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Hands on: Xiaomi Black Shark 3 review

The newest gaming phone from the Xiaomi subsidiary

What is a hands on review?
Black Shark 3
Black Shark 3
(Image: © Future)

Early Verdict

If you’re looking for a new gaming phone, the Black Shark 3 could be it. It packs a top-end chipset, a handy gaming mode and a 90Hz screen, all for a lower price than almost any phone with similar specs. However it’s big, heavy and has side buttons that are hard to reach, so it might not be great for people who aren’t big mobile gamers - and its rear design, bedecked with LED strips and a large X design, may not be to everyone’s tastes.

For

  • Top-end specs
  • Relatively affordable

Against

  • A little unwieldy
  • Side buttons out-of-reach

The mobile gaming phone niche is one that’s well served: Black Shark is joined by Nubia’s Red Magic handsets, ASUS’ Rog Phones, previously Razer with a line of gaming-focused handsets, and apparently soon Lenovo too with a Legion device. Black Shark is a company that’s been targeting the market for a few years now, and the Black Shark 3 is its latest device.

Announced in early 2020 alongside a Pro model, the Black Shark 3 isn’t just a phone that’s designed to be great for gaming, it’s a handset created seemingly only for the mobile gamer, and all its unique selling points are ones which will be far more useful for someone who plays lots of phone games than for the everyday smartphone user.

In fact, there’s a rather limited suite of features that’ll appeal to people who aren’t mobile gamers, so unless you’re prone to playing lots of games on your phones, we can already say this phone probably isn’t for you. If you are looking for a pretty capable handset to use for your gaming sessions, though, perhaps you’re in luck.

 Black Shark 3 price and availability 

There are two different variants of the Black Shark 3, depending on RAM and storage, and at time of writing only the smallest, with 8GB RAM and 128GB storage, is available. This will set you back $599 / £539 (around AU$950, although we wouldn’t expect it to be available from retailers in Australia), and you can pick it up from Black Shark’s website.

At some point soon we’re expecting the 12GB/256GB Black Shark 3 to be released, and that’s set to cost $729 / £649 (roughly AU$1,150). The top-end Black Shark 3 Pro isn’t out yet either, but its price will likely be even higher than the 12GB/256GB Black Shark 3.

Depending on your region the lowest-spec Black Shark 3 costs exactly the same as, or just a touch more than, the Nubia Red Magic 5G, arguably its closest competitor. Therefore it’s quite a bit cheaper than other phones with the same chipset and similar specs like the Samsung Galaxy S20 and OnePus 8.

Design and display

Black Shark 3

Black Shark 3 (Image credit: Future)

The Black Shark 3, like other Black Shark phones, screams ‘gamer’ in terms of appearance - its rear is bedecked with a massive ‘X’ pattern, with the three-camera bump housed in the triangular top gap in the X (when the handset is held portrait) and a four-pin pad used for magnetic charging on the bottom side.

We found the Black Shark 3 a pretty chunky phone, as its dimensions of 168.7 x 77.3 x 10.4 mm and weight of 222g are a above the size and heft of most other phones. This can be felt when using the phone - the side buttons are all certainly out of reach if you’re using the phone with one hand.

The volume rocker is on the left edge of the phone, far higher than you can easily reach even with a big hand, and on the right edge the power button is equally out of stretch-reach at the top of the phone. The ‘Shark Space’ switch (which triggers the gaming-focused mode) is right at the bottom of the right edge, too low to easily reach, but it’s likely you’ll be flicking this switch when rotating the phone into landscape mode anyway, so that’s less of an issue. If there’s one good thing about these buttons, is that they don’t protrude much at all, so you’ll never accidentally press them without meaning to.

The phone has a USB-C port for charging and wired data transfer, and also a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top of the phone. When using the game pad (which we tested alongside the phone) this port was blocked, though, so we found wired headphones easier to use.

A design element that might appeal to some is the presence of LED strips on the back of the phone - one by the camera array, another by the magnetic pad, and a main central one in the Black Shark logo. These can display a range of colors in different patterns, and you can customize what they do and when - say, you can set a certain color and pattern combo to display when the phone is charging, and a different one when you’re playing games or a call is coming through. We found this fun to play with, although it did drain the battery if left on for too long.

The front of the phone has a flat screen, but it’s not broken up by a notch or cut-out segment - instead, the front-facing camera is housed in a very small bezel at the top.

Black Shark 3

Black Shark 3 (Image credit: Future)

This display is a 1080 x 1400 AMOLED 6.67-inch screen - that’s not the most high-res screen we’ve seen on a phone, but generally games are only 1080p so we’d say it was a good decision of Black Shark to stick to this instead of an unnecessary and expensive high-res panel. The large size is good for gaming too, to show content clearer.

As befits those specs, the screen quality was pretty good, especially thanks to the HDR10+ boosting it a bit. The max brightness felt suitably high so we could play in well-lit areas, and the 90Hz refresh rate made scrolling through social media feel more fluid, although not too many games have adopted high refresh rate modes yet.

Sure, this screen won’t rival the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S20 or Oppo Find X2 Pro, but you won’t be left wanting much of the time.

Camera and battery life

We’re not sure how big the overlap in the Venn diagram of ‘mobile gamer’ and ‘amateur photographer’ is, but if you want a handset both for playing games and taking frequent snaps, the Black Shark 3 has a fairly adept set of cameras.

The Black Shark 3 main camera is 64MP f/1.8, and that’s joined by a 13MP f/2.3 ultra-wide and 5MP f/2.2 depth-sensing snapper. Depth-sensing cameras are commonly a little useless, but we rarely see 5MP ones (most are 2MP) so we’ll be sure to test this out more in our full review.

We didn’t get to test the camera out too much due to Covid-19 lockdown, but from our brief test pictures look rather sharp, although perhaps a little dimmer than on other smartphone cameras. Well-lit scenarios didn’t suffer too much from this, though.

Black Shark 3

Black Shark 3 (Image credit: Future)

There’s video recording here of up to 4K / 60fps, as you’ll find in most but not all modern top-end smartphones, and slow-mo of up to 1920fps, which is actually slower than most other smartphones which only go up to 960fps.

On the front of the phone is a 20MP f/2.2 camera for selfies, and pictures taken on this have lots of detail too. The Portrait mode impressed us as it didn’t blur accessories like headphones or glasses, which some similar modes do, so if you hate your specs or other facial extras getting erroneously smudged, you won’t suffer that fate here.

The Black Shark 3 packs a 4,720mAh battery - normally that’d be pretty big for a smartphone, but given the phone’s large screen, it seems about appropriate.

We found the phone lasted a full day of use, just as most smartphones will, but given we were playing games quite a bit on the handset, that’s commendable. We only tested the phone on medium use though, and we’ll have to put the handset through a fuller battery of tests (and longer gaming session) to see how it fares.

The phone powers up through 30W charging, but if you buy the version with 12GB RAM you’ll find it actually supports 65W fast-charging - this is a big difference between the two which may justify the higher price. We didn’t test this version, though, so can’t comment on how well it charges the device.

The aforementioned pin on the pack of the phone can be used for a magnetic charging clip that you can attach to power up the phone if you’re gaming, as it’s less intrusive than the USB-C plug. This is sold separately, and certainly isn’t vital, but its 18W charging will keep a gaming session going much longer.

 Features and specs 

Black Shark 3's Shark Space mode

Black Shark 3's Shark Space mode (Image credit: Future)

The Black Shark 3 packs a top-end Snapdragon 865 chipset, and pairs that with either 8GB or 12GB RAM as we’ve established (for reference, we used the former). The handset is also 5G-compatible, and if you live in an area with good connection you can likely use the network to play games online with the same latency as Wi-Fi. We don’t live in such an area.

We’ll put the phone through our full battery of tests for our full review, but suffice to say the phone felt as snappy while gaming as you’d expect. When we tested PUBG Mobile, Call of Duty Mobile and ARK: Survival Evolved, response times felt snappy, games could always boot their best graphics, there’d be no lag and apps opened quickly too.

This is partly thanks to Shark Space, a mode enabled by the side switch which closes all background apps and functions, mutes notifications and lets you access all your games in an easy list, so the phone can dedicate all its power to gaming.

We’ve tested a few smartphones with similar gaming modes, but Shark Space is one of the best, thanks to its huge collection of customization options (letting you tweak refresh rate, various display settings, touch input, audio functions and more), and how effective it is at limiting non-gameplay functions.

Shark Space is very hit-and-miss with which of your downloaded games it automatically adds to your library, although it’s very easy to add extras if you need.

Black Shark 3 interface

Black Shark 3 interface (Image credit: Future)

Outside of the realm of gaming, the operating system is JoyUI 11, based on Xiaomi’s MIUI 11 (Xiaomi owns Black Shark) which is in turn based on Android 10. JoyUI brings a commendable level of customization over the user interface, including the LED lights as we previously stated, as well as homepage themes and more, although it’s worth pointing out most of these are available in MIUI too.

One joy of JoyUI that’s worth pointing out is its app drawer comes automatically sorted into sections - if you’ve got loads of apps, you don’t need to scroll through for a particular one, but can swipe sideways to, say, ‘communication’ to easily find social media apps. This makes navigation super easy.

Another feature is a cursor-style circle that appears where you touch or swipe the screen, and lingers for a few moments. We didn’t mind this, but some people might find it irritating, and we couldn’t easily find a way to dismiss it.

Early verdict

It’s clear with the Black Shark 3 that the phone is from a Xiaomi-owned company - the top-end specs here aren’t matched by a high price, and it’s a relatively inexpensive way (compared, at least, to many premium devices), to get a snappy phone.

Black Shark clearly knows what its fans want, and the Black Shark 3 seems great as a gaming phone, between its Shark Space mode and the specs. JoyUI is - well, a joy - to use, especially with its range of options.

The large size of the phone may put off some, though, especially as it seems the phone wasn’t designed to be used one-handed at all, and in some ways the phone may suffer when you’re not using it as a portable gaming console. We’ll have to see how it holds up as an everyday handset for our full review.

What is a hands on review?

Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.