Red Magic 3S review: The perfect gaming phone?

Gaming phones typically offer high performance, fast displays, big batteries and some kind of advanced cooling system. The Red Magic 3 offered all of those and more. Can its successor, the Red Magic 3S, bring something extra to the table?

About this Red Magic 3S review: I spent a week testing the Red Magic 3S. I also had help from my two boys when it came to the long, but necessary, hours of gaming needed to truly test this device. The device was running Android 9 Pie with the August 2019 security patch installed.
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Red Magic 3S review: It’s all about gaming

The Red Magic 3S is the latest gaming device from Nubia and an upgrade to its predecessor, the Red Magic 3. The specs of this device are impressive. It uses the Snapdragon 855+, has a 90Hz, 6.65-inch Full HD display with Corning Gorilla Glass, and packs at least 8GB of RAM (12GB on some models). Plus there is a 5,000mAh battery, 8K video recording, a built-in fan, hardware gaming buttons, and a dedicated gaming launcher. Expensive? Not really, the 8GB/128GB variant starts at $479 (€479/£419).

Red Magic 3S play store

What is it like to use the Red Magic 3S?

Red Magic 3S flat on wooden floor 16x9

Everything about the Red Magic 3S screams “gaming phone”. Its metal build, the RGB LED strip in the back, the shoulder buttons, the active cooling, and the dedicated game mode switch should give you a clue. That means you will probably either love it or hate it.

It feels well-made and weighs a hefty 215g, thanks partly to the size and partly to the aluminum construction. It is a big device with a big screen. Just what gamers want — but don’t expect it to slip easily into your pocket.

The back of the device has a distinctive design and includes an RGB LED strip. The strip can pull off all kinds of neat effects controlled in the settings, though it isn’t particularly bright during the day. On the sides are the shoulder buttons, a switch for entering Game Space, and a pin connector. Above the LED strip is a traditional fingerprint reader. It proved to be reliable and fast.

Red Magic 3S LED strip control app 16x9

In its normal mode, the Red Magic 3S comes with fairly stock Android 9 Pie and includes no bloatware, and no pre-installed games. But you do get the Google standard apps such as the Play Store, Gmail, and YouTube. This is all normal for the 3S. But then there is Game Space!

Is the Red Magic 3S good for gaming?

Red Magic 3S Game Space menu screenshot

Flicking the small red side switch activates Game Space, a dedicated launcher for playing games. As well as putting games front and center, the launcher also gives you controls for the fan, the RGB strip, the shoulder gaming buttons, and a way to mute notifications.

Red Magic 3S game mode switch 16x9

Perhaps the most notable thing here is the capacitive shoulder triggers. Thanks to some clever software, the buttons are surprisingly useful. You can map literally any point on the screen to the shoulder buttons in seconds, and save the settings on a per-game basis. Want to drift while playing Asphalt 9? Just use the hardware triggers!

Red Magic 3S button configuration screenshot

A good display is important for a gaming phone and thankfully the Red Magic 3S doesn’t disappoint. The screen is large (too large?) at 6.65 inches. Plus it is a 90Hz panel. Only a handful of games actually support 90Hz displays, so don’t expect to see a difference all the time. But, when it is supported by the game, pixel peepers will be happy. However, don’t make the mistake of confusing frame rate with refresh rate, there are two very different things. If you want to know more about the difference, then I have a video for you: 90Hz Displays, SurfaceFlinger, and Display Processors.

The purpose of the built-in fan is to enable long-term sustained performance.

As for gaming performance, you won’t be disappointed. The Snapdragon 855+, 8GB/12GB of RAM, and that fan are a sure recipe for success. Gameplay is smooth, especially for games such as Fortnite, Call of Duty Mobile, PUBG, and Critical Ops.

As for benchmarks, the Red Magic 3S scored 761 on Geekbench 5’s single score tests, 2657 on multi-core, and 481246 on AnTuTu V8. I ran both tests via Game Space with the fan running. I will also publish a Speed Test G run for the Red Magic 3S soon.

The purpose of the built-in fan is to enable long-term sustained performance. I will be releasing a video soon on the Gary Explains channel with more in-depth testing around the sustained performance of the Red Magic 3S and its active cooling!

Red Magic 3S fan control screenshot

As for audio, the Red Magic 3S has dual front-firing speakers and a headphone jack. The stereo separation is good for immersive gaming, and consuming media (like watching YouTube or Netflix) is enhanced. However, for both games and movies, using headphones is still the recommended way to get the best experience.

Haptic feedback via “4D intelligent vibration” completes the package. This is something we’ve seen in a few gaming devices, but not one 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 3S via the large connector on the other side of the phone. With it, you can connect the Pro Handle, a mini gamepad that sticks to the left-hand side of the device along with a protective case; and the Magic Adapter, a dock that includes ports for wired 100MB Ethernet, another headphone jack, and a USB-C port for charging your device while you are playing.

See also: Asus ROG Phone 2 review: Someone finally nailed the gaming phone

Does it have good battery life?

3D games eat through battery life like a caterpillar munching on a fresh spring leaf. That is why Nubia included a 5,000mAh battery and an 18W fast charger.

During my testing, I found that you can play around five hours of 3D games on one charge or watch 14 hours of media. That means you will get a full day out of the battery, including some gaming time, watching a whole movie, plus a few hours of social media. However, it really depends on what you are playing and for how long, along with other factors like screen brightness. If you don’t play any 3D games then you might get two days of normal usage out of the device, if you are careful.

The 18W fast charger will take the phone from 10% to 50% in 37 minutes. If you want a larger top-up, then 10% to 80% takes 60 minutes. For a full charge you will need to wait about 1 hour 45 minutes (the last 20% takes 45 minutes, which is typical for fast charging).

What is it like to use the camera?

Red Magic 3S camera lens 16x9

The Red Magic 3S only has one camera sensor, which is a little disappointing, however, at least it is a beast of a sensor: the 48MP Sony IMX586. On the plus side, that large megapixel count means you can zoom in close from a distance without too much data loss, though you’ll need to know what you’re doing. There’s also a pro mode, as is becoming increasingly standard.

However, the Red Magic 3S’ camera doesn’t perform as well as other phones, likely due in part to the lack of a secondary sensor and the software. Overall I found the images to be lacking in color and vibrancy, plus any computational features, like HDR, tended to be weak.

There is one exception to the rule, and that is the built-in night mode for taking pictures in low light. I was pleasantly surprised by how well this mode functioned, especially when considering the general performance of the main camera mode. Here is a sample picture of a normal photo spliced together with a night shot.

Red Magic 3 table at chairs at dusk using Night Mode Red Magic 3 table at chairs at dusk Red Magic 3 table at chairs at dusk using Night Mode
Red Magic 3 table at chairs at dusk

The Red Magic 3S can record 8K video, which sounds more impressive that it really is.

The video features include support for H.265, HDR10, and super-slow-motion. Nubia claims (in the camera UI and on its web site) that the 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.

There is also support for 8K video recording, which sounds impressive, but the camera app advises you use it outdoors, and it is limited to 15fps. But still, 8K! In practical terms, you likely won’t actually use it because you probably don’t have anything to watch it on, and as I said, 15fps!

There are also 1080p and 4K video options, both with options for 60fps. You have to opt between H.264 and H.265 for the encoder.

Red Magic 3S in hand and using the camera app 16x9

The front camera is a reasonable 16MP shooter, but without any fancy features like portrait mode. There is a beauty mode, but you will likely find you get better results without it enabled.

Overall, the camera on the Red Magic 3S is usable, but it isn’t best out there, not even in the top 20. If you are thinking about getting the Red Magic 3S because you are a gamer who likes to also take photos, then you will be disappointed. If you are a gamer who only takes the occasional snapshot, then you will be just fine.

Here are some sample pictures so you can judge for yourself. The Red Magic 3S full resolution camera samples are also available.

What I like about the Red Magic 3S

Red Magic 3S performance mode

The Red Magic 3 is good value for the money at $479 (€479/£419). The Snapdragon 855+ processor powering a device at this price point is amazing, plus you also get the built-in fan, at least 8GB of RAM, and the hardware shoulder buttons!

Besides the value, the 90Hz display is a nice addition. True, the number of games that support 90Hz displays is limited, but it adds a future-proofing dimension. Talking of games, the dedicated game mode is a neat feature and almost gives you the sense of having two-devices-in-one.

Other plus points are the dual speakers and 8K recording (even if limited to 15fps).

What I don’t like about the Red Magic 3S

Red Magic 3S logo when starting game mode 16x9

One complaint I have about the software is the inability to control the fan when not in Game Space. You can control the LED strip using a separate app, but there is no equivalent app for controlling the fan. I would have thought this would be a simple thing to add.

Another minor complaint is that the rounded edges of the display cut off a tiny bit of the UI at the top, which looks awkward.

As I wrote earlier, the camera is nothing to brag about, and while having a 48MP sensor might sound great, that number doesn’t translate into better photos. Also, there is no NFC or support for expandable storage via microSD.

The design of the device isn’t subtle and I guess it isn’t intended to be. I fear that it could be a polarizing feature. As is its size. Also, the LED strip is fun to play with, but after some initial entertainment the appeal wears off.

Red Magic 3S review: Should I buy it?

Red Magic 3S game mode 16x9

The Red Magic 3 is a great gaming phone and represents amazing value for the money. There are lots of good features, and if you don’t mind the mediocre camera then it is certainly worth considering.

Of course, there are other gaming phones out there, including the Black Shark 2, the Asus ROG Phone 2, and the Razer Phone 2. But those physical buttons, the bigger screen, the active cooling, and the price, make the Red Magic 3S a worthy contender.

Buy Red Magic 3S (USA & CA)
Buy Red Magic 3S (Europe)

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