Gaming on phones has been a thing ever since we all first booted up our Nokia 3310s for hours on Snake, before our iPhones became clogged with hours of Candy Crush Saga. But increasingly smartphones are becoming viable gaming devices alongside home consoles and these are the best ones you can buy.
Such is the power of modern smartphones. Gaming sensations like Fortnite and PUBG can thank their mobile platform and portability for ridiculous run-away success. And it’s no wonder considering the power inside the best smartphones around.
While the latest Apple and Samsung phones are capable of running the most demanding mobile games, the market is so popular that there are also dedicated gaming phones like the Asus ROG Phone 5, Red Magic 6 and Black Shark 4. Since there are only a handful like this, we've also included the odd 'normal' phones that also offer a good gaming experience.
Do you need all the highest specs?
These phones often have specialised hardware or even sometimes clip-on controllers to help you game better. Internals often have boosts in RAM or the most powerful CPU or GPU to help the phone keep up, while high refresh rate displays are common to allow you to hit even higher frame rates while playing. A couple even have liquid cooling.
Specs are pretty important if you want to game to the highest level on a phone, but it does depend on which games you want to run smoothly. If you are more into arcade or puzzle games then you might not need to splash out on a high-end gaming phone.
Below are our recommend best phones for gaming. Take some time to consider which has the best features at the best price for you, for the games you want to be able to run.
Best gaming phone 2021
Asus ROG Phone 5 - Best Overall
The Asus ROG Phone 5 is the ultimate gaming phone, hands down. It might not have mass appeal with a bulky, gamer-esque design, but that's not the aim here.
Gaming is the priority here, and Asus has taken things up a notch with a 144Hz AMOLED screen, two 3,000mAh batteries, the top-end Snapdragon 888 and up to an eye-watering 16GB of RAM. It can handle just about any game available on Android right now, with enough power left over to future-proof the phone for quite some time - all at a price cheaper than big-name flagships.
The gaming experience is further enhanced by haptic triggers built directly into the side of the ROG Phone 5, and if you want to take things a step further, the plethora of official accessories - including Nintendo Switch-esque Kunai 5 controllers and the fan-powered AeroActive Cooler 5 cooling system - should be right up your street.
They're not related to gaming, but even the cameras are decent, which is unusual for a gaming phone. We can only really complain about the size and weight, measuring in at 10.3mm thick and 238g, but that's not so applicable in the gaming sector.
Read our full Asus ROG Phone 5 review
Red Magic 6 - Best gaming phone display
Nubia has once again succeeded in producing an excellent gaming phone with the Red Magic 6, with a fast 6.8in 165Hz OLED panel and 400Hz touch sample rate that beats even Asus' premium ROG Phone 5. Though you might not notice much of a difference in real-world performance, it'll certainly satisfy the need for gamers to have the best of the best.
That's paired with the top-end Snapdragon 888, 12GB of RAM (or up to 18GB on the Pro model) and up to 256GB of storage as well as a built-in fan system to keep things cool during longer gaming sessions.
There's also a plethora of gaming features including side-mounted shoulder triggers, advanced haptic feedback and the ability to control performance on a per-game basis, and it's all presented in Red Magic's 'Game Space' mode.
The rear-facing triple camera setup may be identical to that of last year's model, but that's no bad thing, offering a decent - but certainly not flagship - capture experience for those not too fussed about mobile photography.
Unless you've already bought the Red Magic 5S, you won't be disappointed if you pick up the 6.
Read our full Nubia Red Magic 6 review
ZTE Axon 30 Ultra - Best flagship for gaming
Though the ZTE Axon 30 Ultra doesn't look like much of a gaming phone - in fact, at 8mm thick and 188g, it's lightweight compared to the likes of the ROG Phone 5 - but the svelte flagship has a surprise or two up its sleeves.
It's powered by Qualcomm's top-end Snapdragon 888 with either 8GB or 12GB of LPDDR5 RAM and up to 256GB of storage, able to take on dedicated gaming phones like the Red Magic 6 in our benchmarks. There's also the 6.67in AMOLED display on offer, with a buttery-smooth 144Hz refresh rate and 300Hz touch sample rate, providing a responsive gameplay experience.
Gaming prowess aside, it has all the bells and whistles you'd expect including 65W fast charging and a quad-camera array comprised of three 64Mp cameras and a telescope lens, all at a price much cheaper than competing flagships from Samsung and OnePlus. What's not to like?
Read our full ZTE Axon 30 Ultra review
iPhone 12 Pro Max - Best iPhone for gaming
When it comes to gaming on iOS, the 6.7in iPhone 12 Pro Max is the one to beat. Apple’s 5nm A14 Bionic is one of the most powerful chipsets on the market right now and can handle just about anything you can throw at it without a hint of stutter or lag – and our benchmarks back that up too.
Importantly, the iPhone 12 Pro Max sports a gorgeous Super Retina XDR display that makes games look incredible on the iPhone, whether they're free-to-play titles or the latest Apple Arcade exclusives. There's also up to a whopping 512GB of storage available, so you can carry an entire library of mobile games in your pocket.
The biggest downside is that, like the rest of the iPhone range, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is capped at 60Hz. That’s far from the buttery smooth displays of many Android rivals in our chart, but it’s a sacrifice that has to be made if you want access to the exclusive titles in Apple Arcade on the go.
Read our full iPhone 12 Pro Max review
Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra - The ultra-premium option
Samsung's premium Galaxy S21 Ultra is both an exceptional flagship and one of the most well-rounded - and expensive - phones on the market right now, and that makes it a great gaming phone too.
You get a 20:9 6.8in display and WQHD+ resolution, HDR10+ visuals and an adaptive 120Hz refresh rate for smooth gameplay. Sporting the ultra-powerful Exynos 2100, performance is top-notch, making it a great option for enjoying media and gaming, there's 5G onboard and 25W fast charging means you can refill 56% of the phone's 5,000mAh battery in half an hour.
Plus, sporting an 108Mp primary camera and other high-end camera tech, it doesn't skimp on its photography prowess like some gaming-focused phones in our chart.
While other gaming phones focus solely on the gaming experience, the Samsung S21 Ultra is a great all-rounder.
Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review
Poco X3 Pro - Best budget phone for gaming
Xiaomi's Poco X3 Pro has built on the success of the popular Poco X3 NFC to provide fast performance without the price tag.
The headline feature is the inclusion of the Snapdragon 860, an impressive feat when you consider the budget nature of the X3 Pro. That's coupled with 6- or 8GB of RAM and up to 256GB of storage, and the 6.67in LCD panel offers a boosted 120Hz refresh rate and a 240Hz touch response rate.
The whopping 5160mAh battery is more than enough to get you through an intense gaming session or two, and while 33W wired charging isn't the quickest available, it's still pretty nippy.
The Poco X3 Pro might not be quite as capable as some of the dedicated gaming options in our chart, but it certainly offers bang for your buck when compared to similarly priced smartphones available right now.
Read our full Xiaomi Poco X3 Pro review
Vivo Iqoo 3 5G - Great value, difficult to find
The Vivo Iqoo 3 is India's first 5G gaming phone and boasts impressive speed, performance and excellent battery life. What makes it even more attractive is its price. Though it's not available directly in the UK, you can pick it up for around £600 or less from retailers like Banggood or eBay, and non-5G options cost even less.
In terms of gaming specs, the phone comes with dedicated pressure-sensitive gaming buttons along the side and an Ultra Gaming Mode that lets you customize a seamless gaming experience. You can activate 4D game vibration, customise air triggers or block calls while gaming – the list goes on.
It's powered by the Snapdragon 865 making it a worthy competitor against the Black Shark 3, but at a lower price point.
Whether you’re a gamer or not it's easy to see the appeal of the Iqoo 3. It’s just a shame you can’t easily find it on UK high streets.
Read our full Vivo Iqoo 3 5G review
Oppo Find X3 Pro - Performance at a price
The Oppo Find X3 Pro is a phenomenal phone that somehow manages to outshine 2020's equally impressive X2 Pro. The 6.7in, 10-bit, 120Hz, QHD+ panel is certainly the best display in any phone right now, perfect for mobile gaming, and Oppo backs it up with the fastest wired charging around at 65W to get you back in the game quicker.
Though it may not have the gamer aesthetic of other options, the mirror-like finish and curved glass camera housing will certainly catch the eye, and at 193g, it's relatively lightweight compared to the competition too.
In terms of performance, the Find X3 Pro is well equipped to handle even the most intense gaming sessions, with all of the above plus a Snapdragon 888, 256GB storage and 12GB RAM to boot, and the rear-facing quad-camera setup is among the best around - you just have to be willing to pay the price, as it doesn't come cheap.
And unlike dedicated gaming phones in our chart, there is wireless charging available on the Find X3 Pro - a big plus compared to last year's model too.
Read our full Oppo Find X3 Pro review
Black Shark 3 - A strong performer
The Black Shark 3 hardly reinvents the wheel when it comes to gaming phones, but there are some useful upgrades here.
Of course, a Snapdragon 865 processor and 8 or 12GB of RAM means performance is truly excellent, while some thoughtful touches in Shark Space should make it a hit with gamers. Other highlights include some significant camera improvements and staggeringly fast charging speeds.
My main frustration is the accessories, with a bulky fan and expensive gaming pad adding little to my experience. The magnetic charging cable is a great idea, though.
It certainly isn’t what most people have in mind when considering a new smartphone, but Xiaomi has plenty of phones that cater to mainstream interests. With the Black Shark 3, it hopes gaming fanatics will buy into its vision for the future of mobile gaming.
With the baseline model priced identically to the Red Magic 5G, it gives people serious about mobile gaming a big decision to make.
Read our full Black Shark 3 review