software?
In addition to the processor and memory tweaks for performance, plenty of gaming phone manufacturers tweak their software, as well. Razer has garnered critical acclaim for its hands-off approach to Android modifications—the mobile equivalent of a “clean” build of Windows. Its few software add-ons—like a gallery of highlighted Android apps and a management app for its RGB lighting—don’t get in the way of the smooth operation of the OS and its admirably frequent updates.
Razer’s competitors aren’t quite as dedicated to a pure Android experience, but most of them provide some kind of gaming mode, with a gentle boost to the stock clock of the phone’s processor. Xiaomi calls it “Ludicrous Mode” on the Black Shark. This is the kind of performance boost you usually need to root or jailbreak a phone to achieve on your own.
Once again, though, the line between gaming and flagship phones is blurred. The OnePlus 7 Pro has a dedicated gaming mode in its software package, and an even more intense “Fnatic” mode that blocks all notifications and “may result in glitches in some apps.” That’s for only the most serious of gaming sessions.
Why Not More Radical Changes?
If you’re looking at the above and thinking, “Okay, but even with all those extra design choices, they’re not all that different from normal phones.” True. That’s because the market has shown it really doesn’t want phones that break conventional designs for gaming.
The Sony Xperia Play, released back in 2011, was probably the coolest gaming phone to come out before this recent crop. With a slide-out controller pad, complete with touch-based analog “sticks,” it was incredibly versatile and beloved by emulator fans. Unfortunately, despite a big marketing push and association with Sony’s PlayStation brand, it flopped. The phone never even got a follow-up model.
Tepid responses to similar mobile gaming devices, like the original NVIDIA SHIELD Portable and the infamous Nokia N-Gage, bear this out. While a few die-hard gamers love these gadgets, most just play whatever’s available on the phone they have or aren’t willing to deal with the awkward ergonomics (not to mention space requirements) of something more like a portable game console.
It’s telling that while promoting Fortnite performance as a selling point in a series of e-sports commercials last year, Samsung was still selling the vanilla Galaxy S9 with no gaming variant model. Apple and Google, while doing all they can to help foster mobile gaming, aren’t ready to invest dedicated hardware development beyond conventional phone designs.
Gaming phones, even in their more safe, sanitized forms, might be a fad. Or they might become a regular subset of the mobile industry, like gaming PCs. It will take manufacturers a while to gauge the consumer response to the latest models. So, it will probably be another few years before we find whether gaming phones are going to stick around.