Less than two years ago, gaming phones weren’t even a thing. But now, they are an entire category unto themselves. Asus made one, Xiaomi made one (with another on the way), and Razer made two. And while there are some people that continue to question why they are even necessary, it’s important to note that the superb 90Hz screen on the OnePlus 7 Pro is almost certainly a response to the high refresh rate screens that first debuted on various gaming phones. These phones influence the broader category of phones. But in the case of the Nubia Red Magic 3 that might not be a great thing. I’m not sure I’ll want to see it’s built-in fan in next year’s OnePlus. Still, its features like that (and an excellent price)that make this the best gaming phone yet.
Nubia Red Magic 3
What is it?
A 6.65-inch gaming phone
Starts at £419
Slick design, rear RGB lighting, big specs, long battery life, good price. It has a fan!
No water resistance, NFC or wireless charging. Nubia lagging behind on security patches, software and UI can take some getting used to, stereo speakers sound unbalanced.
Seriously, the Red Magic 3 has pretty much everything you could ever want in a gaming phone. It’s got a huge 6.65-inch screen with a 90Hz refresh rate, stereo speakers, the latest Snapdragon 855 chip from Qualcomm, 8GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, and, of course, an RGB light strip around back. It even has a red and black colour scheme that delivers that classic gamer aesthetic, and while its triangular accents on the back are a bit aggressive, they aren’t overly so.
Like the Razer Phone 2, the Red Magic 3 has powerful stereo speakers, but to make the phone even more pleasant to hold while gaming, Nubia gave its gaming phone curvy sides and rounded corners so that it doesn’t jab your palms like Razer’s handset does. And while the Red Magic 3 still has bezels above and below its screen, they’re smaller than what’s on the Razer Phone 2 and also quite proportional, which gives the whole device a satisfying a balanced look and feel, which is good because this thing is heavy.
Between its 6.65-inch AMOLED 2,340 by 1,080 screen, and its thick metal back, the Red Magic 3 is an absolute unit. When viewed side-by-side next to the Galaxy Note 9 or a OnePlus 66 Pro, the Red Magic 3 is noticeably larger than both. But that thick body comes with its benefits, because it means the Red Magic 3 has room for a SIM tray with an extra microSD card slot, a headphone jack, and Nubia’s hidden party trick, a built-in active cooling fan like you’d get on a gaming PC.
At first, putting a fan in a phone seems like a silly idea. But when you think about it some more, you start to wonder why not. Heat is the enemy of performance, and anyone who’s played PUBG Mobile has almost certainly noticed how warm a phone can get after just a couple rounds. But putting a fan in a phone only makes sense if that fan actually helps cool the device.
So to test its effectiveness, I performed two stress tests that involved running 3DMark’s Slingshot Extreme graphics test 10 times in a row to simulate a demanding gaming session; once with no help from the fans, and once with the fan turned on full blast. And you know what? Sadly, it seems that fan is more style than function.
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)
After 10 runs of Slingshot Extreme without the fan, the Red Magic 3 posted a score of 5,051, compared to a score of 5,255 with the phone’s fan set on full blast. That’s an increase of just under 5 per cent, which isn’t nothing, but not quite enough to really crow about. (The Red Magic 3 posted a score of 6,354 when run after a cold boot.) However, during additional testing, I noticed that having the fan turned when you first fire up some games does help prevent your hands from getting sweaty. So at least you know when you hear that tiny hand dryer spin up, you’re getting everything you can out of Red Magic 3 while gaming.
The Red Magic 3's built-in fan isn’t its only gaming feature though, as Nubia gave the phone a dedicated gaming mode complete with its own hardware switch. At first, I thought the red slider on the side of the phone was a mute switch or an alert toggle like you get an iPhone or OnePlus phone. But no, flipping that switch activates a dedicated UI that puts all your gaming apps front and centre while also giving you a handful of special features and live system info. With the Red Magic’s gaming mode turned on, you can see the temperature inside the phone, the clock speed of your CPU and GPU, and even the speed of your data connection.
There are nifty shortcuts for taking screenshots, blocking incoming messages, toggling the fan on and off, and something called 4D Shock, which basically adds a rumble effect to select games. Unfortunately, right now the list of supported titles stands at just four: PUBG Mobile, Knives Out, Asphalt 9, and QQ Speed. But my favourite gaming feature of them all is Nubia’s touch button controls, which lets you customise the Red Magic’s two side-mounted touchpads so you can use them as shoulder buttons. It’s perfect for battle royale games like Fortnite and PUBG, and because the touch controls can be adjusted for whatever your playing, there’s no limit to the possibilities.
However, all of these tools and features do take some getting used to, as booting straight into game mode can be overwhelming at first. There are also a tonne of different settings for the Red Magic 3's rear RGB light strip, which can be accessed from the phone’s game mode, or customised in the standard Android settings menu.
The Red Magic 3's software is my biggest gripe, because while the phone does come with Android 9, I ran into a couple of situations where the phone froze or got hung up temporarily. None of these situations were more than minor inconveniences and were typically fixed by closing an app and restarting it. But still, issues like that shouldn’t happen at all. On top of that, despite getting a new system update at the end of June, the phone is still running on Google’s Android security patch from March. At least the Red Magic’s battery life is strong. With a time of 13 hours and 15 minutes on our rundown test, the Red Magic 3 crushed the Razer Phone 2's time of 9:45, and also topped the ROG Phone’s time of 12:57.
As for the Red Magic 3's 48-MP camera, despite having just a single lens (which is actually somewhat refreshing in today’s world of double, triple, and quadruple camera phones), its image quality is decent. In bright light, the Red Magic 3's pics looked sharp (though not as colourful as those from competitors) and at night, it even grabbed a shot with better white balance than what I got from a Galaxy S10. But overall, the Red Magic’s camera is clear step down from what you’d get on a flagship phone from Apple, Samsung, or Google. That’s OK! It’s not really the main focus of the phone anyway.
Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)
But here’s the real shocker, the Red Magic 3 costs just £419. That’s cheaper than both the Razer Phone 2 and the Asus ROG Phone for better specs, longer battery life, more colourful lights, and a wide array of gaming features. And if that’s not enough, there’s a higher spec model with 12GB of RAM, 256GB of storage, and a camo paint job, plus Nubia’s optional controller accessory and optional desktop dock. I wish Nubia put a bit more polish on the Red Magic’s software and spent more time providing timely security updates. Yet for mobile gaming fanatics looking for a big phone at a great price, the Red Magic 3 can’t be denied.
- The Red Magic 3 has a dedicated gaming switch, and a built-in fan for better cooling along with an obligatory RGB light strip in back
- While the Red Magic 3 has a tonne of gaming features, it doesn’t come with wireless charging, NFC, or any kind of water resistance.
- Thanks to its 6.65-inch AMOLED screen and thick metal back, the Red Magic 3 is a bit of tanker.
- The Red Magic 3 has two other small annoyances: its stereo speakers aren’t perfectly balanced, and it only has 802.11ac wi-fi.
All images: Sam Ruthorford (Gizmodo)