Xiaomi Black Shark

Xiaomi’s Black Shark sub-brand makes its Western debut today with the eponymous Black Shark gaming phone in Europe. The phone is officially priced at £439 / €499 for a 6GB RAM / 64GB of storage model, going up to £479 / €549 for 8GB / 128GB. For a limited time, however, UK pricing will be £409 / £449 and European prices will be €469 / €519. Despite Xiaomi’s seemingly well-timed launch in the UK last week, Black Shark says the phone will only be available through the sub-brand’s own website for now.

I’ve been using the phone for a little over a week, but I’m not ready to publish a full review yet. I’ve run into some issues with the included controller and have been in communication with Black Shark, but didn’t receive final answers in time for today’s embargo. I don’t want to pass a final verdict on this device without being totally confident about its functionality, so for now, I’ve collected some overall thoughts.

This phone feels like a bargain, but it doesn’t feel like a bargain: the build quality is rock solid, combining plastic and metal to surprisingly cool effect. Yes, it is definitely game, but I don’t find it to be ostentatiously so, and honestly, I dig the black and green color scheme — particularly the shiny green chamfers. The bezels aren’t quite in step with 2018 trends, but they’re not huge, and the reasonably good 1080p screen does have a taller aspect ratio. Also, hey, at least there’s room for a fingerprint sensor on the front. (No headphone jack, sorry. But a USB-C dongle is included.)

The Chinese version of the Black Shark ships with a version of MIUI called JoyUI, but although the Western version carries that name as well, the actual software is completely different. It’s basically ultra-stock Android with a few gaming-focused customizations.

The Black Shark uses the same Snapdragon 845 chip as everyone else, but it’s extremely, conspicuously fast — easily the slickest and most responsive Android device I’ve used all year. I don’t know whether it’s down to the stripped-back software or the much-vaunted liquid cooling system, but the Black Shark’s general speed is immediately noticeable. Battery life has also been very good so far, as you’d expect from the 4,000 mAh cell inside. The 20-plus-12-megapixel dual-camera system appears to have been lifted from the Mi A2 and 6X, which is to say it’s not top-tier flagship level but is generally pretty good — and much better than you’d expect from a phone at its price level.

The most unique thing about the Black Shark phone itself is the switch on the left-hand side with the sole function of taking you into “Shark Space,” a landscape-only mode that arranges your game library into a console-style menu and lets you swipe the fingerprint sensor to bring down a dashboard of gaming-related options. I don’t know that this really needed a dedicated switch, but it does go some way to making the Black Shark feel more like a purpose-built device than a phone that happens to play games.

The included game controller has an analog stick and two shoulder buttons, and clips onto the left side of the phone when held in the landscape; you also have to use a supplied plastic bumper case for the whole phone in order for it to attach, which is kind of unfortunate. Games that work with Shark Space let you assign areas of the screen to each of the controls, but most of the compatible games I came across aren’t really the sort of thing you’d want a controller for in the first place, unless there’s someone out there who wants to try to catch Pokémon with an analog stick.

Some ostensibly incompatible games work and just treat it like a regular Bluetooth controller, but that isn’t always ideal either — Asphalt 9, for example, lets me steer with the stick just fine but seems to expect a full-on Xbox layout to be available and gives me no way to brake.

I couldn’t get either Fortnite or PUBG to work with the controller due to their lack of Shark Space support, which might be a deal-breaker for a lot of people. I don’t see why it shouldn’t be possible to bring down the control customization overlay in non-Shark Space games — I’d been led to believe it would be — and Black Shark says it’s looking into it as well as the Asphalt issue.

I did get the controller to work with NetEase’s PUBG rip-off Knives Out, though, and it worked great — it’s so much more comfortable to move your character with a stick and aim down sights by holding down a trigger, and it’s also nice not to have your thumb constantly obscuring half the screen. I wouldn’t say it gives you a major competitive advantage like mouse-and-keyboard versus a gamepad — it’s closer to the difference between using a Pro Controller over Joy-Cons with Fortnite on Switch.

Basically, I need more time to test the controller with a wider selection of games, and for Black Shark to get back to me on the problems I’ve already found, so stay tuned.

But whether or not you even care about how well the controller works, or Android gaming in general, I think this phone is a good deal — especially at its launch price. Considering the price, there aren’t really any red flags unless you’re turned off entirely by its design. The best things about it are boring. But this is explicitly being sold as a gaming phone, so I can’t totally recommend it if I’m unconvinced on that level.

So that’s that. I feel like this will be a pretty compelling phone for anyone in Europe who wants a basically stock Android device with an extremely good performance at a low price. Maybe just don’t buy it expecting it to help you blaze through your Fortnite tiers any faster.

If there’s anything you’d like me to address in the full review, let me know below the line.