Black Shark 2 full review

Following months of teasers and a Beijing reveal, the Black Shark 2 is now available to buy in the UK. The gaming-focused smartphone is a solid improvement on the original Black Shark, with upgraded internals, an updated design and a range of new technologies to enhance the gaming experience.

But, does the Black Shark 2 offer enough to take the title of best gaming smartphone? Read our full review to find out.

Pricing and availability

The Black Shark 2 is officially available to buy from the Black Shark website in the UK and Europe, but is currently unavailable in the US.

The base model of the Black Shark 2 comes with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, and will set you back £479/€549. Those interested in something more impressive can opt for the high-end 12GB/256GB combination at £559/€649.

It’s also worth noting that the eye-catching Glory Blue finish is limited to the 8GB variant, with the high-end variant only available in the fairly tame Shadow Black or Frozen Silver.  

Tailored for gaming

The Black Shark 2 was designed by gamers for gamers, and it shows in just about every aspect of the smartphone. As well as packing flagship-level internals with a Qualcomm 855 processor and either 8- or 12GB of RAM, the smartphone packs a number of ‘firsts’. The smartphone is amongst the first in the world to implement a direct touch liquid cooling system in a handheld, and amongst other cooling features bundled into what Black Shark calls “Liquid Cooling 3.0”, the system should keep the smartphone cool during those intense gaming sessions.

That’s not all the Black Shark 2 features either; the company claims that it’s the first to implement a standalone DSP (Digital Signal Processing) chip in a smartphone, which brings a variety of benefits including impressive response times. The 240Hz touch report rate of the display lowers the latency to around 43.5ms, compared to around 60ms in the iPhone XS, which directly translates to quicker response times during those crucial in-game moments.

The display also features Master Touch technology which allows the display to measure pressure in dedicated areas to provide extra functionality when playing games, allowing you to, for example, keep your finger on the trigger button at all times but only have the game register input when you press down a little harder. The pressure needed to activate can be customised, allowing you to tailor the experience to your play style.  

Like the original, the Black Shark 2 features a dedicated game space nicknamed Shark Space. The mode is activated by a physical switch on the side of the smartphone, and provides an area separate from the Android OS for you to browse and play your favourite games. It’s also where you can enable the smartphone’s appropriately named Ludicrous mode, a mode that allows the smartphone to use 100 percent of the CPU power running at 2.84Ghz.

With all that on-board tech it should come as no surprise that the Black Shark 2 is capable of handling just about anything you throw at it with ease, providing a smooth scrolling experience on social media and a lag- and stutter-free gaming experience, even with graphical settings cranked up to the max. That’s backed up by our benchmark results, seen below, with the performance of the smartphone on a par with other gaming smartphones including the Red Magic 3, as well as flagships including the OnePlus 7 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus.

The Black Shark 2 also sports a whopping 4,000mAh battery to get you through long gaming sessions without a charger, and with a casual mix of gaming and browsing, you’ll get a day’s worth of charge before needing a top-up. When that does eventually happen, the 27W USB-C fast charger should get you untethered from the wall fairly quickly, although the fast charger isn’t included in the box – you’ll have to buy that separately.

Console gaming on the go

Black Shark has also launched a number of optional accessories for the Black Shark 2 to further improve the gaming experience, including £79.90/$89.90 Switch-esque controllers with an analogue stick and touch-sensitive pad. These controllers’ slot onto the ends of the Black Shark 2 via a dedicated case in a similar fashion to the Joy-Cons of the Nintendo Switch, but that’s where the similarities end.

You’ll find two trigger buttons and four programmable buttons on each controller, pretty much ditching the need to ever tap on the display when playing games. Unlike other controllers, the Black Shark 2 controllers can be configured to just about any game via an overlay – no official support required

The triggers provide a satisfying mechanical keyboard-esque click whenever pressed, and the buttons are solid too, but we think they’re a little bit small. We often press the wrong trigger button because we’ve (admittedly) got rather fat fingers, and it’s a similar story with the buttons.

We can’t help but think that Black Shark focused too much on offering the features of a console-level controller and not enough on the user experience it provides.

That theme continues with the trackpad control, found on the right controller. This is used to emulate touch input and, in theory, allow you to aim with similar precision to using a touchscreen. The pad is grippy and large, but even after an intense PUBG Mobile session, we couldn’t get used to the varying sensitivity of the trackpad and eventually ditched it altogether, using the left controller (which features an analogue stick) for movement and triggers for shooting, and using our right hand to control aim via touch input.

If, like us, you can’t see yourself getting on with the touchpad input that the right controller features, the good news is that you can buy the cheaper £34.90/$39.90 Black Shark 2 Rookie Kit which consists of the left controller and an adaptor to attach it to the smartphone.

For longer gaming sessions, you might want to pick up Black Shark’s £49.90 cooling case, offering a blend of fans and liquid cooling to cool the smartphone by up to 10 degrees Celsius in around 10 seconds.

Improved design

The Black Shark 2 has hints of the original Black Shark present, but we think the updated design is an all-round improvement that improves not only the look but the functionality of the smartphone. It’s slimmer than the original at 163.6 x 75 x 8.8mm and although it weighs a little more at 205g, we like the solid in-hand feel it provides. It sports a metal frame with a gorgeous blend of glass and metal on the rear, and is now available not only in the standard Black, but Frozen Silver and Glory Blue too.

There’s also RGB strips running along the sides of the smartphone and a glowing Black Shark symbol on the rear because, y’know, gaming phone. The sidelights can be customised to display a variety of mesmerising patterns and vibrant colours to notify you of unread notifications, display charging status, alert you of incoming calls and more.

The Black Shark 2 boasts a 19.5:9 6.39in AMOLED display (1080 x 2340) with no notch to get in the way when gaming, although it has a noticeable forehead and chin unlike most standard 2019 flagships. The display also features DC Professional Light Dimming, which pretty much eliminates the flickering you see when filming smartphone displays and makes your eyes feel more comfortable over long periods of use, especially at low brightness.

Talking of brightness, it’s not the brightest display we’ve ever used measuring in at 377cd/m2. In a world where smartphones like the mid-range Pixel 3a offering a whopping603cd/m2, the max brightness of the Black Shark 2 just doesn’t cut it. It performs well in indoor environments, but the display became a little harder to read when out in direct sunlight – an issue not prevalent in many other 2019 flagships.

There’s also an in-display fingerprint scanner, but we found the performance to be a little hit-and-miss compared to other smartphones that offer similar functionality.

The biggest improvement to the design is in the antenna department. Most smartphones will experience some kind of interference when held horizontally when gaming, as your hands naturally cover most of the built-in antennae. Black Shark has got around this issue by implementing its own X + 2 antenna array in the Black Shark 2, which the company claims should negate any potential connectivity issues no matter how the smartphone is held.

While it’s something that’s hard to put to the test, we can confidently say that we suffered no connectivity issues when playing online games on the Black Shark 2.

Enhanced camera setup

The Black Shark 2 features an upgraded dual-camera setup on the rear, offering a standard 48Mp lens with f/1.8 alongside a 12Mp 2x telephoto lens to provide detailed close-up shots. While the camera setup produces improved results when compared to the first-gen Black Shark, the Black Shark 2 is lagging behind similarly-priced smartphones in the camera department.

The main 48Mp snapper isn’t really the problem; it captures detailed images in well-lit environments, and the quality of the images generally holds up as you zoom in, although some of the finer details – like individual hairs – can be hard to make out due to the use of a slightly over-aggressive noise reduction algorithm.

The f/1.8 aperture provides improved low-light performance too, but it can’t hold a candle up to the quality of night-time photography taken on likes of the Google Pixel 3, Huawei P30 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S10. That’s not exactly surprising given the Black Shark 2’s price tag and focus on gaming, but it’s certainly worth mentioning.

The issue, we find, is with the 12Mp 2x telephoto lens, which is used to get a close-up shot without having to move any closer to your subject. It does provide a decent level of zoom, but we’ve found that photos would look noisier than those taken with the 48Mp sensor. The quality is still there, and you can easily make out finer details, but there’s just something a little off-putting about the final results.  

Alongside the variety of dedicated shooting modes, you’ll also find an AI shooting mode. The idea is that, using built-in AI, the camera analyses the scene and adjusts the settings based on the subject to improve the finished image. It can recognise subjects including scenery, cats, dogs and food, but we never see that much of a difference between non-AI and AI shots, with the AI shots offering a more saturated look but not much else.

On the flip, you’ll find a 20Mp front-facing camera with HDR support and improved low-light performance when compared to the original Black Shark, which is be good enough for selfie-taking and video calling, but the lack of a wide-angle lens might make it hard to fit all your friends or that gorgeous backdrop into your selfies.

On the video front, the Black Shark 2 is capable of filming at [email protected], but with no image stabilisation – electronic or otherwise. The good news is that if you drop the quality down to [email protected] the stabilisation does kick in, vastly improving the quality of videos shot on the smartphone.

The issue is that, unlike most smartphones, all standard video modes are capped at 30fps, with no sign of 60fps support anywhere. You do get 120fps recording capabilities, but only when shooting in the smartphone’s dedicated slo-mo mode.

Verdict

We’re impressed by what the Black Shark 2 offers gamers, with impressive specs, innovative gaming-focused tech and a very affordable price tag, but it’s not the perfect smartphone by any means.

The gaming experience is premium,  sporting powerful internals, industry-leading cooling tech and a range of accessories to enhance performance, but unlike most other gaming phones, the Black Shark 2 is capped at 60Hz, half that of the Razer Phone 2.  It’s also worth noting that the gaming accessories are sold separately, and they’re not the cheapest accessories we’ve seen either. 

However, it’s little issues with the Black Shark 2 that bring the overall experience down, including a rather dim display, hit-and-miss controller design and a camera setup that has admittedly been improved, but is still not quite up to the standards set by other 2019 flagships, or even other mid-range phones.

Specs

Black Shark 2: Specs

  • 163.6 x 75 x 8.8 mm
  • 205g
  • Dual-SIM
  • 6.39in AMOLED display (19.5:9 aspect ratio)
  • 1080 x 2340
  • Snapdragon 855
  • 8 or 12GB RAM
  • 128 or 256GB storage
  • Dual camera setup (48Mp+12Mp)
  • 20Mp front-facing camera
  • Android 9.0
  • Bluetooth 5.0
  • Dual-Band Wi-Fi
  • GPS
  • In-display fingerprint reader
  • 4000mAh battery
  • 27W fast charging

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