Black Shark, Red Magic vs mainstream flagships

Are gaming phones worth it?

GSMArena team, 18 July 2019.

GPU throttling tests

Now that we've investigated the CPU thermal-throttling situation it's time to talk about GPUs. After all, we are discussing extreme and prolonged loads here so realistically gaming and sustained performance are the actual subject of this examination.

To be as thorough and precise as possible we really wanted to monitor GPU activity in the very same manner we did for CPU. That would mean performance and thermals all plotted out on a graph over time. Unfortunately Android and most smartphone manufacturers are not particularly cooperative when it comes to letting you monitor GPU stats. The info is scarce and often logged in vastly different folders if at all so no easy, reliable and convenient graphs were available here.

So, as a compromise and a showcase of how much gaming performance you will be losing we ran the GFX Bench 3.1 Car test twice - once when the chipset was cold and again when it had reached its thermal threshold. This way we can see how the different chipsets and phones react to overheating from a GPU standpoint, even if the GPU is not the one necessarily putting out all the heat.

This turned out to be the most major win for the gaming phones yet. The Black Shark 2 and the nubia Red Magic 3 were the only phones that retained their performance after an hour of stress testing. Meanwhile, those around them would see significant drops in their GPU perofmance, which would inevitably result in either dropped frames or decreased graphics quality.

GFX 3.1 Car scene (onscreen)

Phone FPS cold FPS hot % decrease
ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 37 37 0%
Xiaomi Black Shark 2 36 36 0%
Xiaomi Mi 9T 13 13 0%
OnePlus 7 36 32 11%
Sony Xperia 1 33 26 21%
Samsung Galaxy S10e 40 31 23%
Xiaomi Pocophone F1 31 18 42%
Huawei P30 Pro (perf. mode) 29 14 52%

The worst offender was last year's Pocophone F1, which lost nearly half of its performance once things started heating up.

GFX 3.1 Car scene (1080p offscreen)

Phone FPS cold FPS hot % decrease
ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 42 42 0%
Xiaomi Black Shark 2 42 42 0%
OnePlus 7 42 38 10%
Xiaomi Mi 9T 16 14 13%
Samsung Galaxy S10e 42 35 17%
Sony Xperia 1 42 31 26%
Xiaomi Pocophone F1 35 20 43%
Huawei P30 Pro (perf. mode) 33 18 45%

One final thing we wanted to examine before we wrap this up was surface temperature. After all just hand comfort can be an issue with prolonged gaming sessions and it's important to see how the different smartphones manage that.

Surface temperature and comfort

After all taking the heat away from the chipset normally means it's transferred to the body of phone. Your hands actually make a pretty good radiator as well. The only slight issue with this tactic being the abundance of nerve endings in said hands that don't feel particularly comfortable when exposed to heat.

The definite stand-out in this department is the Xiaomi Black Shark 2. The Chinese manufacturer uses the mostly metal outer shell of the phone as a huge heatsink, meaning that the phone heats up pretty much all around to a hand-burning 47 degrees. It is really, really uncomfortable to hold while in this state.

By contrast, most other phones tend to have one single, relatively small spot with a peak temperature. That is the case with the OnePlus 7. Event though in absolute values it got as hot as the Black Shark 2, it was only that one spot, which almost never gets in contact with your hands.

The rest of the phone remained perfectly fine to hold. Perhaps jut a bit warmish on the bezels. It's the exact same thing with the Xperia 1 and pretty much the Mi 9T as well. The latter has its hottest point in a rather odd spot on the top bezel, though.

The Samsung Galaxy S10e got surprisingly toasty all around, but not nearly on the level of the Black Shark 2. The Pocophone F1 and Huawei P30 Pro maintained the lowest and most comfortable surface temperatures of the bunch. Sadly we alreadly learned that this comes at the expense of performance, so it's not really a great trade-off.

The ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 and its active cooling fan are the definate champs here. While the fan only marginally improved overall performance levels it did wonders for its surface temperature and comfortable handling.

Max surface temperature

Lower is better

  • Black Shark 2
  • OnePlus 7
  • Samsung Galaxy S10e
  • Sony Xperia 1
  • ZTE nubia Red Magic 3
  • Xiaomi Pocophone F1
  • Xiaomi Mi 9T
  • nubia Red Magic 3 (Perf. mode + fan)
  • Huawei P30 Pro

Final thoughts

Color us surprised! While gaming phones outdoing mainstream flagships was hardly shocking given how tightly the latter are packed, we never expected the differences to be this big. While benchmarks would let you believe that all current flagship phones perform more or less the same, things quickly change with longer loads.

Granted, most flagships will still handle the games you throw at them, but they will either not be quite as smooth as the dedicated gaming phones or lose some quality. Well that or you'll have to leave them to cool down every few minutes - none of those sounds particularly great.

Gaming Phones: A performance and thermal throttling examination

So, at the end of the day, if you are after an Android phone meant primarily for gaming then it turns out there are plent of valid reasons you might want to actually consider picking up something created with gaming in mind.

Reader comments

hi please do a 2022 version including flagship midrange and entry level phones

  • Anonymous
  • 03 May 2022
  • NAE

And the oneplus 7T, with the 855+.

I have a SD845 device which is the Unlocked version of the LGv40 and it doesn't throttle at all in the throttle test. They should've been using the GPU GFLOPS FP32 test for a base comparison. The new Mate 40 Pro for example has a ARM Mali-G...