We’ve been wanting to try the Black Shark Helo for a while now. It’s a gaming phone backed by Xiaomi, with an additional snap-on controller that makes it look an awful lot like the Nintendo Switch. The phone went on sale in China recently, and we got our hands on it thanks to a local store here in Hong Kong...

RAVI: OK, on first glance, you can tell exactly who this phone is targeted at. It’s got green edges, it’s got weird angular bits of plastic everywhere, and the logo lights up in multiple colors. It’s like they took every GAMER stereotype possible and packed it into a phone. What do you think of its looks?

CHRIS: I was expecting this phone to be more solidly built for gamers, but sadly, it’s not. It’s got this green chrome accent around the phone, but it doesn’t feel high-end at all. It feels a little bit cheap. That glowing logo on the back? You can hardly see it. I’m not so sure this phone is really designed for gamers.

Glowing logo on the back of the phone. (Picture: Abacus)

RAVI: The big feature in hardware terms is the controller. There’s a little wireless controller here with an analog stick and a few buttons that snaps on to the phone… but actually, “snap” is the wrong word, right? Unlike the satisfying CLICK you get when you snap a Nintendo Switch Joy-Con into the console, this feels… really bad. You don’t connect it to the phone itself, but to a cheap plastic case. It feels really difficult, almost like you’re forcing it to fit. And when it finally hits the right spot, there’s no feedback.

CHRIS: It feels like a really cheap version of the Joy-Con. I also had difficulty attaching the controller to the case. I needed to use force to slide the controller in or out. I don’t understand why it’s so tough here! Also, I’m really disappointed with the build quality of the controller. The buttons are not as tactile as the Joy-Con, and the joystick feels a little bit loose. The controller has an angular design that doesn’t feel comfortable in my hands. And you need to purchase the right-hand controller separately, and I can’t see any obvious way to attach it. Oh, one more thing: Not all games are supported with the controller, and that’s really a bummer.

Connect the controller to the bundled plastic case. (Picture: Abacus)

RAVI: It didn’t feel very good, did it? Only having one controller made it feel unbalanced in the hand. I mean, the whole point of this thing is to make games easier to control, and to make them feel good. And I hate playing with touchscreen controls, so I really wanted to like this. But after playing with it, it just felt… cheap. And that’s when it worked at all -- you had plenty of trouble setting it up, right?

CHRIS: Yes, absolutely. The software on this phone is simply bad. It comes with a heavily customized Android skin that is really unstable. It’s not responsive, and the phone would frequently hang. It took almost a minute to close the game and get back to the home screen! The UI also has these black and green icons that really strain my eyes… kinda the opposite of what you expect from a dark mode. I’m really worried about whether Black Shark will release software updates for the phone to correct bugs and issues. The only thing I like about it is that the controller connects to the phone flawlessly by Bluetooth. And buttons are mappable too, which gives you more flexibility in various games.

The Black Shark Helo got a heavily customized Android skin. (Picture: Abacus)

RAVI: It might be unfair to compare it to a Nintendo Switch, because that’s a dedicated gaming device and this is a smartphone that also happens to do some gaming. On the other hand, the Nintendo Switch comparison is absolutely what they’re going for. And I guess they can try to argue that in some ways, on paper, the Black Shark Helo is better. It’s got beefier specs and a far better screen than the Switch. But the irony is, it ends up feeling like a cheap and inferior version of the Nintendo Switch… even though it costs more!

CHRIS: I was so hyped about the Black Shark Helo at first. The controller looked really awesome, making the phone look like a mini Nintendo Switch. But I knew something was wrong when I need to use so much force to attach the controller to the phone. The whole thing feels like an unfinished product. I also tried other gaming smartphones like the Asus ROG Phone and the Razer Phone 2, and they both felt much better than the Black Shark, in terms of build quality and the built-in software. Considering the phone is Black Shark’s second generation product, they did improve the hardware, but I think they need to put much more work into the software. An unresponsive UI is just not acceptable, and what’s the point of having a dedicated controller if few games actually support it?