Hands on: Black Shark 3

Hands on: Black Shark 3
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The Black Shark 3 is the latest handset to target the burgeoning gaming phone market. It’s built by a subsidiary of Xiaomi and is aimed at hardcore PUBG and Call of Duty Warzone fans looking for a handset that’ll match their gaming rig.

After a solid three days with the Black Shark 3, I can confirm, while it’s not as interesting as the bumper packing Black Shark 3 Pro, it feels like a decent step forward on 2019’s Black Shark 2 – though I wish the firm didn’t feel the need to use quite so much RGB lighting. Here’s why.

Design – The Black Shark 3 has a distinctly “gamer” look

Black Shark phones always look and feel like a hark back to the days of LAN parties, featuring distinctly retro design elements traditionally associated with over the top custom-built gaming PCs.

These include full-fat RGB lighting and a custom “X Core” design that loads two symmetrical diamond shapes onto the phone’s back – one for the camera housing and one for the optional magnetic charge cable’s connector.

I’m not a huge fan of RGB lighting on gaming PCs and laptops as, outside of keyboards, it’s for the most part just a flashy excess that ramps up the devices’ price and makes it look like a children’s toy. The latter is still an issue on the Black Shark – trusted me outside of the ROG Phone 2 you won’t find a gaudier mobile – but it partially solves my primary quibble by offering easy to view notification alerts.

The marmite design factor’s not helped by the fact it’s significantly chunkier and heavier than most competing, non-gaming, 6.67-inch handsets. This isn’t to say it’s as ridiculously big as it’s Pro sibling, which features a gigantic 7.1-inch screen, but it will take regular phone users some time to get used to its increased heft.

Outside of this, my early impressions are positive, even though the Black Shark 3 doesn’t come with any waterproofing certification. This is relatively common on phones that are trying to remain semi-affordable, as you have to pay to get a handset IP certified. Even without the IP rating, the Black Shark 3 feels well made – like a Nokia Lumia from the days of yore, and I’m reasonably sure the floor will come out worse if you accidentally drop a Black Shark 3 on it.

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Black Shark 3

Features and spec – Worthy of a flagship, plus a few extras

Like its predecessor, the phone ticks most of the right boxes when it comes to hardware. Under the hood, you get a Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 CPU, with 5G connectivity and a choice of either 8GB or 12GB of RAM. These specs put the phone firmly in flagship performance territory.

But what differentiates it from a regular phone at this price, like the OnePlus 8, are the gaming-focused additions Black Shark’s made. For starters, like pretty much every decent gaming handset since the original Razer Phone, it has a high refresh rate screen with a super-fast polling rate. Specifically, it comes with a 90Hz AMOLED panel.

The panel doesn’t match the 120Hz speed of regular flagships, like the Galaxy S20, but it does manage to beat them in a more critical area for gamers: reporting rate. The screen has a 270Hz touch reporting rate, with 24ms touch latency. This means it’s on paper 30% more reactive than Black Shark 2 Pro. With testing, the phone feels silky smooth, and I’ve never noticed any latency between my finger enacting a command and it rendering on screen. This will be great news for people that play reaction-based games, like MOBAs, on their phone regularly.

Black Shark’s also improved the phone’s cooling, loading the handset with a new “Sandwich Liquid Cooling” system that places two super long cooling pipes in a doubled sided structure. According to Black Shark, the systems cooling area is 100% larger and 50% more efficient than the one seen on the Black Shark 2.

The “dual X” antenna design is another subtle, but on paper useful, gaming-focused feature. This has seen Black Shark litter the ten antennas around the phone’s sides in a way that, it claims, will ensure you never lose connectivity holding the phone in landscape, as pretty much all games require. Given that we’re in lockdown I haven’t a chance to test this, but it’s a neat touch if it works.Black Shark 3

The final big differentiator marking it as a gaming phone is the Black Shark’s portfolio of gaming peripherals. Peripherals are a common site since ASUS kicked off the trend with the original ROG phone and the line up on offer here is pretty similar. With the Black Shark 3, you’ll be able to buy and attach optional BlackShark FunCooler Pro, Gamepad 3 peripherals and charge it using an 18W magnetic cable.

The fun cooler does what it says on the tin and helps stop the phone overheating and CPU throttling during prolonged game sessions. The gamepad slots onto the handsets left side and give you a physical joystick and d-pad to play with.

The peripherals are easy to use, and the gamepad, in particular, is great for PUBG to the point it feels like cheating. But given that you have to pay £50 more just to get the gamepad, I can’t see many people picking them up, as was the case with past gaming phones.

Will the Black Shark 3 appeal to anyone but gamers?

I’m also not convinced the changes are all positive and feel the Black Shark 3 may repeat two consistent issues we’ve had with gaming phones: camera and software.

The rear camera’s specs are impressive considering the phones price, with Black Shark having equipped it with a tri-camera setup built of 13-megapixel ultra-wide, 5-megapixel bokeh and 64-megapixel clear (main) lenses. But after a few rough tests, while picture quality is more than good enough for sharing on social media, early evidence suggests it doesn’t match competing regular phones, like the OnePlus 8. Low light, in particular, was an area where the phone’s autofocus could begin to slow.

The custom JoyUI 11 skin Black Shark’s loaded over Android 10 is, from what I’ve seen, a mixed bag. It’s not as bad as the ROG Phone’s skin, but it still adds some bloatware and makes a few pointless UI changes – why phone makers insist on swapping Android’s native contacts, calendar and file management apps for lessor clones in this day and age is beyond me.

I’m also not a massive fan of the fact Black Shark’s set the screen to upscale 25Hz video to 90Hz. Pretty much everyone knows doing this leads to a Thunderbirds effect and can make a wonderfully shot film look like a bargain basement soap opera. This is especially a shame as the screen otherwise looks pretty good and supports HDR10+.

Related: Best Android phones 

Black Shark 3 – Early verdict

The Black Shark 3 doesn’t revolutionise the gaming phone market. But it ticks all the right boxes that the limited number of Western gaming phone users look at. It comes with a decent high refresh rate screen, powerhouse parts and a distinct gamer-focused design. The only downside is some of the features will likely put off more casual gamers and regular phone buyers.

Check back later for our final in-depth review.

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