Black Shark 2 Review: the best gaming phone on the block?

Rating: 9/10

Yay:

  • Great ergonomics for gamers
  • Premium build quality
  • Exceptionally fast performance
  • Master Touch feels better than Air Triggers
  • Clean UI

Nay:

  • Cameras are average at best
  • Lack of Software Updates
  • Refresh Rate is still 60Hz
  • Design isn’t up to 2019 standards which might put some people off

Introduction:

It goes without saying that gaming phones are clearly becoming the trend these days. And well, why not? They bring all the flagship hardware, sometimes ever overclocked, with fancy features that give you the edge in gaming. While ASUS may have all the headlines with the ROG Phone and ROG Phone 2, it is still not quite affordable. On the other hand, there are options like the Redmi K20 Pro and the OnePlus 7/Pro, that offer flagship hardware, but lack any sort of gamer-oriented features. Which is why options like the Nubia Red Magic 3 and the Black Shark 2 exist. While both the options go head to head against one another, chances are, that the Black Shark 2 might still be the better choice overall. Let’s find out.

Design and Build Quality

The design. Weighing at 206g, it is just as heavy as the OnePlus 7 Pro. That said, the aluminum chassis makes it way more durable, and the curves make the device a tad bit grippier than the 7 Pro. You can easily spot the huge bezels here, coupled with Dual speakers on either side.

Over to the backside, you get a unique design carved for better grip in both single-handed portraits as well as double-handed landscape usage. There’s a dual-camera setup in the top left corner, and in the middle, you get an RGB BlackShark logo. Adding to the flair, there are two additional strips on either side of the device with RGB support as well.

The left side houses the volume rockers, while you get the Shark Key followed by the Power button on the right side. The Shark Key is used to trigger the Shark Space, which is the company’s software for all optimizing your gaming experience. I will talk about it later on in the review.

At the bottom, there is a USB Type-C port with support for 27W fast charging, and the SIM tray to its left. Sadly, there is no 3.5mm headphone jack here, which we all agree is a shame, for a gaming phone. Thankfully, the company does provide a USB Type-C to 3.5mm dongle in the box, which is a nice touch.

Nonetheless, the overall design of the device is pretty damn good, at least for me. Yes, it is not modern, which is why most of you might not like it. I mean, the bezels do make it stand out from the crowd of 2019 smartphones. However, considering its use case, the bezels actually add on to the overall grip of the device when using it in landscape mode. As such, I do not really have a major issue with the design, considering it is a gaming phone. That said, for those of you wanting a new smartphone in 2019 that can be used for gaming, the design could seem a bit off.

Display

Moving on to the display, the Black Shark 2 offers a 6.4-inch AMOLED display. The colors are great, the content is sharp, and the blacks are quite deep. You know, the usual AMOLED stuff. Gaming on this feels pretty damn good and the display feels quite premium. However, it does not offer a 90Hz display like the Nubia Red Magic 3 or the OnePlus 7 Pro. For a gaming phone, that is pretty much the standard expectation, and it feels kind of a letdown. This doesn’t make the device bad in any way, but it does not leave room for future games that will come with unlocked frame rate capabilities.

Also, I do have an issue in this segment, which is the cutout. First off, there was no need to have curved corners on the top corners of the display. What’s more is that the software isn’t optimized well enough for it, which basically cuts into the status bar. Also, almost 9 out of 10 times, I was unable to drag down the notification tray from the corner because of this. Yes, it can be fixed with a software update, but I wouldn’t really bank on it. In fact, for a device having launched back in May, I still haven’t received a fix for it, which brings me to the next part of this review.

Software Experience

The Black Shark 2 comes with a super clean and minimal stock Android experience. It runs on Android 9 Pie, and apart from the company’s Shark Space app for enhanced gaming, there is no bloatware. The company calls in Joy UI, but I don’t really see any massive difference, so I guess it is just to give a name for its bundled Shark Space. I like this approach a lot, and I feel most companies should actually follow the same path. 

While that is something to be applauded, Black Shark hasn’t really had a really good track record of software updates. At the time of this writing, most reviewers out there still have the device with the February Security Patch. And while we did get an inside update provided to us, it is still based on the May Security Patch. Add to that the fact that there has been no word about promises to Android Q.

The lack of software updates could be a deal-breaker to some, considering the amount of money you’d spend on this device. What’s more, is that almost all of its competitors have a good track record with respect to software updates.

Cameras

Most of the gaming phones that I’ve reviewed don’t really “focus” on the camera department. I’m glad to say that the Black Shark 2 is different. While most gaming mobiles feel like a gaming console with a SIM card, the Black Shark 2 feels like a proper smartphone as well. It comes with a dual-camera setup of 48MP+12MP at the back, and a 20MP shooter up front for selfies.

In my usage, the overall camera output was pretty decent. There is an emphasis on the word decent since I am saying this in a very comparative sense. If you compare it with the rest of the gaming phones out there, the Black Shark 2 will come out as a champion, by quite a margin. However, compare it with the likes of the OnePlus 7 or the Redmi K20, and the camera starts to show its worth. You can check out the gallery below, and click on the image for the full size.

Xiaomi Black Shark 2 Camera Sample (9) (Medium)
Xiaomi Black Shark 2 Camera Sample (5) (Medium)
Xiaomi Black Shark 2 Camera Sample (3) (Medium)
Xiaomi Black Shark 2 Camera Sample (2) (Medium)
Xiaomi Black Shark 2 Camera Sample (1) (Medium)
Xiaomi Black Shark 2 Camera Sample (13) (Medium)
Xiaomi Black Shark 2 Camera Sample (11) (Medium)
Xiaomi Black Shark 2 Camera Sample (10) (Medium)
Xiaomi Black Shark 2 Camera Sample (8) (Medium)
Xiaomi Black Shark 2 Camera Sample (7) (Medium)
Xiaomi Black Shark 2 Camera Sample (6) (Medium)
Xiaomi Black Shark 2 Camera Sample (12) (Medium)
Xiaomi Black Shark 2 Camera Sample (4) (Medium)

The color reproduction is fairly decent, and while the edge detection for portrait images does work well, it depends a lot on the lighting conditions. Even in low-light, the device does manage to output some fairly decent camera samples, so that is a plus. In terms of selfies, the camera tends to overexpose the subject a bit. The beauty mode is there too, but I could hardly notice any major differences. (Maybe coz my face is already so perfect?) On the whole, I feel that Black Shark 2 would work fine for most users. However, if you’re someone who relies quite heavily on their smartphone camera, which I do, the Black Shark 2 still doesn’t cut it. But then again, it wasn’t designed that way, so there is that.

Performance

On to the main point – performance. The Black Shark 2 delivers top-notch performance without a top-notch. Yeah, I know that was lame, but I don’t really care. The device eases through our standard benchmarks of Antutu, GeekBench, and 3DMark, without breaking a sweat. As for the gaming, I played my usual set of PUBG Mobile, Call of Duty, Asphalt 9, and Mortal Kombat, and Black Shark 2 handles them all with ease. And well, that is to be expected, considering it does pack in the Snapdragon 855 SoC coupled with 6GB of RAM. But what really improves the device’s performance are its additional gaming features.

 

The Black Shark 2 comes with its own Shark Space, which is triggered with the help of its Shark Key. Once in, you get an instant memory boost, with a list of all your games. The software optimizes all the games to output a higher framerate while also rendering higher quality models. That said, the most unique thing about Black Shark 2 is the pressure-sensitive screen. Unlike the Red Magic 3 that comes with Air Triggers on the body, Black Shark 2 comes with Air triggers embedded into the screen… umm, sort of.

Called Master Touch, the feature allows you to set pressure-sensitive buttons on both the left and right side of the device. The process is simple, you swipe from the top-right corner to bring up the Shark Space menu, and then tap on Master Touch. Once here, you can drag the Left and Right trigger buttons as well as adjust the trigger area and the sensitivity.

I’ll be honest, it wasn’t as intuitive for me as I thought, but once you get the hang of it, it feels waaaaay better than even the air triggers. Honestly, going back to shooting with just the buttons feels weird now. It is that good.

Battery Life

Lastly, there’s the battery. The Black Shark 2 comes with a 4,000mAh battery, which is decent enough, considering the device. Thanks to the liquid cooling technology, the temperatures were pretty much under control, which also helps in the device lasting longer than I expected. In normal usage, I got over 6 hours of screen on time, which is pretty damn good. As for gaming, I played PUBG Mobile for over 4 hours after which the battery was still at 36%, which is pretty damn good.

As for charging, it comes with support for 27W fast charging, and it took me a little over 2 hours to fully tank this device up from 5% to 100%. That said, what’s weird is that despite having liquid cooling, the device does heat up a bit while charging. What this basically means that once you’re low on power, it is not advisable to play games while charging, since it could cause the device to overheat.

Should you buy the Black Shark 2?

So, should you buy the Black Shark 2? With a price tag of Rs. 34,999 with the recent price cuts, the device competes with a bunch of budget flagship devices that offer mostly the same hardware but different experiences. The way I see it is that the Black Shark 2 is probably the only gaming phone out there that offers a half-decent camera. However, depending upon your budget, and the importance of the camera in your lifestyle, there are some pretty good options out there. Let’s take a look at them as well.

Xiaomi Redmi K20 Pro – for those on a budget

If you fancy a smartphone that offers great hardware but cannot exceed the Rs. 30,000 price tag, the Redmi K20 Pro is a great option. It comes with the same Snapdragon 855 SoC coupled with up to 8GB of RAM. Heck, it also offers its own version of liquid cooling. The cameras here are pretty damn good, and the UI, despite being MIUI, has no ads. The display is still 60Hz, however, and you don’t get any fancy air triggers. If that works for you, the Redmi K20 Pro should offer you nearly similar performance as the Black Shark 2 while also saving some bucks.

Redmi K20 pro 4

Also read: Redmi K20 Pro review: oh OnePlus and ASUS, I am worried for you

Nubia Red Magic 3 – trade the cameras for a better display

If 90Hz matter a lot to you, the nubia Red Magic 3 is what you should be looking at. It offers pretty much the same design as the Black Shark 2, and performs just as good. In place of the Magic Touch, you get proper air triggers on the edge of the device as well. Also, instead of liquid cooling, the Red Magic 3 houses a proper physical fan, which has proven to be much better. The only trade-off here would be the cameras. The nubia Red Magic 3 has the worst cameras possible in this price segment, and you’d be better off without them. Still, with a starting price of Rs. 35,999, the Red Magic 3 offers a package similar to the Black Shark 2, even better in some ways, while priced almost similarly.

Nubia Red Magic 3 - Feature Image-2

Also read: nubia Red Magic 3 Review: focus on gaming, not on the cameras

OnePlus 7 Pro – for the best experience

The OnePlus 7 Pro is probably the best smartphone you can buy in the market right now, and that statement holds true in regards to gaming as well. It comes with the same hardware as the Black Shark 2, but couples it with UFS 3.0 to offer a significant boost in performance. The cameras here have proven their worth as well. Plus, you get a 90Hz display as well. There are no air triggers here, but the Fnatic Mode should promise better gaming performance than any other device on this list. However, with a price tag of Rs. . the OnePlus 7 Pro isn’t cheap. You should consider this only if you want a device that does it all, and then some.

Also read: OnePlus 7 Pro review: the maker of “flagship killers” makes a killer flagship

In the end, there is an option in each budget segment, and yet, no smartphone is perfect. That said, if you are a gamer and want cameras should get most of the work done, the Black Shark 2 should be an easy choice. However, with the Black Shark 2 Pro right around the corner, it might make sense to wait out for the next device from the brand.

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Varun Mirchandani
varun.mirchandani@u2opiamobile.com

Varun is your go-to guy for everything related to technology. Someone with a keen interest in the Android world, he installs a new custom ROM every week and is always living on the bleeding edge of technology. When not writing for Mr. Phone, you can find him gaming on his beastly gaming rig which is also his prized possession.