RedMagic 5S review: Phoning it in

A few months ago, we took the Red Magic 5 for a spin and did not come away impressed thanks to numerous bugs and compromises. Now the Red Magic 5S is here, and it’s apparent Nubia’s focus on gaming-centric features like internal cooling and a high refresh rate come at a cost, which means this device is again rife with compromises, especially if you plan on using it as a daily driver. 

That doesn’t mean the Red Magic 5S is irredeemable—the gaming features and performance are good enough that dedicated gamers might be happy to live with a lack of polish in their day-to-day. The battery life is also fantastic, and the specs are incredible for the price. However, if you’re not spending hours in mobile games throughout the week, it’s probably not the best option.

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?

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.

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