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Red Magic 5G review: Big on gaming, small on everything else
Nubia Red Magic 5G
What we like
What we don't like
Gaming phones typically offer high performance, fast displays, big batteries, gaming triggers, and some kind of advanced cooling system. The Red Magic 5G offers all of those and some. Its predecessor, the Red Magic 3S, offered a similar set of gaming features, but this new iteration bumps the display’s refresh rate from 90Hz to 144Hz, adds a triple camera setup, and switches to an in-screen fingerprint reader.
Are the upgrades enough to make the Red Magic 5G a worthy successor? Find out in the Android Authority Red Magic 5G review.
Red Magic 5G review: It’s all about gaming
The Red Magic 5G is the latest gaming device from Nubia and an upgrade to its predecessor, the Red Magic 3S. The specs are impressive. It uses the Snapdragon 865, has a 6.65-inch Full HD display with Corning Gorilla Glass, and at least 8GB of RAM (12GB on some models). Plus, there is a 4,500mAh battery, a triple camera setup with 8K video recording, an in-screen fingerprint reader, built-in active liquid-cooling, hardware gaming buttons, and a dedicated gaming launcher.
The Snapdragon 865 coupled with a multi-sensor camera setup is common among premium Android smartphones, but the Red Magic 5G adds four important gaming features:
First, the 144Hz display. Most phones have a 60Hz display, or one that refreshes 60 times per second. 90Hz displays are increasingly popular at the high-end, and some phones now have 120Hz displays. Including a 144Hz display is a feature that raises the Red Magic 5G above the madding crowd. Faster is always better for gaming.
Second, is the liquid cooling, designed to allow for longer periods of intensive gameplay without the phone overheating.
Faster is always better for gaming.
Third, there are the hardware triggers. This feature might have zero practical use on a normal phone, but triggers are an excellent addition for gamers.
Last, there is the dedicated game mode, which brings gaming to the front and center.
What is it like to use the Red Magic 5G?
With its metal build, shoulder buttons, active cooling, and dedicated gaming mode, everything about the Red Magic 5G screams, “I am a gaming phone!” That means you’ll either love it or hate it.
The build quality is good and it weighs 218g. In the past, that would have made it a heavy phone, and it still is in many regards. The Red Magic 5G may be 17% heavier than the Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus, but it is still lighter than the S20 Ultra. However, it is longer, wider, and thicker than the already too-huge S20 Ultra. The Red Magic is a big device with a big screen, which is just what gamers want — though you might need bigger pockets.
The back of the device has a distinctive design that includes the triple camera setup and the Red Magic branding complete with LED lighting. Shoulder buttons, a switch for entering Game Space, and a pin connector are located on the side edges.
In its normal mode, the Red Magic 5G comes with fairly stock Android 10. It includes no bloatware and no pre-installed games, but there is the Red Magic Game Space.
The phone supports 5G in some markets, but not where we tested the phone.
Is the Red Magic 5G good for gaming?
Sliding the small red switch on the side of the phone activates Game Space, a dedicated launcher for gaming. In addition to putting games front and center, the launcher also gives you controls for the fan, the LED lights, the shoulder gaming buttons, and the in-game notification controls.
One of the most useful gaming features is the capacitive shoulder triggers. Thanks to some clever software, the buttons are surprisingly useful. You can map any point on the screen to the shoulder buttons, and save the settings on a per-game basis. Want to use your Nitro while playing Asphalt 9? Just use the shoulder triggers.
A good display is important for a gaming phone, and thankfully the Red Magic 5G doesn’t disappoint. The screen is large and has a faster-than-most refresh rate.
The number of games supporting 90Hz and 120Hz displays is growing, but not all games/apps do. Don’t expect to see a difference all the time, but when a game/app does support faster screens, pixel peepers will be happy.
However, be careful not to confuse frame rate with refresh rate, there are two very different things. The frame rate is how quickly the processor is able to generate frames in a game, whereas the refresh rate is how often the display physically refreshes the pixels on the screen. If nothing has changed between refreshes then the same pixels are displayed again. If you want to know more, then I have a video that will help: 90Hz Displays, SurfaceFlinger, and Display Processors.
The purpose of the built-in active cooling is to enable long-term, sustained performance.
As for gaming performance, you won’t be disappointed. The class-leading processor, zippy memory/storage combination, and embedded fan are a sure recipe for success. Gameplay is smooth, especially for games such as Fortnite, Call of Duty Mobile, PUBG, and Critical Ops.
For those who like benchmarks numbers, the Red Magic 5G performed about 5% faster than the Samsung Galaxy S20. As an interesting side note, the Red Magic 5G automatically switched on the fan when running the benchmark, even though it wasn’t in Game Mode. That doesn’t happen for other apps or games, which means the device detected the benchmark and reacted accordingly. Is that sinister? A little, yes.
The purpose of the built-in active cooling is to enable long-term sustained performance. Unfortunately, it is a bit hard to definitively discern if it makes a difference. I ran Geekbench and got the numbers above. I then did some intense 3D gaming for 30 minutes, without the fan, and then I ran Geekbench again. I saw just a 5% drop in the Geekbench score. After letting the device cool fully, I did the same thing again but with the fan running at max. At the end of the intensive 3D gaming, I saw a drop of 4% with Geekbench? Conclusive? Not really.
As for audio, the Red Magic 5G has a front-firing speaker (basically the earpiece) and a downward-firing speaker on the bottom. The headphone jack is on the top edge. This is different from the Red Magic 3S, which had dual front-firing speakers. I am not enough of an audiophile to hear the difference between the 3S and 5G’s speaker placement. To me, the stereo separation still sounds good and consuming media (like watching YouTube or Netflix) is enhanced. However, for both games and movies, headphones deliver the best experience.
Haptic feedback via “4D intelligent vibration” completes the package. This is something we’ve seen in a few devices, like the Honor Play, but it isn’t something that has particularly caught on. Games have to actively support the feature, and right now the only ones that do are PUBG, Knives Out, Asphalt 9, and QQ Speed.
Finally, for the truly dedicated gamer, there are some peripherals that can be used with the Red Magic 5G via the pin connector on the side of the phone. For example, connect the Magic Adapter dock for wired 100MB Ethernet, another headphone jack, and a USB-C port for charging your device while playing.
Does it have good battery life?
3D games eat through battery life like a caterpillar munching on a fresh spring leaf. That’s why Nubia included a 4,500mAh battery and fast charging. The phone supports charging up to 55W, but the included charger is just 18W. That’s disappointing.
During my testing, I found that you can play around five hours of 3D games or watch 14 hours of YouTube on one charge. That means on average you’ll get a full day out of the battery, which includes some time gaming, watching a movie, and browsing social media.
Switching from 144Hz to 60Hz should theoretically increase battery life; however, my testing was inconclusive: the device offered the same 14 hours of YouTube when in 60Hz mode.
The 18W fast charger will charge the phone from 0% to 50% in 40 minutes. If you want a larger top-up, then 0% to 80% takes 68 minutes. For a full charge, you will need to wait about 1 hour 30 minutes (the last 20% takes around 20 minutes, which is typical for fast charging).
How is the Red Magic 5G’s camera?
The Red Magic 5G has a triple camera setup, which a big improvement over the Red Magic 3S. The main sensor is a 64MP Sony IMX686, which is supported by an 8MP ultra wide-angle sensor, and a 2MP macro sensor.
Overall the camera is average on just about all accounts. Portrait mode works well enough via the rear-facing camera, and pro mode gives you manual control over settings like ISO and white balance.
The camera app UI lacks an obvious toggle to switch to ultra-wide mode. Which is a serious omission, considering the ultra-wide mode uses its own sensor and lens. But Nubia did include toggles to easily step between the zoom levels, up to 10x, which is almost pointless since there are no sensors/lens with higher magnification, it is all just digital zoom. You can also digitally zoom using a pinch gesture. If you hunt around you will finally find the ultra-wide toggle in the pro mode.
The camera app includes a built-in night mode for taking pictures in low light. I was pleasantly surprised by how well this mode functioned. Here is a sample picture of a normal photo spliced together with a night shot (above).
To use the macro lens, you need to swipe over to Camera-Family and tap on macro. The main problem with the macro camera is that it lacks autofocus. However, it does include a focus zoom assistant and focus peaking. When the object in the assistant area goes green then it is in focus (see above). If it isn’t in focus then move the camera slightly closer to or further from the subject until you find focus. It can be a little tedious, but the results are worth it.
The Red Magic 5G includes support for 8K video recording at 30fps.
The device includes support for 8K video recording at 30fps. That sounds impressive, but the camera app advises you use it outdoors. But still, 8K! It can also record 4K or 1080p at up to 60fps. You can opt between H.264, H.265, and HDR10 for the encoder.
The video camera also supports super-slow-motion capture. Nubia claims that super-slow-mo records at 1920fps. You can record a two-second clip which results in a 64-second movie running at 30fps. According to my calculations that makes it 960fps not 1920. There is also a 480fps mode that results in a similar 64-second movie, but doubles the recording length to four seconds.
The front camera is a reasonable 8MP shooter. Portrait mode is available, but I don’t think it does anything. There is a beauty mode, though you will likely find you get better results with it disabled.
Overall, the camera on the Red Magic 5G is usable, but it isn’t the best out there. If you are a gamer who prioritizes gaming over photography, then you will be just fine.
Here are some sample pictures so you can judge for yourself. (I apologize for the lack of interesting subject matter, in these times of lockdown, my options have been limited.)
What I don’t like about the Red Magic 5G
There are things to like about the Red Magic 5G, but there are more things that I don’t like — including one dealbreaker. It all comes down to the details. Nubia seems to have been so keen on upgrading the big-ticket items that the smaller stuff was forgotten.
This is minor, but it demonstrates the problem: There is no way to display the battery percentage next to the battery, nor is there any battery menu at all in the settings. I ended up installing a third-party battery app just so I could see the battery percentage.
There's no way to show the battery percentage next to the battery icon, nor is there a battery menu at all.
The Red Magic 5G ships with the March 2020 security update. However, judging by the lack of updates for the Red Magic 3S, which I reviewed at the end of October 2019, I wouldn’t expect to see monthly patches on the regular from Nubia.
I asked Nubia about the lack of updates and was told that, “Nubia aims to provide security updates and bug fixes on a regular basis… However, there have been some delays for the Red Magic 3S. Rest assured, an update is on the way in the coming weeks. We understand software is a very important part of the user experience and we expect to run a smoother update schedule moving forward.”
Specifically about the Red Magic 5G, Nubia told me, “updates will follow a stricter process (once every two months) as the activity is resuming in China. Updates will be more frequent at the early stage — once a month mostly for bug fixing.” I guess only time will tell.
Then there is the in-screen fingerprint reader. It is bad. Registering a fingerprint is an act of self-flagellation. It took me four attempts to register one fingerprint. Once I finally succeeded, I thought I would give the device the benefit of the doubt and register a different finger. After two failed attempts I just gave up. The registered fingerprint was able to unlock the device without any problems. However, there are reports from other users that reading/registering fingerprints is unreliable. Nubia said its engineers are working on the problem, but a fix isn’t imminent.
My list of annoying problems is quite long and includes the lack of wide-angle toggle in the camera app, the inability to control the fan when not in Game Space, and that the rounded edges of the display cut off a tiny bit of the UI at the top, which looks awkward (see below).
But the real deal-breaker for me is that you can’t change the default launcher. This is one of the key features that differentiates Android devices from the locked-down, walled garden approach of Apple. It is one of the fundamental freedoms of Android — but not if you buy the Red Magic 5G. It also means that I can’t run Speed Test G on this device. (The test itself is a replacement launcher.) This is a pity, as I had hoped the Red Magic 5G would gain the Speed Test G crown.
Personally, I would never buy a phone that doesn’t allow me to change the launcher. For many of you that won’t be an issue. But for me, it strikes a nerve.
Red Magic 5G specifications
AMOLED 6.65 inches Full HD+ @144Hz
128GB/256 GB UFS3.0
8MP Wide angle
55W rapid charging
18W brick included
Fingerprint, G-sensor, Electronic Compass, Gyroscope, Proximity, Ambient Light Sensor, Sensor hub
5G: NR n41/n78
WiFi 6 2x2 MIMO
Dimensions and weight
168.56 x 78 x 9.75 mm
Eclipse Black, Hot Rod Red, Pulse
Red Magic 5G review: Should I buy it?
The Red Magic 5G is a solid gaming phone, and the 144Hz screen makes it unique. There are lots of good features, like the hardware shoulder buttons, and if you don’t mind the mediocre camera, the uncertainty around future updates, and the inability to change the default launcher, then it is certainly worth considering.
There are two models of the Red Magic 5G. One variant comes with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage and is available in Eclipse Black or Hot Rod Red. It costs $579/€579/£539. The other has 12GB of RAM and 256GB of internal storage and costs $649/€649/£599.
At under $600 for the 8GB/128GB model is well priced. However, competitively priced devices with flagship Snapdragon processors used to be a rarity, but not any more. Devices like the Redmi K30 Pro and Realme X50 Pro 5G are two good examples. Right now there isn’t a better processor, so the Snapdragon 865 is certainly a big plus. On top of that, you get active-cooling, at least 8GB of RAM, and now NFC (something that was missing in the Red Magic 3S).
Of course, there are other gaming phones out there, including the Black Shark 3 series, and whatever comes after the Asus ROG Phone 2. Picking an outright winner at this point is hard, but the Red Magic 5G is certainly a contender.