Uncompromising gaming experience on the cheap. That’s what Xiaomi is aiming for with its second-best gaming phone, the Black Shark 4. It offers pretty much everything the Pro version has but tones down the chipset to Snapdragon 870 and swaps the main 64MP camera for a 48MP one. It may sound like a significant downgrade, but the competitive price tag of just €500 may be enough to convince you to pull the trigger. And the Black Shark 4 has two of those.
On top of the already standard 144Hz OLED panel, Xiaomi has included other gaming-specific features such as the physical shoulder triggers. That may not sound much given that Asus and nubia are doing it too, but these ones are physical, clickable buttons. And nothing beats those when it comes to gaming.
Xiaomi Black Shark 4 specs at a glance:
- Body: 163.8×76.4×9.9mm, 210g; Glass front and back, metal frame.
- Display: 6.67″ Super AMOLED, 144Hz, HDR10+, 1300 nits (peak), 1080x2400px resolution, 20:9 aspect ratio, 395ppi; Always-on display.
- Chipset: Qualcomm SM8250-AC Snapdragon 870 5G (7 nm): Octa-core (1×3.2 GHz Kryo 585 & 3×2.42 GHz Kryo 585 & 4×1.80 GHz Kryo 585); Adreno 650.
- Memory: 128GB 6GB RAM, 128GB 8GB RAM, 128GB 12GB RAM, 256GB 12GB RAM; UFS 3.1.
- OS/Software: Android 11, Joy UI 12.5.
- Rear camera: Wide (main): 48 MP, f/1.8, 1/2.0″, 0.8µm, PDAF; Ultra wide angle: 8 MP, f/2.2, 120˚, 1/4.0″, 1.12µm; Macro: 5 MP, f/2.4, AF.
- Front camera: 20 MP, f/2.0, (wide), 0.8µm.
- Video capture: Rear camera: 4K@30/60fps, 1080p@30/60/240fps, 1080p@960fps; Front camera: 1080p@30fps.
- Battery: 4500mAh; Fast charging 120W, 100% in 17 min (advertised).
- Misc: Fingerprint reader (side-mounted); NFC; 3.5mm jack; Physical pop-up shoulder triggers.
The handset is also geared with a set of powerful loudspeakers and a proper cooling system making sure performance lasts. However, the camera setup covers only the bare minimum. Then again, that’s probably not what you are after if you are already here reading a gaming phone review.
What concerns us the most is the below-average battery capacity of 4,500 mAh. Hopefully, the extra fast 120W charging will make sure charging sessions are as short as possible. Xiaomi promises a full charge in just 17 minutes.
It’s also important to note that if you reside outside of China, the Pro model is probably out of reach anyway so this model is as good as it gets from Black Shark. The 4 Pro is a China-only exclusive at the time of writing, so the non-Pro model has the uneasy task to challenge the Snapdragon 888-equipped nubia Red Magic 6, which falls in the same price range.
So in this review, we will see if the trade-off for Snapdragon 870 is worth it, considering competition and pricing. We will also test various games on the Play Store and see if Xiaomi‘s gaming phone can saturate the 144Hz screen with the corresponding framerates. Gaming optimization is the Achilles heel of modern gaming smartphones, and so far, Asus has the lead with the most supported HRR games.
Unboxing the Xiaomi Black Shark 4
The Black Shark 4 comes in a standard retail box that weighs a little more than expected, mostly due to the chunky 120W charger. In case you are in China or a reviewer because the global variant of the handset ships with a 67W charger instead. The USB-A to USB-C cable for charging and data transfer is also at hand, along with a hard, plastic, semi-transparent case as a bonus.
The case doesn’t wrap around the whole handset, and we can’t say that it provides a good grip. On the upside, it doesn’t make the phone bulkier than it already is.
Since the gaming smartphone segment is still in its early stage, competition isn’t big, but there are still some alternatives to consider. The vanilla Black Shark 4‘s main advantage is its price. By providing a sub-flagship SoC, the handset manages to undercut the competition by few hundred bucks, in some cases.
The Black Shark 4‘s direct competitor is undoubtedly the OnePlus 9R. The only issue is that the latter’s availability is quite limited. It’s available in India where the Black Shark 4 is yet to launch but something tells us that pricing won’t be all that different from the 9R’s. Anyway, they both run on the same Snapdragon 870 chipset but the 9R “settles” for a less impressive 120Hz OLED panel, which is also smaller in size too. But the camera setup is more competent and offers shoulder triggers too. On the other hand, the Black Shark 4’s limited HRR control doesn’t make good use of the full 144Hz OLED. So this leaves the considerably faster charging, and the physical, clickable shoulder triggers as its only advantages.
Spending around €100 more for the nubia Red Magic 6 ensures a true flagship SoC – Snapdragon 888 and an even faster, more responsive 165Hz display. Taking advantage of the HRR display on the Red Magic 6 in games seems to be an easier task too. Nubia’s contender runs more games above 120fps than the Black Shark 4. It also has a built-in cooling fan, which although a bit noisy, does the trick during long gaming sessions. The shoulder triggers are touch-capacitive but are just as responsive and recognize different pressure levels.
And an honorable mention would be the Asus ROG Phone 5 just because there aren’t many gaming-oriented smartphones, to begin with. The pricing is way above the three phones mentioned above but it provides undoubtedly the most uncompromised gaming experience. It can run more games at 144Hz than the rest, offers gives the user much more control over the hardware and the accessories’ ecosystem is unbeatable. It all comes at a price premium, of course, as the current price of the vanilla ROG Phone 5 starts at around €750, which is €250 above the entry price for the Black Shark 4 and €150 more than what the Red Magic 6 asks.
On paper, the Black Shark 4 seemed like an easy recommendation. It offers an excellent price/performance ratio, it has a unique set of physical shoulder buttons for gaming, a fast and bright 144Hz OLED panel, great-sounding stereo speakers, insanely fast charging and dependable camera performance.
But as we dug deeper, the 144Hz display turned out to be a gimmick in a large portion of the games. Running at 144Hz wasn’t even possible in simple menus and apps. Support for HRR gaming is also extremely limited, beating the purpose of buying the Black Shark 4 solely for gaming. And when you add the not-so-great battery life and the lack of 4K video stabilization to the cons list, it makes it hard for us to give the handset a higher score.
- Bright, 144Hz OLED display with HDR10+ support.
- Great-sounding stereo speakers.
- Dependable camera experience overall.
- Plenty of useful gaming features, physical shoulder triggers with additional functionalities.
- Super fast 120W charging.
- Awesome haptic feedback around.
- Solid sustained performance.
- Quite limited HRR gaming support.
- Poor HRR control outside of gaming too, limited to just 120Hz.
- Not the best battery life.
- No EIS stabilization for 4K video.