Best smartphone for gaming: how to pick one?
That’s not to say there aren’t any modern titles out there. Developers have acknowledged and embraced the power of the mini chips in these devices and we have 3D shooters, adventures, RPGs, and indie platformers coming out every month.
Gaming on a smartphone seemed like a laughable offense just a few years ago, but technology does what technology does and it’s pretty common nowadays.
And you might be asking yourself “What makes a good phone for gaming?”. Either because you want to dip your toes into it or you want to buy one for somebody.
Do you need the newest, most expensive phone to game on? No, not really. There’s plenty of choice out there and we are here to try and help narrow your decision down!
Do I need a gaming smartphone?
There are a few gaming-oriented smartphones out there that dive deep into the gaming aesthetic with RGB lighting, shoulder buttons, and even an integrated fan for cooling. But are these phones the only ones you can game on? No...
Asus leaned heavily on the gaming smartphone concept with the ROG Phone II, which not only has insanely powerful hardware, but is also compatible with a slew of accessories and docks — a second screen case, a proprietary controller, a TV dock that allows you to connect a wired keyboard and mouse to the phone, and even an ethernet adapter, which lets you connect the ROG Phone II straight to the router via a wire, for a more stable link.
Let’s strip all of this down, though. First, RGB is cool when you take the phone out of the box, but the novelty is quick to wear off — you never see the lights that are on the back of the phone. But the rest of the world sure does, and it can be rather silly.
TV docks and whatnot can be cool if your phone is your only gaming system. But — while great strides have been made in recent years — it has yet to replace a PlayStation or a PC.
The only thing I really, truly like in these “gaming smartphones” are the integrated shoulder pad buttons. These basically let you play a 3D shooter as you would with a controller… well, sort of. Your thumbs control character movement on the screen, while your left and right index fingers press along the phone’s frame to control shooting and firing.
These are definitely nice to have. Now, you can buy a set of “shoulder trigger” clips on Amazon, which can clip on to any smartphone and offer similar functionality, but having it built into your smartphone is always better — can’t lose or forget something that’s basically attached to the device.
On that note, I want to touch on another point real fast:
What’s the best iPhone for gaming?
It’s not the latest model. What?
Apple introduced 3D Touch to iPhones back with the iPhone 6s, in 2015. In 2019, it removed it from the iPhone 11 series. And it seems 3D Touch is well and gone for the foreseeable future.
The reason? Not many app developers adopted it in an effective manner and it was basically “taking up space” inside the iPhone as far as the wider userbase is concerned. Apple decided to remove it and put bigger batteries in its stead, which is a fair tradeoff, OK.
But some game developers did, indeed, embrace 3D Touch, and it’s sad to see it go. In shooter games like CoD: Mobile and PUBG, you can set your firing to be triggered by a 3D Touch press into the display. So, you are free to move, aim, and fire with just your two thumbs on the display — something that usually feels rather cumbersome on a touchscreen.
All that said, I do believe that the iPhone XS Max is the best iPhone to buy for gaming right now. It’s still modern enough to be future-proofed for 3-4 years, it has 3D Touch, and it has a large screen.
If shooter games are not your main focus, consider an iPhone XR, iPhone 11, or iPhone 11 Pro Max (depending on budget) as these all offer superior battery life to the iPhone XS Max. And hey, you can always use the aforementioned shoulder button clip-ons if FPS gaming becomes an obsession.
Gaming and smartphone hardware
So, when you think “gaming” you think “fastest, newest, meanest, most expensive”. And, sure, yes, having the latest flagship will definitely guarantee that it can run the latest games at the highest settings.
But viable gaming hardware shouldn’t be limited to just “cutting edge or nothing!” mentality. In fact, game developers out there are very, very well aware that their userbase has a wide variety of handsets — from less-powerful midrangers to the almighty iPhone Pros and Galaxy S20s.
Just like on PC, modern smartphone games have different detail settings, which can be adjusted to taste. Either that or they automatically tune their quality in the backend, with no user input required, optimizing performance.
So, let’s narrow it down. On the Android side, anything with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 700 series (or equivalent) should be a fine starting point. Technically, a Snapdragon from the 600 series is viable in most cases, but may stutter in some titles.
On the iPhone side, anything from the iPhone 8 generation (A11 processor) and up is still consistently good. Even the iPhone 7 is dependable (A10) but a bit long in the tooth by now.
A minimum of 3 GB of RAM on both Android and iOS systems should be fine. Though, aiming for at least 4 GB on Android is recommended.
Smartphone screens for gaming
Obviously, screen size matters a lot when it comes to gaming. For one, it makes it easier to spot details in the game when you have a slightly bigger display, and secondly, it feels much less cramped as you try to control your character with the touch controls.
Generally “bigger is better”, but since screen size will also affect overall device size, one needs to consider how big of a phone they are willing to haul around on a daily basis.
Today’s smartphones offer a very confusing variety of aspect ratio and bezel thickness, so just looking at the screen’s diagonal in inches is not enough — the iPhone 11 Pro has a 5.8-inch screen, which makes it sound like it’d be bigger than the 5.5-inch iPhone 8 Plus. But it’s not because the iPhone 11 Pro has an aspect ratio of 19.5:9 while the iPhone 8 Plus has the classic ratio of 16:9.
Let me just suggest you use our very cool size comparison tool if you want to figure out how big a specific model is — you can even compare it to your current smartphone for maximum clarity.
Touch responsiveness and accuracy
Screen size aside, a good smartphone will also have a very accurate and responsive screen. Accurate means that your screen taps will be accepted at the very spot where you actually tapped, responsiveness means that there will be next to no delay between you touching the screen and the device actually registering that touch.
A lot of “bargain-priced” smartphones that offer a powerful processor in a phone that costs way less than the competition will usually cut corners elsewhere. Display panel quality is one of these corners.
For example, back in the day when OnePlus phones were super-cheap, a lot of the hardcore fanbase was complaining about “touch input lag”. Even OnePlus 7T Pro users have been complaining on the OnePlus forums earlier this year. I’d like to note that, while reviewing the OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro, I noticed no such issue.
But the point stands — when you have narrowed your choice down to a few specific models, google their name with the adjective “touch input lag” and see what the community is saying. Same with accuracy — be aware of that when shopping "Too good to be true" phones.
Gaming on a smartphone with a stylus
Well, there aren’t many smartphones that come with their own stylus in the first place, are there?
For my time gaming on a smartphone, I have greatly enjoyed using Samsung’s Note devices. The S Pen is very accurate and responsive and it works like a charm when playing a strategy, a MOBA, or a card game — since I didn’t need to have my big fingers covering half the screen, but just the thin stylus, it was easier to navigate and command my troops.
The Galaxy Note 9 is still fine by today's standards, the Note 10 is an absolute beast, and the Note 10 Lite is a happy medium. Be aware the the Lite was never officially released in the US — it's compatible with GST LTE networks, but not CDMA (so, not Verizon).
Now, your mind might go wandering to the recently-released LG G6 Stylo and Moto G Stylus. These could work, but keep in mind their styli are simply capacitive pointers, not the Wacom-powered stylus that the S Pen is. So, they will be less responsive. Also, their hardware is on the weak side.
Do you need stereo speakers on a gaming smartphone? Generally, it does make for a slightly better experience, but it’s not really a must.
For one, most modern “stereo speaker” smartphones have the following setup — a bottom-facing speaker for the boomier mids and bass, and a loudspeaker in the earpiece, which sounds a bit tinnier. When viewing content in a horizontal orientation, the audio delivery is slightly unbalanced and it can get worse as the user’s palm presses against the bottom-firing speaker and muffles it.
What I am trying to say here is that most gamers will use headphones anyway.