By the looks of it, you might mistake Snail Mobile’s MOQI i7s for a PS Vita knock-off. But it’s actually a fully functioning Android gaming phone that tries to rival the likes of the Asus ROG Phone 2 and the Razer Phone 2 at a lower price.

While it’s a competent gaming device, working well with a wide range of mobile games and emulators, the MOQI i7s is also extremely inconvenient as a phone given its form factor with a built-in controller on each side.

Although most people would be better off getting a normal-looking phone, the MOQI i7s still managed to impress me. But that’s predicated on the idea that this is a gaming device, not a phone. In reality, the MOQI tries to have it both ways.

The MOQI i7s is a little smaller than a Nintendo Switch and it looks quite a bit like the Sony PS Vita. (Picture: Thomas Leung/Abacus)

I originally got the MOQI i7s because I’m increasingly spending more time on games like Call of Duty Mobile and PUBG Mobile. So I wanted to find the best way to play these games on the go.

Has the MOQI i7s met my expectations? It’s a mixed bag. After taking the MOQI i7s for a spin over a few weeks, I can say that it’s great for third-person shooters, RPGs and emulator games. But you shouldn’t expect it to work well with first-person-shooter (FPS) or multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games.

Coming in at 1,999 yuan (US$285) on Taobao and US$359 on Amazon, the MOQI i7s looks a little like a Nintendo Switch Lite on the outside. But it has a better 6-inch screen with full HD resolution. It comes in an oval shape with two analogue sticks on each side, a D-pad, four action buttons and bumper buttons on each side.

As opposed to the generic XYAB, the MOQI i7s has its own button symbols that look like ancient Chinese pictorial characters. (Picture: Thomas Leung/Abacus)

On the inside, the MOQI i7s is powered by a mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 710 chipset and has 6GB of RAM. A sonorous pair of speakers on the back help with the gaming experience, too. It also has an impressive 6,000 mAh battery that allowed me to play PUBG Mobile for about eight hours on the go without charging. And if you really want to, you can shoot photos with the device’s 16-megapixel main camera and a 5-megapixel front-facing camera.

The MOQI i7s runs on Android 8.1 and comes with some Chinese gaming apps pre-installed. It works as well as you might expect from most mid-range Android phones. But the controller makes the device unique. As soon as you turn on the phone, you can start using the controller to navigate through the system’s UI.

The phone is also unique when it comes to gaming. Its baked-in game assistance app monitors CPU and RAM usage, and the phone has excellent key mapping software.

The MOQI i7s has a game assistance app that not only maps buttons but also shows you how much of the CPU and memory you’re using. (Picture: Thomas Leung/Abacus)

If you’ve ever used a physical controller for mobile gaming, you know the importance of good key mapping. Keymappers link the physical buttons on the controller to the various on-screen buttons of a given game. Since most mobile games don’t have official controller support, this software is needed to tell games which touch screen controls you’re trying to hit when you mash away on your controller.

Many keymappers tend to be hit-or-miss, often related to how well they work with various phones or games. It’s rare to have a keymapper natively optimized to work with the phone.

Not even the Razer Phone 2 has a baked-in keymapper, which sometimes makes using a controller with it a pain in the neck. But the ROG Phone II arguably has the best baked-in game assistance app out there.

Fortunately, the MOQI i7s keymapper works like a charm. It’s almost as good as the one on the ROG Phone II, which is much more expensive.

As with any good keymapper, this app saves you time from having to manually map all the buttons. The game assistance app has a library of mapping schemes uploaded by other users of the MOQI i7s. So if you want to play a popular game like PUBG Mobile, you just have to choose the right scheme already shared by the community and the buttons will be automatically mapped for you.

PUBG Mobile is an especially good experience on this phone because the MOQI i7s works particularly well with slow-paced third-person shooters. It makes playing PUBG Mobile with a controller a very smooth experience.

Where the MOQI i7s really shines, though, is with action RPG games. Take Honkai Impact 3rd, which is one of the most graphically accomplished mobile games on the market. The control scheme works flawlessly. When I was testing it, there were times when it felt like playing Astral Chain on the Nintendo Switch.

Playing Honkai Impact 3rd on the MOQI i7s is buttery smooth. (Picture: Thomas Leung/Abacus)

But when it comes to fast-paced FPS games like Call of Duty Mobile, the MOQI i7s struggles. The keymapper still works as well as on any other game, but mobile FPS games remain much better optimized for touch-screen controls. The result is that having a physical controller isn’t much of an advantage. In some cases, it works against you.

If you want to do a fast swipe on a mobile FPS, for example, you would normally quickly swipe across the screen with your thumb. You can’t do that with the MOQI i7s analogue sticks, putting you at a disadvantage.

The analogue sticks are so short that it’s difficult to navigate with them. (Picture: Thomas Leung/Abacus)

That said, I still prefer the comfort of analogue sticks when possible. That’s why I still use them in games like PUBG Mobile even though it might not be the best option. But Call of Duty Mobile is so fast-paced that using the touch screen saves me a lot of frustration.

It’s also impractical to play mobile MOBA games like Arena of Valor with a controller. For a character to aim and release his abilities at enemies in mobile MOBAs, the gamer has to use his right thumb to tap and drag virtual buttons on the screen -- a well-calibrated control scheme that can’t be replicated with a controller. So even with a gaming phone, you need to play MOBA games with the touchscreen.

But if FPS and MOBA games aren’t great with the MOQI i7s, how much appeal does it have as a dedicated gaming device? For some dedicated gamers, the appeal of the device might be in playing emulated games. Performance tests online show that MOQI i7s works swimmingly with most games until you get to the Nintendo 64 generation of consoles. Some games from the PSP generation work well, too.

But remember that even though the emulators you choose might be legal, most game ROMS are copyrighted. Nevertheless, Snail Mobile has no qualms marketing the MOQI i7s to consumers as a device for emulators.

All in all, the MOQI i7s feels like a compelling option as a handheld Android gaming device. But this is still a phone, so some of the hardware like LTE connectivity pushes the price up to be more than what many might want to pay. It costs about the same as a Nintendo Switch in China. Even if you just want to play free mobile games, you’ll have to deal with some of the performance issues mentioned above (and these games do have ways of getting people to pay eventually).

The choice of chipset, cameras and display also make the device pretty mediocre as a smartphone. Sure, it’s much cheaper than the Razer Phone 2 and ROG Phone II, but those phones get you a 120Hz OLED screen and specs that match other flagship phones. More importantly, the removable controllers mean you might actually want to use those phones as, you know… phones. Holding the MOQI i7s up to your face is not a good look.

For what it is, though, I adore the simplicity of the MOQI i7s as an all-in-one Android gaming smartphone. But I have to admit that it’s only fit for a niche group of gamers.