When the likes of Razer and Asus began releasing ‘dedicated’ gaming phones a short while back, it was tempting to surmise that this trend would be a short-lived one. After all, if Sony couldn’t break the market with its Xperia Play “PlayStation Phone”, what hope was there for anyone else? However, the market is clearly mature enough to support such ventures because not only have we seen sequels like the Razer Phone 2, we’ve also seen other competitors enter the arena, including the Xiaomi-backed Black Shark and Nubia, a company that can trace its roots back to Chinese giant ZTE.
The Nubia Red Magic 3 is, of course, the subject of this review, and represents the company’s third stab at perfecting the whole ‘gaming phone’ concept (the Red Magic Mars is considered to be the Red Magic 2 in all but name). Boasting a Snapdragon 855 processor, 90Hz AMOLED screen, dual speakers with DTS:X support and a dedicated gaming mode cooled by a proper internal fan, the Red Magic 3 clearly means business – and all for just £420/$479. But is it better than the competition? Let’s find out.
Nubia Red Magic 3 Review: Design & Display
Gaming phones have one thing in common – they’re absolutely massive thanks to the fact that they usually boast a large display. The Red Magic 3 does nothing to buck this trend, and actually pushes the envelope when it comes to sheer size; thanks to that 6.65-inch screen (which, it should be noted, does have bezels at the top and bottom) this is an utterly massive handset that needs two hands to use comfortably. A few years back, owning a phone with these kind of dimensions would have been laughable, but it’s less jarring in 2019 – even if you might have trouble actually fitting it into the pocket of your skinny-fit jeans, as we did.
Build quality is excellent throughout. The bodywork is metal, and at well over 200 grams, this is a hefty handset. The black and red colour scheme is eye-catching without being too in-your-face, and the angular details – such as the hexagonal fingerprint scanner on the back and the diamond-shaped camera module – really tie into this design approach. The star of the show is the LED strip which runs down the back of the device and can be configured to light or pulse in different colours and patterns depending on what the phone is doing. There’s even an LED-powered Red Magic logo at the bottom which can be turned on for maximum bling.
The power button and volume rocker are located on the right-hand side of the phone, alongside a vent for the internal fan. You’ll also find two capacitive ‘shoulder’ buttons which are used when gaming. On the opposite side you’ll find a red switch which puts the phone into ‘gaming mode’, opening up a special menu and turning on the internal fan. The idea is that this mode will allow you to get more power out of the phone’s processor so gameplay runs smoother. Within the gaming mode, you can tinker with settings to get the ideal configuration for you. Also on the left-hand side of the device is a set of pogo pins which allow you to dock the handset. The dock (which we’ll come to later) is even cable of charging the phone and accepting a wired LAN connection for internet (we told you this was a serious gaming phone).
The top edge of the device has a 3.5mm headphone jack, which is a nice touch, while the bottom edge is home to the USB-C port and in-call microphone. There’s no wireless charging or water resistance rating, and the phone also lacks NFC, which is a shame.
The screen is one of the best AMOLEDs we’ve seen on any mobile phone, and is incredibly bright and punchy. The resolution of 2,340 x 1,080 pixels isn’t as high as you’d find on Samsung’s phones, but there comes a point where adding in those extra pixels doesn’t make a massive difference to the end user. The 19.5:9 aspect ratio is also refreshingly forward-thinking, too.
Nubia Red Magic 3 Review: Software
The Red Magic 3 is running Android 9, and it’s a fairly stock version of the mobile OS, although Nubia has made some tweaks here and there, such as removing the ‘Google Now’ panel from the right-hand home screen, changing some of the default notification sounds and adding in additional menu options to cover things like configuring the LED strip and the phone’s behaviour when it’s docked.
The biggest issue here is that some of the things Nubia has added are accompanied by some pretty dire English translations that make it hard to figure out what to do. For example, we got an error message when trying to set up the Red Magic eSports Handle (more on that shortly) that mentioned a ‘Competitive’ button. It turns out, this is Nubia’s parlance for the gaming mode switch, which sounds obvious when you make the connection but it had us scratching our heads for ages. Also, “Open Red Magic Symbol Lamp” actually means “Turn on Red Magic Logo LED”. The UI is peppered with these little oddities, and while it’s almost always possible to figure out what they mean, it does take the shine of the experience for English-language users.
Outside of these niggles, it’s hard to fault the Red Magic 3 from a software standpoint. There’s very little in the way of bloatware and everything is fast and responsive.
Nubia Red Magic 3 Review: Performance
There once was a time when only the most expensive handsets were blessed with Qualcomm’s top-tier silicon, but here we have the latest Snapdragon 855 processor inside a phone that costs less than £500; the Black Shark 2 performs the same trick, as it happens.
Backed with 8GB of RAM, the 855 chipset enables the Red Magic 3 to match the best the Android sector has to offer without any issues whatsoever. Basic tasks like navigating the UI, switching between apps and viewing HD movies on services like YouTube and Netflix didn’t trouble the phone at all; it was rock-steady, even when performing several tasks simultaneously.
Given its gaming aspirations, we naturally had to test the Red Magic 3 fully in this area, and it didn’t disappoint once. It’s very common to see 3D games on Android phones impacted by inconsistent frame rates, screen tearing and other issues, but none of these problems presented themselves during our time with Nubia’s phone.
Titles like Mortal Kombat, Real Racing 3, Modern Combat 5 and FIFA ran perfectly, and that 90Hz display certainly does help when it comes to maintaining smooth gameplay. Games run well even with the gaming mode turned off, but flick it on and you’re presented with a menu which allows you to tailor your experience even further; not only does this mode boost the performance of your phone’s internals, it also offers a 4D Shock mode for force feedback. You can choose to block incoming messages, take screenshots and even adjust the speed of the fan. This element of the phone’s design is actually more important than you might assume, as the Red Magic 3’s high-performance mode generates a lot of heat during use.
Nubia Red Magic 3 Review: Accessories
Like many gaming phones on the market, the Red Magic 3 is backed by a range of accessories which really enhance the entertainment experience. The most obvious of these is the eSports Handles, which look a lot like the Joy-Con you see on the Nintendo Switch console. These connect wirelessly to the console and can be used as separate controllers when you’re playing in docked mode (again, we’ll get to that bit shortly), but they also bolt onto the side of a special case you can buy which turns the Red Magic 3 into something that looks very similar to Nintendo’s best-selling hybrid console. The Black Shark 2 has similar controllers.
With an analogue stick, four face buttons and shoulder triggers at both the top and bottom (a second eSports Handle can be fitted upside down on the right side of the case to give you a full suite of controls, you see), these are pretty versatile pads, and they work really well in games that support them.
Sadly, this can be a bit hit-and-miss; Real Racing 3, for example, automatically detected the left-hand controller, as did Modern Combat 5 and Asphalt 9. However, Modern Combat refused to acknowledge the right-hand controller. We also had to use the phone’s built-in button mapping feature to get physical controls working in games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite. It’s not a deal breaker by any means, but it’s hardly pick-up-and-play in the same way a Nintendo Switch is.
The dock is the final accessory we were sent to review, and works well enough. You have to remove any case you have fitted to the phone because it connects via a set of pogo pins on the side of the handset. Once fitted, you can either play it on a table, just like the Switch’s tabletop mode and connect your charger or 3.5mm headphones. A LAN port is included for those who are really serious about reducing latency in online gaming.
Nubia Red Magic 3 Review: Camera & Battery Life
If there was ever an area where you’d expect a gaming phone to be weak in, it would be photography – and that’s the case with the Red Magic 3. Cramming all of that cutting-edge tech into a sub-£500 handset means something has to give, right? The end result is that Nubia has opted for a single 48-megapixel Sony IMX586 sensor for snaps, which means the Red Magic 3 is offering entry-level photo powers compared to many of its 2019 rivals.
While that might sound too negative, it’s worth pointing out that in the right conditions the Red Magic 3 is perfectly capable of taking good photos; after all, the IMX586 is found in plenty of other 2019 phones, so it’s obviously solid tech. On a sunny day, the Red Magic 3 can capture good detail and colour, although it does sometimes overexpose elements like the sky and isn’t great at hitting that contrast balance between light and dark parts of the image. Low-light shooting is also pretty poor.
Some of this will be down to the fact that it lacks the complex AI-powered smarts seen in phones like the Google Pixel 3 and Honor View 20. Hardware really is just one part of the equation these days, and companies like Huawei and Google are investing a lot of time into making sure the software can do the heavy lifting. Having said that, the Red Magic 3 still manages to create decent bokeh effects despite lacking a second camera, and shutter speed is refreshingly quick. To be honest, in good conditions it’s really hard to take a bad image with this device, and for the asking price, you really can’t grumble too much.
Here are some sample images, taken with HDR turned on:
In terms of video, the fact that the phone is capable of recording 4K footage at 60fps is noteworthy. The quality isn’t groundbreaking but it’s still impressive, especially when you consider the price of the phone. There’s even an 8K option (that’s still in beta, we should add), but captured footage is really jerky; we can’t see many people using it.
The phone’s 5,000mAh battery is something of a beast, and with good reason – when you’re doing demanding tasks like gaming you need all the juice you can get if you want the phone to last longer than a few hours. Predictably, if you put the phone into high-performance mode then you’re going to eat through that power faster than under normal usage. It seems that Nubia has opted for a power cell that, even if you’re doing a lot of gaming, will still last you at least a day; that certainly seemed to be the case during our review period. When we ease off the gaming and adopted a more casual usage pattern, we were getting well over a day of use out of a single charge.
The phone comes with an 18W charger which tops things up reasonably quick, considering the size of the battery. There’s no wireless charging, sadly.
Nubia Red Magic 3 Review: Verdict
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While a great many of us probably don’t feel we need a gaming phone, it’s becoming hard to ignore the fact that if you’re shopping on a budget but still want cutting-edge specs, this is the kind of device you should probably look into. The Red Magic 3 has a fantastic 90Hz AMOLED screen, brilliant sound, optional physical controls and a massive battery, yet it’s around half the price of the Samsung Galaxy S10.
Sure, it lacks features like wireless charging, NFC and water resistance, but these are easy to live without when you consider how much you’re actually getting for less than £500. Add in the optional gaming accessories and the fact that it effectively doubles as a proper games console (even more so when you consider all of those lovely emulators you can download), and the Red Magic 3 becomes even harder to ignore. It may be big and the software has its quirks, but this is one gaming phone you should check out, even if you don’t intend to do any actual gaming on it.
Best Price | Red Magic – £420/$479
Damien McFerran has been covering phones and mobile technology for well over a decade. An Android specialist, as well as an expert reviewer of phones, Damien is one of the best technology journalists working today. He is also editorial director over at the excellent Nintendo Life.