Pointlessly convoluted software mars what might otherwise be a perfect gaming phone experience
The Xiaomi-built Black Shark 2 is going to be, bar none, the best gaming smartphone that’s available for the money -- at a couple of hundred dollars cheaper than gadgets with similar specs. It also has plenty of quirks that set it apart, making it almost exclusively suitable for a very niche audience. Whether those are going to stop anybody from buying is a subjective matter but those are worth delving into in some detail, nonetheless.
Disclaimer: At Android Headlines, we now review all phones from the “good” and the “bad” perspectives. Our reviews are designed to give a deeper perspective on the positive and negatives of each new device and should help readers who are specifically looking for why a phone is really good, or why its negative aspects might make it worth avoiding. This “bad” review focuses on the negative for the OnePlus 7 Pro. For an idea of everything OnePlus did right with this phone, visit our “good” review.
Customizations on this phone are literally a-maze-ing
Now, anybody who has used a gaming computer, whether that’s a high-dollar laptop or a fully custom rig, is going to be somewhat familiar with the concept of customized LED lighting. The Xiaomi Black Shark 2 arrangement for accomplishing those kinds of customizations is not entirely different from those.
Since this is a phone first and foremost, those are quite a bit more extensive.
To begin with, there are customization options for everything from the Black Shark emblem centered on the back of the device to custom rail lighting for individual contacts. Each item has its own set of LED animations. Those range from simplistic blinking a color or just a static color to ‘filling’ the bar and again to preset scenes -- for instance making the lights mimic a sunset for a designated contact.
Ordinarily, I would be more than capable of coping with navigating through those menus and setting everything up just so but those menus are a veritable maze on the Xiaomi Black Shark 2. They also aren’t quite as customizable as I’d like but that’s more of a personal preference than anything else.
When navigating the menus, the lighting is split between different types of notifications and different circumstances where those might need to go off. As already noted, per-contact customizations are available too. On the face of that, this is not a difficult process.
The problem arises when trying to do in-depth customizations such as setting up individual contacts. To begin with, there only seem to be a set number of colors that can be chosen from. Not every option is available for each type of indicator in terms of notification animations either.
Making matters worse, individualization only works with calls, unlike something like the edge-lighting of a Galaxy device, where that can be set up by notification title. For instance, on those other devices, it’s a matter of typing in the contact’s name verbatim and when that appears in the title of notifications, the correct chosen color shows.
The Black Shark 2 is awesome because different animations can be chosen across a wider variety but it’s missing some basics with regard to what exactly can be done and it's limited in terms of overall color options.
Because everything is so well-separated, meanwhile, it can take quite some time to set things up just how they should be and duplicate notification arrangements can occur. That means that after spending hours getting everything just how I wanted it, I had to turn around and adjust things again. I’d accidentally set the same configuration for both alarms and calls from two different friends, without being able to quickly glance and realize my mistake.
Things only got worse when adjusting Shark Space settings and features from the Game Studio pull down -- and it’s bad enough that shark space doesn’t just use an icon to access game studio or add every game from the Play Store. In fact, it seems quite limited in terms of which games will automatically add.
The menus here are a veritable maze of options and tweaks that’s much less intuitive even than the lighting.
Additionally, settings for automatic upscaling to HDR across games and videos are split across two entirely different menus in settings. There’s no way the average user is going to quickly discover how to use the best features for doing the very thing this smartphone is made to do better than any other device. Namely, that's gaming or consuming content at the very best quality.
It is great that there are so many options to have such a personalized experience here but getting everything set up needs to be much more intuitive and user-friendly than it is. On a PC, all of these types of settings would basically be found within just one or two dedicated apps for settings.
The camera is great but not for those who want the very best shooter
Software issues leak into the cameras, and that's absolutely going to be a problem for anybody who might want a best-in-class camera to match all of the other aspects that make this smartphone great. Unlike with the software in the gaming modes, that's not at all because it's difficult to use, however.
The software itself is going to be familiar since it's largely based on AOSP with a few very different features packed in. I actually really looked forward to making use of the dual 48-megapixel sensors -- with an output of 12-megapixels using more details squeezed into each pixel, for clarity -- and those didn't underperform in terms of detail.
In fact, detail capture was great and this smartphone would rank up among some of the best available for that reason alone. There's also a dedicated 120FPS slow-motion feature, portrait mode, and effectively every aspect -- with the exception of any kind of 'night mode' -- from every other top-end gadget can be found here.
All of the features work as intended. The outcome of shots, with the exception of a lower-than-usual color gamut on the capture side that results in some over saturation and loss of color detail, is great outside of extremely low-lit shots. Detail loss in low-lighting is not at all uncommon and is one of the reasons the camera doesn't live up to my standards. That's just not the issue here and neither is blurring or anything else like that.
Where it lacks appears to be in its AI, since the camera here is driven by machine vision for scene detection and optimization. With consideration for how well AI manages to help gaming activities on the Xiaomi Black Shark 2, that's disappointing.
Not only is the processing exceptionally slow, the AI often doesn't allow refocusing to a user-designated portion of the frame. I would get up close to a flower or other object, center my intended subject and tap it, only to have the software lag and focus on something else when I went to snap the picture. That didn't happen in longer shots (just in macro captures) so it's not a huge issue but the fact that the processing lag does really is a problem.
Missing my intended shot or a given moment happened continuously. HDR mode made matters worse. No amount of tweaking things made much difference either. Images captured, as shown in the samples uploaded via our Flikr gallery, turn out fairly well under a wide range of circumstances.
Make no mistake, the output photos are certainly better than any midrange handset. I just didn't find myself wanting to use the camera to capture moments as much as I would have if it were quicker and could reliably snap a photo without making me wait.
There is no ruggedization here and the design is slippery
There are only two slight drawbacks to the design of the Black Shark 2 but, unfortunately, those actually go hand-in-hand in a bad way. It may be more accurate to say they go out-of-hand, actually, since the problem is that there's no advertised ruggedization for this handset and the back panel makes it somewhat slippery.
That's an aspect of the device I noticed immediately, especially since the gadget is a somewhat expensive smartphone that I didn't want to drop while testing it out. I still managed to drop it at least twice, though luckily from a relatively short distance above the ground and only onto grass or a heavily carpeted floor. That does give some confidence despite that it has no dust or water resistance certification or rating.
After around a week of using the device, I noticed that it came with fairly standard looking clear case and that does seem to cut back on how slippery the phone is. With a design language like the one used here, one that's obviously meant to be shown off, that's nowhere near an ideal solution.
With the case in place, it very nearly looks just like any other phone, or at least enough like any other phone that it immediately stopped garnering looks while the case was on -- except when a notification pushed the LED lights through. That's really just an unfortunate side effect of the materials used but its a big side effect for those who want to show off their style as much as to actually game on this handset.
The Xiaomi Black Shark 2 is a phone that users will want to be more careful with and probably avoid water or very dusty areas while using, and that's a shame since it's got such a top-tier design.
This phone is good for what it is but probably not for the average user
Xiaomi’s Black Shark 2 is, all things considered, a very good smartphone. It’s brilliant in terms of aesthetics and in performance and it’s going to be second to none -- especially at its price. But to take full advantage of that and see a noticeable difference with various features, there’s way too much work involved. The cameras, on the other hand, try to do too much for end users and end up taking a long time to do it.
On the former point, most smartphone users are not going to have the time or patience to figure all of those settings and options out. It’s not that they’re overly challenging within the confines of a learning curve. They just aren’t intuitive to navigate. At the same time, those who want great camera shots don’t necessarily have time to wait for each individual photo to process.
Software updates could and likely will fix both of those issues to a certain extent and this phone will be brilliant for those who are really into mobile gaming. The lack of a headphone jack or wireless charging aren't things that are going to fixed by software, however. Those aren't going to be dealbreakers for most and are hardly worth mentioning since most phones are going in the former direction and not everybody has a wireless charger. An adapter for headphones is included in the box.
What is clear from using the Xiaomi Black Shark 2 is that this device is simply not well suited to a general audience.