Nubia RedMagic 5G review: Great for gaming, with some compromises
The Nubia RedMagic 5G combines two of the hottest trends in mobile at the moment – mobile gaming and next-gen 5G connectivity – in a phone that offers impressive specs and style at a decent price. Is it a worthwhile upgrade? We've spent a couple of weeks with the handset to try and find out.
At a glance:
- Plenty of power at a good price
- Strong battery life
- Software can be frustrating
- Average camera performance
We'll start with the design: this is a big, relatively hefty phone, with a 6.65-inch (1,080 x 2,340 pixel) OLED screen, a weight of 218 grams (7.7 oz), and a thickness of 9.8 mm (0.39 in) that allows it to house a 4,500-mAh battery. Like gaming laptops, gaming phones aren't known for their compactness, but that's about the same weight as the biggest Galaxy S20 phone, albeit a little thicker.
The screen is one of the main selling points of the phone – it's vibrant, it's sharp, and it's able to ramp up its refresh rate to 144 Hz, more on a par with a gaming monitor than a gaming phone. It's the highest refresh rate we've seen yet on a mobile device, besting the 120-Hz refresh rates of phones like the OnePlus 8 Pro and the Razer Phone 2 (although admittedly it's hard to tell the difference).
With the red accents on the back, this is not a phone for those who prefer an understated look – though most gamers probably won't mind. On the front there's no notch, just a slightly thick top and bottom bezel, and a fingerprint sensor built into the front display. In our eyes it's a good-looking, well-shaped handset, but admittedly it might be an acquired taste for some.
While we had the Eclipse Black red and black version of the RedMagic 5G, a couple of other color combinations are available: Hot Rod Red, which is mostly red with yellow accents, and Eclipse, which mixes red and a light, bright blue. In fact, the model we have is the most low key of the three as far as design goes.
In terms of its gaming credentials, the RedMagic 5G brings with it built-in capacitive shoulder buttons, an advanced cooling mechanism to keep gameplay stable under the most intense demands, and a top-tier Snapdragon 865 processor (just about the best CPU you'll see on an Android phone all year). That's paired with 8 GB or 12 GB of RAM, and 128 GB or 256 GB of storage, which again is in flagship territory.
Nubia says it's also applied some custom algorithms to its software to keep gameplay smooth and stutter-free. In our tests on Alto's Odyssey, Drive, and Asphalt 9, we certainly didn't notice any problems at all: the brightness of the OLED tech, the high refresh rate and the top-tier processor all combine to create a super-smooth gaming experience.
A special gaming mode can be activated with a flick of a physical switch, which is very cool, displaying all your installed games, enabling the capacitive trigger buttons, and muting notifications so your gaming session doesn't get interrupted. Battery drain increases too, so we're assuming the mode pushes the processor harder as well.
That high level of performance, combined with a superb screen and 5G connectivity, are the best parts of the RedMagic 5G package. It's worth noting though that only n41 and n78 5G bands are supported, which pretty much limits you to Sprint in the US. If you absolutely have to get 5G right now, you might need another phone.
If the speed, screen and 5G are what matter most – plus the rather appealing price, which we'll get on to – then you'll like the RedMagic 5G. It's not the camera to get if you prize photo quality above everything else though, as the 64 MP + 8 MP + 2 MP triple-lens camera is distinctly midrange, and definitely not flagship level. With the likes of the iPhone SE and the Pixel 3a, you can get better photos with cheaper phones.
That's not to say the camera is terrible – check the gallery attached to this article for example shots that we took. Color and detail are relatively well-produced, and while there's no optical zoom, there is a wide angle mode (it's very hidden away, which we didn't expect). Night shots are fine, with some good detail captured, and not too much noise as long as you can keep the camera steady (the special night mode helps here too).
If you want a super-powered phone with a big OLED screen at this price, compromises have to be made, and the camera is one of them. Software is another: as is typical of Chinese manufacturers, the Nubia version of Android installed here is a bit of a mess, with badly labeled menus, app crashes and strange design choices throughout (the gesture navigation system follows Google's lead mostly but not entirely, which is strange).
Another annoyance is that the phone fails Google's SafetyNet check, which is designed to detect rooted or heavily modified phones and block certain apps (like Google Pay) if the check isn't passed. Presumably the custom software is the problem, but it means some apps won't load up – including Netflix, which is frustrating.
When it comes to battery life, the phone performs better than what we've become accustomed to from modern phones, ending each day with plenty left in the tank having started from a full charge – as much as 50 percent on some days. That's even with fairly constant use, though we suspect a whole day of non-stop gaming would mean you would need a charger by the afternoon or evening.
In our standard battery test, where we stream a video for an hour at full brightness and medium volume, the Nubia RedMagic 5G went down from 100 percent of battery to just 94 percent, which is certainly better than average and extrapolates to more than 16 hours of streaming. It's another reason to think about buying this phone – and perhaps why Nubia went for a relatively low screen resolution – but it's also worth noting that there's no wireless charging support or waterproof protection here.
The question is, are you prepared to make a few compromises to get a phone that's very powerful and very good for gaming, with excellent battery life? The Nubia RedMagic 5G comes in at a very tempting US$579, and we think it might well find a market at that price.
If you don't want to spend $1,000 on a smartphone, you have to make some concessions somewhere. Take the Google Pixel 4a, which we're expecting to see in the next month or two for example: it will likely have a slower processor but a better camera than the RedMagic 5G – it'll also be cheaper, but restricted to 4G. It's all about what you want most from your phone (and whether you like red and black accents on the back).
All that considered, we'd say the Nubia RedMagic 5G ends up with more in the positives column than the negatives column. It definitely has its problems – which you should be aware of before you buy it – but it brings with it a whole load of mobile power and gaming goodness for an eye-catching price.
Product page: Nubia RedMagic 5G