As mobile gaming continues to explode, it has opened the door for the gaming-centric smartphone market to grow. We’ve seen devices like the Razer Phone, ASUS ROG Phone 3, and others, but Nubia wants to get in on the fun with its RedMagic lineup.
Earlier in the year, we saw the release of the RedMagic 5G, which packed all of the high-end specs you would expect to see. In fact, in our review of the RedMagic 5G, we gave the handset our “Editor’s Choice” award. For those looking at picking up a phone designed for gamers, the RedMagic 5G impressed in all the categories that matter.
Fast forward to the beginning of August, and Nubia was at it again. This time, we saw the announcement and subsequent release of the RedMagic 5S. When looking at the design of the 5G and the new 5S, you might think that these are pretty much the same phone. And truth be told, on paper, the RedMagic 5S is simply an incremental update.
As for those differences, the 5S features 5G, but only includes two bands and there is no support for mmWave. The built-in cooling system was also upgraded, providing a 4.3% boost in ventilation, complete with intelligent temperature sensors and a turbofan. Other than that, there really is not much difference between these two handsets.
RedMagic 5S Specifications
- Display: 6.65-inch OLED, FHD+ (2,340 x 1,080), 144Hz
- Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 865
- RAM: 8GB/12GB/16GB
- Storage: 128GB/256GB
- Battery: 4,500mAh, 55W charging
- Rear cameras: 64MP (wide), 8MP (ultrawide), 2MP (macro)
- Selfie camera: 8MP
- Biometrics: In-display fingerprint scanner
- Extras: 3.5mm Headphone jack, Capacitive Shoulder Triggers, Turbo Fan, Game Boost Switch, Stereo Speakers
Before getting to the fun stuff, let’s take a look at the design of the RedMagic 5S. As we’ve mentioned already, this is simply an incremental update compared to the RedMagic 5G launched earlier in the year. Nubia kept the dimensions of the 5S the same, while slightly increasing the weight and removing the RGB light panel.
We can’t speak for the Silver model, but with the Pulse colorway that is being reviewed, this phone pops. As soon as you take it out of the box, you are greeted with the awesome red and blue colors that shine and glimmer whenever light touches it. Just as the back glass plate transitions from red to blue, so does the aluminum frame. This simply unique and is actually refreshing compared to just about every other device we’ve seen in the last year.
Although the RedMagic 5S is another glass sandwich with an aluminum frame, there is a slight curve on the back. There’s the RedMagic logo found in the middle, with the triple-camera array at the top and a light-up logo at the bottom.
Starting on the right side of the frame, you’ll find two capacitive bumpers, placed at the “top” and “bottom” of the frame. Moving further down and there is the first of two air vents along with the volume rocker and power button. Then, on the left side, there is the other air vent, along with a dedicated switch for “Game Space” and some connector pins for an array of accessories to “enhance” your experience.
Nubia also included USB-C charging on the bottom, along with a 3.5mm headphone jack that is found at the top.
There’s something that I have to admit. Up until recently, I’ve been one of those “Apple” guys who didn’t think things like high refresh rates really mattered. The RedMagic 5S has completely changed my mind on that, and has really made me appreciate these faster displays. From the Pixel 4 last year to the upcoming Pixel 5 and even the Galaxy Z Fold 2, phone makers are adding displays high refresh rates, except for Apple.
The 5S features a 144Hz refresh rate, which is the same as my 34-inch ultrawide desktop monitor. But the thing about a refresh rate that insane on a mobile device is that everything is quick and snappy. Literally, everything that you do seems fast, unless you start getting slowed down by the software.
During my time with this bad-ass gaming phone, I opted to just leave 144Hz all of the time, just because it was that awesome to use. And Nubia has included a software feature so that you can manually set the refresh rate, while keeping an eye on it in the status bar.
RedMagic did a great job with this new display, as 144Hz is an absolute dream, but the performance is bogged down a bit by the software. Out of the box, you’ll find RedMagic OS 3.0, based on Android 10. But the skin is such that we continued to run into stuttering issues, and in some cases, I would have to put the phone to sleep just to continue doing whatever it was that I was doing at the time.
Keeping with the software, there are a few extra goodies that you can take advantage of in terms of customizing the 5S. Notably, there are quite a few pre-installed icon themes and wallpapers if you don’t want to install a third-party launcher. This is a nice touch, although we do wish there were more options to choose from, along with the ability to download more to use with the stock launcher.
Instead of taking the time to work out better image processing through the software, it seems that the camera largely went untouched on the 5S, when compared to the RedMagic 5G. The same 64MP Sony IMX686 sensor is onboard, along with a 2MP macro lens, and an 8MP wide-angle sensor. Here’s what Nick had to say about the camera system from the 5G:
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.
The same sentiment rings true, as we really wish RedMagic had put just a little bit more effort to take advantage of the IMX686 camera. If you really want to try and get the best picture, you’ll have to rely on Pro Mode or head into Lightroom after-the-fact.
Needless to say, there’s not much traveling going on nowadays, so there’s less of a reason to be concerned with battery life. But I’m proud to report that the RedMagic 5S blew me away when it came to battery life. Spending a few hours every day playing some Call of Duty Mobile or PUBG drained it, but at a much slower rate than I was expecting, especially when the same amount of time playing on my Z Fold 2 means that I’ll need to be reaching for a charger before 8 PM.
There are a few odd things about the RedMagic 5S when it comes to charging on the whole. The first of which is the fact that this phone is capable of taking advantage of Quick Charge at 55W. However, the charger in the box is limited to just 18W, which is rather head-scratching. Sure, I have plenty of “fast” chargers around the apartment, but that’s not the same case for everyone. There’s also no wireless charging, which makes sense with the aluminum build, so no harm, no foul in that department.
The final oddity for me came when I charged the RedMagic 5S for the first time. I had headphones in and was sitting at my desk, took them off to answer a work call, and head this weird buzzing noise. I figured it was just my PC or MacBook Pro ramping up to do something in the background with the 20 open Chrome tabs. Nope, it was the RedMagic. The internal fans ramped up to help ensure that the 5S doesn’t get too hot while being charged, similarly to how you can turn the fans on in the Game Space mode to keep your hands cool.
It was a pleasant surprise, but one that not everyone will be a fan of, no pun intended. Overall, battery life has been a pleasant surprise, as I consistently was able to last throughout the full day without needing to even do a quick top off to make it to bedtime. If you do decide to pick up the RedMagic, just make sure you grab a compatible 55W Quick Charge wall adapter,
It’s time to game
In the days before receiving the RedMagic 5S to review, I have to admit that the most gaming I’ve done on a phone has been relegated to random games that appear on the top charts of the Play Store. However, with the combination of the dedicated gaming mode and the touch-bumpers, it was time to change that. Firing up Call of Duty Mobile turned out to be quite fruitful, as it almost felt like I had a competitive edge in many of the matches that I was participating in. With the 144Hz refresh rate enabled, on-screen controls were a breeze, and there was not a single time where the game, or the phone, experienced any lag or stuttering.
The problem with the built-in bumpers is that they are only designed to work with a certain subset of games. Call of Duty Mobile, unfortunately, was not one of them, so it was time to try my hand at PUBG. Being the first time that I’ve ever played PUBG, let alone on a smartphone, I was a bit concerned about how the experience was going to end up. Nonetheless, I flipped the switch on the RedMagic to enable the custom “Game Space”, which provides a completely different interface from the rest of the phone and is activated with the aforementioned switch.
From there, you can head into the various customization options, or just jump into a game that is pre-populated in the main Game Space menu. So one question I had related to this “magical” new capacitive buttons was how in the world can I actually use them? They don’t appear automatically, and some apps seemingly can’t even take advantage of them. But here’s what you can do. Fire up your favorite game, and then swipe in from the right. This is where you’ll find all of the custom controls you’ll need to make the most out of the RedMagic 5S. Quickly adjust the brightness, turn on your fans, switch the refresh rate, or just tap the Gaming Enhancement button and let the software help you to get the best performance.
Customizing the should triggers is a bit more tedious, as you’ll want to actually be playing the game in order to get things set up just right. Once the game has started, swipe over from the right again, tap Shoulder Triggers, and then drag the L and R buttons to the right areas on the screen. Obviously, if you’re playing a shooter, you might want the left bumper to act as your aiming mechanism, with the right bumper to pull the trigger. Nonetheless, the customization is there, and you can move the bumpers around to perform whatever on-screen tasks you want.
I’ve got to say, playing PUBG for the first time, and winning my first few matches was enough to sell me on the Shoulder Triggers. That, paired with the customizable performance modes and higher refresh rate, and this might just be the best gaming phone on the market.
Should you buy the RedMagic 5S?
If you’re planning on buying the RedMagic 5S as your daily driver, I would probably tell you to look elsewhere and to check out something like the upcoming Pixel 5 or the recently-released Samsung Galaxy S20 FE. However, if you want the best gaming experience on a smartphone, and don’t want to fork out $1,000 to ASUS for the ROG Phone 3, then you will be more than happy with the RedMagic 5S.
There are a few limitations to be aware of, outside of the software experience. There are only a few 5G bands built into the 5S, so you shouldn’t pick this up just for 5G connectivity on a gaming phone. The camera leaves a lot to be desired, but is just fine for most folks and pictures can be improved if you are comfortable using Pro Mode. The final frustration comes down to the first-party accessories.
See, RedMagic launched a few new accessories designed to enhance the experience. Including the likes of the Ice Dock for even better cooling, along with the Pro Handle so you can turn the 5S into an Android-powered Switch console. The problem comes in with the general availability of these, as they are not generally available for purchase, or you have to wait upwards of a month for them to arrive. We wish that they would have been more easily accessible, but maybe that will change as we get further away from the launch.
RedMagic 5S Rating: star_fullstar_fullstar_fullstar_fullstar_25 (4.25 / 5)
- Display feels like a cheat-code for mobile gaming
- Fingerprint scanner is faster than expected
- All-day battery life, even with long gaming sessions
- “Pulse” color option is sure to stand out
- Software is still buggy
- Same mediocre camera
- Limited 5G bands
- First-party accessories are difficult to purchase
The Bottom Line
The RedMagic 5S is arguably the best gaming phone of 2020, just be prepared to deal with some software issues when using the phone as a phone and not as a mobile gaming device. Mobile gaming combined with the 144Hz refresh rate is a dream, and you’ll never want to go back to anything else.