The Red Magic 3S may not be a big upgrade but it’s still got that gamer DNA.
Some say... Asus may have gone a bit sober this year by delivering a gaming smartphone that’s also an all-rounder. This gaming monstrosity may have gone soft and even gets you a great camera and good battery life, and its design now appeals to the mere mortal as well. That’s a good thing, but the purist may want something more.
Back in 2018, a Chinese competitor called Nubia created a gaming smartphone that not just went big on specs but slapped a fan at the back as well. It could record video at 8K and came with a dedicated gaming switch as well, to shut off the noise and just focus on your game. In 2019, not much has changed with its newest iteration, the Red Magic 3S, save for the Snapdragon 855+ chipset. This may not be a big upgrade, but in all probability, Nubia may have done this to bring balance to the universe, so that there’s a hardcore gaming device that’s focused on just one thing – your game.
Design and body – Who needs RGB?
While Asus toned down on the whole RGB, gamer-crazy design with its ROG II this year (in a bid to appeal to broader audiences), it seems like Nubia just did not want to give in. It’s loud, in your face and will appeal to the PUBG gaming crowd in an instant. It also makes the ROG II look... well... dull. We received the Cyber Shade 12GB RAM variant for review and it’s got this unique red, magenta and purple gradient finish that can never be mistaken for any other smartphone. The metal back feels cool and just like the Red Magic 3, there are vents for air intake below the camera module at the back and exhaust grille near the left shoulder button.
The Cyber Shade finish (restricted to the 12GB variant) is so bright that you won’t really feel the need to turn on the RGB lighting. But I did like how slim the device was in comparison to the ROG II, which feels like you’re holding a Nintendo Switch Lite in your hands. While the overall design is identical to the 3, it’s still mind-boggling as to how the engineers managed to squeeze in a 5000mAh battery and a cooling fan in this slim build.
I dig the metal build that not only feels cool (when you’re not gaming) but also resists fingerprints like the ROG II’s glass back. Ergonomics are spot on and I could reach out to the touch buttons (that act as shoulder buttons) without intentionally stretching out. There’s only one USB Type-C charging port that sits at the bottom when you are swiping on Instagram, and in the way of your right palm when you are going all out on Call of Duty: Mobile. This also means that you cannot charge the phone while gaming because the cable gets in your way. Thankfully, that 5000mAh battery does last quite long.
Display and audio – Good ol’ 90Hz
The 6.65in AMOLED display has not been upgraded from the Red Magic 3. You get the same 90Hz panel (with 240Hz touch response) and it works as expected. While the race is on to deliver 120Hz displays, you do have to remember that they cost you when it comes to battery life (which also adds to the weight of the device). The colour palette is a bit too saturated at default settings and those looking for more natural colours can stick to the Natural Mode under Display Preferences in Settings. There’s a dual speaker setup like on its predecessor, but it feels just loud enough in comparison to the ROG II’s speakers that are high on both clarity and volume.
It’s an HDR display, but there’s no sign of an HDR-10 certification, so that claim is still a bit of a gimmick. The device also lacks an L1 streaming certification. The phone can only stream FHD content on YouTube. Apps like Amazon Prime and Netflix will limit you to SD content (forget HDR10), which is a bit of downer since there’s a massive AMOLED display at your disposal along with two capable speakers.
Performance and specs – Fast n’ loud
Clearly, the only upgrade with Nubia’s new Red Magic 3S is the new Snapdragon 855+ chipset. The new chipset is a bit faster than the 855, so the bump in performance won’t be all that noticeable. The 12GB RAM and 256GB storage combo (priced at ₹47,999) works well for gaming enthusiasts who need more storage, but the lower priced 8GB/128GB variant (priced at ₹35,999) also works just fine in terms of gaming performance.
It’s rather hard to test the limits of a smartphone that packs in 12GB of RAM and a cooling fan. That’s like stepping into the driving seat of a methanol burning, supercharged monster truck to check for performance. So I ran Call of Duty: Mobile, Shadowgun Legends, Asphalt 9: Legends, Real Racing 3 and PUBG: Mobile (among many others) on the highest settings possible. All the games ran buttery smooth and the 3S maintained sustained performance (30-45 minutes) thanks to that fan, which you can hear whining in the background only when browsing through game menus. It almost sounds (and feels) like a laptop gaming experience, but the fans only spin when the games are running as most other applications don’t warm up the efficient 7nm Snapdragon 855+chipset.
There’s a 5000mAh battery inside and it lasts really long. With casual use and mild gaming, it can easily get you through a day and a half. With intense gaming sessions, the device will still get you through a day. All of this seems like a miracle, given that the display always runs at 90Hz (there’s no Pixel 4-like auto-switching nonsense here). As for that fan, it does take a slight toll on the battery life, but serves the greater purpose of maintaining the device’s temperature, which can get uncomfortably hot when it’s switched off. The only game that managed to touch 46 degrees C was Shadowgun Legends, which was maxed out at Ultra graphics and 60fps when played in a warm room with no AC. It did get warm but not uncomfortably hot for me to stop my game and take a break. The bundled 18W charger takes its own sweet time (about 2 hours) to charge the mammoth battery, so don’t expect OnePlus-like charging speeds here.
OS – Spit and polish
The handset runs Android 9 Pie and while it looks and feels stock, what it really needs is a bit of polish. What it also needs is a bit of optimisation. A simple example is an app folder on the homescreen. Add four icons and the open/close transition is buttery (90Hz) smooth. Add a fifth icon and it stutters while opening the folder. The same works fine with a third-party launcher, so go figure.
The software is vanilla Android with minimal customisations. While I like the almost stock Android look, bits from Nubia’s custom OS show up at certain places. There’s a picture-in-picture mode but it only works with WhatsApp. And then there are scaling problems with some apps that come from Nubia, like off-centred options in the camera app, which seems to be ported from Nubia’s own custom OS and feels out of place.
Also out of place on this smartphone is the vibration motor that feels like someone screeching a table across a floor instead of rolling it on wheels. The vibrations are jarring and the exact opposite of what you get on a ROG II (precise, accurate). For a gaming smartphone with 4D Shock, we expected something far superior than a standard linear motor.
I loved the idea of a mechanical slider switch, but I’m not a fan of how it has been implemented.
How I wished it would work
Flick the switch and you go from WhatsApp to Chicken Dinner in an instant. And if you do want to check back on who last messaged you, simply flick the switch, which pauses the game and gets you back to your WhatsApp conversation.
How it works
Flick the switch and it launches Nubia’s Game Space 2.1 app that gets you access to gaming controls, hardware settings and a collage of games installed on the phone. So you finished playing your favourite game and want to exit using the back navigation key? No can do! A swipe from the right side gets you access to the gaming controls; you have to tap the Back button several times in that slide-out menu to exit your game. After that you still can’t get to your homescreen, unless you manually slide down the physical button. And once you have finally got to your homescreen, you still have to re-launch your favourite app because flicking the slider switch will close all opened apps. As you can see, it’s quite a chore. So much so that at times, I skipped the benefits provided by Game Boost (fan, touch buttons etc.) and directly jumped into a game.
But here’s a trick. Jump to your favourite game via the homescreen and then flick the gaming slider switch to enable the Game Boost advantages (fan cooling, touch buttons, call blocking etc.). But when you’re done, you will still have to flick the switch to exit the game like you would normally do on a regular smartphone.
Camera – What camera?
For a smartphone that was designed from scratch for gaming, one would not really expect flagship camera performance. It’s like buying a Ferrari and expecting it to ride over potholes and speed bumps like a Rolls Royce. It won’t; it’s made for smoother roads, or the track. Still, the Asus ROG II did get us impressive camera performance with its dual rear camera setup. So... long story short, the camera out here does fall a bit short of current expectations.
While the interface is borrowed from another Nubia smartphone and is confusing to use, I did like the built-in level indicator in the shutter button. There’s no Portrait mode for the 16MP selfie-camera and no quick access Portrait mode in the primary camera interface as well. However, there is a beauty mode aptly marked as ‘Pretty mode’ (thanks to the Chinese influence) that’s just a swipe away in the camera interface settings. Since there’s a single camera at the back, there’s an Electronic Aperture mode and it is hidden away in the Camera Family sub-menu. It takes a few seconds to click a Portrait photo, but the results often turn out to be blurry and really aren’t share-worthy. There’s also a handy macro mode that does a good job and even comes with a virtual lens that you can use to peep into the viewfinder for accurate focus.
But as a basic camera for Instagram, things do work out. The 48 MP camera at the back clicks decent photographs that showcase great dynamic range and natural colours. Images shot in daylight come out sharp and pack in loads of detail with good noise reduction. In low light situations, the quality drops and the details getting murky. There’s a Night mode that brightens things up and brings in more details than the regular mode, just that it’s still not better than a OnePlus 7T or a 7. 8K video (at 15 fps) is still a gimmick, but 4K and 1080p capture at 60 fps is smooth, just that it can get really shaky if you are walking about. All in all, don’t expect flagship performance, but it’s definitely good enough for the casual user, which at ₹35,999 for gaming-focussed smartphone is not a bad thing.
Despite its minor chipset upgrade, the Nubia Red Magic 3S still stands tall as a capable gaming smartphone that delivers great performance along with impressive battery life with that 5000mAh battery. Its problems mainly have to do with the inconsistent software that could definitely do with some polish, if Nubia chooses to upgrade its software (that’s a big IF). The two-year-old Nubia 3, for example, has yet to get its Widevine DRM L1 certification to stream movies in HD.
It may not have that 120Hz display and a 6000 mAh battery, but it really does not need one keeping in mind its gaming-focussed audience. And on that front, boy does it deliver! Buy the Asus ROG II (₹37,999) if you want nothing but the best for mobile gaming, better software, faster updates and a better camera. Buy the Red Magic 3S (₹35,999) if you can deal with its software; otherwise it’s as good as a gaming smartphone can possibly get.