Gaming phones are running out of good ideas. Each one I’ve tried is a slightly different take on an exorbitant design, of course. But these are just a few powerful but very similar companies (and, apparently, sometimes very weak) phones that aren’t really worth looking for, even for the most hardcore mobile gamer. Yet so far, Xiaomi’s Black Shark gaming brand may be the first to use titillation to stand out.
The Black Shark 4 Pro is the first phone I’ve seen that packs a busty digital assistant that wants me to engage with it in ways I never could (and never wanted) with Google Assistant, Siri, Alexa or Cortana. Designed to be a sort of assistant that helps you get to grips with this phone’s many settings, the animated character Shark Chan is a feature that stands out on an otherwise ho-hum gaming phone. And, while I’m not a big fan of the execution (more on that in a bit), it’s nice to have a gaming phone that at least tries to have an identity — everything that’s ever been done multiple times, such as including high panel refresh rates, ridiculous amounts of RAM, and an extra USB-C port for connecting proprietary accessories, including controller grips or cooling fans.
The Black Shark 4 Pro launched in the US for $579.99 in late February, and it’s one of the most discreet gaming phones I’ve used. Its back is smooth, soft-touch frosted glass, and it’s generally devoid of flashy design elements that most other brands (including Black Shark’s old phones) rely on to grab the attention of those they think these phones will appeal to. I like that about the Black Shark 4 Pro.
It’s also different in terms of a key hardware feature that’s not available on most other gaming phones: mechanical triggers. Along its right edge there are two switches which, when toggled, sprout little button-like triggers from the phone. While many previous gaming phones have relied on invisible ultrasonic touch sensors (which mimic the real thing surprisingly well), these have, well, something closer to the real thing. Travel is much shorter than the triggers you’d find on controllers, but they’re satisfyingly clicky.
Beyond in-game use, the switches are some of the most user-friendly mechanics I’ve used in years. Equally satisfying is the haptics of this device, which delivers the most punchy and perfectly delineated vibrations I’ve ever experienced on an Android phone. The hardware is, arguably, the one great thing about this phone.
Almost everything else about using this phone matches the ho-hum experience I’ve had with other gaming phones. It uses JOYUI12 (based on Xiaomi’s MIUI12 twist on Android 11), and at At the heart of the experience is a gaming dashboard app called Shark Space that acts as a home base for launching games, adjusting overclock settings, and more. If you already know that games install by default in the app drawer on Android, it can feel like relearning an unnecessarily obtuse way of accessing your content.
I’m used to gaming phones having weird touches on their software to match the maximalist approach to hardware design, but this Black Shark phone takes the cake with its built-in “Shark Chan” app. Shark Chan looks like a ripped off anime character Genshin Impact, with a scantily clad look that leans in until it becomes masculine. He’s basically a busty Clippy, and his responsibility is to guide you through the many stunning phone UI elements that you can access in-game with a diagonal swipe down from the right corner of the screen in landscape mode.
It helps that Xiaomi includes a tutorial for using the software, although it’s almost necessary due to the added complexity of having so many features. Inside there are toggles that let you take advantage of this phone’s many impressive specs, like its 720Hz touch sampling rate, or a “Ludicrous mode,” which pushes the specs to the limit. (This suggests that you purchase an accessory to help keep the phone cool while this mode is active).
As well as being where you can adjust settings, Shark Chan can be a kind of virtual butler, offering kudos for charging the phone and nagging you when an alarm goes off.
Xiaomi should have stopped there because Shark Chan has a few other features that are just plain off-putting. I did a double take when I noticed that the software includes a mention of Shark Chan’s bust, waist, and hip measurements, like I was playing a dating sim. There is also a gallery mode where it asks you to touch the avatar of Shark Chan. He will respond with dismissive or timid responses depending on where you touch him, calling you “commander” with every line. I didn’t want or need a weird attempt at a virtual assistant dating simulation, and I’m not sure why Xiaomi thought it would be a good idea.
I’d be willing to overlook some of these shortcomings if there weren’t other powerful phones on the market already. Samsung’s latest Galaxy S22 lineup, for example, offers plenty of power as well as a 240Hz touch sampling rate. That’s a fraction of the Black Shark 4 Pro’s 720Hz spec, but I’d say the difference tangible is probably not noticeable to most people. And, at this point, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 of the S22 series surpasses the Snapdragon 888 of the 4 Pro. You can get most of the power you need in a phone that looks way better than this and works with many other US carriers. The Black Shark 4 Pro won’t work with LTE or 5G networks on most carriers, at least not reliably. It’s compatible with a handful of bands for AT&T and T-Mobile, but it’s not wide-ranging at all.
The Black Shark’s mechanical triggers are a nice touch, though it’s a feature I’m much less likely to rely on than connecting something affordable, like a Razer Kishi which adds console-like controls to your phone (including USB-C passthrough) or even a DualSense controller connected wirelessly via Bluetooth. If you’re using an iPhone, you should get the excellent Backbone One controller to attach to your phone. To each his own, however. I recognize that there is an audience of mobile gamers who rely solely on touch controls. And for that key area, gaming phones like this can’t be beat.
Basically, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of gaming phones. They’re thicker than your average flagship phone due to bigger batteries, a heat sink, and several other components you don’t unlikely to find in phones made by Google, Apple or Samsung. These are proofs of concept that you can get laptop-level specs in a pocket-sized device. If only a company made a device with more targeted software that didn’t feel so compelled to lean (in Black Shark’s case, very awkwardly) down the stereotypical path of what it thinks a gamer wants in the phone software. It’s really not pretty.
For all the high-end power and tech that comes in gaming phones, these aren’t great all-around choices for people looking for great software, boundary-pushing cameras, and a device that’s more attractive around the edges.
Photograph by Cameron Faulkner/The Verge