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Black Shark 2 review

The Black Shark 2 devours games, but there are other gaming fish in the sea

black shark 2 review full 5
Black Shark 2
MSRP $89.00
“The Black Shark 2 is a super-powerful and extremely sleek gaming phone with a long-lasting battery”
Pros
  • Amazing performance
  • Unique design
  • Excellent battery life
  • Affordable price
  • Good OLED display
Cons
  • Some bugs in gaming mode and software
  • No NFC for Google Pay
  • No water-resistance

Gaming phones are no longer just for die-hard Fortnite fans. If you’re looking for a powerful phone with an eye-catching design, then you should be considering gaming phones like the Red Magic 3 and the Asus ROG Phone alongside our usual picks for the best smartphones.

But is there room in the sea for the Black Shark 2? The follow-up to the Black Shark offers powerful specs and a long-lasting battery in a design that’s not just meant for gamers. In my Black Shark 2 review, I found that while this powerful gaming phone still has some bugs, it’s more than capable of facing off against its gaming phone peers.

A more understated gaming phone

The first thing you’re likely to notice about the Black Shark 2 is its size. It’s big even when compared to other large phones — it’s taller than the Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus and the iPhone XS Max, and thicker too. It’s also heavy, being just a shade lighter than the iPhone XS Max at 205 grams.

The Black Shark 2 is much easier to hold in two hands than one. And you’ll probably want to keep both hands on it where you can, as it’s quite slippery. The phone’s build of anodized metal and glass is slick, and it’s constantly trying to slip from your fingers. Black Shark includes a TPU case in the box and I recommend you use it.

As gaming phone law dictates, parts of the Black Shark 2 light up — the S logo on the back and two subtle lines down the sides. They don’t distract you from the serious business of pwning noobs. That said, we wonder how necessary they really are, as you’ll rarely notice them during normal use.

The Black Shark 2 boasts an improved design. The sudden dips and polycarbonate panels of the original Black Shark have been reduced, and the result is a style that’s quieter and more refined. It’s still a gaming phone — and certainly not iPhone XS levels of sleek — but it’s much classier, and you probably won’t be ashamed to be seen with it.

The Black Shark 2 plays the latest games without as much as a stutter and handles everyday apps with contemptuous ease.

There’s no notch or hole-punch display as Black Shark has opted for a more traditional look. The bezels around the edges of the display are slim, with more substantial borders at the top and bottom.

You’ll find the dual front-facing speaker grilles to either side of the screen. Their positioning helps to funnel sound to your ears while playing games, as natural hand placement will cup the speakers, boosting sound. Otherwise, they’re loud enough and supposedly optimized by A.I. for different multimedia, but we didn’t notice major differences when swapping between YouTube and games.

The Shark Key that toggles the phone’s gaming mode has returned, and it’s no longer as easy to accidentally toggle and dump all your open apps. Removing this frustration is a major improvement in my eyes. There’s a USB-C port at the bottom of the phone, but no headphone jack or water-resistance.

A solid OLED display

Black Shark has toned up the display in the Black Shark 2, replacing the Black Shark’s 5.99-inch LCD display with a massive 6.39-inch AMOLED TrueView display that runs a 2,340 x 1,080 pixel resolution in a 19.5:9 aspect ratio. It doesn’t have the Red Magic 3’s 90Hz refresh rate, but it does have a latency touch rate of 240Hz and a response time of 43.5 milliseconds — so there’s a smaller time between touching the screen and the response.

The Avengers Endgame trailer playing on the Black Shark 2 (top) and the Samsung Galaxy S8 (bottom). Mark Jansen/Digital Trends

I compared it to the Samsung Galaxy S8, and while the Black Shark 2 doesn’t get as bright as Samsung’s 2017 flagship, it does an admirable job of showcasing deep blacks; though it’s not exceptional, it’s more than good enough.

There’s also an in-display optical fingerprint sensor. It’s good to see this feature, but like many other optical fingerprint sensors we’ve tested, the Black Shark 2’s sensor is occasionally unreliable. It certainly isn’t up to the level of the Samsung Galaxy S10’s ultrasonic sensor.

Game-beating performance and smooth day-to-day use

The Black Shark 2 wouldn’t be much of a gaming phone if it couldn’t handle the latest games. Thankfully, it can. The Black Shark 2 plays the latest games without as much as a stutter and handles everyday apps with contemptuous ease. Performance is super-smooth, and I didn’t come across any performance problems.

Here are the results from the benchmarking apps:

These results are very much what you’d hope for from a gaming phone and broadly in line with the Red Magic 3’s results. The Black Shark 2 outstripped the Samsung Galaxy S10 by a decent margin, but fell just short of the OnePlus 7 Pro. It’s a good enough score to place it among the highest scoring smartphones for these tests.

This amazing performance is down to the Black Shark 2’s flagship-level hardware. You’ll find this year’s powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor inside the phone, as well as up to 12GB of RAM.

Unfortunately, a lack of real software support meant using the controllers was an unreliable experience.

This powerful hardware is backed up by some serious cooling that keeps internal temperatures down. The Black Shark 2 uses a “Mille-Feuille Full Area Liquid Cooling System” — an oversized cooling plate that covers major components, reducing core temperatures by up to 14-degrees. It’s the same cooling tech you’ll find in high-end PC gaming setups, and Black Shark boasts that this is the first time you’ll find this technology in a smartphone.

These aren’t empty words. I took the Black Shark 2 on an extended gaming session in Shadowgun: Legends, and though it got warm in my hands, it never got too hot to hold.

Disappointing controllers

But power isn’t the only thing the Black Shark 2 has to offer — it also has a pair of gaming controllers that slide onto the sides of the phone and transform it into a Nintendo Switch-like gaming device. The theory is simple: Attach the controller case, slide the controllers on, and you’re away.

Unfortunately, a lack of real software support meant using the controllers was an unreliable experience. Fortnite worked fine with both controllers, but in PUBG Mobile, the right-hand controller’s touchpad was glitchy and unreliable while the left-hand controller’s joystick performed excellently. While playing Shadowgun: Legends I found the opposite to be true. I had similar problems on the original Black Shark phone, and it’s disappointing to revisit them on the Black Shark 2.

Mark Jansen/Digital Trends

But you don’t need to depend on the controllers to win. The Black Shark 2’s display has Master Touch — a customizable pressure-sensitive technology that lets you set a custom touch zone in games and trigger on-screen actions more easily. This combines with the display’s low latency touch tech should make your screen controls feel more responsive — though I doubt anyone but a pro would notice.

Shark Mode has bite, but the software still has some bugs

The Black Shark 2 also has a dedicated gaming mode called Shark Mode. Like the gaming mode on the Red Magic 3, it’s switched on by flicking the dedicated Shark Key on the side of the phone.

Flick the switch and your phone boots into a game launcher, closing open apps to save memory and turning off notifications. It looks sleek and it’s incredibly customizable, with options to tweak touch sensitivity, display modes, and more. The coolest addition is undoubtedly the ability to alter performance settings to prioritize battery life, beautiful graphics, or anywhere in between. Be aware the battery life will take a hit if you regularly crank the settings up to the top “Ludicrous” mode — but you’ll get top gaming performance from this mode.

The Black Shark 2 has one of the longest-lasting batteries we’ve tested.

Sadly, it’s not without its bugs. I struggled to access the Gamer Studio’s customization options in Asphalt 9: Legends and Fortnite, as the mode froze and crashed when I tried to access it.

Like the first phone, the Black Shark 2’s JoyUI is a fairly clean version of Android 9.0 Pie with a few Black Shark additions. It should please Android purists.

Thankfully, Black Shark has been on a bug-squashing hunt, and the software experience on the Black Shark 2 is improved from the original phone. We experienced some unexpected restarts on the initial software build, but Black Shark pushed out an update after we brought this to its attention. After the update we haven’t experienced any random restarts.

Black Shark 2 review
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

There are still some bugs, like the dodgy brightness control and the inability to clear notifications without unlocking. Still, this lack of polish is little more than a slight annoyance, and the smooth performance makes up for it.

A decent camera, but shoddy A.I.

The Black Shark 2 is equipped with a dual-lens camera system comprised of a 48-megapixel main lens with PDAF autofocus and an aperture of f/1.75, paired with a secondary 12-megapixel telephoto lens with a 2x zoom and an aperture of f/2.2.

But you won’t be taking 48-megapixel photos. The main lens uses pixel binning, a process that combines four pixels into one. This increases the light gathered by the sensor and boosts low light performance by creating a 12-megapixel image instead.

It works well in good lighting, and I was happy to share many of the shots I took on the Black Shark 2. However, the camera does struggle when light fades. Low-light shots come out muddy and lacking in detail, while strong lights tended to come out overblown. The lack of optical image stabilization (OIS) also means it’s hard to avoid blurred photos while moving.

The telephoto lens is used in bokeh portrait mode shots, and it’s unfortunately inconsistent. I got a few portrait shots I was happy with, but most shots had inaccurate blurring around the edges.

Here’s the Black Shark 2’s portrait mode put side-by-side with the Pixel 3a XL’s portrait mode. Despite being the cheaper phone, the Pixel 3a XL’s detail and edge blurring is leagues ahead of the Black Shark 2.

There’s A.I. optimization built in as well, but you’ll probably want to turn it off. While it does a good job at sharpening architecture, most of the “optimization” just involves turning up the contrast. I took some shots of the sea and the result was often a cartoonishly blue ocean. The camera lenses do well enough without the A.I. — turn it off and leave it off.

You’ll find a 20-megapixel lens around the front, and it generally did a good job. The automatic beauty mode was a little liberal with smoothing, but I was happy enough to share the shots it took.

Battery and charging

There’s a large 4,000mAh battery in the Black Shark 2, and I got roughly a day and a half of battery life from normal usage. If you’re a regular gamer then you can expect that battery life to drop accordingly.

Putting the Black Shark 2 through our battery test resulted in 13 hours and 7 minutes of streaming a Full HD video from YouTube, on full brightness.

That’s an impressive result, and it means the Black Shark 2 beats out phones with significantly larger batteries. It beat the Red Magic 3’s 5,000mAh battery by almost 20 minutes, and the Asus ZenFone 6’s 5,000mAh battery by 40 minutes. While it’s beaten by powerhouses like the Huawei P30 Pro, the Black Shark 2 has one of the longest-lasting batteries we’ve tested to date.

There’s no wireless charging, but you do have access to super-speedy charging. There’s a QuickCharge 3.0 charger included, but the phone has support for QuickCharge 4.0+ as well. A full recharge from empty took just 1 hour and 30 minutes.

Price, availability, and warranty information

The Black Shark 2 is currently available in the U.K., E.U., and a selection of other countries — but there are unfortunately no plans for a U.S. launch of the device. If you want to import it, just be aware that it only supports GSM carriers, like T-Mobile and AT&T and you won’t have any warranty support.

Pricing starts at 479 British pounds or 549 euros (around $610) for the variant with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. The version with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage costs 559 British pounds or 649 euros (around $715). It’s available in Shadow Black, or in the region-specific Frozen Silver. You can buy it on the Black Shark website, or on Amazon.

Black Shark offers a standard two-year warranty.

Our Take

The Black Shark 2 is absolutely everything you want from a gaming phone. It has strong performance, a long-lasting battery, a large screen, and a great gaming mode. The software still isn’t perfect, and the controllers are currently hard to recommend — but Black Shark is clearly improving, and it bodes well.

Is there a better alternative?

Yes. If you’re shopping for a recent gaming phone, then it’s hard to ignore the Red Magic 3. Nubia’s gaming beast has similar specs and a comparable battery to the Black Shark 2, but also has a lower price tag of $479. You may also look at last year’s Asus ROG phone, though it’s a lot more expensive and has an older processor.

Outside of gaming phones, the Asus ZenFone 6 offers similar specs at a competitive price, while the OnePlus 7 Pro offers a near-flagship experience in both specs and design, but will cost you a fair bit more.

How long will it last?

There’s no water-resistance, so you’ll want to keep it away from water, but the Black Shark 2 is an otherwise solid phone. The flagship-level processing power should age well, so we can see this holding up for two to three years at least.

Software updates are another story, though. The original Black Shark was meant to receive an update to Android 9.0 Pie, but as far as we know that never materialized — and we imagine the Black Shark 2 will have a similar time with an Android Q update. We’ve reached out to Black Shark to confirm an update schedule.

Should you buy it?

No. The Black Shark 2 is a strong gaming phone with amazing performance, a long-lasting battery, and all the mod-cons you’d expect. However, the Red Magic 3 offers similarly strong performance at almost $100 cheaper. It’s also far easier to purchase in the U.S. than the Black Shark 2, making it an easier phone to recommend.

Editors' Recommendations