Jun 18th, 2020

As someone who reviews smartphones for a living, as you might imagine I get a lot of questions from friends and family wondering which smartphone they should buy. I always make sure to ask a few questions about their use cases, if they’re locked into the Apple ecosystem and what they expect from the cameras and the battery life of their phones. Unsurprisingly, performance and display refresh rates are never a big concern for most people since all they really want to do is endlessly scroll their social media feeds, make a few phone calls or play a few rounds of the latest puzzle game that they downloaded from an ad on Facebook.

A phone like this, the Red Magic 5G, wouldn’t be remotely interesting to anyone I know in the real world, but it’s actually one of my favorite devices of 2020.

One of the reasons why I’ve been a fan of the Android platform since its inception is because there have never been any restrictions from Google as to what the operating system can be used for. There are Android-powered refrigerators, portable projectors, laptops, and everything in between. The Nubia Red Magic 5G isn’t technically too far fetched when compared to some of the crazy devices that use Android these days, but it’s an amazingly absurd smartphone when you hold it up to traditional offerings from Samsung, Motorola, or LG.

Nubia has taken what the gaming community loves most about their custom-built PCs and crammed them into a beast of a smartphone that costs significantly less than what the competition is charging. The phone is packed to the gills with impressive tech including the new SD865 from Qualcomm, an AMOLED display with a 144Hz refresh rate, 8GB to 12GB of incredibly-fast LPDDR5 RAM, capacitive trigger buttons and an active cooling system that allows the phone’s processor to stay cool during long gaming sessions. Oh, and let’s not forget the RGB lighting on the back. All that for just $579 which is a steal when you compare it to other flagship-tier smartphones in 2020.

Design

The first thing you’ll notice about the Nubia Red Magic 5G is that it doesn’t look like your usual smartphone. Yes, the phone is built from glass and metal like nearly every other device these days, but Nubia has given the glass on the back of the phone a lot more character than what we’re used to seeing. Using a variety of different textures and red accented lines, the Red Magic 5G’s back cover prominently depicts a bold X with the Nubia and Red Magic logos accented with LED backlights which can be customized with a variety of different lighting scenes.

Along the phone’s right edge you’ll find the power button and volume rocker, its capacitive trigger buttons, and an exhaust vent for the internal fan that keeps the CPU running cool. Along the top edge, you’ll find the 3.5mm headphone jack while the bottom edge houses the UBC port, SIM slot, and speaker grill. The left edge sports the intake vent, Game Space switch, and Nubia’s accessory port which allows the Red Magic 5G to interface with its gaming accessories.

Despite only having a 6.65-inch display, the Red Magic 5G is a hefty device, weighing in at 218 grams (the same weights as the LG V60. The phone’s 4500 mAh battery definitely contributes to the excessive weight, but so does the phone’s unique cooling system. 

Display

One of the unique characteristics that sets the Red Magic 5G apart from the competition is the display’s 144Hz refresh rate. The 6.65-inch AMOLED panel is set to 90Hz right out of the box. While this feature is mainly intended for gaming, the high refresh rate is also noticeable when going through the phone’s main interface and using everyday apps. Browsing the web in Chrome is significantly smoother at 144Hz as is scrolling through your feeds on Instagram and Facebook. 

While the display does have an extremely fast refresh rate, it’s resolution is limited to 2340 x 1080. If you’re among those who complain about seeing individual pixels on anything that’s lower resolution than QHD, you’ll likely have issues here, but I honestly don’t have anything to complain about. The AMOLED panel is still pretty crisp with fairly accurate color reproduction using the sRGB mode, but you can adjust the color temperature to your liking or use the “Normal mode” or “Colorful Mode” to bump up the saturation a bit. 

Unlike most flagship devices that sport curved screens, the Red Magic 5G uses a flat panel. I have to admit that curved screens do give a phone a sleeker look, but they also add unnecessary glare and introduce false taps on the screen — two issues that the Red Magic 5G avoids.

I was also really pleased with the viewing angles and overall brightness which dipped down low enough to be used comfortably at night when the bedroom lights were out while also being bright enough to be used in direct sunlight cranked all the way up. The one thing I wish Nubia would have included is support for HDR10 during video playback. After using so many new devices with HDR10 support, I had forgotten how amazing the feature is when watching content on Netflix or Disney+.

Software

I don’t think I need to remind you that there are very few Chinese companies that offer an acceptable software experience for the average consumer in the West. Nubia’s main devices still adhere to the usual iOS copy-cat UI enhancements, but the Red Magic phones have featured software that’s a lot closer to stock Android than what you might expect. The user interface is still customized, but Nubia has stripped out most of the bloat and delivered an experience that’s more in tune with what most gamers are looking for. It’s clean, simple and in a lot of ways better than what we’ve seen from players like LG and Sony as of late.

Nubia also deserves a lot of credit for stripping as much bloatware as possible. When turning the phone on for the first time, I was shocked to see that there were less than 25 apps pre-installed on the phone. And that number includes all the Google apps that you find on every Android device. Nubia even stripped out its own SMS app in favor of Google’s Messages app. The default launcher gives you the option to throw all your apps onto the home screen or use the traditional app drawer and you also get the Google Feed to the left of the main home screen.

There’s aren’t a whole lot of customization options for the launcher. If you want a custom icon pack you’ll need to install a third-party launcher, but Nubia does give you a lot of control over the always-on display, something that I truly appreciate. Nubia also has a few bugs to sort out like only being able to create a single app shortcut on the home screen, needing to manually remove each app from a folder rather than being able to delete the entire folder and all of its content at once and numbers on the PIN lock screen that are not visible if you use a dark wallpaper.

When you slide the Game Space switch to the on position, the phone launches its dedicated gaming interface. Here you’ll be able to add your favorite games to the game launcher, tweak the phone’s custom game settings, and view which games you’ve played the most. In order to use the capacitive triggers on the side of the phone you’ll need to launch the games from Game Space. You’ll also be able to toggle between different screen refresh rates on the fly or turn the cooling fan on or off.

Performance

As you might expect, the Nubia Red Magic Mars is a performance champ. That being said, the device doesn’t offer any real performance advantage over any other device running on a Snapdragon 865 SoC. The unique cooling system does keep the chip cooler over long gaming sessions, but that’s the only advantage that the phone really offers. As of right now, there are less than a dozen games that support 144Hz refresh rates, but there are nearly 300 games that offer 120Hz support.

That being said, the gaming experience that the Red Magic 5G delivers is second to none thanks to the unique hardware features of the phone. The capacitive triggers make games like Call of Duty Mobile, Fortnite, and PUBG even more enjoyable and may give you a bit of an edge over the competition. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve died in CODM simply because I missed the on-screen trigger button by a half a millimeter with my thump. The capacitive trigger is a lot harder to miss and a lot more comfortable for those who play first-person shooters with a controller.

The 8GB model I was sent does a great job of keeping apps running in the background, allowing you to multi-task to your heart’s content. I can imagine that the upgraded model with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage would be able to hang with the Galaxy S20 and OnePlus 8 phones that offer the same amount of RAM.

Cameras

The camera hardware used by the Red Magic 5G is quite impressive. The main camera on the back of the phone uses the 64MP Sony IMX686 sensor, supported by a 2MP macro camera and 8MP wide-angle camera. The results are mediocre which is a bit of a disappointment since we know that the IMX686 sensor is capable of capturing some stunning shots. The images typically turn out OK when capturing images outdoors or with decent lighting, but they do lack the extra pop that you typically get on cameras on Galaxy and Pixel devices. Nubia could do a lot more to optimize the image processing it does on the photos, but if you want to take things into your own hands you can always use the Pro setting and capture RAW images to edit yourself in Lightroom. 

The 8MP wide-angle camera is decent for such a low-resolution sensor, but I’m still confused as to why Nubia and every other smartphone manufacturer these days seem to be obsessed with macro cameras. The results from the 2MP macro camera are laughable as it doesn’t include an auto-focus lens. This forces you to move the phone in order to get the focus just right.

The 8MP front-facing camera can take decent pictures once you turn off the beauty mode settings, but don’t bother pulling the phone out to take pictures at night or in low-light situations. The images the phone captures during those times are a smudgy mess, comparable to low-light selfies you typically get from a $300 smartphone.

Battery life

Getting a feel for battery life on the Nubia Red Magic 5G was a bit harder than usual. Due to the phone’s unique gaming features, I played a lot more games on the phone than I typically do on other devices. The 4,500 mAh will deliver roughly 5 and a half hours of continual gaming or 13 hours of video playback. That’s not the best we’ve ever seen, but it’s still fairly impressive.

Switching the display to 60Hz offers slightly better battery life, but the phone does automatically adjust the display’s refresh rate when you have it set to 90Hz or 144Hz based on the maximum refresh rate allowed by the game or application.

The device doesn’t support wireless charging, but it does offer up to 55W fast charging. Unfortunately, the charger that comes with the phone only delivers 18W which can deliver a 50% charge to the phone in 40 minutes. If you happen to have a 55W charger already, you’ll be able to go from 0% to 100% in about 50 minutes.

Final thoughts

The Nubia Red Magic 5G is far from being the perfect everyday smartphone. There are devices with much better cameras, software, and battery life, but there are few smartphones out there that live up to their promises. The Red Magic 5G is a gaming-first smartphone that promises best-in-class performance and that’s exactly what it delivers. If all you want is a powerful smartphone that can deliver an impeccable gaming experience, this is the phone you’ve been waiting for.

While most other phones offering similar performance cost $800 or more, the Nubia Red Magic 5G is selling for just $579 for the base model and $650 for the 12GB variant, delivering unprecedented value in an age when premium hardware has become synonymous with a $1,000 price tag.

Buy the Nubia Red Magic 5G

 

Nubia Red Magic 5G Rating: star_fullstar_fullstar_fullstar_fullstar_empty (4/5)

The Good

  • Display
  • Performance
  • Capacitive triggers
  • Cooling fan

The Bad

  • Cameras
  • Battery life
  • Software bugs

The Bottom Line

The Nubia Red Magic 5G is a smartphone that delivers the ultimate gaming experience on Android. If that’s what you’re looking for, you won’t be disappointed.