Excellent gaming performance
Useful game launcher
Design unlikely to appeal to non-gamers
Shoulder buttons disappoint
For the longest time, I’ve wondered why gaming on Android hasn’t taken off in a bigger way.
It’s not a matter power — one the most popular game on Switch is Fortnite and that runs just fine on Android. It could be battery, but that doesn’t explain why people don’t play more Android in their living rooms. Perhaps it’s a lack of controller buttons?
In that case, the Nubia Red Magic Mars might just offer a solution, without asking consumers to cough up a huge sum. I used the device for just over a week, and put it through its paces with more than a few games. Let’s see what else this device has to offer in our Nubia Red Magic Mars review.
The Nubia Red Magic Mars sports a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chipset and 6GB of RAM for the base model. You can go up to a whopping 10GB RAM if you want to go full-spec. I tested an 8GB model and occasionally noticed the extra memory, sometimes jumping back into an app to find it was still open. Storage is also generous, with 64GB, 128GB, or 256GB non-expandable options available. It’s plenty for storing games, though the lack of an SD card is a little disappointing.
It also puts the phone way ahead of the similarly priced Honor Play (which was already very good) with its Kirin 970. The much-touted “GPU Turbo” also doesn’t give the Honor Play any real advantage over the Red Magic Mars — it only works with specific games and even then will only slightly “stabilize” the frame rate. Adrenos always trump Malis when in GPU performance, so the Snapdragon 845 here is superior to the Kirin in the Honor Play, regardless of any marketing buzz terms.
This is the best spec you’re going to get at the time of writing — it just may not be the most future-proof.
The closest competition in power and price comes from the mighty Pocophone F1, which has always been excellent value for money. However, you’ll find the Red Magic Mars can do slightly more overall with the same hardware.
The Snapdragon 845 is very much at the end of its lifecycle. The Snapdragon 855 already powers the Samsung Galaxy S10, Xiaomi Mi 9, Sony Xperia 1, and no doubt a slew of next-gen gaming phones very soon. I just reviewed the Xiaomi Mi 9 and that phone blows this one out of the water in gaming performance. However, for now there are no gaming-focused devices with an 855 — and nothing this affordable.
To squeeze a little more performance out, the Red Magic Mars also brings impressive cooling, combining a dual heat pipe and convection cooling. This works really well: apps and games that caused other devices to get warm seemingly didn’t affect the Nubia. It’s the first time I’ve noticed alleged cooling in a phone actually do anything!
The Red Magic Mars is a gaming phone through and through when it comes to design. It’s red with lots of random lines and a pointed back that won’t let it sit flat on a table. This can get a bit annoying and limits your case options. Other colors are available (black and camouflage), though choosing them makes the name a misnomer. The red is very striking and it has a nice matte sheen that prevents it from looking like a toy.
Speaking of gaming aesthetics, you also get an RGB strip down the middle of the back (called the Aurora Band) which can also be used for notification alerts. I like it, but if you don’t, it’s easy to turn off (though you’ll still have the translucent patch there). All this certainly makes it more gamer-centric in terms of aesthetics than something like the Honor Play. If that’s something you want to show off, then you’ll love it.
All this certainly makes it more gamer-centric in terms of aesthetics
There’s a fingerprint sensor smack bang in the middle which is hexagonal in shape and which works actually really well. It’s quick and easy to find and makes accessing your phone a cinch.
And yeah, it has shoulder buttons — or at least shoulder capacitive touch panels.
Like the Razer Phone 2, the Red Magic Mars also comes with dual front facing speakers, though one sits in the phone’s earpiece like the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 and neither are as large as the Razer phone’s. Still, the sound is really great, and gives the illusion of stereo. The phone also features a headphone jack which should please audio purists.
Related: USB-C audio is dead
Then there’s the “4D rumble” engine, though unfortunately it is only supported by PUBG Mobile at the moment. This works as you’d expect, using a motor system, but to be honest it’s not a huge selling point. It doesn’t drastically add to the game and I can’t imagine a lot of other developers taking the time to implement it. It seems to me this is just here to tick all the “gamer” boxes.
The screen is a little more so-so, though there’s nothing wrong with it. The phone sports a notchless 6-inch IPS LCD display with a 1,080 x 2,160 resolution. That’s plenty big for seeing all the onscreen action and it’s bright enough too. Don’t expect jaw-dropping crispness and you’ll be fine.
Enough jibber jabber! What is this thing actually like for gaming?
Performance wise, it’s up there with the best and can play everything the Play Store has to offer with silky smooth frame rates and top graphics settings.
Related: 15 best Android games of 2019!
Most impressive of all was the emulation performance. While not silky smooth, I managed to get Nintendo GameCube classic Metroid Prime running on the Dolphin emulator at playable frame rates — the best I’ve experienced on a Snapdragon 845 device. Sega’s Sonic Heroes worked too, without implementing any performance tweaks or experiencing any significant heat. That cooling seems to do its job very nicely.
I even pitted it against the Razer Phone 2 and Note 9 in the GPU segment of Gary’s Speed Test G and it won out on both occasions.
The screen doesn’t show off these games in their very best light, but it’s on par with the Pocophone F1 and most people won’t notice. Its lower resolution might just extend the battery life, and it’s still better than the Switch’s 720p screen.
Battery life is very decent, thanks to the 3,800mAh battery and relatively stock version of Android. This is another killer feature in a gaming phone, allowing you to game for an extended period without worrying about having juice for the rest of your journey home. No matter what I was doing, the Nubia Red Magic Mars handled heavy usage and still had some battery left in the tank by the end of the day. It also comes with fast 18W battery charging for topping up quickly when you run low.
Ergonomically, the phone is usually okay to hold even during frantic play, though it can get a little slippery at times. Those shoulder “buttons” are a cool enough idea, but unfortunately most games don’t support them. I found them useful for emulation, as they made some games a lot easier to play. However, you’re still relying on an awkward combination of onscreen and physical controls — something not all emulators will support. They’re also difficult to find blind and touches often don’t register.
The buttons are flush with the device, don’t offer any tactile feedback, and aren’t located where my fingers naturally rest. Obviously, as touch sensors they are also digital, meaning you can’t apply gentle pressure to accelerate.
You can file the shoulder buttons under gimmick. I really can't see anyone getting much use out of them.
I really can’t see anyone getting much use out of these. You can file them under gimmick — I’d have much preferred physical buttons.
There’s another extra button, and surprisingly, it’s actually useful. A switch on the top left will put you in a gaming mode, which changes the launcher into a horizontal scroll wheel of all your games and gives you access to gaming options like turning off notifications or entering a “High Performance” mode. This is also when the Aurora Band springs to life if you want.
Many phones these days have some kind of gaming launcher, but having it mapped to a button like this makes you more likely to use it, and just makes it that much easier to dive into a game and start playing. It feels much more like a device built for gaming. The easy access to my games, combined with the great performance, meant I actually enjoyed Android gaming a lot more.
Camera and software
This is a surprisingly awesome gaming phone, and it will blast through whatever you throw at it, but that’s not all it’s good at.
As I’ve alluded too numerous times in this post, this phone gives the Pocophone F1 a run for its money as the go-to affordable phone. It’s only slightly more expensive (with a $399 starting price) and adds some interesting features like cooling and lighting, with a more stock-like Android experience. This is essentially Android Pie, apart from a very basic homescreen launcher and support for the unique features like the launcher button. The default launcher has no app drawer — so you’ll want to get rid of that right away — but otherwise, this is a clean experience you can use however you like.
The Nubia Red Magic Mars features just a single f/1.8 16MP lens around the back, and an 8MP shooter on the front. Surprisingly, they’re not terrible. They’re not amazing by any stretch, and a definitely downgrade from the first Nubia Magic phone, but the cameras can produce some nice images for social media.
There’s a little added saturation going on in post processing, but nothing off putting. Auto exposure and dynamic range work well, and while there are no bokeh effects due to the single lens (and lack of AI), the wider aperture allows for some decent natural depth blur.
There’s honestly not a whole lot to say about this camera. It is weaker than flagships by a significant margin, and weaker than top offerings from Xiaomi and Honor. It’s definitely not in the “seriously budget” camp though.
The camera app also offers a surprisingly large number of different features, ranging from light painting to a pro mode. These features won’t turn you into a pro photographer, but they’re fun extras to play around with — especially light painting. You can see more camera samples here.
|Nubia Red Magic Mars|
18:9 aspect ratio
|Processor||10nm Snapdragon 845|
19W Fast Charging
|Water resistance||No IP rating|
Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
|SIM||Dual Nano SIM|
|Software||Android 9 Pie (minor customization)|
|Dimensions/Weight||158.2 x 75 x 9.9mm|
|Colors||Black, Red, Camo|
Not only is this a great gaming phone — but it’s also generally a very good value option. If you love mobile gaming but don’t want to fork out for the current best gaming phone, the ROG Phone, this is an excellent choice and the best budget gaming phone in town. For those not into gaming, the question will probably be whether or not you can live with the slightly garish gamer design. Either way, this is definitely one to watch.