I'll admit, I thought that Android gaming phones were a stupid idea. But after using the Red Magic 3S off and on over the last month, I'm happy to say that my attitude was wrong. That's not to say I'd recommend using one as your only phone — I wouldn't — but there's definitely a point to gaming phones, and the Red Magic 3S has a lot of potential, packing a great software experience together with price-defying hardware. I just wouldn't buy one to use as my only phone.

Before I dive in too deep here, I want to make one thing clear: This isn't going to be your typical review, it's closer to an editorial. I really like the Red Magic 3S, but after using it intermittently over the last few weeks, I just can't place it in the same product category as most phones. The same gotchas and caveats don't apply, even if it ostensibly sits in the same market. For me, the Red Magic 3S is closer to being an Android-powered portable game console than an actual phone, and it can't really be discussed in the same way as a phone.

Specs

Display 6.65" Full HD 90Hz AMOLED
Chipset Snapdragon 855 Plus + Adreno 640
Rear Camera f/1.7 48MP Sony IMX586
Battery 5,000mAh, 18W quick charge
Software Android 9 Pie
Storage Up to 256GB UFS 3.0
RAM up to 12GB
Misc Mappable capacitive shoulder triggers, stereo front-facing speakers, "active liquid cooling" with internal fan
Colors Red/blue gradient, Black, Silver
Headphone jack Yes
Security Rear-mounted fingerprint sensor
Connectivity 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0 w/aptX support, no NFC
Misc. Notification light, stereo front-facing speakers, rear RGB light

The Good

Screen Surprisingly good display.
Performance Very, very snappy.
Software Almost totally stock, no stupid or unnecessary changes.
Headphone jack It has one.
Battery life You can play games for almost half the day, if you want to.

The Not So Good

Sound Noticeably imbalanced audio from the front-facing speakers.
Size This is an utterly massive, monstrous, ridiculously large phone.
IP rating All those vents and holes for active cooling mean it can't withstand a drizzle, let alone a dip.
Shoulder triggers I'd have preferred physical buttons, capacitive triggers are a bit too sensitive sometimes.
Camera Mediocre at best.
No NFC No contactless payments is a downer if you planned to use it as your daily driver.

2 xtreme 4 your hands

Physically, gaming phones can't seem to escape the whole hard edged, brightly colored, RGB lit, "xtreme gamerz" ostentatious look, and I hate it just as much with the Red Magic 3S as I do in other devices like the ASUS ROG Phone II. Outside aesthetics, the phone has an otherwise nice build quality, with a substantial metal unibody design sloping smoothly to the flat-fronted display — no curved screen here. That screen is big, too, at 6.65" from corner to corner, driven by a 90Hz AMOLED 1080p panel. I might otherwise consider the sheer size of the phone a drawback, but this isn't really meant to be used like other devices.

That's a Note10+ next to the Red Magic 3S — this is a big phone.

On the right side (which you should really think of as the top, since the phone is clearly built to play games in landscape) are most of the controls. You've got capacitive shoulder triggers that you can map to taps, the volume rocker, power button, and a vent. The left/bottom has a pogo pin connector meant for use with the Magic Adapter — an accessory you'll probably never be interested in — the SIM tray, and a "Game Space"/"GameBoost" hardware switch for flipping over into the phone's dedicated gaming mode. The top/left has a headphone jack, and the bottom/right has a USB Type-C port and another down-firing grille for the bottom speaker.

Although the phone has stereo front-facing speakers, the two channels don't sound the same. The top is tinny, hollow, and much quieter than the bottom speaker, which is decently loud. It was very noticeable when watching videos or playing games, and it detracted from an otherwise enjoyable landscape experience.

The triggers really make a night-and-day difference in a lot of games.

The Red Magic 3S is a substantial device with a love-it-or-hate-it physical design that I honestly find sort of revolting, but at least you don't have to look at the back too often. And if you can get over that detail, it feels pretty comfortable in your hands, and that's one less thing to get in the way of the games.

Making mobile gaming fun, not frustrating

I've always found playing games on a phone to be pretty frustrating outside of casual titles. Given the nature of touch-based controls, shooters like Fortnite or Call of Duty were always a nightmare on the tiny touchscreen for me. I still don't think that I'd ever choose the platform over PC or console, but the Red Magic 3S makes playing some games a whole lot more pleasant.

XDA's Max Weinbach carrying me to victory in Fortnite.

Over the last month or so, the Red Magic 3S has taken over some of my Nintendo Switch's duties. To be fair, I don't play a whole lot of games, there just aren't enough hours in the day anymore. So when I do, I want to have a trouble-free and fun time. And even though mobile games aren't really my jam, it's been fun playing the Tropico release, getting carried to victory at Fortnite, and renovating the 'ol farm in Stardew Valley.

Some games, like Pokemon Go, don't really see a tangible benefit from the extra features on the Red Magic 3S. In general, anything on the more casual end of the spectrum with simpler controls works just as well on this as it would on a Pixel phone or your typical Galaxy Whatever, though you do get the benefits of 90Hz and a super-fast chipset, lightweight software, and an active cooling system for less performance throttling. But the extra triggers and bigger screen really shine in titles where you need to use multiple controls at once.

You can map them to function as taps anywhere on the screen, which comes in handy for lots of things. If you're big into emulators and lament the difficulty of pressing multiple buttons at once (as you can on a given console's original controller), it gives you actual hardware triggers that can function as two more buttons for simultaneous input.

Battery life is also surprisingly good, even while gaming. I imagine it will vary according to the intensity of a given title, but 4-5 hours of continuous use in-game is a realistic expectation, in my experience.

All the things that don't matter

Although I would argue its true strengths lie elsewhere, this is technically a phone, and it does more than just play games. So, it's got a lot of other expected phone stuff packed into it. But honestly, most of that doesn't really matter. Although I'm a bit smitten with the software, most of the Red Magic 3S' experience outside of playing games isn't particularly noteworthy.

My friend and sometimes AP contributor Myriam Joire sung the previous Red Magic 3's praises to me earlier this year, and I generally agree with her take. Sure, the mostly stock software approach might skip some of the bells and whistles you see on other phones (outside tweaks like the gaming launcher, built-in screen recorder, and WhatsApp "Picture-in-picture" mode), but it otherwise has an almost Nexus-style feel to it. Everything is laid out as you expect with a settings menu that makes sense, and none of the usual Chinese interference with proper notification management or a functional launcher. It even offers calibrated color profiles for the display, so you aren't stuck with over-saturated color if you don't want it.

The camera isn't great, but it also isn't the point of this phone.

Camera performance for the Red Magic 3S is pretty mediocre — I don't think it even merits discussion short of telling you it can take okay photos in good lighting, bad photos in poor lighting, and it turns almost everything into overprocessed mud with poor dynamic range. But given the Red Magic 3S' niche, I really don't think that's a substantial drawback. You shouldn't buy it for the same reasons you might buy other phones, and the vestigial camera isn't a problem. At least it's good enough for AR games, and if you really want to, you can shim in a version of the Google Camera app for some better processing.

The screen might be 90Hz, but the density isn't very high, given its 1080p (1080 x 2340) resolution. It also doesn't get especially bright, which is a problem when using it outdoors in bright light. Although the panel is surprisingly uniform even at very low illumination, I do have some odd streaks across the screen that seem like gunk or issues with the adhesive layer below the glass. (The pre-production nature of the model I have could be to blame for that, though.) The screen also gets surprisingly dim without crushing blacks too badly, so you can enjoy late-night gaming sessions at appropriate brightness without losing all detail in shadows.

The active cooling might keep the phone chilled while gaming, but it also gives the elements plenty of egress, so you won't want to answer a call on the Red Magic 3S if you're walking outside in a drizzle.

Should you buy one?

Yes, I can wholeheartedly recommend the Red Magic 3S, with one significant caveat: Don't make it your daily driver. It's a great supplementary or alternative device for playing games, and the $480 starting price is an insane value given the hardware. But as an actual phone, doing your typical day-to-day phone stuff, I wouldn't feel comfortable with it as the only device in my pocket.

Don't get me wrong, you can probably get by well enough using it as your only device, I just don't think it compares well to other non-gaming phones, even at the price. For a hair under $500 you can get an older flagship that might offer reduced performance, but would otherwise provide a better overall experience as a phone. The Red Magic 3S might have a great gaming experience, fantastic performance, and surprisingly nice software, but the it's comically large, the camera is mediocre (at best), the vents mean you can't really use it outdoors in even mild weather, and it doesn't even have NFC.

If you look at it as "just" a phone, it has a lot of drawbacks. But I honestly don't think that's the niche the Red Magic 3s fits — it's much better as a secondary device, sort of like a portable game console that just happens to run Android. And if Nubia/Red Magic can cram a similar software experience into a more mainstream design, like it may have in the Z20, that's a device I'd like to see.