Game on: A new smartphone design takes aim at an Apple, Samsung weak spot 

  • The global mobile-gaming market will account for more than $70 billion in sales this year and represent the majority of all game spending for the first time.
  • The popularity of advanced mobile games like Fortnite has led some niche smartphone makers to design specifically for the gamer market.
  • Asus and Razer are unveiling mobile phones that have designs, functions and accessories that neither Apple nor Samsung offer.

Fortnite has not only taken the gaming world by storm, it could help drive a new design trend in mobile hardware that neither Apple or Samsung have mastered.

The mobile gaming market is growing rapidly, with research firm Newzoo projecting revenue will account for $70.3 billion of global gaming in 2018 and represent the majority of all game spending for the first time. The popularity of increasingly advanced mobile games is driving demand for better hardware, and a few companies are stepping into the arena with phones designed specifically for gaming.

The Asus ROG Phone can be paired with accessories such as the Mobile Desktop Dock to extend the gaming setup. 
Asus
The Asus ROG Phone can be paired with accessories such as the Mobile Desktop Dock to extend the gaming setup. 

While the vast majority of current smartphones support casual games — think Candy Crush and Pokémon Go — these new phones are targeting players of competitive online and graphically intensive games like Fortnite and PUBG Mobile.

The world's most popular phones, like the Apple iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy line, have high-end hardware specifications capable of handling sophisticated games. In August, Samsung launched its latest "phablet," the Galaxy Note 9, advertising it as gaming-friendly and highlighting increased battery life and quick cooling.

However, the top mainstream phones are not conducive to serious mobile gaming.

"One doesn't have to have a gaming phone in order to play these games. But one doesn't have to have a gaming PC in order to play many PC games, either. And yet PC gamers will opt for more optimized hardware to give them that extra edge," Bryan Ma, vice president of client devices research at IDC, said via email. "Gaming phones won't necessarily appeal to more mainstream users, but some enthusiasts will look for specs like high-refresh-rate screens to give themselves a better experience."

How to stand apart from Apple, Samsung

Gaming hardware company Razer is betting that the market for gaming phones is for real. Headquartered in San Francisco and Singapore, the company is known for selling PC and console-gaming peripherals, as well as its own line of gaming laptops. Following generally positive reviews on its first smartphone, which debuted in November 2017, the company launched a successor on Oct. 10. While many products in the mobile phone market are rounded, Razer's design language is more square.

Samsung's Galaxy S8 popularized the concept of minimizing bezels, the borders between a phone's screen and its frame. Other Android phones followed, with makers such as Essential, LG and Huawei releasing their own almost bezel-less phones. Apple then heated up the race to maximize screen real estate with the iPhone X's smaller bezels and notch, a trend now making its way to Android phones, like Google's Pixel 3 and the OnePlus 6.

While the notch and lack of bezels are considered design enhancements by many, they may not be favorable to mobile gamers who often hold the device horizontally in their hands and need to see as much of the screen as possible. Top and bottom bezels provide a place for gamers to grip the phone and help position their thumbs.

"Ultimately, we did a lot of study and research and realized that actually, a square design is very comfortable. Because of the way the hand holds it, the corners don't really affect the use case," said Stéphane Blanchard, director of industrial design at Razer.

With the square design set, the Razer team decided that the best place to put the powerful stereo front-facing speakers — an important feature for gamers — was on bezels to the left and right of the screen when held horizontally.

The large bezels on the blocky Razer Phone 2 allow for better grip and house front-facing stereo speakers.
Razer
The large bezels on the blocky Razer Phone 2 allow for better grip and house front-facing stereo speakers.

"We have a blocky design, and we have big bezels. All combined, it is actually a great advantage because we have a great grip where we still hold the edges without covering the speakers to have great sound," Blanchard said.

With this distinctive bulky design and bezels, Razer is "bucking the trend," said Matt Swider, a senior editor at technology news and review site TechRadar.

Both the new Razer Phone 2 and its predecessor boast the best screen refresh rate of any phone, at 120Hz. High screen refresh rates provide smoother experiences and allow for potentially quicker response times helpful in fast-paced games. Apple's iPad Pros have this feature, but even the newest iPhones are capped at 60Hz.

"The difference you see in a high-refresh-rate display is not just tied to gaming. You can see it with scrolling through a web page," said Vivek Gowri, a senior manager of hardware engineering at Razer.

Recent reviews of the Razer Phone 2 say the model builds on its predecessor's strengths as a serious contender for gamers and multimedia users, but it fails to measure up in ways that may be more important to most phone users — for example, the improved screen brightness and camera are still lacking compared to the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 and Google Pixel 3.

The Razer Phone's main competition in trying to grow a gamer phone market is the Asus ROG Phone, which became available for pre-order on Oct.18. It is the first phone released by the Taiwanese company's Republic of Gamers (ROG) gaming hardware brand. Like the Razer, the ROG phone looks significantly different from an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy, starting with a focus on how a phone should be designed when it is going to mostly be held horizontally.

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"Based on our observation, the vast majority of people game in landscape mode, so we had to think about how to accommodate the different ports," said Vivian Lien, chief marketing officer of Asus North America and the head of global marketing for the ROG brand.

Asus decided to add additional side-mounted ports that can be used for charging, docking and plugging in headphones so gamers can hold the sides of the phone more comfortably. Another new feature is the ultrasonic "AirTriggers" — extra programmable touch points on the edges of the phone screen that serve the same function as game-controller buttons when held horizontally. (Physical game controllers can be attached to the sides of the phone.)

"Games require certain controls, so we started to think about what we can offer to add in the controls people are accustomed to, but without adding all the extra complexity," Lien said.

Asus is selling a variety of accessories for the phone that cost up to several hundred dollars each, including a "TwinView Dock" that adds another screen (for $399.99), a "Mobile Desktop Dock" that can connect the phone to a computer monitor in order to game with a mouse and keyboard (for $229.99).

"A lot of gamers don't game on one device only. It's about this interoperability between their devices on the go and the device they use primarily in a stationary environment," Lien said. "The ability to control their own gaming experience is one of the most appealing things about the ROG phone."

Importance of a 'cooler' design

These gaming phones are also differentiating themselves from Apple and Samsung with better cooling mechanisms and bigger batteries to allow prolonged playing time.

"The ability to not overheat is really crucial to having a good gaming phone," Swider said. "That is how Razer and other phone makers can rival an iPhone or a Samsung phone that obviously has more mainstream appeal right now."

The Razer and ROG phones both use custom vapor chamber cooling technology to disperse heat from the chipset and sustain performance, with Razer adapting the thermal system used in its gaming laptops. Asus is even including an external "AeroActive Cooler" accessory that mounts on the side port.

"There are some things the Razer phone can do that the most recent Samsung and Apple flagships cannot. However, the faster refresh speed will not be enough for subscribers in the Galaxy or iPhone camp to ditch their ecosystem choice for a gaming phone." -Jeff Fieldhack, research director at Counterpoint Technology Market Research

For all their gaming-optimized features, these devices still need to handle all the regular smartphone needs as users carry them around, in order to gain any traction in the competitive phone market.

Razer incorporated feedback from its first phone to make the second generation more viable as a daily driver, including significantly improving the camera — a point of much criticism in the predecessor, brightening the screen for better outdoor use and adding wireless charging, an increasingly common mainstream feature.

A cost problem for gamer phones

But the gaming designs come at a cost in terms of bulkiness. "These are not thin and light gaming phones," Swider said. "They are akin to gaming laptops, whereas the iPhone is more like a thin MacBook Air."

Asus isn't shy about marketing to the high-end gamer segment of the market and betting that these consumers will pay significantly more for accessories. "The phone still functions perfectly like a phone, but we wanted to be known as a gaming phone and not as an all-purpose phone that also does gaming," Lien said.

The price point of the Razer and Asus ROG phones will create pressure from both above and below, according to Jeff Fieldhack, a research director at Counterpoint Technology Market Research. The Razer Phone 2 starts at $799 — $100 more than its predecessor — while the ROG Phone starts at $899, with the cooling accessory included. Both will have more expensive versions with extra storage available.

These prices are comparable with Apple and Android flagship phones, many of which have the same top line processor in the most recent models.

The phone market's lower tier now includes models optimized for gaming with sufficient frame rates and audio quality and large displays. "These devices will not offer the most optimal gaming experience, but more importantly, they come in around $300 and can play games like PUBG, Honor of Kings, Doupo Cangqiong, Pokémon GO, etc., smoothly enough," Fieldhack said via email.

The popularity of Chinese technology giant Tencent's Honor of Kings, which has an estimated 200 million monthly players, and other mobile games have also fueled the rise of gaming phones from Chinese manufacturers around this price point, though few are available outside the price-sensitive Asian market.

Research firm Canalys estimates that the Razer phone shipped fewer than 100,000 units globally since it launched last November.

"There are some things the Razer phone can do that the most recent Samsung and Apple flagships cannot," Fieldhack said. "However, the faster refresh speed will not be enough for subscribers in the Galaxy or iPhone camp to ditch their ecosystem choice for a gaming phone."

By Erica Yee, special to CNBC.com

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