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 Vainglory, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds: Mobile, and Fortnite showing 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. And if you’re really serious about games, perhaps even at a competitive level, there are phones built expressly for the purpose.
The best gaming phones at a glance
- The best gaming phone: Asus ROG Phone 2 ($900)
- The best mainstream gaming phone: Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max (From $1,100)
- The best Android mainstream gaming phone: OnePlus 8 Pro (From $900)
- The best budget gaming phone: Nubia Red Magic 5G (From $579)
Here’s why we picked these phones in more detail, plus after that 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 2
Why you should buy this: It’s the ultimate gaming smartphone available today.
Who it’s for: It’s made by gamers for gamers.
Why we picked the Asus ROG Phone 2:
This is the ultimate gaming smartphone available today because Asus’ Republic of Gamers (ROG) division understands what gamers want, and what makes a great gaming device. Everything on the ROG Phone 2 is geared towards making games more enjoyable.
The 6.59-inch AMOLED screen has a 120Hz refresh rate, a 240Hz touch sampling rate, and 10-bit factory calibrated HDR color, without any curves that make gripping it awkward. It has loud, bass stereo speakers facing you, touch-sensitive buttons called Air Triggers on the top corners, and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 Plus processor with 12GB of RAM for power.
Then you’ve got X Mode, which allows you to max out the performance of the phone, set up macros for complex button combos, and adjust the screen’s refresh rate. The ROG Phone 2’s design is clever too, as it has an additional USB Type-C charging port on the side of the phone so the cable doesn’t get in the way when charging and still playing in landscape orientation, although the 6,000mAh battery has masses of energy anyway. Asus has thought about the placement of the Wi-Fi antennas inside the phone, ensuring your hands don’t cover them when holding the phone, for maximum reception and speed.
All this, the cool design, and the wealth of accessories available for the ROG Phone 2 make it the most comprehensive, thoughtfully designed, and capable smartphones for gamers we’ve seen. Using it as your everyday phone is fine too, as the camera is decent, the battery lasts for ages, and the software is good too. The downside is it’s quite large and heavy. This is a flagship smartphone, and the $900 price reflects this. Still, if you game on your phone for five or more hours a day on a very regular basis, the Asus ROG Phone 2 is made for you.
Read our full Asus ROG Phone 2 Review
The best mainstream gaming phone: iPhone 11 Pro Max
Why you should buy this: The best smartphone you can buy with access to a packed app store with as many superb games as you could want.
Who it’s for: Someone who prioritizes gaming, but also needs a highly competent smartphone for everyday use.
Why we picked the iPhone 11 Pro Max
The iPhone 11 Pro is immensely capable with a great screen, a brilliant camera, and access to the Apple App Store. This is important, as many of the latest and most anticipated games arrive on iOS first, and sometimes have graphical alterations that take advantage of the iPhone’s features.
The reason it is labeled best mainstream gaming phone, rather than best overall, is because it doesn’t have the gaming-specific features of the Asus ROG Phone 2. It does everything you want and more, but it doesn’t have a 120Hz refresh screen, special gaming modes, Air Triggers, or the cool ROG design touches (yes, we do mean the RGB light-up logo).
However, there’s no doubt the iPhone 11 Pro Max is a serious gaming machine. Inside is the latest Apple A13 Bionic processor, a 64-bit monster with a GPU that’s 20% faster than the last chip in older iPhone models, plus lots of clever software for developers to exploit and make games look and play better than ever. Sound is great too due to Apple’s stereo speakers, Spatial Audio technology, and Dolby Atmos support.
The iPhone 11 Pro Max is our recommendation due to the big 6.5-inch, 2,688 x 1,242 pixel Super Retina XDR screen, which is better for playing games and watching video than the smaller 5.8-inch screen on the iPhone 11 Pro. With that said, the smaller iPhone 11 Pro has the same display pixel density and performance, so the smaller model is also a good pick.
Read our full Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max review
The best mainstream Android gaming phone: OnePlus 8 Pro
Why you should buy this: It’s an excellent everyday Android smartphone with some great gaming-specific features and software
Who it’s for: Keen mobile gamers who don’t feel they need a gaming-specific phone
Why we picked the OnePlus 8 Pro
We rate the $900 OnePlus 8 Pro highly. From the Snapdragon 865 processor to the 6.78-inch, 120Hz refresh rate, AMOLED screen with HDR10+ support, it’s one of the most powerful multimedia smartphones you can buy. It has up to 12GB of fast LPDDR5 RAM, a 5G connection, and Wi-Fi 6.
There are two gaming modes on the OnePlus 8 Pro (and on the smaller OnePlus 8 too). The first is Game Space, which acts as a library for your phones and boosts the CPU, GPU, and RAM performance when playing. There’s also the option to optimize the graphics performance. In addition, OnePlus has partnered with e-sports team Fnatic to create Fnatic Mode, which goes one step further.
Fnatic Mode further optimizes the CPU, RAM, and GPU for gaming when it’s activated, as well as cutting out distracting notifications, and enhancing the network connectivity for online play. The OnePlus 8 Pro even has excellent haptics, and the audio quality is great, giving an improved gaming experience. The 4,510mAh battery is strong enough to last all day even with a lot of play time, and the fast charging is excellent as it goes from zero to 100% in an hour.
The phone also offers great design, water resistance, excellent OxygenOS software, and a capable camera. However, do remember the OnePlus 8 Pro has a curved screen, which can make holding it for gaming a little more awkward than “flat” screen phones like the ROG Phone 2.
Read our full OnePlus 8 Pro review
The best budget gaming phone: Nubia Red Magic 5G
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 2.
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 2, 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 $579, 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 Red Magic 5G is good value.
Read our full Nubia Red Magic 5G review
Consider the app stores before you buy
The hardware is only half 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, and 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 110 games you can play for free, while Google’s Play Pass gives access to more than 350. 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 to your television, and your phone or tablet. Stadia’s catalog of games includes The Elder Scrolls, Grid, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Red Dead Redemption 2, Borderlands 3, and many more.
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 4, almost all recent Samsung phones up to the Galaxy S20 range and the Note 10 range, the Asus ROG Phone and ROG Phone 2, plus the Razer Phone and Razer Phone 2.
Note that Stadia operates via a controller. You’ll also need a specific type to connect to your phone and enjoy full functionality with Stadia. The service only officially supports a handful of controllers: The Stadia Controller, the Xbox One controller, and Sony’s DualShock 4.
Any smartphone on the market can play games, but the experience may be a bit lackluster. After all, the top hardware available has the guts to play the very best, graphically intensive, power-hungry titles. If you want to experience games at their full potential, the right smartphone is a must. Remember that the more up-to-date your new phone is, the higher the odds it will work with your favorite games longer. An up-to-date processor and screen offer the best odds at long-term gameplay without glitches. Whichever phone you end up choosing, the world of mobile gaming is always expanding — so it pays to prepare.
Once you’ve got your phone, it’s time to dive into the newest and best games. If you don’t have a favorite in mind already, look at our guides for the best iPhone games and the best Android games. No matter what you’re into, you’ll find something worth downloading to your mobile device.