Best Gaming Phones Android Central 2021
Almost any phone can run popular free-to-play titles like Angry Birds or Subway Surfers, but for anything more graphically demanding you'll need one of the best Android phones for games. Some of the best Android games are PC or console ports that — even in their downgraded state — run significantly better with more powerful CPUs, more RAM, and faster display Hz. These games also drain batteries faster and take up enough storage that you may need a microSD card slot to fit them all. Add in game streaming services like Google Stadia and Microsoft Project xCloud, and you have every reason to make sure your next phone is capable of handling it all in stride. We think the new Galaxy S21 Ultra is the best overall gaming phone, but if that doesn't strike your fancy or is out of your price range, there are plenty of other options worth considering.
- Best Overall: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
- Best Value: OnePlus 8T
- Best for Large Display: Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2
- Best Advanced Features: Nubia RedMagic 5G
- Best for Stadia: Google Pixel 5
- Best for iOS: Apple iPhone 12 Pro
- Best for International Gamers: Xiaomi Mi 10T Pro
- Best for Widescreen Gaming: Sony Xperia 1
Best Overall: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Samsung's annual offerings continue to push the limits of what we expect from smartphones, and that extends well into the world of mobile gaming. The new S21 lineup is among the most powerful we've ever seen, with the Galaxy S21 Ultra taking the crown for best Android phone for gaming by far.
Powering all of your games is some of the best silicone in the business. All of the S21 phones contain the Snapdragon 888, which reportedly show a 25% uptick in CPU performance and a huge 35% uptick in GPU compared to the Snapdragon 865 found in the Galaxy S20s. Based on the Snapdragon 888 benchmarks, it outstrips any other chip in multi-core CPU performance and only loses to the iPhone 12 in GPU performance.
Beyond the chipset, the S21 Ultra beats its siblings' hardware specs by most other gaming metrics. It has the highest pixels per inch (ppi) at 515, plus the largest display at 6.8 inches. It's the only phone of the three that can be upgraded past 8GB to 12GB or 16GB of memory. We'll also note that the S21 lineup rudely removed expandable storage; since the Ultra is the only model to offer 512GB of internal storage, it's your best bet for fitting a bunch of games at once.
We were most excited to note that the Galaxy S21 Ultra supports Quad HD+ resolution at 120Hz variable refresh rate simultaneously at up to 1500 nits of brightness. Other Samsung phones offer better graphics or better frames, but not both at once. Our Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review noted this mode is a battery-killer but looks fantastic enough that it's worth it. Plus, the giant-sized 5000mAh battery does its best to keep up.
You may prefer the Galaxy S21 for the cheaper price and lighter, easier to hold frame, and it will absolutely handle high-res graphics or fast-paced shooters with ease. For more dedicated smartphone gamers with cash to spare, though, the Ultra has our vote.
- Fantastic Super AMOLED display
- 120Hz refresh rate at QHD+ resolution
- Snapdragon 888 with 16GB of RAM
- Giant battery
- IP68 water resistance
- Gaming Mode and Game Launcher
- There isn't a headphone jack
- No expandable storage either
- Large display makes it harder to hold
Best Value OnePlus 8T
While the OnePlus 8T isn't explicitly marketed as a gaming smartphone, it does a great job including all the key features that make for a great gaming experience. It's a good deal cheaper than the Galaxy S21 Ultra, and more importantly, is cheaper than the base Galaxy S21 while offering better gaming specs in several areas.
First off, the 6.55" display has a 120Hz refresh rate making everything look and smooth. Thanks to a lean Oxygen OS running on great internal specs, you shouldn't notice any slowdown even when playing the most graphically intensive games. It does rely on the older Snapdragon 865, but 2020's best mobile CPU is far from obsolete.
The 4500 mAh battery will hold up well for long gaming sessions. Even better, when you're running low on juice, the new Warp Charge 65 feature lets you use 65W charging that will take your phone from empty to 100% in just 39 minutes, or fast-charge your phone while gaming without the phone overheating or experiencing a net drop in charging speeds. Unfortunately, it doesn't support wireless charging, but many gamers will prefer speed over convenience.
Fnatic mode is OnePlus' take on a gaming mode, and it prioritizes all the power of the CPU towards running your game. It improves your network connection by limiting network access to apps running in the background and blocking all incoming notifications so you can stay focused on the game at hand.
Gaming on the OnePlus 8T is pure joy, and thanks to other features like three rear cameras, 256GB of internal storage, and 12GB of RAM by default, it feels like a flagship through-and-through — all without the ridiculous flagship price.
- Huge display with 120Hz refresh rate
- Software is intuitive and smooth
- Great haptics
- Fnatic mode
- Expandable storage
- Warp Charge 65 lets you top up while you play
- Lacks a headphone jack
- No wireless charging or IP rating
Best for Large Display Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2
If you're looking to buy a foldable smartphone in 2021, there's really only one option worth considering: the Galaxy Z Fold 2, which fits in your pocket but expands to the size of a small tablet. Cloud gaming means that you're playing titles meant for TVs on a tiny screen, but larger phones can be uncomfortable to hold in one hand for non-gaming tasks. This foldable lets you switch between a smaller or larger display at will, giving you more gaming real estate when you need it.
The inner display, which appears when you unfold the phone, sits at 7.6 inches of AMOLED with a 120Hz refresh rate and a unique 22.5:18 aspect ratio. It may not have the highest ppi compared to other phones at 373, but in all other aspects, the Galaxy Z Fold 2 majorly outshines all the other displays on this list. When using the touchscreen, your thumbs won't obstruct as much of the display as usual, and the extra vertical space is helpful for games like shooters where you need to see as much as possible. You can even use the extra space for a multi-window setup and have another app open at the same time.
For graphical power, it runs off of the Snapdragon 865+, which gives you a 10% graphical boost on the standard 865 even if it doesn't match the new 888 in performance. Add in 12GB of RAM and a decent 256GB of storage — with no expandable slot, unfortunately — and you have a phone built to handle high-end games with aplomb. Plus, the 4,500 mAh battery is no joke.
- Huge gaming display that bleeds to the edges
- 120Hz refresh rate
- Great battery and cameras
- Single-display mode comfortable to hold for non-gaming
- Future-proofed with powerful specs and 5G support
- No expandable or 512GB storage
- Very expensive
- No water resistance
Best Advanced Features Nubia RedMagic 5G
You may not be very familiar with Nubia, but that's OK. All you need to know about this ZTE sub-brand is that its RedMagic 5G is one of the most fully-featured gaming phones you can buy. If you're at all interested in mobile gaming, you owe it to yourself to consider picking it up.
There's a lot about the RedMagic 5G that stands out, the first of which is its display. The phone comes equipped with a 6.65-inch AMOLED display, along with a jaw-dropping 144Hz refresh rate. That's more technically impressive than what you get on the Galaxy S21 Ultra, and it creates a wonderful gaming experience. Also contributing to that point is Qualcomm's Snapdragon 865 processor, along with up to 12GB of RAM. And, as the name suggests, there's also support for 5G connectivity.
Where the RedMagic 5G really stands out is with its special gaming-focused features. There are built-in triggers on the frame of the phone for more precise controls, liquid-cooling and Nubia's "Turbo Fan 3.0" to prevent overheating, and a Touch Choreographer algorithm that aims to remove any stutter from your gaming sessions. Not to mention, the design of the RedMagic 5G is stunning 😍.
- Unmatched 144Hz AMOLED display
- Robust cooling system
- Fast Qualcomm processor with tons of RAM
- Built-in trigger buttons for extra control
- 4,500 mAh battery + 55W charging
- Design isn't for everyone
- Mediocre cameras
Best for Stadia Google Pixel 5
The Google Pixel 5 is another phone that isn't strictly known as a gaming device. It runs the Snapdragon 765G, popular for mid-range phones and capable of running most Android games easily, but not built for high-end performance. For cloud gaming, which uses remote servers to power your game instead of relying on hardware, the Pixel 5 and its 8GB of RAM is up to the task. Especially for Stadia, since Google offers three free months of its Stadia Pro subscription to all new Pixel 5 owners.
The 6" AMOLED display is smaller than most of the other best Android phones for games, but it can run content in 4K at 60 FPS, matching the top output that Stadia can deliver right now. It only has 128GB of storage, but you won't need any storage for cloud games. And its 4,080 mAh battery performed well in our tests, so it can support long gaming sessions before you need to stick it on its wireless charger.
We'll also point out that the Pixel 5 is great for everything outside of gaming as well, thanks to its top-of-the-line cameras to its Android 11 OS. As for Stadia, it has come a long way as a platform since it launched in 2019. It allows you to play the best Stadia games like Cyberpunk 2077, Assassin's Creed Valhalla, and Hitman 3 right on your smartphone. How cool is that?
- Guaranteed updates through October 2023
- Clean, minimalistic design
- 90Hz AMOLED display
- Flagship performance
- Stadia compatibility
- Excellent battery life
- Snapdragon 765G isn't built for power
- No expandable storage
- Somewhat small display
Best for iOS Apple iPhone 12 Pro
Since we're looking at gaming phones as a whole, we'd be remiss if we wholly ignored Apple's offerings. Apple doesn't officially allow cloud gaming apps, but you can load them through your browser, and the App Store has some demanding games that rely on the iPhone's impressive graphical tech, including Apple Arcade games.
The entire iPhone 12 lineup shares the new A14 Bionic chipset, which is probably the only CPU that can go toe-to-toe with the S21 Ultra's Snapdragon 888. But we're recommending the Pro lineup (including the Max if you have a bit more money to spare) because it hits 6GB of RAM versus 4GB with the base and Mini models — not great regardless, but every little bit helps. The Pro models are also the only phones to hit up to 512GB of storage, have better typical brightness, a few extra hours of battery life, and superior cameras thrown in for good measure. They also give you more display space at 6.7" for the iPhone 12 Pro Max and 6.1" for the iPhone 12 Pro.
Above all else, if you're buying an iPhone it's probably because they're so easy to use thanks to the constant improvements Apple makes to the platform. You'll get the latest version, iOS 14, along with full support for upcoming releases and security patches for years to come — probably for longer than any Android phone, if we're being honest.
- 6.1-inch Super Retina XDR display
- A14 Bionic chip is a performance beast
- Running iOS 14 with years of software support ahead
- Excellent cameras
- Only 6GB of RAM
- Only 60Hz maximum
- Battery life doesn't match iPhone 11 Pro
Best for International Gamers: Xiaomi Mi 10T Pro
There are plenty of excellent gaming phones available in the U.S., but if you aren't thrilled about the options available to you here, it's worth checking out some of the international models — specifically, the Xiaomi Mi 10T Pro. While the phone isn't officially sold in the U.S., you can import it via Amazon without too much hassle.
Unlike most of its rivals on this list, the Mi 10T Pro has a 6.67-inch LCD instead of an AMOLED, but in exchange you get a variable refresh rate that hits up to 144Hz, making gameplay silky smooth. It runs games off of the excellent Snapdragon 865, uses a 5,000 mAh battery, and hits a respectable 8GB of RAM. It's not the most technically-impressive loadout available, but for the price, it's hard to beat.
- Beautifully designed
- Stereo sound
- 144Hz refresh rate
- Generous specs for the price
- Hefty 5,000 mAh battery
- Only runs Android 10 for now
- No headphone jack
- No microSD slot
- No water resistance
Best for Widescreen Gaming Sony Xperia 1
Admittedly, the Sony Xperia 1 might not be on too many people's radars as a top pick for gaming smartphones, but it performs admirably thanks to its Snapdragon 855 chipset and 6GB of RAM. In his review, Hayato Huseman describes the Xperia 1 hardware as "well-thought-out and luxurious" with perfect weighting and a curved back glass that is a pleasant departure from previous Xperia phones. That's particularly great for gaming because you definitely want your phone to be extra comfortable to hold.
The Xperia 1 is designed first and foremost for entertainment and it all starts with the display. Sony built this phone around a 6.5-inch 4K OLED display with a 21:9 aspect ratio — the same proportions often used in widescreen films. Sony calls the display CinemaWide and it makes the phone feel extra tall and slender held in portrait orientation but really shines when held in landscape mode for watching videos or playing games. Stereo sound is included using the earpiece and the bottom-firing speaker and is enhanced with Dolby Atmos.
Sony included a Game Enhancer mode that lets you set custom options for performance or battery prioritization, locking out the navigation bar and limiting notifications on a per-game basis. Not only will you enjoy the sights and sounds of your favorite games, but you'll also feel the action thanks to Sony's Dynamic Vibration Engine that delivers great haptic feedback to the action on the screen. It's a feature that few companies prioritized when designing a phone, but it does make a difference in terms of immersing you into the game world.
- CinemaWide 4K HDR OLED display is incredible
- Stereo speaker setup with diverse audio settings
- Dynamic Vibration Engine delivers great haptic feedback
- Includes microSD slot
- Mostly stock Android 9 software really zips
- No headphone jack
- Outdated design
If you're upgrading to a new phone and want something that can handle gaming with ease, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is your best bet. It's an easy contender for phone of the year and is packed with pretty much all of the features you'd want for gaming and daily use.
Without a doubt, one of the best aspects of the Galaxy S21 is its display. Samsung's AMOLED tech is just as vibrant and colorful as ever, but this time around it enables QuadHD+ graphics at a 120Hz refresh rate. This results in your eyes being treated to the very best display that exists on a smartphone right now, which contributes to a better user experience whether you're gaming or using your phone for other tasks.
Another highlight of the S21 Ultra is its sheer specs. With a Snapdragon 888 processor, up to 16GB of RAM, 512GB of storage, and a 5000 mAh battery, this is a phone that's outstandingly fast, has plenty of room for all of your local files/games, and can easily get through a full day of use.
The S21 Ultra isn't a cheap or affordable device, but if you have the means to buy it, it's without a doubt the best Android phone for games.
Credits — The team that worked on this guide
Joe Maring is Android Central's Senior Editor and has had a love for anything with a screen and CPU since he can remember. He's been talking/writing about Android in one form or another since 2012 and often does so while camping out at the nearest coffee shop. Have a tip? Reach out on Twitter @JoeMaring1 or send an email to email@example.com!
Michael Hicks got his tech start in 2016, covering emerging tech like VR and self-driving cars before expanding to all things tech. As Android Central's newest Senior Editor, he covers everything from laptops to soundbars, home security, gaming, and fitness watches.
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