Xiaomi’s Black Shark 2 offers the best gaming experience available without the extra cost
Xiaomi has almost always been among China's top smartphone manufacturers, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that it has answered the call to create a competition-level gaming phone with a handset that's both great and affordable. Best of all, priced from €549 ($622.65) to €648 ($736.07) direct from the manufacturer, the Xiaomi Black Shark 2 is meant to compete on both cost and performance.
Although that's considerably cheaper than the $800 to $1100 that would be required to purchase one of the competition's gaming flagships, Xiaomi has proven here that price isn't everything.
Innovative software features over a great display panel, top-level hardware and optimizations, and solid battery life can make or break a handset, especially one for gaming. Despite a few minor issues and the fact that this simply isn't going to be the device for every consumer, Xiaomi's Black Shark 2 checks all of the pertinent boxes.
Disclaimer: At Android Headlines, we now review all phones from the “good” and the “bad” perspectives. We’ve designed our reviews to help readers get a clearer perspective on what makes a phone worth buying or avoiding without the little details getting lost. The “good” review focuses on the positives for the Xiaomi Black Shark 2, while you’ll be able to find all the negative details in our “bad” review.
The display here is spectacular, even though its specs say it shouldn't be
Put simply, the display included on the Black Shark 2 is out of this world good. In part that's because Xiaomi opted for a 6.39-inch AMOLED display instead of a 5.99-inch LCD panel this time around, and a 60Hz rate doesn't hurt that at all. Just 0.4-inches of bezels help things along too but Xiaomi has gone much further than that.
Not only are the colors vibrant and any motion or animation crisp. It was insanely crisp without motion too despite only featuring a resolution of just 1080 x 2340, marketed as FHD+. That's a screen resolution typically found on mid-range handsets compared to the only slightly larger Galaxy Note 9 at 2,960 x 1,440 pixels for instance.
In fact, it was only when I started looking into the exact specs that something special about the display began to present itself. I initially thought the specs of the display were going to be higher than other devices I've tested or owned. They just weren't.
Instead, software and special display processing via Pixelworks were ultimately behind my misconception.
Those not only fooled my eyes into believing the display was clearer, with more than the one found in my daily driver. I honestly think they make it better than that other gadget and not by a small margin, rendering my preconceived notions about pixel counts completely irrelevant. Any time there is any motion on the display at all, it just looks great.
Pixelworks' solution can be best described when separated between its various settings in the Display and Game Dock menus of the Settings app. Those are simple toggles that do three things. First, they translate standard dynamic range content to HRD in videos and lift up the video frame rate while optimizing video playback. In games, the features find and lock in the optimal framerate.
Xiaomi incorporates three options for color mode on the display too.
The Cinema mode is on by default and livens things up with bright vibrant colors, making everything much more playful. Natural mode drops things back to a more neutral tone that fits its name almost exactly. A warmer Eye care mode is meant to protect the eyes from the harmful effects of blue light.
The underlying software is likely behind how clear things look even when standing still as well, pushing this into its current placement among the best-looking displays I've used on a smartphone or anything else. At the price of the Black Shark 2, it is likely to have the very best display available but it is absolutely going to be among the best.
Holding that position doesn't come down to looks alone either. In this case, it comes down to the sensitivity and responsiveness of the display. That's equipped with a 240Hz touch sampling rate, meaning that it responds to taps, presses, and swipes with much higher accuracy and speed. That can, in practice be thought of as a similar difference to that of using a mouse to play an online shooter via a computer as compared to a standard controller.
Better still, the built-in Black Shark AI called Master touch, lets users set custom touch zones for more intuitive controls and the pressure sensitivity of the display means that those controls can be more console-like at the same time. Haptic feedback on the display itself -- utilizing sound haptic feedback motors -- created a more immersive experience in intense games.
So even, if you don't happen to buy the optional physical controller case and controllers -- similar to Nintendo's JoyCon, in terms of appearance and function -- that are available for the Black Shark 2, controlling your favorite games is going to be a noticeably more accurate and enjoyable experience here.
Aggressive styling to match performance
The game-ready display and internals we'll cover later are perfectly paired to the external appearance of this device. Anybody who wants a smartphone that looks like it was built to compete aesthetically with a gaming PC will definitely want to consider the Black Shark 2. There's simply no mistaking it for any of the hundreds of other smartphones that are currently on the market.
That all starts with a fairly standard design in terms of the edge work and display side of the device. On that front, the only noticeable difference between this and other handsets is a clean green line of shiny metal running around the edge of the glass and a green, textured toggle button on the side. Two slim stereo speaker slots adorn the bezel at the top and bottom.
There is also a pair of LED bars along the left and right-hand sides that are only visible when the phone is on and those are activated but we'll get to that in just a moment.
Moving to the back of the device showcases a different animal. The only two materials are used in the construction include aviation-grade frosted metal and glass, with a raised center section embedded with another LED. The camera hardware pokes out in two separate barrels, similar to just about any other top-tier device from the region.
The use of different materials gives the Xiaomi Black Shark 2 a decidedly aggressive look.
The LEDs are completely customizable with different effects and colors for incoming calls, notifications, alarms, charging, and more, paving the way for personalization that matches well with high-end laptops or PCs. Lighting provides a near-perfect contrast to the matte and glossy look of the metal.
Two variants are available for this gadget and my test unit was the more wallet-friendly Shadow Black variant. A more pricey Shadow Black version with somewhat better internals and a similarly specced Frozen Silver version is available. Regardless of which version is purchased, the looks of this gadget exude aggressive power in a none too subtle style that can't be mistaken for anything but a gaming device.
That quality extends into the buttons and port. All of the buttons and the SIM drawer are solid metal, clicking in and out neatly with no pieces catching and no squish at all. The single USB-C port at the bottom fit snugly. In fact, there wasn't a single bit of wiggle even after weeks of repeated use and the side-mounted Shark Space toggle switch didn't show any trouble either.
This phone hits hard where it really matters thanks to top-level specs and a switch
At its base level, the Black Shark 2 ships with a Qualcomm-built 855 SoC on board backed by either a comparatively crazy 8GB or 12GB RAM and similarly respectable 128GB or 256GB of storage on board. Only around 11-percent of that storage is taken up by stock apps and that's not by accident. Not only was Xiaomi shooting for a near stock day-to-day experience. It also leaves plenty of room for mobile gaming.
That's an area where this device, for obvious reasons, excels.
The hardware found inside Xiaomi's Black Shark 2 means that there are going to be no applications and almost no circumstances -- I didn't find any in my testing -- where there will be any lag. That's setting aside the brilliantly responsive screen, which didn't show any issues either. Slowdowns, frame rate dropping, and other visual or performance problems are just not going to present themselves under most circumstances.
That might ordinarily mean this device gets warm since even the most expensive devices do when putting the internal components under load. But that would be an incorrect assumption to make here.
On the technical side of things, Xiaomi utilizes an oversized cooling plat across all major components in multiple layers with liquid cooling built into the system too. Referred to as Direct Touch Liquid Cooling 3.0, that drops the temp by a whopping 14℃ (57.2 degrees in Fahrenheit).
What that meant for me as I loaded up games and toggled various settings on and off is that the only time any heat built up at all was during charging. The reason for that becomes fairly obvious once the device is plugged in for a fill-up and timed but nothing I could throw at this caused any issues and an hour or more of intensive gaming wasn't enough to build up significant heat.
That's coupled with the physical Shark Space toggle switch on the side, which provides access to overclocking features via Game Studio granting access to a feature called Ludicrous Mode for adjusting display settings, customize touch settings, change themes, and more. That all stacks up to make this device run games better than any other I've used. That doesn't change with multitasking either, especially when Shark Space features are utilized to limit incoming or outgoing data transmissions from other apps.
Now, the software behind overclocking via that feature could stand to be much more intuitive. That starts with the fact that it's accessed via a specific corner-edge swipe gesture, opening up the Game Dock from within a game or while in Shark Space. But for anybody who might be looking for the best gaming phone, Xiaomi's Black Shark is tailor-made for that purpose in effectively every way it could be.
Game all day long
Battery life from this device is well above average even for flagship devices and even running with games optimized and slight overclocking enabled via Shark Space isn't going to have a big impact on day to day use.
For the purpose of testing, I started the Xiaomi Black Shark 2 at a 100-percent charge in the morning, after making sure it was topped off for the day -- and started a stopwatch timer at the same time. For the first hour or so, I effectively used it how I always do. That included checking messages and email, making phone calls, and listening to music for around a half hour.
The battery, at that point, had only dropped by a few percentage points, making it immediately clear I'd need to get serious about using the phone for its intended purpose.
Throughout the entire 10 hours and 22 minutes it took to reach just 10-percent charge remaining, the device was cranked up to right around 75- to 80-percent display brightness via manual settings. Auto brightness features are available that would allow an even longer period of use but I didn't have any reason to use those.
At a 15-percent charge, after approximately two hours of gaming, 4 hours of watching videos, and some serious browsing mixed in with music and video playback, the device showed a screen-on time of just over eight hours. That is, in a word, impressive, regardless of what smartphone we're talking about. The device also estimated approximately 2-hours of use remaining before it died. "All day" is a perfect descriptor for the life of the 4,000mAh battery in use here.
It bears repeating that those games were played with optimizations for game performance turned on and that no battery saving features were active throughout my test of this device -- aside from default Android 9 Pie features -- since they just didn't seem necessary.
Charging up the Black Shark 2 brought forward even more astonishing results. That's setting aside how cool the side-bar LED feature is. That "fills up" with a green hue to a specific level representing how full the battery is, complete with a nifty animation.
The first 75-percent was charged up with the stock adapter in just over a half-hour. The phone did heat up quite a bit during charging but not so hot that it couldn't be handled and the remaining 15-percent took noticeably longer to top off. Regardless, charging was complete in under an hour.
So it's not even necessarily going to matter if this phone doesn't last all day since use varies significantly from user to use and so does battery life. Charging up happens fast enough that, regardless of what percentage of the day might remain when the battery starts to die, the process isn't going to be disruptive.
Dual speakers and solid connections to round things out
Xiaomi certainly didn't miss out on making the connectivity features or speakers on the Black Shark 2 amazing. While a good pair of headphones is often enough to fix audio problems, both of those aspects are vital to a great gaming experience.
On the former, Xiaomi's dual-forward facing speakers may look like those on any other but they're not and I found that they performed better than any other smartphone I've used. Now, sound quality is subjective so that won't be the case for everybody. But from my experience with audio and the device itself, these were impossibly good for their size.
The speakers put out crystal clear audio at all levels, with bass tones intact -- if not as powerful as might come from larger devices. Highs and mids don't drown anything out across any type of media I consumed, and there was no hint of tinny breaks in the flow of sound. That translates very well into games, giving the entire a serious boost when I happened to leave both my USB-C headphones and the included USB-C audio adapter at home.
In short, the speakers are good enough to use on their own or through headphones and Bluetooth 5.0 means that isn't lost if wireless cans are worn instead.
I wasn't able to use 4G LTE in my area of the US -- although plenty of bands are supported -- since this gadget is intended for sale in the EU, UK, Malaysia, India, Vietnam, and China. But the 3G connection I was able to get was solid and never wavered, even in areas where connections from my daily driver flagship typically would. 4G likely follows the same trend and that's a testament to the design language and engineering here.
The Black Shark 2 should offer up some of the most solid connections for gaming as compared to any other handset even when Wi-Fi isn't in use. That's no surprise since these devices are meant for competitive gaming as much as anything else but that's going to matter when it comes to online gaming for the average user too.
This is the gaming handset to beat
For users who want the latest in hardware features and components, complete with a well-made in-display fingerprint scanner and the latest specifications, this is going to be right up there with the best phones available.
Setting aside imperfections for some use cases, for those who want nothing but the very best in mobile gaming, the Xiaomi-built Black Shark 2 is going to come as close as it is presently possible to get for under $750. The model I tested sells for just under $623 direct from the company and that the upper limits here top out at just a few pennies over $736.
Compared to the competition, which effectively only bring marginal improvements to their displays in terms of refresh rates that most users won’t notice, the Black Shark 2 represents a middle-ground that doesn’t actually sacrifice where it really matters. Other gamer-specific smartphones are great but this is very likely the real gaming phone to beat and the one to buy.