It’s 2021, and if you play a lot of games on your smartphone, you may be wondering if a regular flagship smartphone will work well – or if a game phone is right for you.
In truth, the best phones you can buy are not that different from the best gaming phones. Both will pack top specifications, large batteries and great screens. For everyday use, not to mention playing casual games, you will not go wrong with any of them.
But let’s go down to the real differences between the two categories – how much better it is to play on a proper gaming phone, and what you want to give up by not picking up a more common handset.
What’s so great about a game phone?
Game phones are not uniform in features, with unique benefits and advantages that vary from model to model. Overall, they enhance the mobile gaming experience – to varying degrees, of course.
These benefits include both hardware and software features. There are a few things that are common among most of them, including powerful specs with conductive chipsets (right now Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 is the best silicon) and expansive RAM (at least 8 GB, although the Asus ROG 5 Ultimate goes up to 18 GB ).
Game phones usually also have large batteries around, and perhaps beyond, 5000 mAh that allow players to be in the game for hours and still have enough capacity to last until the end of the day. More often than not, gaming phones also have 3.5 mm headphone jacks, a feature rarely seen on regular flagship phones.
What about game phone software?
Gaming phones also usually have software that facilitates the gaming experience. These are often marked as ‘game modes’ which have a mix of automatic and manual functions. The former includes increased performance or streamlined power consumption so that the battery does not overheat, while the latter includes toggle settings to block calls, texts and other alerts while in a match.
Of course, there are regular phones that have their own game modes, such as the recent OnePlus 9 or Sony Xperia 1 III, but they usually have much more limited options and settings than gaming phones.
Some gaming phones have very elaborate game modes – Asus ROG 5 and its predecessors have Asus ‘Armory Crate’ software that collects your games in a library and lets you customize your performance settings, as well as ‘Game Genie’ overlays you can swipe out in the middle of the game to fiddle with settings and change shoulder AirTrigger surveys (more on that below).
ROG 5 also has ‘X mode’, which prioritizes performance when switched on – by default this is done by physically pinching the sides of the handset.
Game phone hardware: power in the device and peripheral
One of the biggest advantages of gaming phones is hardware: the Asus ROG 5 has two touch-sensitive buttons at the top and bottom of the right-hand side, so that when you rotate the phone to landscape mode, they are just below the fingers of a player.
They act as “shoulder buttons” on traditional gamepads, which players can map to different functions in games, giving greater control and freeing up screen space that will be covered by the thumb. Extra touch-sensitive buttons are somewhat common in gaming phones, and are also displayed on Nubia Red Magic 6 and its predecessors.
The most advantageous gaming phone benefits are peripherals. Many people have their own bespoke accessories tailored to the phone – for example, the ROG 5’s Kunai 3 gamepad fits the controller halves on each side, Nintendo Switch-style, which slides into a cover that only fits that phone.
The ROG 5 also has a specific charging port in the middle of the left side of the phone that the attachments can click into, such as the AeroActive Cooler 5 fan. (External fans are probably the most common attachment.)
Does your phone noticeably cool to have an external fan? We have never seen a phone overheat enough from games to watch slowdowns, although this may not be the case in warmer environments. In any case, fans make your phone cooler and thus more comfortable to hold – and in the case of AeroActive Cooler 5, add physical subpages.
The external controls are more obviously advantageous – although they are not as precise as Nintendo’s Joy Cons, they add more precision than touch controls.
Game phones also have some surprisingly subtle game-enhancing internal design benefits. The Asus ROG 5’s battery is split in two for faster charging, as well as to keep the actual battery cells cooler and away from where the player fingers are likely to rest on the back of the phone. ROG 5 also has several cellular and 5G antennas spread equally around the phone, so no matter how you hold it (including sideways while playing), you should still get signal. Similarly, there are several microphones placed around the phone to hear you speak.
What do you miss by choosing a gaming phone?
Going for a regular phone has several advantages – or, in another way, gaming phones have several disadvantages. They often have poor cameras, both in the lens range and software for image processing and photo mode. They usually have poorer availability, and are not usually sold by operators, making it more difficult in markets such as the United States where consumers buy plans to pay in monthly installments.
Android game phones may not get software updates as often or for as long as regular phones, and there are no specific iOS game phones.
Ordinary phones are really quite good at playing games, and consumers who do not plan to play competitively or strive for mobile gaming sports, have little to worry about if they choose phones that are not gamers. Heck, we make this clear on our best gaming phone page, which shows the most important regular flagship phones, but you can still get a great gaming experience while using.
There are also accessories that work just fine on non-gaming phones, especially Nintendo Switch-like controllers like iOS-only jawbones. If you really wanted it, there’s probably an external fan or other game-specific accessory out there to try. The rest of you can connect Xbox Series X and PS5 (or Xbox One and PS4) controllers to their phones via Bluetooth to play games, and even buy a clip accessory to attach to the game controller while they play.
There are good reasons to choose gaming phones, and good reasons to stick to regular non-gaming phones. Choose the one that suits you best and that fits within your budget – which is a much more important factor than emphasizing which handset has better game-assisting software.