The Best Gaming Smartphones for 2021


Once mocked as the home of “filthy casuals,” mobile gaming has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years, with games like Genshin Impact, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds: Mobile, and Fortnite showing that the humble smartphone can provide just as much enjoyment as the console parked in front of the TV.

While almost all smartphones will play mobile games, some are better at it than others. Our top choice is the Asus ROG Phone 5 because it’s a phone made specifically for gamers. If you’re really serious about games, perhaps even at a competitive level, there are phones built expressly for the purpose.

To experience the latest games at their full potential, you’ll need a suitable smartphone with an impressive screen and a powerful processor that can handle whatever you want to play. Once you’ve found the right phone, you’re ready to start playing some of the best Android games and best iPhone games out there.

The best gaming phones at a glance

Next, we’ll talk in detail about why we picked these phones. After that, we’ll offer some helpful guidance on app stores, plus what you need to know about Google Play Pass, Apple Arcade, and Google Stadia.

The best gaming phone: Asus ROG Phone 5

Asus ROG Phone 5 back.
Asus ROG Phone 5 Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: It’s the best gaming smartphone you can buy right now.

Who it’s for: It’s made by gamers for gamers.

Why we picked the Asus ROG Phone 5:

This is the best gaming smartphone available right now. Why? Asus’ Republic of Gamers (ROG) division understands what gamers want and what makes a great gaming device. Everything on the ROG Phone 5 is geared toward making games more enjoyable, from its cool design to its out-of-this-world audio.

The first thing you’ll notice is just how cool this phone looks. The RGB Republic of Games logo illuminates when the phone is in X mode or when notifications arrive — or you can set it to cycle through colors, strobe, or flash whenever the screen is on. Flashes of color around the case and a red anodized metal SIM tray add to the overall eye-catching finish.

The Asus ROG Phone 5 boasts a 6.78-inch AMOLED screen, with a 144Hz refresh rate, a 300Hz touch sampling rate with 24.3ms latency, and HDR10+. The sound on this phone is — dare we say — probably the best audio you’ll find on a smartphone. It’s a powerful beast, weighing in at 238 grams and packing a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor with 16GB of RAM.

Battery life is great, too, with a 6,000mAh battery easily lasting for a full day of gaming and 65W HyperCharge for fast charging — it should go from almost empty to full in around 45 minutes. Then you’ve got X mode, which lets you control everything from macros for button combos to refresh rate and system preferences.

Although it’s aimed at gamers — and you won’t reap the full benefits of the phone unless you’re a pretty serious gamer — the Asus ROG Phone 5 holds its own as an everyday phone, too. The battery lasts for a couple of days with regular use (if you’re not gaming) and the camera is decent even when compared to the Samsung Galaxy S21. There’s also a wealth of accessories to choose from, like the AeroActive Cooler 5, which adds a fan to the rear of the phone to keep temperatures down.

Hands down, it’s the best smartphone for gamers around, even if its weight and bulk does make it a bit of a pain to use on the go. If you’re a serious gamer, the Asus ROG Phone 5 is the one to get.

Read our full Asus ROG Phone 5 Review

The best mainstream gaming phone: iPhone 12 Pro Max

iPhone 12 Pro Max back in white.

Why you should buy this: Put simply, this is one of the best smartphones you can buy, with access to as many excellent games as you want in the app store.

Who it’s for: Serious gamers who are also looking for the best smartphone for everyday use.

Why we picked the iPhone 12 Pro Max:

The iPhone 12 Pro Max boasts a stunning 6.7-inch OLED display, a brilliant camera, and Apple App Store access. Why is that important? You’ll find that the latest and most anticipated games often land first on iOS, often with graphical tweaks designed to take advantage of the iPhone’s features.

Sure, the iPhone 12 Pro Max isn’t specifically designed for gaming, which is why we’ve awarded it the best mainstream gaming phone title. With this in mind, you won’t find the gaming-specific features that the Asus ROG Phone 5 packs in, like the 120Hz refresh rate, Air Triggers, or special gaming modes. There’s no cool RGB light-up logo, either. But if you’re looking for a mainstream phone that’s also great for gaming, the iPhone 12 Pro Max excels.

Inside is the latest Apple A14 Bionic processor with 6GB of RAM — enough to handle even the latest and most graphically demanding games. Everything looks great, too, thanks to the color-accurate display, and there’s 5G connectivity for gaming on-the-go. Battery life is excellent, with a 3,687 mAh battery that should easily give you a full day of gaming time — and up to 11 hours if you’re using your phone for apps or surfing the web. If you’re using your phone for everyday to-dos, it’s also worth mentioning that the camera is excellent.

You could always pick up the iPhone 12 Pro instead, but for gaming, we recommend the iPhone 12 Pro Max due to its immersive 6.7-inch, 2778 x 1284 pixel OLED screen, which provides a premium gaming experience over the smaller 6.1-inch screen on the iPhone 12 Pro. Plus, you’ll get more juice out of the 12 Pro’s larger battery for those extended gaming sessions.

Read our full iPhone 12 Pro Max Review

The best mainstream Android gaming phone: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra's rear casing.

Why you should buy this: Not only is it excellent for gaming, it’s great for the everyday, too, and it’s the best S Series phone on the market.

Who it’s for: Avid mobile gamers who don’t want a gaming-specific phone, just an excellent Android phone.

Why we picked the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra:

It’s fair to say we’re a little bit in love with the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. From its Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 processor (or Samsung Exynos 2100 in the U.K. and Europe) to its 6.8-inch Dynamic AMOLED 2x screen with adaptive 120Hz refresh rate and support for HDR10+, it is, quite simply, the best S Series phone around. It features up to 12GB of RAM, 5G connectivity, and impressive battery life, too.

Although there are no specific gaming modes offered on the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, you can use Samsung’s Game Launcher to turn on Priority mode, which shuts down background activity to boost gaming performance. Everything you play — including the latest, most graphically demanding titles — looks great on the 3200 x 1440 pixel resolution screen at 120Hz. So great, in fact, that you might find it hard to believe you’re gaming on your phone. If that refresh rate sounds like it’s going to kill off any hopes of all-day battery life, worry not. The adaptive refresh rate switches depending on what you’re doing on your phone, so that COD: Mobile action is fast, flawless, and buttery-smooth, while typing a reply to your boss’s email or browsing Facebook calls for a lower refresh rate that doesn’t needlessly drain the battery.

Speaking of battery life, the S21 Ultra packs a 5,000mAh cell, which should easily last a full day of hardcore gaming — perhaps even into a second day if you’re enjoying more casual sessions. The phone supports 25W fast charging, so you’ll be back up and gaming quicker than ever before, and it offers 15W wireless charging and reverse charging, too.

If we had to say anything negative, we’ve found that some games weren’t compatible with the S21 Ultra — although future patches and updates are likely to address this — and also, there’s no microSD card slot. You can pick up the S21 Ultra with 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB of storage, and we recommend choosing wisely, as the storage you buy is all you’ll ever have.

Audio quality on the S21 Ultra is excellent, but it’s worth pointing out here that Samsung has done away with the 3.5mm headphone jack. It’s not a big deal if you already have a pair of USB Type-C headphones — and if not, you can pick up an adapter fairly cheaply.

Read our full Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review

The best budget gaming phone: Nubia Red Magic 5G

The rear of the Red Magic 5G.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Why you should buy this: It’s a capable, dedicated gaming smartphone at a good price.

Who it’s for: Someone who wants to game a lot on their phone, but doesn’t want to spend much money.

Why we picked the Nubia Red Magic 5G

The Nubia Red Magic 5G is a laser-focused gaming smartphone, with the best of its abilities concentrated on gaming fun, rather on than the camera or software. It’s not the best everyday Android smartphone you can buy, but it is a good gaming phone if you don’t want to pay out for the Asus ROG Phone 5.

It has all the power and ability you want from a Snapdragon 865 processor and 12GB of LPDDR5 RAM, a 5G connection, plus a 6.65-inch AMOLED screen with a massive 144Hz refresh rate and 240Hz touch sampling. Like the ROG Phone 5, it’s flat to make holding the phone more comfortable, and it has two programmable shoulder trigger buttons. Oh, and the Red Magic logo on the back lights up, just as you’d hope.

Inside is a liquid cooling system with an actual fan to make sure the phone doesn’t overheat, the stereo speakers are loud and clear, plus there’s an excellent haptic feedback system. Red Magic’s Game Space adds performance enhancements, a screen recorder, fan controls, and other gaming-specific adjustments all in one place.

At $609, it’s considerably less than all the other phones on our list, yet still packs in many of the same features and technology. It doesn’t take the overall top spot due to the software not being as polished as we’d want, and it has a disappointing camera. But if all you want to do is game, then the Nubia Red Magic 5G is a good value.

Read our full Nubia Red Magic 5G review

FAQs

Why do I need a gaming phone?

First thing’s first: You may not need a gaming phone, but you probably, most definitely want one. Normal phones are fine for gaming, particularly if your gaming habits extend to the odd go on Candy Crush or a couple of Among Us sessions with your friends on the weekends. For serious gamers, though, gaming phones are a great choice. They’re packed with additional features focused around gaming, like shoulder buttons, bigger fans for cooling, and customizable game modes to enhance your experience when playing the latest titles. Increasingly, normal phones are catching up with gaming-centric handsets, offering features like gaming modes, so if you’re looking for a phone capable of supporting your serious gaming habit, it’s well worth looking at which mainstream phones offer features aimed at gamers.

Where can I get games?

The hardware is only half of the mobile gaming puzzle. Once you have your phone, you need games, and to get them, you’ll have to dig deep into the requisite app store. On Android, you will use Google Play, and on the iPhone, Apple’s App Store. Despite both doing essentially the same thing, there are some differences to consider before jumping in.

Typically, the Apple App Store is a little more expensive for games, apps, and in-app purchases. Google Play often has more free apps, but this means you’ll probably see more ads. Apple often secures exclusive titles for the App Store, and due to the more tightly controlled store and strong developer support, many new features arrive on iOS before Android.

Both Apple and Google have subscription-based game streaming services, and both cost $5 per month. Apple Arcade has a catalog of more than 190 games you can play for free and offers a one-month free trial, while Google’s Play Pass gives access to more than 460. Apple has snagged several exclusives for Arcade, though.

What about Google Stadia?

Google Stadia is Google’s cloud-based gaming service, enabling you to play games across different devices, from your computer and television to your phone and tablet. Stadia’s catalog of games includes The Elder Scrolls, Grid, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Red Dead Redemption 2, Borderlands 3, and many more.

A smartphone playing Destiny 2 on Google Stadia.
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

While Google Stadia does have its own hardware, it’s also compatible with a range of smartphones should you wish to increase your device’s value by adding more games. These include all recent Google Pixel phones, including the Pixel 4a and Pixel 5; almost all recent Samsung phones up to the Galaxy S20 range and the Note 10 range — although there’s no mention of support for the Galaxy S21 range yet; the Asus ROG Phone and ROG Phone 2 and 3; and the Razer Phone and Razer Phone 2, as well as many others.

You’ll need a remote control to conduct Stadia, and to achieve Stadia’s greatest operating potential requires a controller with a specific connection to your phone. The service only officially supports a handful of controllers: The Stadia Controller, the Xbox One controller, and Sony’s DualShock 4.

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