Best gaming phones Android Central 2021
Almost any phone can run free-to-play titles like Angry Birds or Subway Surfers, but for the 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 run significantly better with more powerful CPUs, a lot of memory, and faster displays even in their downgraded state. These games also drain batteries faster and take up enough storage that you may need a microSD slot to fit them all. Add in-game streaming services like Google Stadia and Xbox Game Pass for Android 9xCloud), and you have every reason to make sure your next phone is capable of handling it all in stride. We think the 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. Here are some of the best Android phones for gamers.
- Best overall: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
- Best alternative: OnePlus 9 Pro
- Best value: Samsung Galaxy S21
- Best for large display: Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 5G
- Best advanced features: Nubia RedMagic 6 Pro
- Best for Stadia: Google Pixel 5
- Best for iOS: Apple iPhone 12 Pro
- Best for gamers: Asus ROG Phone 5
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 silicon in the business. All S21 phones contain the Snapdragon 888, which 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 from 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 offers a Quad HD+ resolution at 120Hz variable refresh rate simultaneously at up to 1500 nits of brightness. 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 lower price and lighter, easier to hold design, 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
2. Best alternative: OnePlus 9 Pro
OnePlus may not be top of mind when it comes to mobile gaming, but there's a combination that works here. Starting with the 6.7-inch AMOLED display, which is gorgeous, the OnePlus 9 Pro has the visual splendor you can appreciate when playing a game. The 20:9 aspect ratio isn't unique yet somehow feels wider on this phone. Couple that with a solid slate of internal specs, like the Snapdragon 888 processor and plenty of RAM, and you get something robust to play with.
Unfortunately, you won't get the 144Hz or 165Hz refresh rates true gaming phones now offer, but the 120Hz variable rate works really well. Smooth gameplay shouldn't be a problem, especially with a new vapor chamber cooling system to keep excess heat at bay. Touch-centric games get a nice boost from the 360Hz touch response rate, a clear upgrade from the 240Hz rate in the OnePlus 8 Pro. And the haptics are already good, which makes those games feel more tactile.
Use this phone with any game on Google Play or Xbox Game Pass, and you should have no issues. Same with playing Fortnite, whether you use a controller or not. Battery life holds up well, and with OnePlus' own Warp Charger, you could be back up and playing again a lot faster than before.
- Gorgeous display
- Improved cooling system
- Nice haptics for tactile feel
- Solid internals to keep playing
- Excellent software
- No 144Hz refresh rate
- Not a 21:9 ratio
3. Best value: Samsung Galaxy S21
Samsung doesn't explicitly market the Galaxy S21 as a gaming smartphone, as it focuses more of its marketing machine on other features. But it wouldn't be wrong to throw in a comment or two about its gaming chops. It won't be as rugged or robust as the S21 Ultra, but it can handle its fair share when you use it right.
For instance, it does just fine streaming games from Xbox Game Pass, working like a charm when pairing it with a compatible Bluetooth controller. The 120Hz refresh rate gives the screen the fluidity necessary to keep games looking smooth, while the Snapdragon 888 inside should be more than enough to handle today's latest mobile titles. The 6.2-inch display is on the smaller side, so this is less about screen real estate and more about doing more with less.
Battery life holds up well because the 120Hz refresh is dynamic, so it doesn't kick in for everything you do on the device. However, it's also because the resolution is lower. At 2400 x 1080, there aren't as many pixels as a QHD display would have, so you may not like that spec if you're a stickler for visual quality. That doesn't mean the screen isn't still a beauty to look at, just that it doesn't match what other gaming phones can do.
- Nice display with 120Hz refresh rate
- Internals can handle games
- Great haptics
- Easy to hold and carry
- Color options
- Not as high resolution
- Lacking features of S21 Ultra
4. Best for large display: Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3
The Galaxy Z Fold 3 is a fabulous foldable that takes gaming to a whole new level. The differentiator for the Z Fold 3 is the foldout screen that unfurls to a massive 7.6 inches, giving you a large canvas for playing the latest games. The inner and outer AMOLED screens have a 120Hz refresh rate, ensuring smooth playback of your favorite games.
A huge upgrade this year is the plastic coating that covers the inner and outer screens. Samsung switched the material for the coating, and it feels just like interacting with a glass panel. We've been using the Z Fold 3 for a while now, and the new coating makes a drastic difference in daily use.
As for the hardware itself, the Snapdragon 888 is the best chipset you'll find on Android, delivering more than enough power for even the most demanding of games. With 12GB of LPDDR5 RAM and 256GB of UFS 3.1 storage out of the box, there's more than enough memory for multitasking here, and you can easily store all of your games.
In terms of connectivity, you get global 5G bands and Wi-Fi 6e, and Bluetooth 5.2. Oh, and a nifty addition this year is IPX8 water resistance, making sure that you can continue gaming while at the pool. And finally, there are stellar cameras here, so when you're not playing games, you can take stunning photos in just about any lighting scenario. The 4400mAh battery ensures you get a full day's use, and there's 25W fast charging along with wireless charging.
- Large 7.6-inch AMOLED with 120Hz refresh rate
- Outstanding internal hardware
- Outer screen is useful for day-to-day tasks
- Future-proofed design with global 5G
- IPX8 water resistance
- No expandable storage
- Insanely costly
5. Best advanced features: Nubia RedMagic 6 Pro
You don't need to be very familiar with Nubia or even recognize that it's a sub-brand of ZTE. What you do need to know is that its RedMagic 6 Pro is one of the most fully-featured gaming phones you can buy, so if your interest in mobile gaming has you seeking something unique, you owe it to yourself to consider picking it up.
There's a lot about the RedMagic 6 Pro that stands out. Starting first with its display, the phone sports a 6.8-inch AMOLED, along with a jaw-dropping 165Hz refresh rate. That's a technically impressive feat and one you won't find on another phone like the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Its smoothness contributes to a wonderful gaming experience, just as Qualcomm's Snapdragon 888 processor does. With up to 16GB of RAM and 256GB of internal storage, including 5G connectivity, it has plenty to enjoy a good game with.
Being a gaming phone, it really stands out with features catering to those expectations. The RedMagic 6 Pro has built-in triggers on the phone's frame for more precise controls, plus an improved cooling system that includes an active fan to keep those rising temperatures in check when necessary. Even with all that, Nubia managed to squeeze in a 5,050mAh battery and include a 66W charger. So in just 38 minutes, you can go from empty to full power.
- Unmatched 165Hz AMOLED display
- Robust cooling system
- Fast Qualcomm processor with tons of RAM
- Built-in trigger buttons for extra control
- 5,050 mAh battery + 66W charging
- Design isn't for everyone
- Mediocre cameras
- Software has bugs
6. 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
7. 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, 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 Apple's constant improvements 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
8. Best for Gamers: Asus ROG Phone 5
You can already find several great gaming phones in the U.S., and there's one phone in particular that stands out — the Asus ROG Phone 5. There are also three variants: a standard model, the Pro, and the Ultimate. Which one you choose is largely up to you, but the standard one is certainly ready to play out of the box. It's noticeably heavier and bigger than other handsets with AMOLED screens around 6.78-inches, which is understandable, given the room necessary to accommodate things like AirTriggers, a second USB-C port to charge, and a 5-pin pogo connector to attach the AeroActive fan accessory.
A new design for Asus' GameCool system siphons heat away from the device's internals, as well as from the periphery, so your hands don't feel any discomfort. That matters when the Snapdragon 888 chipset has to push to ensure everything stays smooth throughout. It will, and that 144Hz refresh rate will look buttery as a result.
- Beautifully designed
- Stereo speakers and headphone jack
- 144Hz refresh rate
- Improved cooling system
- Hefty 6,000 mAh battery
- No water resistance
- Bigger and heavier build
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 QHD+ 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 chipset, 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!
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.
We may earn a commission for purchases using our links. Learn more.