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Black Shark 4 Pro review: Gaming flagship killer

The Black Shark 4 Pro is a gaming phone packed to the gills with high-level specs, giving any gamer a competitive advantage. But its most useful feature blows its competitors out of the water.
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Written by June Wan, Tech Editor on
Pros
  • Large 6.67-inch, 144Hz AMOLED display
  • 120W fast charging
  • Side-mounted triggers are game-changing
  • Consistent gaming performance
Cons
  • Snapdragon 888 and Android 11 on a 2022 flagship
  • No MicroSD card slot for expandable memory
  • Middling 4,500mAh battery
  • Fingerprint sensor is too sensitive

Gaming phones have long been popular for their beefed-up spec sheets and unimaginable amounts of RAM. Oh, and they're often treated with striking designs, clearly inspired by sci-fi and cyberpunk genres. This focus on power and visuals, while appealing to enthusiasts, often intimidates potential consumers who are less willing to commit to the edgy aesthetics.

Black Shark's latest entry, as Gen Z would say, is "built different." The Black Shark 4 Pro looks and feels more like a traditional smartphone than it does a gaming one. Its once jarring and riveting roots have morphed into a more polished and virtuosic approach. Yet, beneath the waters of that calm façade is a device that is ever so capable of chomping through a sea of competing gaming phones.

The Black Shark 4 Pro piggybacks on the successes of last year's Black Shark 4, continuing the company's tradition of offering high-end specs for an astonishingly low price tag. Where the $579 flagship differs is in the upgraded Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 5G processor and its wealth of brightness (1,297 nits to the 694 of its predecessor). More numbers are below.

Specifications

Processor

Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 5G

Display

6.67-inch AMOLED, 2400x1080 pixels, 144Hz refresh rate

RAM/Storage

6GB/128GB or 12GB/256GB

Cameras

64MP main camera, 8MP ultra-wide, 5MP macro, and 20MP front-facing camera

Battery

4,500mAh with 120W fast charging

Connectivity

3.5mm headphone jack, USB-C, Bluetooth 5.0, Wi-Fi 802.11ac

Colors

Shadow Black, Misty Grey, Cosmos Black

Operating System

JoyUI on Android 11


Clearly, the Black Shark 4 Pro satisfies the pillars of a gaming phone, striking a rich balance of display performance, speed, and power. But, for a 2022 release, I wish that Black Shark went with the more updated and efficient Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor instead of last year's 888. 

Design

Appearance-wise, the Black Shark 4 Pro inherits most of what its predecessor had to offer. The Shadow Black variant that I've been testing has a sleek, pebble-like backing, with an all-glass build that screams (and feels) premium. Black Shark's signature X motif on the back is subtle, yet sophisticated enough to mesmerize anyone who spends a second longer staring at it. In the right lighting, the design almost looks 3D.

Still, any passerby won't have trouble discerning the Black Shark 4 Pro from, say, an iPhone. The 4 Pro's hexagonal rear camera is a rather interesting design choice and houses a triple-lens setup. Though not as protruding as other camera bumps that I've seen, the Black Shark 4 Pro still manages to collect dust around the edges when moving in and out of pockets. Then again, how often will you look at the back of your phone?

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A triangular LED indicator signals incoming notifications, calls, and battery levels.

June Wan/ZDNet

Well, in the case of the Black Shark, probably more than you think. Because right underneath the camera bump lies a triangular LED indicator, used to signal incoming calls, notifications, and other prompts. Black Shark lets you customize the color, pacing, and behavior of the LED in the settings, but I've become so used to keeping my phone face up that the feature is more of a gimmick than a tool.

What aren't gimmicks are the magnetic trigger buttons on the side of the phone, pioneered by last year's Black Shark 4. With a flick of the top and bottom sliders, two trigger buttons pop-up from the Pro, giving you additional inputs when gaming. I found the triggers particularly useful when playing titles like Call of Duty: Mobile and PUBG, where I needed to quickly switch between running, aiming, and shooting. The two keys can also be mapped to non-gaming functions, like taking screenshots, opening the camera, or turning on reachability mode. There's no doubt that the feature gives users an advantage in and out of games.

My only complaint with the pop-up triggers is how easy it is to, well, trigger them. During testing, I frequently kicked the button sliders when taking the Black Shark out of my pocket, prompting many accidental screenshots. I ended up unmapping the bottom trigger, as that was oftentimes the culprit.

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With a flick of the textured side key, a side trigger button pops up.

June Wan/ZDNet

Also on the side of the 4 Pro is a fingerprint sensor that doubles as a power button. We've seen this placement before, with phones like the recently reviewed Motorola G Stylus (2022) choosing the physical biometric sensor over the in-display, ultrasonic ones. The benefit of the side-mounted sensor is how easy it is to unlock with your right thumb. But if you're a left-handed user, you'll have to stretch your left index finger a little more to get a complete, working scan.

Like the pop-up triggers, the side-mounted fingerprint sensor of the Black Shark is very sensitive. More often than not, the phone would think that I was scanning my finger when I was simply holding it in my hand. Not only did this trigger random "misread" vibrations but once I did need to unlock the phone, it would prompt me to use my pattern or PIN, as I had reached my limit of incorrect scans.

You'd expect a phone with a 6.67-inch display to feel unwieldy or cumbersome to use with one hand, but I actually found the Black Shark 4 Pro to be the opposite. The 20:9 aspect ratio of the AMOLED panel gives the Black Shark a more narrow figure than, say, the iPhone 13 Pro Max -- which has a similar screen size but with an 18:9 dimension.

Lastly, the most notable design switch-up from last year's Black Shark 4 is the use of a frosted matte backing. To Black Shark's credit, this one minor change makes a world of difference for hand-feel, resistance to fingerprint smudges, and comfort when gaming for hours on end. The satin-like finish is cool to the touch and most users will likely appreciate the change in hardware.

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The back of the Black Shark 4 Pro is subtle in design, a shift from the schematics of traditional gaming phones.

June Wan/ZDNet

Performance

As smooth as the Black Shark 4 Pro looks and feels, the biggest test for a gaming phone is its performance. While I'm typically against comparing devices through benchmarks -- nothing is more accurate than real-world use -- here's a snapshot of how the Black Shark 4 Pro fares in a sea of similarly priced handsets. In fact, most smartphones on the list cost more than the 4 Pro, which makes its Single-Core score of 1,111 and Multi-Core score of 3,675 all the more impressive.

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The Geekbench CPU Benchmark test measures the performance and efficiency levels of smartphones, tablets, and computers, by pacing them through a series of everyday tasks -- like checking emails, playing music, and taking pictures.

While using the Black Shark 4 Pro as my daily driver, I found it to perform as well, if not better, than what the numbers show. Images and news feeds load very quickly when scrolling through, video playback is snappy, and gaming continues to impress with the 4 Pro's Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 easily handling popular titles at the highest graphic settings.

More: Black Shark 5 Pro review: A level up

It helps that the display can ramp up to 144Hz, with options to tone down the smoothness to 120Hz, 90Hz, and 60Hz. The Black Shark's 720Hz touch sampling rate is another welcome feature and sets the industry standard for the lowest touch delay of just 8.3ms. Basically, the phone is very responsive to touches and inputs.

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Gaming on Asphaltl 9 was smooth and visually immersive.

June Wan/ZDNet

Over the past few weeks, I paced the Black Shark through demanding games like Genshin Impact and ARK: Survival Evolved, and even ran a Nintendo 64 emulator. The phone performed admirably, maintaining 60 frames per second (FPS) throughout, and becoming just a tad warm to the touch after seven to eight minutes of gaming.

If you're cautious about overheating problems, especially with gaming phones, Black Shark sells a magnetic cooling fan that can snap onto the 4 Pro to keep its internals ventilated. When in-game, you can also swipe down from either upper corner to bring up Shark Space, a menu overlay that details the phone's Wi-Fi connection strength, its FPS, battery level, and even turn off incoming notifications to keep your head in the game.

More: Best gaming phones

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A slide down from either upper corners presents Shark Space.

Software features like that and more are prevalent throughout JoyUI 12, Black Shark's skin over Android 11. From the live wallpapers to the various in-game enhancements, there is a multitude of settings to play with on the device. While I'm more in favor of minimalism and burdenless user experiences, gamers may appreciate what JoyUI has to offer. Given its heavy-layered approach to Android, don't expect the Black Shark 4 Pro to be the fastest with software updates. The review unit that I've been using is still on Android 11 and the December security patch.

Camera

Smartphone cameras have come a long way over the last decade. More than ever, we rely on these mobile gadgets to capture and relive our best moments, so having a reliable camera system is a must. The Black Shark 4 Pro fields a triple camera setup at the rear, with a 64MP main camera, 8MP ultra-wide, and a 5MP macro. For a majority of your photo and video endeavors, the 64MP main will be your weapon of choice.

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The flowers bloom with an added hint of saturation.

June Wan/ZDNet

To the right is a shot of some flowers. There's a mix of colors for the Black Shark to process and the camera does a fairly decent job at it. The flowers are vibrant, the petals of the rose are detailed and distinct, and to top it all off, there's a natural blur behind the bouquet. While the Black Shark gave the flowers a little more saturation than how they look in real life, the picture is good enough to share. 

As for the 8MP ultra-wide and 5MP macro, photos taken were often lacking in detail and, oddly enough, less saturated than what the main lens produced. I will say that the ultra-wide did a decent job at preventing any lens distortion, making landscape photos appear more natural.

While the Black Shark 4 Pro was made for gaming, I wouldn't go as far as to say that the camera system lags behind significantly. Just stick with the main 64MP shooter for the best shots.

Battery

There's no question that the Black Shark 4 Pro is a capable handset, but for how long on a single charge? From my use, I averaged a screen-on time of four hours. That's with heavy social media browsing, an hour or two of YouTube, music streaming, and of course, gaming. With heavy gaming, which you'll likely do if you're reading this review, expect to get about three hours of usage before needing to charge up the phone.

Those numbers are not "all-day battery life" by any means, but Black Shark makes up for it with an amazing 120W HyperCharge technology. Using the proprietary USB-A to USB-C cable and charging adapter, the 4 Pro can charge from 0% to 100% in a frighteningly-fast 20 minutes. (For your reference, the iPhone 13 takes at least two hours to fully top up.) How this quality of life feature fares with battery degradation and longevity remains to be tested, but I will point out that the Black Shark gets noticeably warm when charging. It's not reflex-inducing hot, but enough to make you think twice about using the phone while plugged in.

The Black Shark 4 Pro does not support wireless charging, but if that's the expense for 120W wired charging, it's a compromise that I'm willing to accept.

Conclusion

The Black Shark 4 Pro is an exceptionally well-built gaming phone, with all the nuts and bolts that we've come to expect from one. Better yet, its $579 starting price undercuts most of the competition, without compromising on processing power and functionality. Just be prepared for the device's heavy skin over Android, a slower cadence of software updates, and middling battery life. If you can get over those shortcomings, the Black Shark 4 Pro may be the gaming phone for you.

Alternatives to consider

If you still weighing out options, here are some formidable alternatives to the Black Shark 4 Pro:

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