Review: RedMagic 5S gaming phone – not just for gaming but maybe not for you
A solid phone that takes mobile gaming to the next level.
While most mobile phone manufacturers are touting their handsets as productivity monsters, that’s not all smartphones can do. Mobile gaming is huge, to the tune of billions of dollars yearly, so making gaming-focused smartphones should be a given, no?
Enter manufacturers such as Nubia’s gaming arm, RedMagic. They burst onto the scene in 2018, with an Indiegogo campaign for their first handset. It was a huge success, bringing things like RGB lighting, advanced cooling, and gaming-specific modes to the Android platform.
Since then, they’ve released multiple handsets, and we’re looking at their latest, the RedMagic 5S. Yes, that 5 means 5G, so let’s take a look.
Okay, so what is a gaming phone anyway?
Well, at its heart, a gaming phone is just a smartphone, with some clever add-ons. All smartphones heat up under use, but gaming especially stresses the cooling solution of normal phones. RedMagic’s solution? Well, it’s called ICE 4.0, and it combines liquid-filled heat pipes, an internal cooling fan, and a silver plate for heat transfer. Yes, real silver, chosen for its heat transfer properties. That plate is exposed to the air and is meant to work together with the Ice Dock add-on, which clamps a huge fan and heatsink onto the back.
Keeping cool under pressure isn’t the only trick this phone has though. It’s got a 6.65-inch AMOLED screen at a resolution of 2,340 x 1,080 that’s capable of a 144Hz refresh rate, just like a gaming monitor for your computer. That touchscreen samples at 240Hz as well, so it should prove responsive while playing games (or doing anything else, really).
RedMagic also adds two capacitive touch buttons, which are just like the shoulder buttons on a console controller when you’re holding the phone in landscape. These are great, and you can map them to on-screen actions using the RedMagic overlay, just by dragging a target over the on-screen position of any UI button. It’s fantastic to use and made Call of Duty Mobile far more natural feeling.
Don’t let me forget the Game Boost switch, which puts the handset into RedMagic’s Game Space mode. That locks your handset into landscape mode, with a new carousel view that any console gamer will immediately understand. It also turns off a bunch of Android services, to save system resources, and has tweaks such as temporarily stopping WiFi from connecting to another access point, anything that could interfere with your gaming session. It tracks gaming sessions, letting you know how many hours you’ve wasted on your favorite games.
There’s even a slide-out overlay while gaming, which lets you enhance games, set the shoulder trigger functions, turn the fan to full, and things like switch between 60/90/144 Hz modes. You can lock the touchscreen if you’re using a Bluetooth controller, it has 4D Shock which is pretty much mobile rumble feedback (which only works in a handful of games), and even aim assist – although we don’t recommend using this if you’re playing multiplayer.
The whole thing is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865, which isn’t the latest flagship chip but it’s still blazing fast. The model we tested has 8GB of LPDDR5 RAM and 128GB of SSD using the UFS3.1 standard. There’s also a version with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, which brings the price to $649. At these specs and price, you wouldn’t expect 5G, but it’s here, just without the faster mmWave bands, and only two of the sub-6GHz bands. In my testing on Google Fi, I didn’t see much of a speed difference between 5G from 4G. Maybe that’s just my location though.
Connectivity is rounded out by Bluetooth 5.1, WiFi 6, GPS, NFC, and that all-important 3.5mm headphone jack. Oh, and USB-C for charging, with an 18W charger in the box. The 4,500 mAh battery will charge at 55W though if you have a powerful enough charger.
While it’s got the requisite triple camera setup for a device of its class, the image quality is nothing special. Sure, you get a wide, ultrawide, and macro lens, with 64MP capture on the main camera. They’re all okay if you’re in daylight or a well-lit space, but the night mode is washed-out and even the “pro” controls can’t save it. If your primary camera is your phone, you can do better.
Is it n00b or pro?
Okay, hands-down this is the best mobile phone I’ve played games on. It’s smooth, responsive, has a gorgeous screen, and those shoulder buttons are great. I’ve not felt it warm up at all, and even at full speed, the fan is still fairly quiet. It’s large though, and while my oversized mitts didn’t have any issues, that might be a consideration for some.
First-person shooters such as Call of Duty Mobile and PUBG Mobile were buttery-smooth, even with my slightly ham-fisted attempts at moving the camera view, and even with PUBG at max settings. Serious players might want to invest in a good Bluetooth controller, but the combination of the shoulder buttons and the responsive touchscreen was good enough for most use cases.
Driving games such as Real Racing 3 were also smooth, and you can really notice the 144Hz refresh rate compared to playing the same game at 60Hz. Really all midrange to flagship smartphones should have a higher-than-60Hz screen by now.
Battery life is insane. I was regularly getting two days of use before recharging while doing my usual daily tasks of social media, messaging, and doom-scrolling. Gaming does eat into that total, but no faster than any other handset and you should still get a day of usage before needing to charge. The fast charging gets you back to full power in no time, well under an hour if you have a faster charger.
The under-screen fingerprint sensor is cool, but it’s slow if you’ve been used to either face unlocks or a rear-fingerprint sensor. It’s also not terribly accurate, often taking several tries to unlock. When it works though, it really does feel magical.
Okay, but should I buy the RedMagic 5S?
I’m torn here. The RedMagic 5S is insanely fast, full of high-end specs and clever gaming tools, and at $579, is priced like a mid-range phone. It stays cool under gaming use, the screen is gorgeous and the high refresh rates are awesome.
Battery life is the best out of any handset I’ve tested for years, and it charges fast when it’s empty. It’s powerful enough for productivity, and the gaming features are well executed. It does have some drawbacks, mainly in the quality of images the cameras produce, but the rest of the phone is awesome. It really comes down to what you want out of your phone. If you want a smartphone that puts gaming at the forefront, however, there’s not much to dislike.
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