Gaming phones are a newer niche for Android devices, and Nubia is one of the companies running headlong into this fledgling field. This past May, we took a look at the Red Magic 5, and we did not come away impressed thanks to numerous bugs and compromises. Now that the Red Magic 5S is here, and we can say for certain that features like internal cooling and a high refresh rate come at a cost: the Red Magic 5S is good for gaming but not much else.

The Red Magic 5 isn't a complete wash—its gaming-centric features and performance help to even out the device's lack of polish. The battery life is fantastic, and the specs are killer for the price, but there are better options if you're not a gamer who plays for hours on a smartphone every day.

Specs

SoC Qualcomm Snapdragon 865
OS Android 10-based Red Magic OS
RAM 8/12/16 GB LPDDR5
Storage 128/256GB UFS 3.1
Display 6.65-inch OLED, FHD+ (2,340 x 1,080), 144Hz, 240Hz poll rate.
Battery 4500mAh, 55W charging
Front camera 8MP, f/2.0
Rear cameras 64MP Sony IMX686, f/1.8, PDAF (main) + 8MP (ultra-wide) + 2MP (macro)
Connectivity Dual-SIM, 5G (no mmWave, only two bands: n41 and n78), 4G LTE, Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth
Dimensions 168.56 x 78 x 9.75 mm, 218g
Ports USB Type-C, 3.5mm headphone jack
Colors Sonic Silver, Pulse (blue/red)
Biometrics In-display fingerprint reader
Price Starting at $580

The Good

Gaming This thing chews through games, some of best performance on Android to date
Screen At 144Hz this is the smoothest screen I've used on Android. Colors pop, brightness is uniform without any grainy whites
Battery life Recalls the flip phone era, offering a couple of days with typical use
Hardware Active cooling (internal fan), hardware shoulder triggers, headphone jack, LED notification, and a dual SIM
Software No bloat
Game Boost Brings all the useful gaming features together in one place
Price For the specs alone, the price is a steal

The Not So Good

Software again Buggy, feels incomplete, unpolished. Missing many ease-of use features
Size This is a big boy, it's not ideal for small hands or small pockets
Cameras Will do in a pinch, but there's better software and hardware out there
Fingerprint sensor It works, but it's slow. Finger must linger
Hardware again This phone is gaudy, doesn’t have an IP rating, and the power button placement isn’t ideal

Design, hardware, what's in the box

Since the Red Magic 5S offers most of the same hardware as the four-month-old Red Magic 5, you can still expect a high-end Snapdragon 865 device that sports a 6.65-inch 144Hz AMOLED screen that's perfect for gaming. Ryne's review for the Red Magic 5 already covers the majority of what you'll get with the slightly-upgraded Red Magic 5S, though a few things have changed.

The cooling system in the 5S is now on what Red Magic calls "version 4.0." The internal fan, liquid cooling tube, and graphite materials are all still included, but there's a new silver plate on the back of the device to help with heat transfer when using the Ice Dock peripheral. The copper foil under the backplate is expanded, and the backplate is now made out of glass with metal underneath, so it feels and sounds slightly different than a standard glass back. The shoulder touch triggers have also jumped to a 320Hz polling rate, allowing for faster responses. New colors are in the mix as well, and so now your options are a slick-looking silver or a striking red/blue dual color called Pulse.

The Red Magic 5S is big, heavy, and has a few confusing design choices for a gaming phone. For example, the power button is located below the volume button when holding the device in portrait, which is common on other phones but gets in the way of landscape controller mounts. A portrait controller mount may also cover the phone's headphone jack, USB port, and bottom speaker. I was happy to see that a notification LED is included. It's been years since I've used a phone that offers one, and I missed the convenience.

The 6.65″ OLED 144Hz screen is the real draw here, and it's a flat panel with zero curved edges or cutouts, something I feel suits gaming much better than a curved screen with a punch-hole camera. That means there's a bezel above the screen to accommodate the device's front-facing camera, and there's also a similarly sized bezel on the bottom. The symmetrical design is good for using a landscape controller attachment (such as a Razer Kishi or Gamevice) as the screen will be centered while remaining unobstructed.

The Red Magic 5S included more accessories than I expected. There’s a charger block, an A-to-C charging cable, a pre-applied screen protector, a silicone phone case, a SIM slot pin, and a few manuals. Nothing too crazy, though the screen protector and case are definitely a nice touch.

What is a gaming phone, and do you need one?

Gaming phones are, in many ways, ridiculous products, and I can't say I've ever actually wanted to use one on a daily basis. While there are features that interest me as a gamer, the "gamer aesthetic" is a turnoff. For example, the Red Magic 5S comes with a hidden LED logo on the back of the device that lights up red (and only red) if you turn it on in the device's settings. There's no use for this LED—it's just there to draw attention. Despite what every gaming hardware manufacturer would like you to think, flashy lights and bright colors don't help a bit with gaming. Do you know what does? An internal fan.

Fancy yet pointless LED logo on the back

The cooling tech in the Red Magic 5S works exceptionally well. I've yet to feel the device heat up, which is pretty remarkable. And trust me, I've been throwing console-quality games at this thing for two weeks. I'm talking absolute monsters like Civ 6, Fortnite, Dead Cells, and Minecraft.

The Red Magic 5S comes with a little red button on the top left. Flick it up, and the device jumps into the Game Boost mode where you can launch games, control the internal fan, adjust your framerate, and customize the shoulder triggers by attaching their function to any action/button on the screen. These triggers are capacitive, so they are strictly touch-based, but are plenty responsive. I find they are most useful in shooters, but I've also had a bit of luck binding them to jumps and attacks in platformers. And if you're the sort that reads guides while gaming, Game Boost has a window hang mode that allows you to do just that. This Game Boost mode is the best thought-out software on the device, allowing you to turn your phone into a nifty little handheld gaming device. Best of all, you can also play on the big screen since the phone supports USB to HDMI out.

Game Boost mode, options, and fan controls

Having recently tested Fortnite at 90Hz on the OnePlus 8, I can confirm that the internal cooling in the Red magic 5S makes a difference. After throwing one demanding game after another at the device, it was clear the internal fan allows for smoother performance. Games that tend to skip frames on my Shield TV and OnePlus 8 ran as smooth as silk on the Red Magic 5S.

Benchmarks don’t tell the whole story, but they do show some effect from the fan. I first ran the Slingshot Extreme test on the device with the internal fan off and received a score of 7697. Then I ran the same test with the internal fan on and received a score of 7732, so performance was indeed better with the fan on. Then I tested again with the external Ice Dock attached, and actually got a worse score at 7700 despite the fact the dock should be cooling the phone more than the internal fan. So, maybe don’t pay extra for that.

3D Mark results from left to right: No fan, fan, fan w/ Ice Dock

Happily, I have been unable to run the Red Magic 5S battery all the way down in a single day. I thought I'd be able to stress the 4500mAh battery, but I never did. I consistently managed multiple days of heavy use before the phone required a charge.

Almost two full days of use when testing many demanding games (for some reason the apps I've used aren't shown)

All the smartphone things

The majority of the software on the Red Magic 5S feels unfinished because it is. This is technically pre-release software, but I don’t expect all the rough edges to be smoothed over in time for the US release on September 2nd, and the phone is already available in some places. 

Most of the software is stock or stock-like, including the launcher. Google Feed is included, so all you have to do is swipe right on the homescreen just as you would on a Pixel. However, there are still small issues everywhere you look. Sometimes the notification drawer pulldown won't work unless you pull from the very top of the screen. The launcher also keeps adding a second page to my homescreen, which can't be deleted unless I drag an app over, and then remove it. I also had an issue with Chrome freezing constantly—this is a problem on other devices, but nowhere as near as bad as on the Red Magic 5S. Chrome crashes at least once every half-hour on the device. It's infuriating.

The in-screen fingerprint reader is slow, so your thumb has to linger a little longer than you would expect. The cameras aren't great either. The majority of pics are good enough in bright light, but Red Magic still has a ways to go with its camera tech. Photos taken in less than ideal light often lack detail and can be grainy.

Not the best photos, but not the worst either

Red Magic's track record when it comes to support is pretty lackluster, too, but I have confirmed that the Red magic 5S will receive Android 11 and two-and-a-half years of security updates. While this is hardly the best support out there, you can’t have everything at this price.

Should you buy it?

Red Magic 5S
7/10

Maybe, but only if you're really into gaming on mobile. The Red Magic 5S isn't the best smartphone, but it's still the best Android-based gaming device I've used. It can play demanding games without a stutter thanks to its fantastic cooling system, and the haptic shoulder buttons are handy, especially if you play a lot of shooters.

This, of course, makes for a tough choice. You will have to decide if the bugs, x-treme gamer design, and poor support are worth the enhanced gaming experience. As a phone, you get some of the best specs out there at a mid-ranger's price. While the downsides are apparent, the fact this phone can chew through some of the best games on Android is a big selling point.

I had no problem running titles like Brawlhalla, Grid Autosport, Oddworld Oddworld: New 'n' Tasty (which even brings my 2017 Shield TV to a crawl), and Sky Children of Light (which turns every other device I own into a scorching hand warmer). Even Civ VI ran just as well as it does on my iPad Pro 11". I threw every demanding game I could think of at the Red Magic 5S, and it handled them all with aplomb. As a gamer, that's pretty exciting.

Buy it if

  • You want the best experience when playing mobile games
  • You're sick of curved screens, punch hole cameras, and tiny batteries
  • You need a headphone port, HDMI out support, and LED notification

Don't buy it if

  • You want stable software and good update support
  • You don't care about games

Where to buy

The Red Magic 5GS is available directly from Red Magic's site.

Two weeks later

I'm still having fun with the Red Magic 5S, but its foibles have me ready to retire it to my stable of test devices. For one, I'm sick of trying to use this thing as an actual phone. The ringer has just stopped working when I receive calls. I can see the call on the screen, but there's never any sound, and I'm on the latest firmware. This issue has made carrying the Red Magic 5S a real headache, adding to all the other compromises and bugs.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I love gaming on the Red Magic. The screen is nice and big, the battery life is excellent, and the Game Boost mode is surprisingly well thought out. As someone that tests games daily for my work, I can see myself playing games on the Red Magic 5S for the next year or more, which speaks volumes about how well this thing tears through even the most demanding titles. It's quite the conundrum for me.

Alas, the Red Magic 5S isn't strictly a gaming device, and while it's clear the Nubia has put in a lot of work to ensure the phone is great for gaming, they've failed to create a reliable phone in the process. Visual bugs are my pet peeve, so I absolutely can't stand that the home screen keeps adding extra pages. I also dislike the buggy notification drawer that never knows if it should open fullscreen or only half-way. Fortnite still has an issue launching, allegedly due to USB debugging even though the setting isn't toggled on. That's worrying and makes me wonder what else is going on behind my back. I'm big into security when it comes to my phones, and a bug like this does not make me feel very secure.

Still, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better deal for the specs you get at the current price point. The 120Hz screen is as smooth as butter, and the internally-cooled Snapdragon 865 chipset offers some of the best gaming performance on the platform. But I can only recommend the phone if you fully understand what you're getting into. You might miss some calls, your UI will bug out, and fixes are going to be few and far between. In my opinion, the Red Magic 5S is only suitable for a particular set of users, but even I don't like putting up with it as a daily driver.