Want to game on the go? While it may be tempting to focus on fancy portable consoles, sometimes the best tech is the gadget you’re already carrying with you. Many mainstream smartphones can now offer impressive gaming performance that can rival that of most handhelds. Long gone are the days where you had to content yourself to tapping away at Snake – with one of the best gaming phones (opens in new tab) you can rock demanding games like Asphalt 9 Legends or Call of Duty Mobile instead.
But what do you need to be looking out for to ensure you can ensure slick, stutter free gaming wherever you wander? Won’t you need a souped up, gaming grandmaster to play the best games out there? You’d be surprised: taking into account just a few key specs can ensure you can get your hands on a phone that will handle most of the games you throw at it.
So, without further ado, here’s our complete guide on the critical features to look out for.
Unsurprisingly, if you’re wanting to engage in high-octane gaming, you want a phone with a processor that is more V12 engine than golf cart motor. Android phones with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 or better should offer you very competent performance, while the Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 that’s now shipping with some handsets will be like strapping a rocket to your back. Meanwhile, Apple’s architecture is going from strength to strength right now – the brand new Apple A16 chip should absolutely mince anything you can throw at it, especially those that rely on machine learning.
We all know how important memory is. Remember the movie Memento Dory… you know, the one about the forgetful fish covered in tattoos? Anyway, what were we saying? Ah yes, memory! Without some decent RAM on-board, there’s going to be a limit to the kinds of games your mobile can handle – playing something like Alien: Isolation or Call of Duty: Mobile won’t be an option on a 6GB weakling. Fortunately, there are plenty of cracking gaming phones out there that 12GB or even 16GB, giving you plenty of oomph for even high-end gaming.
One big caveat to this is the iPhone. Comparing Apple to Android’s oranges doesn’t work here, thanks to the way the phones’ OS more directly manages memory allocation – the 6GB offered in higher spec models will offer you plenty of poke for serious gaming.
For competitive gamers, the gap between victory and a humiliating headshot often can measure in milliseconds. That’s why making sure your handset’s display has a high refresh rate is absolutely essential for anyone serious about mobile gaming. You’ll want at least 120Hz, although some these days offer up to 165Hz for super-smooth twitch gaming. Meanwhile variable refresh rates that drop as low 1Hz for menus can help preserve your battery when you fancy switching from fast-paced FPSes to a more sedate RPG.
Intensive gaming sessions can cause some phones to hit temperatures rarely seen outside of a nuclear reactor. Fortunately, some top gaming handsets have learnt from the next-generation cooling tech that has been making its way into PCs and laptops. So make sure you keep an eye on handsets that feature fans and other forms of active cooling – not only will they keep your hands from blistering during epic Fortnite matches but they’ll prevent your phone from throttling your performance to help it hack the heat.
Smartphones sure are versatile, allowing you to tap, swipe, pinch and tilt your way through apps to your heart’s content. But just because this set up lends itself well to puzzlers or paying your utility bills doesn’t mean that its great for fast-paced racing games or shooters where you don’t want your view obscured at a critical moment by your own clumsy fingers. Fortunately, many good gaming phones feature additional controls these days, such as programmable shoulder buttons, to allow you to offload critical actions offscreen.
Don’t fancy one of those handsets? Well you’re in luck: multiple third-party brands offer mobile gaming controllers that will turn any gaming phone into a full-fledged portable console, with analogue thumbsticks, buttons, shoulder triggers and a D-pad. Some even feature two-way charging that will keep your phone or pad topped up should either start to run out of juice before the other.