In recent years we’ve seen an increasing number of high profile mobile titles pop up, so it’s easy to see that mobile gaming has come a long way since the days of Angry Birds and an endless stream of Match-3 games. It is a viable alternative to console and PC gaming though, or does the average phone struggle to keep up? Sure, your $1000/€1000 phone can probably run the latest games without problems, but for that budget you can also pick up a brand new Xbox console AND a PlayStation 5.
We’re taking a look at mobile gaming from a budget-conscious point of view today, highlighting a few key elements to keep an eye out for if you’re looking for an option to play some of the more ambitious mobile games on the market. As a benchmark, we’re keeping a price point in mind where you pay less than you would for the latest Nintendo Switch model, the cheapest of the three major consoles at the moment. So what to look out for when you want the most gaming bang for your buck? Here’s our breakdown.
You’re no doubt aware that Android and iOS are the dominant mobile operating systems in the market, and that’s especially true when it comes to mobile gaming. And while most major mobile titles get both an Android and an iOS release, we’re inclined to recommend looking at an Android model for gaming, for several reasons (and not just because the price for an iPhone rarely fits within the budget we’re looking at). The fact that Android has a slightly larger library helps if you’re into the more niche/indie end of things, but the more open nature of the platform helps it in other ways as well.
With technologies like Chromecast it’s easy to stream content (and games) to a television, for example. This won’t help you while on the go, but it’s a great option for turning your phone into a ‘full’ console in a cost-effective way without wires. You can get this done with iOS as well, but it’s generally cheaper and easier on Android. The same is true for connectivity, as it’s easier to connect a third party controller to an Android device for a proper console experience that doesn’t require you to play with the phone’s touchscreen.
Lastly, though this is more of a hobbyist argument, you’ll have a much easier time running some of your old console and PC games on an Android system. Getting the games onto your phone requires a bit of technical know-how, but we’ve been having a blast reviving a few classic DOS games that we had on floppy disks. And, unlike most anything these days, those oldies hardly take up any storage space.
When it comes to new generations of computers, video cards or video game consoles, “the faster, the better” has always been a safe guiding principle. That’s true for mobile gaming as well, but obviously a faster processor also comes with a higher price point, and the cutting edge of mobile CPUs can’t be found in a device within the price range we’re aiming for. So what to look out for?
Model and type is one element that’s important. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon line has been popular in recent years, and you’ll find that many games have been optimized for it. Processor lines like MediaTek’s Dimensity have also been growing in popularity though, and Samsung has been introducing its own line of Exynos CPUs to decrease their reliance on Qualcomm’s chips. With the rise of these new product lines, the gap is narrowing in terms of product support, with most recent releases also featuring optimizations for MediaTek’s CPUs – which are also fast enough to make up for the lack of brand-specific tweaks in older titles.
Once you narrow down your selection to a handful of phones, it’s a good idea to look closer at the processor that’s included. There’s a near infinite amount of Snapdragon and Dimensity models out there, and unless you’re really into technology their model numbers won’t mean much. Higher is generally better within the same product line, but they can be hard to compare. Here, Google is your friend – just list both processor names in your search query and you’ll find plenty of comparison pages and benchmarks that will let you know if one of the processors you’re looking at is especially over- or underpowered. Another thing to look out for are battery life tests, as an efficient processor can help you squeeze out a bit of extra gaming time.
Another thing worth considering is when the phone you’re looking at was launched, and there’s a trade-off to be made here. It can be tempting to go with last year’s top model that just dropped to being within your price range, for example. On the other hand, a newer model will likely feature a newer generation of the Android operating system, and could receive upgrades and support for longer as well.
If you plan on regularly getting a new phone, then grabbing a slightly more powerful model from last year is a solid plan as it’ll serve you fine in the short run. If you plan on keeping your new gaming phone around for a bit longer, then we’d recommend getting a recent model. It won’t affect your retro gaming needs, but it’ll allow you to keep running the latest Play Store releases for a bit longer.
This is an important one when looking at a phone as a gaming device. You know how, even without gaming, your phone can quickly fill up with apps and media files? On an older phone with 16GB of storage, roughly half of that is lost for the OS and the associated apps you can’t uninstall. These days 32 GB is the norm, but that doesn’t leave a lot of storage space for games either.
Modern releases like Genshin Impact, Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Sword Art Online, Call of Duty Mobile and XCOM 2 take up 5 to 10 GB worth of storage, sometimes even a little more. We recommend looking at 64GB of storage as an absolute minimum for gaming, and would recommend going for a 128GB model if there is one available.
This one might not be an obvious thing to look for when it comes to gaming, but it depends on the type of game you’re going to want to play. While a decent camera won’t do you much good when playing Call of Duty or an MMO, it becomes an essential part of the experience if you’re planning on downloading titles that make use of Augmented Reality technology, like the still extremely popular Pokémon Go.
While pretty much any standard camera will work fine in good conditions, the differences become visible (literally) in subpar lighting conditions, when a lower quality camera starts to deliver grainy visuals that break the immersion that make AR apps so much fun to play. You don’t have to be a camera guru to identify a phone with a decent camera either. In general, if the brand is promoting its phone while emphasizing its camera, it’s likely going to have a dual camera/lens setup that’s going to make a difference for you – and that transcends pictures and includes a certain type of game as well.
Here’s another one that’s important, because games – especially the more demanding ones – can be a serious drain on your phone’s battery. While a battery capacity of 5.000mAh is fairly common within this price range now, you’ll also see ones that are closer to the 4.000mAh range. That won’t affect you too much in day to day use, but with power-hungry applications like games that are 20 per cent less capacity that you’re really going to notice if you plan on having lengthy gaming sessions while traveling. Battery life depends on more than just the capacity though, as we already touched on when discussing processors. It’s a complex topic, but as a rule of thumb: don’t skimp on battery capacity.
Our current recommendation (August ’22)
Taking all six factors into account, we took at look at what’s available on the market today. Apple’s iPhone line was easy to disregard on account on price, but there were plenty of Android-based options than can be found at around the $300/€300 mark that are well suited for gaming.
Our choice ended up being the fairly new OPPO A77. It launched very recently (in June) with Android 12 on board, has a Mediatek 810 processor which has been well-received for its gaming performance and efficiency, comes as a 128GB model and has a 5,000mAh battery, which can be charged quickly thanks to fast charging tech that’s on board. If you’re looking to pick up a decently priced phone with the capacity to run all of the leading mobile titles quite well, and you don’t care too much about recording or watching 4K video, that’s a great bet. We’ll have a full review for you soon, as we’re currently taking it for a spin in a few gaming situations.