Xiaomi's Black Shark gaming phone

Smartphone design hasn't changed much over the last two years, and if you're in the market for a phone today, you can either get a phone with a glass back like the Galaxy S9+ or Huawei P20, or one with a metal chassis like the Redmi Note 5 Pro or Honor 7X. The Mi Mix 2S and the Essential Phone are notable for using ceramic and titanium, and the Pixel 2 series and the Nokia 7 Plus come with a ceramic coating over a metal back.

But overall, there's little to no variation when it comes to the design, but it now looks like mobile gaming could drive the development for the next wave of smartphones. The Razer Phone launched last year to much fanfare, offering a 120Hz display, high-end specs, and the "best damn smartphone speakers" on a phone today.

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Xiaomi also rolled out its take on a gaming phone with the Black Shark last week, featuring top-of-the-line hardware and a controller that can be affixed to one side of the device.

Both phones are noteworthy as they're targeted at gamers. Mobile gaming is a niche, but the introduction of Fortnite and PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG) on mobile has catalyzed the market.

PUBG, especially, has some of the best controls I've seen in a mobile game, and the Android version is just as enjoyable — if not more — as its PC counterpart. The fact that the mobile version of the game is free doesn't hurt either. PUBG for PC is made by a Korean studio, but the mobile client is developed by China's Tencent. If that name sounds familiar, it's because Tencent is the studio behind Clash of Clans.

Mobile gaming is huge in China, and Xiaomi is now catering to that market.

While mobile gaming hasn't really taken off in Western markets, there's considerable interest in the medium in Asian markets, especially China. Tencent's MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) title Honor of Kings is the world's largest-grossing mobile game, and over 70 million people play the game in China daily (the game is available in Western markets as Arena of Valor).

The game is so addictive that it was described as a "drug", with Tencent instituting daily limits on how much younger players could play — one hour for players under the age of 12 and two hours for those aged 12 to 18.

One of the reasons the game is such a success is that it is designed primarily for mobile devices, offering simple controls and short match times. The 5v5 multiplayer mode is another reason the game caught on with a younger audience, and Xiaomi is now catering to this niche with the Black Shark gaming phone.

A simple control scheme is also the reason why PUBG is so alluring on mobile. Technically, you don't necessarily need a gaming phone to play visually-intensive titles — the Galaxy S9+ has the same chipset as Xiaomi's Black Shark, and it handles any game you throw at it with aplomb.

Even $400 devices offer a user experience that's near-identical to what you get on "traditional" flagships, and while they may not have the same grunt as the Adreno 630 GPU on the Snapdragon 845, they're more than adequate for gaming.

Xiaomi's Black Shark gaming phone

Instead, what gaming-focused phones offer new technologies designed to maximize your gaming experience. The Black Shark, for instance, comes with liquid cooling that's touted to decrease temperatures by up to eight degrees Celsius, which makes a huge difference during sustained gaming sessions. The Razer Phone, on the other hand, has a 120Hz display that makes visuals buttery smooth.

You don't need a gaming phone to play the latest titles, but they offer features that maximize your gaming experience.

The Black Shark phone has a dedicated button that enables a "gaming mode" — designed to boost the performance of the device during gaming. The X-style antenna design also maximizes Wi-Fi connectivity while making it easier to hold the device during extended gaming sessions.

Then there's the design aspect — gaming phones have a certain aesthetic that makes them stand out. The Razer Phone has a black color scheme with its iconic snake logo prominently highlighted at the back, and the Black Shark goes one step further and features green inlays at the back.

Mobile manufacturers are taking a similar approach to the PC industry when it comes to design: the Das Keyboard has the same Cherry MX switches as a Corsair K95, but the latter has RGB lighting and a striking design. If the Galaxy S9 is the equivalent of a Das Keyboard thanks to its clean design, the Xiaomi Black Shark is more like the Corsair K95.

It also looks like we'll see more momentum in the gaming phone front later this year, as ASUS is set to make its foray into this segment by introducing a gaming phone. ASUS has a lot of pedigree in PC gaming thanks to its motherboards and video cards, and its entry into this category signifies a growing interest from manufacturers to cater to this market.

Would you be interested in picking up a gaming-focused phone? Let me know in the comments below.

Get the most out of your Android gaming experience

SteelSeries Stratus Duo ($60 at Amazon)

A great Bluetooth controller for use with Android games that offer gamepad support that also includes a wireless USB dongle for gaming on PCs. Highly recommended!

Ventev Powercell 6010+ Portable USB-C Charger ($37 at Amazon)

This battery pack from Ventev is recommended so often because it's so compact and convenient. You get a built-in USB-C cord, built-in AC prong for charging the unit, and 6000mAh battery capacity.

Spigen Style Ring ($13 at Amazon)

Of all the phone mounts and kickstands we've tested, the most consistently reliable and sturdy is the original Spigen Style Ring. It also has a minimalist hook mount for your car's dashboard.

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