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Smartphones

Xiaomi Black Shark review: phone has a snap-on gamepad that really boosts precision play

  • The Black Shark’s gamepad accessory is well built, with grippy handles and clicky shoulder buttons
  • ‘Shark Space’ mode for gaming is a cool touch
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 November, 2018, 9:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 November, 2018, 4:28pm

Xiaomi has had a very ambitious 2018, in which the Beijing-headquartered tech brand went public, expanded to Europe, released three flagship phones (with seemingly a half-dozen other mid-tier phones), and launched a couple of sub-brands.

One of these is Black Shark, which the company markets as a gaming phone. I took the phone out for a spin.

Design and hardware

Sometime in the last year or two, brands decided that dedicated “gaming phones” all had to be painted black with a glowing neon light. That is the look Razer, Asus and Nubia have adopted with its devices and the Black Shark does not stray too far from that.

Shaped like a racing car if placed face down on table, the Black Shark is a curvy handset with a mix of textures across its aluminium and rubberised back. Neon green accents line the backside, with an S logo in the middle that lights up during gameplay. Dual rear cameras are lined horizontally across the top.

On the front is a 5.99-inch LCD panel with 2016-era bezels and a hardware fingerprint sensor that doubles as a capacitive home button on the bottom chin.

The bezels can be justified, however, because the Black Shark is best used with a gamepad accessory that snaps onto the top bezel, which is the left side when held horizontally.

The gamepad is well built, with grippy handles and clicky shoulder buttons, but the analogue joystick is a bit short. The gamepad has its own battery and is charged, like the device itself, via USB-C.

In addition to the usual volume rocker and power button, the Black Shark has an extra toggle switch that allows users to immediately jump into “Shark Space”, a dedicated gaming platform separate from Android that just about shuts off other smartphone stuff so the machine can focus 100 per cent on running games.

Software and features 

Powering everything is a Snapdragon 845 processor, whose Adreno 630 GPU is still the most powerful in Android phones right now (Huawei’s Kirin 980 is overall more powerful than the Snapdragon 845, but has a slightly less capable GPU). There’s apparently liquid cooling pipes inside the phone, but just like the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 or other gaming devices I’ve tested, I did not see or notice any tangible difference in helping ease heat built-up.

Unlike most Xiaomi devices, which run Xiaomi’s heavy MIUI skin on top of Android, the Black Shark runs on Joy UI, a software skin that is very close to stock Android in aesthetic and behaviour. In fact, during smartphone use, the Black Shark behaves just like stock Android; the only Joy UI elements are seen when in “Shark Space”.

Unfortunately, the Android version here is the outdated 8.1, so new Android features such as smart screen rotate and swipe navigations are missing here.

 

Performance and battery life

As a smartphone the Black Shark is standard; boring, even. Whether it’s the 1080p panel display or the camera system that is clearly using one of Xiaomi’s 2017 components, all the phone bits are solid but unremarkable.

The experience that stands out is, as to be expected, gaming. Having a toggle to turn the phone into a full-time gaming machine is a nice touch, and there is a nifty rumble (courtesy of the vibration engine) along with a snappy animation as soon as the switch is flipped.

In “Shark Space”, the UI displays all compatible games in a horizontal scrolling list for easy browsing, and there are options to customise the gamepad. There is also a section that keeps detailed statistics of your gameplay such as high scores or time spent per day. Floating buttons that allow quick screen recording or screen shots.

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The gamepad, which is included in the package, pairs with the Black Shark easily and does help boost performance in games that require precise movement such as fighting games or first-person shooters.

The gaming experience is further enhanced by a mic housed inside the earpiece for in-game chatting, and a large 4,000mAh battery that can last for five hours of continuous heavy gaming. For normal smartphone usage, it’s good to last an entire day.

Moving back to the cameras, the Black Shark can capture decent images during the day; at night, though, it will struggle with exposure. Average stuff all around.

Conclusion 

For HK$2,700 (US$345), the Black Shark is maybe worth a look if you’re really into gaming because the package includes the gamepad at no extra charge.

The Razer Phone 2 is, in my opinion, a superior gaming phone due to the smoother refresh rate, but that phone has no official easy-plug controller accessory (although third-party options exist) and costs a bit more.

Otherwise, if gaming is not a priority, there’s no reason to consider this when there are so many other options out there – including several from Xiaomi itself.

Key specs

Dimensions: 161.6mm x 75.4mm x 9.3mm

Weight: 190g

Display: 5.99-inch LCD panel

Battery: 4,000mAh

OS version reviewed: Joy UI over Android 8.1

Processor: Snapdragon 845

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Cameras: 12-megapixel main with 20-megapixel depth sensor

Memory: 64/128GB; 6/8GB RAM

Colours: Black, grey

Price: From HK$2,700 (64GB ROM, 6GB RAM); HK$3,200 (128GB ROM, 8GB RAM)