Red Magic 3 review

You don't need a gaming phone, but the Red Magic 3 will make you want one

Seriously smooth and powerfully punchy, the Red Magic 3 is everything you want in a gaming phone.
MSRP $479.00
Seriously smooth and powerfully punchy, the Red Magic 3 is everything you want in a gaming phone.
Seriously smooth and powerfully punchy, the Red Magic 3 is everything you want in a gaming phone.

Highs

  • Great performance
  • Gaming mode
  • Affordable price
  • Good camera
  • Long battery life

Lows

  • Odd software
  • No NFC
  • No wireless charging

The idea of a dedicated gaming smartphone has always been attractive, but it’s only in the last couple of years that the idea has really taken off, thanks to brands like Razer and Asus. With a host of new releases this year, it looks like gaming phones are here to stay, and if the Red Magic 3 is anything to go by, it’s time you took them seriously.

The Red Magic 3 is lightning fast, boasts a gorgeous big display, has loud dual speakers, and packs a huge battery. It even has a dedicated gaming switch on the side and an internal fan to keep you gaming for longer. It boasts a truly impressive spec sheet packed into a device that looks as though it just fell out of a space marine’s pocket, but the real magic trick here is that Nubia is offering the Red Magic 3 for just $479.

Huge, angular phone with LED lighting

The Red Magic 3 is big. No, I mean really big. It makes the OnePlus 7 Pro and the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 look small. It’s tall, it’s wide, and it’s really heavy at 215 grams. The metal construction gives it a solid, durable feel. Because it’s so big it can be tricky to handle. It really requires two hands, but I found it most comfortable to use when gaming, which seems fitting.

Chinese manufacturer Nubia, which started out as a subsidiary of ZTE, has refined the design here, but the Red Magic 3 still looks a lot like the original Red Magic. There’s the same angled, metal back with that LED strip down the middle and red highlights in the corners. There’s a hexagonal lozenge for the fingerprint sensor, but the camera lens above it is pentagonal this time around.

I don’t know exactly when RGB lighting strips and angular metal became an integral part of gaming, but the Red Magic 3 ticks all the boxes. My nine-year-old son thinks it’s the coolest phone he’s ever seen. The highlights aren’t just about the look either, most of them serve as vents for the internal fan and help to keep the temperature down.

Thankfully, Nubia has improved the finish, which we found chipped very easily in the original. The Red Magic 3 seems to be much harder wearing and the black paint job on my review unit still looks perfect after a week, though that anodized metal finish is still on the slippery side.

The Red Magic 3 has a whopping 6.65-inch AMOLED screen with a 90Hz refresh rate.

There’s a USB-C port on the bottom edge and a 3.5mm audio jack up top. The left side is home to a red, textured button that turns the dedicated gaming mode on or off, and there’s a row of pogo pins for accessories, including a dock which I didn’t get to try.

The right edge, which is also the top edge when you hold the Red Magic 3 in landscape to play games, has programmable touch sensitive shoulder buttons, the vent for the fan, the volume rocker, and the power button. Front-facing speakers are carved out of the thin bezels left and right of the enormous screen.

Silky smooth screen

The original Red Magic phone made do with a 6-inch LCD screen with a standard refresh rate, but in the face of phones like the Razer Phone 2 which boasts a display with a 120Hz refresh rate, or the Asus ROG Phone with its 90Hz OLED panel, Nubia has made some improvements. The Red Magic 3 has a whopping 6.65-inch AMOLED screen with a 90Hz refresh rate.

Not only is it the biggest screen we’ve seen in a gaming phone, it’s also really bright. The resolution is 2,340 x 1,080 pixels and it has a modern 19.5:9 aspect ratio. Action is smooth, whether you’re swiping through home screens, blowing away some alien scum in Shadowgun: Legends, or watching Childish Gambino dance through a YouTube video.

The Red Magic 3 and Apple iPhone X
The Red Magic 3 and Apple iPhone X. Simon Hill/Digital Trends

You can see how bright this screen goes in the photo above. Both the Red Magic 3 on the left and the iPhone X on the right are cranked up to full brightness here. This means, even if you’re gaming outdoors, you can generally make out the action.

To kick things up another notch, there are dual front-facing speakers with DTS:X support. They are impressively loud and rich for a smartphone, though you’ll obviously be better served by plugging some decent headphones into the audio jack.

Seriously speedy and dedicated gaming mode

The Red Magic 3 is one of the fastest phones I’ve ever used. Performance is silky smooth. Games load quickly and run at the highest settings without complaint.

Red Magic 3 Review
Simon Hill/Digital Trends

I didn’t suffer any screen tearing or lag during my time with the Red Magic 3, in fact, there wasn’t so much as a single dropped frame. That’s largely because it has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor inside with 8GB of RAM.

Here are some benchmark scores:

  • AnTuTu 3DBench: 320,507
  • Geekbench 4 CPU: 3,546 single-core; 11,278 multi-core
  • 3DMark Sling Shot Extreme: 4,977 (Vulkan)

Speedy and responsive, I enjoyed using the Red Magic 3 in general. Jumping in and out of Slack and Twitter, reading on Chrome, and, of course, gaming — it offered impeccably smooth service.

Compared to phones like the Asus ROG Phone with last year’s Snapdragon 845 inside, the Red Magic 3 is much faster. It even feels faster than the Samsung Galaxy S10, which also has the Snapdragon 855 in it, and that’s reflected in the benchmark scores.

These results are with game mode off. Incidentally, Nubia describes the Red Magic 3 as a stock Android phone running Android 9.0 Pie. While it is mercifully free of bloatware, there are some unfamiliar entries in the settings and Nubia has obviously made tweaks for the gaming mode and lighting, as well as employing its own camera app. Its software lacks polish and I occasionally encountered Chinese or poorly translated English.

Get your gaming mode on

If you slide that red switch on the side, then you’ll see a special game launcher, which is a simplified menu containing your games. You can also slide a menu panel in from the right. It shows how heavily your CPU and GPU are being taxed and the current temperature inside your phone.

Red Magic 3 Gaming Mode

You can choose to boost performance, giving CPU, GPU, or both a shot in the arm, though the Super Performance mode generates heat and eats battery quickly. There’s also a 4D Shock mode, which adds vibration feedback, though it only works with certain games like PUBG Mobile. You can also map the capacitive touch shoulder buttons and choose to block apps and calls automatically when gaming.

Red Magic 3 Gaming Mode

I tried out several different games with the Red Magic 3 and kept the performance mode in auto. The fan comes on by default and it does make some sound, which can be annoying depending on what game you’re playing and whether you use headphones. I played Asphalt 8, Galaxy Reavers, Injustice 2, PUBG Mobile, and others. Everything ran beautifully.

I also played Shadowgun: Legends and cranked the graphics up to Ultra High to see if I could challenge the Red Magic 3. I played for an hour and 13 minutes without a single issue. The fan definitely made a difference, but the Red Magic 3 was noticeably warm to the touch by the time I laid down my gun.

Impressive battery life

During that same Shadowgun session the battery in the Red Magic 3 went from 92% down to 66%. That’s not bad, considering I was playing online with brightness cranked up and the speakers blaring.

Red Magic 3 Review
Simon Hill/Digital Trends

The Red Magic 3 has a 5,000mAh battery. I found it generally lasted a day between charges, but I was gaming on it a lot, so it could certainly last longer.

In our battery test it managed an impressive 12 hours and 49 minutes streaming a Full HD video from YouTube with the brightness turned up to maximum.

Another gaming phone we’re currently putting through its paces did slightly better – the Black Shark 2 from Xiaomi managed 13 hours and 7 minutes. But these are excellent scores. To give a couple more comparison points, the OnePlus 7 Pro managed 11 hours and 50 minutes, while the Google Pixel 3 only made it to 7 hours and 21 minutes.

The Red Magic 3 charges via USB-C and comes with an 18W charger in the box. There’s no support for wireless charging.

A solid, single-lens camera

With a sub-$500 price, the Red Magic 3 has to compromise somewhere, and I was bracing for a horrible camera experience, but actually, the camera isn’t too bad. Forget about triple or even dual lenses, there’s just one in the Red Magic 3, but there’s nothing wrong with that, as Google’s Pixels prove.

There’s just one lens, but it’s the same 48-megapixel Sony IMX586 that you’ll find in the Honor View 20, and it’s a good bit of hardware. Now, Nubia lacks Huawei’s artificial intelligence, which Honor can borrow, so it doesn’t quite match up, especially in low light, but it’s still pretty good.

The Red Magic 3 camera captures plenty of detail and vibrant colors. Most of the shots I took wandering around on a sunny day turned out well. It struggles with contrast at times, blowing out light areas a little too frequently, but on the whole, I was pleased with the photos it took.

There’s no dedicated portrait mode and the Red Magic 3 lacks a second lens for depth sensing, but portraits were another pleasant surprise. The shutter speed is fast, so there was no blur, even with moving subjects. It also achieves a satisfying bokeh effect free of muddiness or areas that have been mistakenly blurred, even with difficult fly-away hairs.

Red Magic 3 review camera sample photos

The 16-megapixel front-facing camera serves well, though it applies a smoothing effect labelled as “Pretty” in the camera app. Speaking of which, the camera app is a little strange. The photo, video, and pro options are straightforward enough, but the oddly named “Camera-Family” contains an odd collection of modes.

Naturally there is a weakness here and it’s the usual villain of the piece: Low light performance. When the light drops graininess creeps in. Here it is side by side with the Pixel 3 in a TV-lit room. This is the Pixel 3 without Night Sight turned on, by the way.

The camera can also record video at up to 8K, which seems like overkill right now – who has an 8K screen to watch it on? The 4K at 60 frames per second will be enough for most people, but the quality on playback is nothing to write home about.

Price, Availability, and Warranty Information

The Red Magic 3 costs $479 (479 euros, 419 British pounds) for the red or black versions with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. There’s also a camo model with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage for $599 (599 euros, 529 British pounds).

It’s available now in the U.S. and Canada, most of Europe, and a handful of other countries including Australia and Japan. You can buy it direct from the Red Magic website.

You get a standard two-year warranty on the phone.

Our Take

This enormous gaming beast proves that it’s third time lucky for Nubia. The manufacturer has addressed every element you need in a gaming phone with lightning fast performance, a huge screen, good sound, and a dedicated gaming mode for customization. The real magic trick here is that Nubia is offering the Red Magic 3 for just $479.

Is there a better alternative?

Yes. Last year’s Asus ROG Phone and Razer Phone 2 are the big name alternatives, but they’re both expensive and underpowered compared to the Red Magic 3. The most obvious direct competitor right now is Xiaomi’s very similarly specced and priced Black Shark 2, but it’s a little more expensive and isn’t getting an official U.S. release. The Asus ZenFone 6 is also a worthy competitor, sharing many of the same specs.

If you’re not sold on the gaming angle, then the Pixel 3a XL is the best phone at this price, but it’s a very different prospect. If you could stretch your budget a little further, the OnePlus 6T at $550 is also a great phone, but if gaming is your number one priority the Red Magic 3 may be the best device you can get right now.

How long will it last?

The Red Magic 3 feels durable, though there’s no water resistance here, so you’ll need to keep it dry. The processing power should be enough to see you through the next two or three years, but I’m not sure about how quick Nubia will be to update the software. In theory, as a stock or near stock device, it should be easy to update, but I have concerns. Looking at the Android security level, my Red Magic 3 review unit has a patch from March 5, whereas my Pixel 3 has a May 5 patch.

Should you buy it?

Yes. If you’re looking for a powerful gaming phone that won’t break the bank, the Red Magic 3 will tick all your boxes.

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