The only other gaming-oriented tweak is called Game Dock, which is like an extra quick-settings menu you bring down by swiping across the fingerprint reader. The reader is quite small, mind, and it registers my contact as a tap just as often as it does a swipe. There are a couple of useful things in here such as the button that lets you change the gamepad bindings, the do-not-disturb toggle, WiFi settings and an eye-care mode that strips blue light from the display.
Go deeper and you'll find other settings for switching on/off the dedicated imaging chip, maximum performance mode and a faux HDR mode (the Black Shark doesn't have a native HDR display) that made shadows a bit too dark for me on PUBG. There are also a couple of touchscreen settings I decided not to play around with because I have no idea what I'd be changing. The description under the Stability slider, for example, reads: "Reduce the stability makes it easier to identify subtle sliding movement, and it is more suitable for casual skill button clicks when improves it." Your guess is as good as mine.
Looking at some of the key specs, there's no reason the Black Shark shouldn't be a great phone to game on. It has one of the best processors around -- an octa-core Snapdragon 845 with Adreno 630 GPU -- paired with either 6GB or 8GB of RAM depending on the configuration (my unit has 8GB, for the record). But there are several other features that Black Shark says make its phone more suited to the task than others.
One of these is liquid cooling, which is a feature of other handsets like the Galaxy Note 9 and Pocophone F1. Don't think of it as a mess of pipes and pumps, like you might picture snaking around a liquid-cooled PC. Instead, it's a small, closed system filled with a tiny amount of water that rests against the chipset. The idea is the water draws heat away from the processor and turns into vapor. It then travels to a cooler part of the system, condenses, and the process repeats.
According to Black Shark, it's 20-fold more efficient than traditional cooling methods (leading to an 8°C lower core temperature) and increases CPU runtime by 70 percent. In my experience, this doesn't actually make the phone feel any cooler. It still warms up during long gaming sessions just like every other handset. Another feature is the X-type Smart Antenna, which is designed for strong, long-range connectivity, but at least where WiFi is concerned, the Black Shark doesn't have more bars than other phones I've compared it to in the weak spots of my flat.
The biggest piece of this special hardware proposition is undoubtedly the dedicated image processing chip with Pixelworks' MEMC (motion estimation, motion compensation) technology. This is supposed to do many things: Make blacks deeper and colors more vibrant/accurate, as well as "correct dropped frames, jitters and blur" for more stable frame rates in games. I've switched this chip on and off in-game, as well as taking screenshots to compare side-by-side, but I can't see any difference in color reproduction. Nor have I noticed with the naked eye it having any impact on performance.
The problem with all this is that you kind of have to take the manufacturer's word that it's improving gameplay. And in the case of the Black Shark, that these features are making small gains on top of the already powerful Snapdragon 845 chip. So, to really dig into whether this phone is actually better to game on than others, I spent hours playing NBA 2K19 and PUBG on three different devices. To record real-time data on the actual frames per second (fps) I was getting during my playtime, I used GameBench, a tool that runs in the background and does just that.
NBA 2K19 plays very smoothly on all the phones I tested, though the Mate 20 Pro was the clear winner with the highest average fps, most-stable frame rate and lowest power consumption. While the Pixel 3 XL hit the lowest low of 43 fps, it was slightly more consistent than the Black Shark, as shown by a lower average fps variance. The Black Shark also consumed the most power during the session, resulting in a roughly four-hour total play time based on its 4,000mAh battery capacity. The estimated Pixel 3 XL total play time was about five minutes less on account of its smaller, 3,430mAh battery. Bear in mind, both use the same Snapdragon 845 chip.
On the Black Shark and Pixel 3 XL, the frame rate of NBA 2K19 would consistently drop when all players were on-screen, crowded around the basket. I didn't notice any split-second freezes on either device, more just a smooth dip in frame rate. The numbers can potentially have an impact on gameplay, though. NBA 2K19 revolves a lot around shot timing, so there's always the chance a dip or generally inconsistent frame rate can mess up your three-pointer when you're relying on visual cues to time ball release.
In contrast to NBA 2K19, PUBG is one of those games that goes from running dreamily to completely stalling for a brief moment. It's not frequent, but it did happen during my play sessions on all three handsets. If you're caught in the wrong situation, like in a gun battle or driving a vehicle through dense terrain, these hiccups can mean the difference between winning and losing.
Playing in arcade mode with no vehicles and less-varied terrain, and with the frame rate effectively capped at 40 fps, there's little to separate the three phones. By a slim margin, the Black Shark did show the most stable frame rate, and it was more efficient than the Pixel 3 XL. This latter observation is possibly because, while the Mate 20 Pro and Black Shark were set at 30 percent brightness for this session -- the Black Shark has a seriously bright screen --, I had to bump the Pixel 3 XL up to 50 percent to make the game playable, even in a dimly lit room.
After changing the graphics settings to increase the maximum frame rate to 60, the Black Shark took a bit of a dive performance-wise. Frame rate fluctuated the most on the Black Shark, power consumption increased and, at a couple of points, stutters took the lowest frame rate to 25. A drop in performance across the board was expected, as these sessions were done in the classic game mode, and I made a point of driving different vehicles through open spaces, urban areas and through forests for the sake of stress testing. Across both PUBG and NBA 2K19, the Mate 20 Pro maintained frame rates within the highest range, arguably making it the best phone of the three for gaming (though it doesn't have its own special gamepad peripheral).
Mainly, the numbers show that the same chipset doesn't equal the same performance. To labor the point, crowdsourced data from GameBench shows the Pocophone F1, which also has water-cooling and a Snapdragon 845 chipset, is more inconsistent than both the Black Shark and Pixel 3 XL (in PUBG on the same settings) with an fps variance of ±2.06.
Using the same game settings as above, I also tested the differences between having the Black Shark's imaging chip enabled, having the imaging chip and max-performance mode enabled and disabling everything. From my personal experience and the numbers, it seems there are no hugely significant differences. If anything, having everything disabled seems to produce the most stable results.
So yeah, what is a gaming phone exactly?
The Black Shark is a perfectly fine phone to game on. Even some of the things I don't particularly like about it, such as the overly eccentric design and unergonomic controller, appear to have been addressed by the company in the second-generation device now available in China -- the gamepad has more buttons this time around, too (cue Nintendo's legal team), making it even more useful in games like PUBG.
The core specs alone make the Black Shark a viable gaming device, and I can live with a momentary nosedive in frame rate while I'm screaming through a wooded area in a buggy. The point of getting numbers involved is primarily to show that you can play games on any phone, especially one with a high-end chipset. And if you really want to use a controller, there are plenty of Bluetooth pads you can buy if you don't have an Xbox One or PS4 controller lying around. Traditional controllers don't give you the flexibility of using the touchscreen in tandem, and official support is spotty across individual games. There's almost always a way, however, thanks to apps that let you mimic touchscreen inputs with buttons and thumbsticks.
One thing the Black Shark definitely has going for it is price. There are no rumblings of official US availability right now, but in the UK, the 6GB RAM/64GB storage model is just £409 (soon to be £439 after introductory pricing). That's cheaper than the OnePlus 6T, which starts at £499, but still way more expensive than Xiaomi's Pocophone F1, which can be found on Amazon for £305 right now. There are plenty of more expensive phones with a Snapdragon 845 chip, of course, including the £869 Pixel 3 XL I compared the Black Shark against.