The idea of a special smartphone for gaming might seem strange, but we're now seeing companies trying to turn this into a trendy subcategory. PUBG and Fortnite are gigantic hype machines, and at least in the PC space, gaming products are generally more expensive and therefore more profitable than commodity hardware. But what exactly makes a phone a “gaming” phone? One aspect is of course raw power, but there are plenty of mid-range and even low-end phones that games will run just fine on. Then there's styling – gamers are stereotyped with aggressive lines, red or orange accents, and now even RGB LEDs.
Most of all, gaming is about an attitude. Companies hope that people will want to set themselves apart and make a statement by using devices that give them a particular identity. We've seen this with PCs, keyboards, mice, laptops and headsets, and even with furniture, clothing, and software.
Nubia, now an independent company rather than a sub-brand of ZTE, is one of several companies hoping that gamers will want a phone that advertises to the world that they are gamers. The big global players include Razer with its Razer Phone and Xiaomi with its Black Shark.
Nubia is one of only a few companies to have launched such a product in India. The Nubia Red Magic will go up against the ultra-high-end Asus ROG Phone (Review) and the very affordable Honor Play (Review), as far as relatively new gaming-focussed offerings are concerned. Let's see what this company has brought to the table.
Nubia Red Magic design
As expected, the Nubia Red Magic has a few stereotypical flourishes that set it apart from the usual sort of minimalist candybar phones we see these days. While the front is pretty ordinary, you will see a bright red button sticking out at the top of the right side. This is actually a slider, and it's used to toggle the phone's GameBoost feature, which we'll get to in a bit.
The back of this phone is where all the action is. It has an unusual pyramid shape, sloping very slightly on all four sides to a seam running down the middle. The back doesn't bulge outwards too much, but the sharp angles rather than gentle curvature make this design stand out.
The lines all come together to meet at a vertical RGB LED strip in the centre. Depending on whether GameBoost is enabled or not, you'll see a light show in your choice of three patterns when the phone is on. You can't see it when you're using this phone of course, so it seems as though its sole purpose is to call attention to the fact that you have a phone with RGB LEDs.
Of course this design means that this phone will rock from side to side at the slightest touch when it's lying on a table. The motion is actually quite noisy. We were routinely frustrated by this when we just tried to swipe a notification away or check something quickly while working. Tapping out a quick reply to a message was simply impossible.
Above the LED strip, all in a line, are a vertical fingerprint sensor, a single camera, and an LED flash. All three of these have hexagonal outlines, with the camera in particular highlighted with a red rim. While we don't mind the design, the fingerprint sensor is particularly awkward to use. A faint Nubia logo is printed on one side, and a Red Magic logo is at the bottom, telling us that the company might develop this into a whole line of phones.
To top off the whole look, we have four diagonal notches with, of course, red accents. The one on the lower left is actually the phone's speaker. It's a clever design, but not necessarily practical. The other three are apparently vents for the phone's cooling system, so there is some function to this form.
The body of this phone is metal, which you can feel immediately when you pick it up. Nubia says it is aviation-grade aluminium. Under bright light, the finish looks like a very deep purple rather than black. It has a non-slippery matte texture, but fingerprints do leave smudges. A red edition is currently exclusive to China.
The rim on the front is chamfered but thankfully not shiny. Some people might find the relatively thick upper and lower screen borders old-fashioned now, but we appreciate the fact that the screen is a perfect rectangle without notches or indentations. Even the corners aren't too aggressively rounded, as we see too often these days.
In all other ways, this phone is perfectly ordinary. There's a 3.5mm audio socket on the top, power and volume buttons on the right, a dual-Nano-SIM tray on the left (with no microSD card slot), and a USB Type-C port on the bottom. The phone weighs 186g which is somewhat on the heavier side, and is nearly a full centimetre thick at the peak of the rear. It can be a little difficult to grip this phone comfortably, both in landscape and portrait modes, thanks to how uneven the rear is with its creases and indentations.
Nubia Red Magic specifications and software
The Nubia Red Magic was announced in India in mid-December 2018, but it was launched in China way back in April, which explains its curious specifications. Most importantly this phone is powered by Qualcomm's previous-gen flagship, the Snapdragon 835. We haven't seen a new phone launch with this processor in a long, long time.
While undoubtedly still powerful and capable of running modern games, people are unlikely to feel like they're getting a premium experience, especially this close to the launch of the Snapdragon 855. Nubia says it has designed the Red Magic with multiple layers of graphite to help cool the processor.
There's a generous 8GB of RAM and 128GB of UFS 2.1 storage. No variants have been launched with any other configurations in India. The screen measures 5.99 inches and has an 18:9 aspect ratio with a resolution of 1080x2160. The Dinorex glass on the front is claimed to be scratch- and shock-resistant. Nubia has gone with a 3800mAh battery and promises up to four hours of non-top PUBG gameplay.
Standards supported include dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 5 with aptX, and GPS. Nubia says this phone also has an audiophile-grade DAC and “smart” amplifier. There's a gyroscope and e-compass along with the usual proximity and ambient light sensors. The solitary rear camera has a 24-megapixel sensor with an f/1.7 aperture, while the one on the front of this phone has an 8-megapixel sensor and f/2.0 aperture.
The Nubia Red Magic comes with an 18W charger, a USB Type-C cable, a quick start guide, and a sheet of stickers in the box. We would have liked a decent headset and at least a simple rubber or plastic case for this phone.
As for software, the Red Magic runs Android 8.1. The company says it's stock Android, but there are a few customisations. Our unit had not been updated beyond the August 2018 security patch which is definitely not ideal for a phone that launched in December.
The most interesting feature is the GameBoost mode. This claims to improve frame rates and game loading time, but there isn't a lot of detail as to how it works. The company says it performs “128 custom optimisations” and “unleashes extra processing power”, but that's all the information there is. You can choose whether app notifications are blocked, and there's a “Button Anti-misoperation” setting that basically locks the on-screen Home button unless you double-tap it, to prevent accidental touches in games.
When GameBoost is on, the LED strip on the rear can light up. You can choose from Rainbow Ribbon, Laserwave, or Skyline effects, all of which are fairly basic animations. There's a fourth option, Voice Controlled LED, which never seemed to work for us. Nubia promotes the strip's 16 million possible colours, but there's no way to set up your own effects.
The LED strip can also animate when you get an incoming call or alert, or when the phone is charging, but it isn't customisable per contact or by alert type. This really doesn't give us any sort of “gamer” vibe, it only comes across as cheesy.
The only preloaded app is the custom Kika Keyboard. It actually displays ads right on the keyboard, and therefore instantly put us off. It gives you emoji packs which are completely pointless because not only can your recipient not see them, but they don't show up in your messages either — you tap one on the keyboard, but the equivalent standard emoji shows up in your message.
The process of adding emoji packs is also riddled with ads that try to trick you into downloading even more ads, such as a custom lock screen. That's not all — the pack we tried also added a redundant “quick shortcuts” panel to our notifications tray (right below the existing system shortcuts) and kept causing notification sounds. When we tried tapping the icons — you guessed it — we got a full-screen ad.
You can download “fonts” which only change your keycaps, and key-press sounds like gunshots which are just plain awful. To make matters even worse, Kika Keyboard can't be uninstalled. The whole thing is a giant flaming mess. It's downright exploitative with zero actual utility, and could be potentially dangerous in the hands of casual Android users. We deactivated it as soon as we possibly could.
Nubia Red Magic performance, battery life, and cameras
As a normal smartphone, the Nubia Red Magic was easy to use once we dealt with the keyboard. It wasn't too awkward in our pockets or too bulky to use comfortably. The only real physical problem is the inability to use it when lying on a table. The screen is very good — it's bright and crisp, with great viewing angles and no discolouration. Colours popped nicely in videos and games, and motion was smooth.
The single speaker on the back can get really loud, but despite Nubia's claims of high-end audio hardware, the sound is horribly distorted at high volumes. The speaker is blocked when the phone lies face-up on soft furnishings, and depending on which way you hold this phone in landscape, you could end up muffling it somewhat. We'd highly recommend a headset.
We first ran our benchmarks with GameBoost deactivated. The AnTuTu score of 213,226 and Geekbench scores of 1,989 (single-core) and 6,677 (multi-core) are a little better than what you'd get from a current-day phone with a Snapdragon 710 SoC, such as the Nokia 8.1, but way below the standard of the Snapdragon 845. We got 3,724 points in 3DMark Sling Shot Extreme, and impressive scores of 37fps and 23fps in GFXBench's Manhattan 3.1 and Car Chase scenes, respectively. We then tried running some of our tests with GameBoost on to see what effect it might have, but there was no significant difference at all.
PUBG Mobile ran at the High graphics setting by default and we didn't have any trouble with it. Asphalt 9: Legends chose its Default balanced profile, but also ran perfectly well after we switched to High Quality. After just a few minutes playing both of these relatively recent games, and after some of our benchmark tests, we did feel this phone get quite warm. It wasn't enough to be uncomfortable, but it does mean that the entire metal rear is effectively a heatsink and you might not like that if you want to game for hours at a stretch.
The camera app is surprisingly bare, with only Photo, Video, and Pro modes. A ‘Camera Family' menu takes you to further options called Multi-exposure, Light Drawing, E-Aperture, Clone, and Time-Lapse. These can be entertaining, but several require the use of a tripod and the directions on screen aren't always clear, for example, “Reserve the bright part of each photo after combination”. In the settings menu, the “Gradienter” toggle actually turns the shutter release into a two-axis level indicator, which is handy. Of the modes we tried, Clone was easy to use and gave us surprisingly believable composite shots.
As for photo quality, the Nubia Red Magic delivered quite good results. Colours were vivid and focus was sharp. Some images lacked depth, but if we tapped to focus on our subject, the camera would understand what we wanted. Even zoomed in to 100 percent, our close-up shots looked good. Our only complaint would be that there was a slightly warm tone to shots we took under direct sunlight.
The rear camera can capture video at up to 4K, but there are no quality or frame rate options. We shot at the default 1080p resolution and found that video was just about okay. There was some focus hunting, and a lot of jerkiness if we were moving while recording. The front camera is more than adequate, and most of our selfies came out quite well.
We had very mixed results at night. Sometimes, shots came out dark and murky with little detail, or there was motion blur even when we were perfectly still. Other shots were crisp and detailed. We had to try several shots multiple times just to make sure focus was locked, and if we were lucky, one attempt would come out looking great while the others were a mess. Video at night was very shaky, with no stabilisation at all, but the quality wasn't too bad when we were standing still.
Battery life is one area in which the Nubia Red Magic really stood out. We played games for a few hours over the course of a day, streamed a full movie, and spent a bit of time online, and the phone still ran for a day and a half. Our HD video loop test ran for 14 hours, 17 minutes. Charging was also relatively quick, though strangely the company doesn't list Qualcomm's Quick Charge feature on its spec sheet.
We think the Nubia Red Magic will appeal to people who want to show off. You can certainly play games very well, but that doesn't make this phone better than other options at its price level. That's primarily because the processor is now almost two generations behind the curve, and we think a lot of people appreciate dual cameras on a premium device. As for the LED strip and styling, we don't see much value in them. Sure, they look good, but they serve no purpose and in some ways are actually detrimental to the overall usage experience.
The dated SoC might still be powerful but you don't get modern conveniences such as AI camera enhancements. You also don't get a secondary camera which is a bit of a surprise these days. We think that most users with a budget of Rs. 30,000 would be happier with the Snapdragon 845-based Asus ZenFone 5z (Review) or Poco F1 (Review). There are also other phones at the Rs. 30,000 mark that might might have a better balance of features if you don't want a phone solely for gaming.
The Nubia Red Magic has launched a bit too late in India. With better specs, more thoughtful design, and no adware, we would have been more likely to give it a recommendation. It's still a powerful phone, but it isn't the best option at its price unless you really want a phone with a LED light strip.