The main reason for gaming phones being somewhat niche is that they usually go all-in on the specs in order to power through any task thrown at them while falling behind the competition in just about all other aspects. Things are fast changing however as manufacturers are looking to capitalize on the insane growth of the mobile gaming market, turning their gaming phones into products that are much more appealing to general consumers. Red Magic 5S seems like the latest, prime example of that train of thought and we dive deep to find out exactly why.
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No matter which model of the Red Magic 5S you’re looking at, the Sonic silver or the Pulse red and blue featured in this review, you can’t deny that it is a thing of beauty. The gradient shades of red and blue blend into each other to give it an absolutely amazing look that’s further accentuated by the branding which even has some RGB to make it even more eye-popping.
Now if that wasn’t enough, the gradient colors are combined with the slightly curved glossy glass design to make the backside look even more amazing. Do you know how a phone looks its best when you look at it in the store under all those bright lights? Well, Red Magic 5S kinda looks like that almost all the time. Even though the Pulse model is clearly aesthetically geared toward gamers, I constantly got compliments, comments and was asked questions even from a non-gaming crowd and it’s really easy to see why.
Now that pure aesthetics are out of the way, let’s get into some other design features. To start off, as with many other gaming phones, the Red Magic 5S with its 6.65-inch display and 218 grams is somewhat of a chunky boy. It definitely isn’t too big or heavy but it could require just a bit of adjustment if you are coming from a significantly lighter phone.
The entire phone features a glass over metal build that creates that weird tradeoff where the phone feels entirely sturdy and premium but also like the glass could break after a fall due to its weight. It’s smoothly curved with no protrusions whatsoever so while it’s definitely ergonomic and comfortable to grip and hold, it can get rather slippery. Luckily, Nubia includes a transparent case right in the box to alleviate that problem but also so you can add another layer of protection to your shiny new toy.
Going around the edges, on the right side, you have the power and the volume buttons, the cooling exhaust vent, and two shoulder triggers used primarily for gaming. The right side features the fan intake, the 7-pin connector for the phone’s accessories as well as a small switch that’s used to engage a gaming mode which I’ll talk about a bit later. Underneath you have the speaker grille, the Type-C charging port, and the SIM card slot, while on the top you have the awesome inclusion of the 3.5 mm headphone jack. The downside to all the various openings, especially the one for the cooling means that 5S doesn’t have an IP rating so I definitely wouldn’t expose it to anything more than a few drops of water.
One thing you’ll definitely notice about the display is that it has quite noticeable notches on both the bottom and the top. While I initially took it as a negative, it’s actually a smart choice on the part of Nubia and one that has to do with the phone’s gaming-centric nature. The phone is already beautiful enough so notches don’t take away from that and they ensure you’ll be able to securely grip the phone without your hands partially obscuring the edges of the screen.
The Red Magic 5S features the 6.65-inch AMOLED with FHD+ resolution. On top of that, you also have the insane 144Hz refresh rate and a 240Hz touch sampling rate. I’ll go into details later but these specs essentially instantly make it one of the best and fastest displays in any smartphone currently on the market.
Merely looking at it, it’s definitely big, bright, and fast. The colors look very realistic, the outdoor visibility is excellent, and just navigating the UI is insanely smooth and snappy. The speed, in particular, is something you’ll notice if you are coming from a non-gaming smartphone as 144Hz was up until recently reserved only for desktop gaming monitors.
Suffice it to say that you won’t appreciate these capabilities to their fullest extent if you aren’t a gamer. While it will make the simple act of navigating the UI, surfing the web, or watching videos into a somewhat more enjoyable and prettier experience, the responsiveness of the high touch sampling and the speed of high refresh rate will only ever come into play for high-performance, fast-paced gaming experiences.
One thing to mention is that the phone isn’t set to the maximum refresh rate out of the box and you need to navigate to the settings in order to make it happen. Once you do that, the phone will dynamically switch between 90 and 144hz depending on what you are doing to conserve the battery and provide the smoothest possible experience.
If there’s one thing that I can’t describe in superlatives for this phone, it’s the camera. Don’t get me wrong, the triple camera setup here can still take some great photos and record some high-quality videos, but it definitely isn’t comparable to cameras found in newer, or even some older flagship phones. Here you have the main camera that uses Sony’s IMX686 64 MP sensor along with an 8 MP ultra-wide and 2 MP macro camera. The pictures across all three look great only in ideal lighting conditions but as soon as it gets too dark or too bright, you start to notice the noise, the overuse of sharpening, and generally the software working too hard to compensate for conditions.
The dedicated night mode somewhat alleviates the issue of noise for images taken in poorly lit conditions but the images lose a ton of details with faraway objects becoming noticeably soft and blurry. What I definitely noticed across all three cameras is that they do colors amazingly well. Compared to snapshots on a couple of other phones which usually tended to oversaturate them, the colors on the 5S looked the most akin to real-life without the need to mess around with settings.
In terms of overall quality, the front-facing 8MP camera is somewhat of a mixed bag as well. While it’s also capable of producing natural-looking, detailed images, things get noisy as soon as the lighting conditions are not ideal. I also had an issue of selfie portrait mode not working as intended and producing images without the blurred background no matter the camera settings. As I’m told by Red Magic, this is a known software issue which they are actively working on fixing in the near future.
When it comes to videos, 5S is one of the few smartphones capable of recording them at up to 8K at 30FPS. This will afford you an insane level of detail at the cost of large portions of the available 256 GB of hard drive space. Dialing things down a bit in terms of resolution still produces some great results but the difference in quality when compared to 8K is painfully noticeable, making it really hard to go back to 1440p, let alone 1080p.
The last thing to mention in terms of the camera is the software and all its additional features. It seems like, Nubia, for every drawback of the camera, decided to add another special little gimmick, filter, or a feature. Some of these, like the time-lapse, panorama, slow-motion, or art camera are worthy of playing around with, while others are rather empty gimmicks for which you’ll rarely find any use.
At a first glance, the Red Magic Android skin here looks as bare-bones and stock as they come. The skin does come with some surface-level stuff which again goes for the gaming aesthetic and this includes things like built-in wallpapers, the fingerprint reader animation, colorful setting icons, and some other elements of the UI.
The in-screen fingerprint reader definitely isn’t as fast as the ones you might find on some other flagship phones, requiring the finger to linger on the screen a bit longer to actually register. Face recognition on the other hand is near-instantaneous even in a poorly lit environment. Another thing worthy of mention that’s not gaming related is the always-on screen setting that is fairly robust in terms of customization. It has a huge selection of videos, gifs, and images to choose from and even allows you to import your own and customize them to your liking.
When it comes to those features which are gaming related, there are a few to go through. The first one has to do with the most outstanding feature of the 5S and that’s its trinity cooling system which combines a liquid cooling pipe with an active internal fan. The cooling kicks in when playing games or charging and you can choose if you want to have it constantly running at maximum speed or if you want it to adapt to the CPU temperature. The maximum speed does get somewhat loud but it helps keep the phone exceptionally cool during even the most hardware intense games.
The second gaming-related feature comes in the form of Red Magic game space which you enter by flipping the switch on the left side of 5S. Once inside, you’ll be greeted with a list of games installed on the phone as well as a whole host of gaming-centric settings. The main menu allows you to check your gaming statistics, screenshots, recordings as well as adjusting the cooling fan, and some other simple options. Once you start a certain game, sliding from left to right, you get an additional menu that’s the real star of the show. It’s here where you can make the phone even faster at the expense of the battery life, even though the default performance mode will easily chew through most games. You can also record screen macros, add an aiming assist reticule in the middle of the screen, and much more.
Probably the most standout feature of the game space is that it allows you to customize what the shoulder triggers do and how they behave. You can easily designate each of them to act as any on-screen controls, customize how sensitive they are, and if you want them to provide you with nice little haptic feedback. All in all, when these options are properly utilized for a game, they make all the difference, especially in first-person and third-person shooters. Once you start racking up kills in Call of Duty or chicken dinners in PUBG, you’ll never be able to go back since the triggers, in combination with the software, offer a seamless solution that feels natural to use without you needing to buy an additional accessory or a controller to fully enjoy mobile gaming. Just keep in mind that the triggers, advanced cooling options, and all the game enhancements are usable only if you add and start them from within the game space.
Red Magic 5S is equipped with Snapdragon 865 and while that was surpassed in performance by 865+, it’s still a flagship level, “chew through any task” chipset. You also have 16GB’s of super-fast RAM and UFS 3.1 type storage that can make loading in games go by just a bit faster. Already, just by going by these specs, you know you have one seriously beastly gaming phone. Now add to that the awesome cooling system and the fan that slows down the onset of the CPU throttling and you know you have an absolute performance champ.
Every benchmark software predictably placed the 5S at the very, or near the top across all the categories. Of course, since you’ll rarely put your phone through the same level of torture as the benchmarking tools, it’s best to look at how it performs at an average usage level. Firstly, it goes without saying that the 5S will run any mobile game with no issues, regardless of their graphical fidelity.
The games I went through were some of the best-looking the Play Store has to offer. These were games like Call of Duty, PUBG, Black Desert Online, Darkness Rises, Asphalt 8, and Dragon Raja just to name a few. Nearly every game consistently ran at peak performance even without any GPU or CPU enhancement modes. Not only that, but the phone was able to maintain this throughout my long gaming sessions with little to no heating of the back panel.
The only issue is that the screen present in 5S is ahead of its time when compared to the games on offer. While the 144Hz refresh rate definitely offers a more smooth overall experience, there’s rarely any Play Store game that can take full advantage of that since most are capped at 60 FPS. While that’s somewhat disappointing, the fact that 5S maintains that buttery smooth 60 FPS for however long your play session is, is an achievement in of itself.
When it comes to the battery, the 5S has one with 4500 mAh that can be both great when the phone is used casually and somewhat lackluster when heavily used for gaming. When used simply for calls, texting, browsing, and videos, it can easily last two and sometimes even push for three full days. As a matter of fact, reducing the refresh rate to 90 Hz or 60 Hz will definitely make it last that long and while that’s absolutely amazing these days, I consider it an absolute waste having a 144 Hz screen without using it.
The excellent battery endurance reduces somewhat dramatically once you start using the 5S for gaming. While you can get away with two days without running out of juice by partaking in a match or two of Call of Duty here and there, playing it continuously will drain the battery after 4-6 hours. My mobile gaming sessions usually don’t go over an hour so this wasn’t really a problem but it’s something to keep in mind if you absolutely love your gaming on the go.
One last thing worthy of mention in terms of battery is charging. While 5S supports the super-fast 55W charging, outside of China you get the measly 18W charger which takes around a disappointing hour and a half to get the phone from 0 to a 100% charge.
What more can I say? Even though Red Magic 5S isn’t the most significant upgrade over the Red Magic 5, it’s still one great gaming-centric smartphone. While non-gamers probably won’t appreciate some of its best features, even for them, this would be a completely viable purchase since the phone is a real looker with some true flagship specs sitting under the hood. While it’s by no means cheap, costing around $579, it’s arguably one of the best performance for money smartphones out there. Consider the fact that the only phone that’s slightly more advanced than Red Magic 5S costs around $1000, and you get the point. If you are a gamer, this is really a no-brainer purchase when compared to other smartphones in the same price range. Even if you aren’t warmed up to mobile gaming and don’t believe in it as a serious choice, the 5S with its awesome host of features might make a believer out of you yet.