Best gaming phones 2021 - buyer’s guide
Last updated: June 30, 2021 (Changelog)
Phones have gradually replaced so many standalone devices we used to rely on, so why not take over our handheld gaming. Razer made waves in late 2017 and Asus' ROG branch joined in in 2018, with offers following from a Xiaomi-backed Black Shark and ZTE's nubia. Those have gaming centric features and often sport a certain gaming aesthetic that may not be to everyone's taste, but there are also some mainstream phones that can do better for gaming than others. What's the best there is right now?
Here's what we consider to be the best gaming phones of 2021 so far.
Asus ROG Phone 5
- The most toned-down and subdued ROG aesthetic to date
- AirTigger 5 ultrasonic touch sensors are truly industry-leading in versatility and precision. Motion controls are extended and greatly improved from last gen
- Industry-leading stereo speaker setup, with gaming-specific enhancements
- Amazing 144Hz AMOLED display, with excellent automatic refresh rate handling and high refresh rate gaming support
- One of the best thermally-managed Snapdragon 888 implementations on the market
- Clean, yet very feature-rich Android OS, complete with unparalleled gaming options and tweaking controls
- Solid all-round camera performance
- No longer backwards compatible with most ROG Phone II or 3 accessories. Available accessory ecosystem is significantly smaller than on previous models
- New AeroActive Cooler 5 and side connector designs are fragile and worse than their predecessors
- No water or dust resistance
- No microSD
Nobody does smartphone gaming quite like Asus. Four iterations into the ROG Phone line, that remains a fact. The ROG Phone 5 is a true powerhouse in every sense of the word - a phone that is specifically crafted to deliver the best possible gaming experience, with any other concern or consideration taking a back seat. It just so happens that when you make an excellent gaming flagship, you usually end up with an excellent all-around device in general that has plenty of appeal outside gaming.
If mobile gaming is your top priority, then it is tough to find another offer that delivers anywhere near the complete and in-depth, all-round experience ROG does.
We can certainly go on to praise Asus' excellent logic for handling the fast 144Hz refresh rate on the ROG Phone 5's OLED panel or the in-depth control mapping and customization offered by Armory Crate, with control schemes often bordering on unfair advantage. However, it would be deceitful to just praise the ROG Phone 5, when in fact it is one of the weaker entries into the ROG family to date. On a hardware level, it constitutes a small upgrade over the ROG Phone 3.
There are no new major spotlight features, no pushing the envelope in terms of display tech or additional controls and inputs. We can't say we particularly like the new design for the side connector. It is hard to operate and fragile. Plus, it breaks compatibility with the excellent Mobile Desktop Dock. On top of that, the slightly taller body of the ROG Phone 5 makes it incompatible with other accessories, like the TwinView Dock. The simpler design for the AeroActive Cooler 5 also has its issues, and for the first time ever, it is not included with every unit. The new split battery design is also a polarizing topic.
Perhaps Asus is amidst some business "reorientation" here. Shifting focus away from end users and extravagant accessories to capture headlines and laser-focusing on delivering pro tools for the e-sports contestants and organizers exclusively. It seems to be too early to tell. Even so, the ROG Phone 5 remains the most feature-complete and refined gaming phone out there today.Read full review
Apple iPhone 11
- Vast game ecosystem, early releases and exclusive iOS titles
- One of the most powerful chipset available
- Great battery life, wireless charging support
- IP68 rated
- Very capable camera
- Low-res 60Hz LCD, notched too
- Painfully slow charging with the bundled adapter
Apple decided to keep the iPhone 11 in production even after the launch of the iPhone 12 series. The good news is that the iPhone 11 is now even cheaper, and it still remains one very capable phone for gaming. In fact, the iPhones always have been, we'd argue. Certainly, the combination of super-powerful hardware with a huge selection of games (some exclusive to the platform or coming sooner than elsewhere) makes the iPhone 11 a gaming smartphone. The long battery life doesn't hurt either.
Sure the iPhone lacks the bells and whistles of gaming-centric handsets and its display has a mere 60Hz refresh rate, and its design is rather bland and non-flashy. But it too is a very good phone outside of that one use case called gaming.
You can also consider the newer iPhone 12 for the better chipset and the higher-res OLED screen. It is more expensive though and offers lackluster battery life. And these are exactly the reasons why we chose to keep the iPhone 11 instead of replacing it with the newer model.Read full review
ZTE nubia Red Magic 6
- 128GB 8GB RAM $ 574.99
- The first (but not last) 165Hz AMOLED display in the business, minimal touch latency, bright
- Snapdragon 888 with a built-in fan ensures sustained top performance for long gaming sessions
- Hardware trigger buttons
- Lower price than the competition
- Quite the looker, LED-illuminated RGB strips
- Not many games can provide framerates to match screen refresh rate
- Uninspiring camera performance
- Confusing software and issues with translation
- Outside of China, the 66W charger doesn't come bundled
The new Nubia Red Magic 6 is an excellent upgrade oved the Red Magic 5G/5S and one of the most interesting gaming phones so far. In addition to the new Snapdragon 888, with built-in cooling fan, of course, we also get this amazing 6.8" AMOLED with 165Hz refresh and 1B colors.
Just like the Red Magic 5G/5S, the Red Magic 6 is affordable (in flagship terms), ships to pretty much everywhere and it looks plenty cool. And what the ROG Phones need an accessory for, the Nubia has built in - a cooling fan.
It may not be picture-perfect as the camera performance is underwhelming, but as far as gaming go - this the Red Magic 6 is one of the best in the class.Read full review
ZTE nubia Red Magic 6R
- A 144Hz AMOLED display, minimal touch latency
- Snapdragon 888 with outstanding passive cooling makes for impressive sustained top performance
- Trigger buttons
- Affordable price
- Excellent photo and video quality on the main camera
- Fast to charge
- Uninspiring battery life
- No stereo speakers
- Switching to the ultrawide cam is convoluted and it can't record video either
- Under load, a couple of spots along the frame get unbearably hot
The new Nubia Red Magic 6R is quite the alternative to the more expensive Red Magic 6. It has a top-notch 144Hz AMOLED screen and the latest Snapdragon 888 chip with the best passive cooling system we’ve experienced providing for impressive sustained performance.
We were also impressed by the phone’s clean design, fast battery charging and flagship-grade photos and videos coming from its main camera. Unfortunately, nubia still cannot offer a proper switch for the ultrawide camera making it useless most of the time.
The only real omission on this Red Magic 6R are the dual speakers. We can’t but miss this feature on any phone but especially on a gaming-centric phone. Still, the Red Magic 6T ticks all other boxes – be it for a flagship killer, a premium mid-rangers, or a gaming phone and it easily earns our recommendation.Read full review
Lenovo Legion Duel 2
- 512GB 16GB RAM £ 1,039.00
- Great 144Hz OLED display, HDR10+, no cutouts
- Promising battery life and blazing fast charging
- Snapdragon 865+, 12GB or 16GB RAM, UFS3.1 storage
- Shoulder trigger, RGB lights
- Stereo speakers
- No IP rating
- No wireless charging
- No audio jack, no microSD slot
The newly released Lenovo Legion Duel 2 is shaping up as one of the ultimate gaming smartphones for sure. It has a promising 144Hz AMOLED screen with fast touch response, the fastest chip on the market yet, plenty of RAM, and, of course, plenty of triggers, capacitive zones on the back and two force touchpoints on the display itself. There are no cutouts on the screen as the new 44MP selfie camera is mounted on a motorized pop-up mechanism on the side.
The Duel features an advanced cooling system with two dedicated fans - the first one intakes hot air and passes it through a copper heat sink, while the other one serves as an exhaust.
The dual-camera (64 main + 16MP ultrawide) is nothing special, but it's a gaming phone, not a camera one. What's special though is the fast wired charging. The battery comes in at 5,500mAh and is separated into two 2,750 mAh cells. It can be recharged at 90W and a full charge is achieved in just 30 minutes. To do so you need to plug in chargers in the two USB-C ports - one on the bottom and another on the left side and fill the two cells simultaneously.
The second Duel is cheaper than its predecessor - its EU price starts at €799. It seems to be packing everything a gaming phone needs, including RGB logo on the back and a streaming-friendly selfie camera. And if things turn out for the better, this may as well replace the ROG 5 in our next revision of this guide.SPECS
Xiaomi Black Shark 4 Pro
- Not that expensive
- 144Hz OLED display, HDR10+
- Promising battery life and very fast 120W charging
- Snapdragon 888 5G
- Physical gaming triggers
- Stereo speakers, audio jack
- No IP rating
- No wireless charging
The Black Shark 4 Pro is an excellent choice as it's probably the cheapest among these gaming-oriented flagships. It also offers some notable upgrades over the Black Shark 3 Pro, including a 144Hz OLED, a faster chipset, improved connectivity options, and more reasonable footprint (the 7.1" screen of the 3 Pro was a bit of an overkill).
The Black Shark 4 Pro comes with a regularly-sized 6.67" OLED display, capable of 144Hz refresh rate and HDR10+ playback. It also packs a large 4,500mAh battery that can be fast charged at 120W for 15 minutes. It also flexes stereo speakers, plus it offers an audio jack!
The best part is that the Black Shark 4 Pro is not that expensive, not ROG money anyway. And if that's still a bit too expensive for you, you may want to consider the even cheaper Snapdragon 870-powered Black Shark 4.SPECS
Xiaomi Mi 11 Lite 5G
- 6.55" 90Hz 1B color HDR10+ AMOLED screen
- Gaming-friendly Snapdragon 780G 5G chip with 6GB or 8GB RAM
- Excellent battery life, fast charging
- Plenty snappers with good overall quality
- Loud stereo speakers
- IP53-rated glass body
- No special gaming features
The Xiaomi Mi 11 Lite 5G looks like an excellent gaming phone on a budget. It has an HRR HDR10 OLED screen, while the Snapdragon 780G offers more than enough punch for smooth gaming. And some games can even go beyond 60fps, unlike on the Realme HRR phones. We also appreciate the Mi 11 Lite 5G having the battery backup to last you many gaming sessions on one charge. And it's fast to charge!
The Mi 11 Lite 5G is particularly good at snapping photos, too, it offers excellent photo and video quality across all cameras. And we did like its stereo speakers, the excellent connectivity options, and the splash resistance.Read full review
Most recent updates
June 30, 2021: Added the nubia Red Magic 6R.
May 18, 2021: Replaced the ROG Phone 3 with ROG Phone 5. Replaced the Red Magic 5G with Red Magic 6. Replaced the Black Shark 3 Pro with the Black Shark 4 Pro. Replaced the Xiaomi Mi 10T Lite 5G with Xiaomi Mi 11 Lite 5G. Replaced the Lenovo Legion Duel with Lenovo Legion Duel 2. Removed Moto Edge, Huawei P40 Lite and iQOO 3.
Best phones by category
JdRDMS, don't think it's gonna happen. Asus gaming phones I believe just take whatever best Snapdragon chip is available and extreme boost that. It's why the ROG 5 Pro has like 72 fps on Gfx bench, way better than others with 888. But ...
- 23 Sep 2021
Guys just chill. The reason they left the iPhone 11, mi 10 lite is cuz they still good for gaming on the budget. Give it some time, they'll add the iPhone 12 later. Just look at other articles: Nord 2, Pixel 5a and iPhone 13 came out, you can...
- 23 Sep 2021
I've gotta disagree with the iPhone 11 being on here but not the 12. I'd actually consider the 12 a better buy with its infinitely better screen, faster processor, and 5G support for streaming games and playing online without a Wi-Fi connec...
- 21 Aug 2021