Red Magic 3S review: The fastest phone I’ve used, marred by big display issues [Update]

nubia left a great impression on me when it first released the Red Magic 3 with a cooling fan, and I was happy to find out that it lived up to my expectations in my review. Now, the company has come out with a successor, the Red Magic 3S, with some improvements to the Red Magic 3. The chipset and storage have been upgraded, so the phone should be even faster.

Initially, I received the Cyber Shade model to review, but due to an unfortunate accident, I ended up having to get a replacement, and it was the Mecha Silver model. This model has 8GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage, just like the unit I reviewed for the Red Magic 3. Of course, like I said, that storage is now UFS 3.0 instead of 2.1, so it’s still an improvement.

Specs

CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon 855+
GPU Adreno 640
Body 171.7×78.5×9.65mm (6.76×3.09×0.38in), 215g (7.58oz)
Display 6.65 inches, 1080×2340, 19.5:9, 387.5ppi, AMOLED
Camera 48MP with Quad Bayer technology, Front – 16MP
Video 8K – 15fps, 4K – 60fps, 1920fps Slow Motion; Front – 1080p – 30fps
Aperture f/1.7, Front – f/2.0
Storage 128GB UFS 3.0
RAM 8GB
Battery 5,000mAh, 18W fast charging
Material Metal
Price $479

Day one

Design

Design-wise, the Red Magic 3S is just about identical to the Red Magic 3. The phone is the exact same shape and size, something I’m not too happy with. It constantly feels like it might tip over in my hand, and it’s even prone to sliding out of my pocket. The biggest change in terms of design is really in the color schemes, with Mecha Silver replacing the red variant of the 8GB/128GB model, and Cyber Shade replacing the camo look for the 12GB/256GB model. I’m glad that change happened because I really don’t like camo patterns on anything.

Everything else is the same, too, so you’ll still find the volume rocker and power button on the right edge of the phone, along with the two touch-sensitive triggers that are great for gaming (more on that later), and the vent for the cooling fan. On the left side, the game mode toggle is still there, as is the six-pin connector for the Magic Adapter. You’ll also find the dual SIM card slot here.

Along the bottom edge, you’ll find the USB Type-C port capable of 18W charging, a microphone, and a speaker grill. I assume this is so notifications are easier to hear when the phone is in your pocket, when you might have the front-facing speaker muffled by your legs. At the top, there’s just a headphone jack, which some users might still appreciate.

On the back, there’s still a single 48MP camera, which we’ll get to later, and an air intake vent underneath, which has been redesigned for some reason. Below that is the RGB light strip, because that’s what every gamer needs. What’s still missing is an NFC touch point, which I like to have for mobile payments. The whole design of the back is pretty unique, and I like the all-metal build. On the front, there’s the 6.65-inch display flanked by stereo speakers and a 16MP front-facing camera.

Display and sound

So let’s talk about that display, and why it’s the only reason I can’t recommend this phone. It’s Full HD, it has a 19.5:9 aspect ratio, and a 90Hz refresh rate. The screen corners are a little more rounded than I would like, but that’s not new coming from the Red Magic 3.

The big problem is in the colors. Now, I’ve pointed out small color distortions in many of the phones I’ve reviewed, and I’ve always downplayed it because of how minor they are, but I can’t do that with this one. If you’re looking at flat colors, the color shift is very significant across the display. It gets a lot worse as the colors get darker or you lower the brightness, to the point where colors can appear to change completely. It truly is a bad experience, and it can’t go unmentioned. Unfortunately, it’s a little hard to capture on camera, but here’s a good example from the Clock app.

I reached out to nubia about this, and I was told it’s not something I should be seeing. Truthfully, I didn’t notice it with the Cyber Shade model I initially received. I also compared it to the Red Magic 3S that a friend of mine bought, and it seems like it’s not present on his phone either. It’s somewhat reassuring to know this, but at the same time, nubia tells me this is a mass-production unit, which means that if I didn’t get it, anyone who buys the phone might have*. You’re running a real risk of getting a terrible display, even if the chances aren’t that high. It’s not a risk I would want to take with my money.

Update: Nubia has reached out to Neowin to clarify that the review unit is indeed a pre-production model. The initial statement is the result of miscommunication between nubia and Neowin, for which we apologize.

Moving on from that, having a 90Hz refresh rate is still really nice, and it just makes every interaction feel incredibly smooth, be it navigating the interface or playing games that support it. I also like how big the display is, it’s generally great for consuming media if you don’t notice the color shift. It’s much easier to ignore if you set the brightness higher and you’re looking at complex images, so it’s not all that bad.

The stereo speakers on the Red Magic 3S are also really great and they have a surprising range of volume. If you set it to the lowest level, it’s barely audible even in relatively quiet rooms. But cranking the volume all the way up makes it very loud. Waking up to this phone’s alarm is almost scary, but I’d say that’s a good thing.

Camera

The camera on the Red Magic 3 didn’t seem that great to me when I reviewed it, so going into the 3S, which has the same 48MP Sony IMX586 sensor, I didn’t expect that much. However, I ended up pleasantly surprised. The camera delivers fairly punchy colors and reasonably sharp shots, and I managed to get some really nice pictures out of it.

One thing that’s new here is the night mode, which is similar to what we saw on the nubia Z20. I’d say it works just as well if not better than it did on that phone. It continues to do a great job of bringing out the colors and details in the shadows, while also toning down harsh highlights so the whole picture looks more balanced and natural. Even in the daytime, certain shots can be improved by night mode, such as the picture you’ll see towards the end where the tree is contrasting against the bright sky. The first few shots below are one-offs, but mostly you’ll see comparisons between having night mode on or off, with regular shots coming first.

Having a single lens does reduce the versatility of the camera, so you can’t get any crazy zoomed-in pictures or wide-angle shots, since the lenses required for that aren’t here. The phone still comes with the array of options you’d get before, like 8K video recording at 15 frames per second, shooting at either 48MP or 12MP, choosing aspect ratios, and so on.

It also includes a ton of extra modes like multi-exposure, LightDraw, and slow motion video. That last one is interesting because, instead of supporting the more standard 960fps recording, nubia decided to have both 480fps and a 1920fps option that’s labeled as beta. That last one extends a two-second clip into one minute and four seconds, which is really cool. I don’t know why there’s no 960fps option in between, though.

Performance, battery life, and software

Performance and battery life continue to be strong areas for the Red Magic 3S, which you’d probably expect from an actively cooled Snapdragon 855+ and a 5,000 mAh. This thing is an absolute beast, and on my first benchmark off of a clean restart, it ranked second in the AnTuTu ranking, only trailing to ASUS’s ROG Phone 2 with 12GB of RAM.

Here’s the thing though, I ran the benchmark three times in a row to see if the cooling fan helped sustain that performance. The second benchmark didn’t return a result – AnTuTu continues to only deliver a final score every other time I run the benchmark – but the third test actually scored higher than the first one, with 497577 points. This is because I moved from a pretty warm room to the cold winter air outside, and having that fan pushing the cold air directly into the cooling system really makes a difference. The score I got in this situation actually allowed the Red Magic 3S to beat the ROG Phone 2.

Benchmarks aside, the phone performs wonderfully in just about every way. Apps open quickly, switching apps is usually instant, even if you leave them in the background for hours, and performance in games is just great. Even with graphics settings maxed out, the phone never even stuttered while playing PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds Mobile or Asphalt 9. It’s unfazed by anything I throw at it.

Battery life is also fantastic on this phone, and my regular usage – consisting of some YouTube and texting – usually let me get two days out of a single charge. I’ve never run out of battery before the end of a day, but I did want to try to see what it would take to get it as low as possible. On a very long day, from 10am to 5am the next morning, I watched YouTube for about one hour, ran the three benchmarks mentioned above, and played Asphalt 9 Legends and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds Mobile for a total of two hours. That gaming time was split into about 60% on Asphalt 9 and 40% on PUBG. Gaming and video playback had the RGB light strip enabled while playing, but the benchmarks did not. Aside from that, my usage was fairly light. I ended up with the battery at 6% when I plugged in the charger, 19 hours after I first unplugged it. I love that I can count on this phone to last me all day no matter what I do.

Software-wise, we’re looking at the usual from nubia – Android Pie with very little customization, but many of the built-in apps are clones of Google apps shipped with Android Marshmallow, and they don’t get updates. Nubia adds its custom settings onto the standard Android Settings app, so you can customize the RGB strip, the built-in screen recording feature, and a new picture-in-picture mode that only seems to work with WhatsApp.

Like before, you can customize the RGB light strip for incoming calls, and game mode, and media playback. Each of those situations can have its own light effect, either from a list of presets or a custom one designed by you. There’s also some presets that change the light based on the sound coming from the phone, which is pretty cool. The RGB strip can also turn on for notifications, charging, and the boot sequence, though you don’t get customization options for these situations. You can also turn on a backlight that’s under the Red Magic logo on the back of the phone.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the software is Game Mode, which you turn on using the red slider on the left of the phone. Like before, it lets users choose different performance modes, block incoming calls, take screenshots, and more. One new feature this time around is screen recording, which you can start at any moment, in addition to the automatic recordings you can enable in some games. You can also record the screen outside of Game Mode, but I’m glad it’s been added there.

That’s not all that’s new in Game Mode, since you can also now use the fingerprint sensor as an additional off-screen button in games, making for a total of three. I don’t consider this third one as useful as the other two, but it does come in handy in games like PUBG where there are a lot of different actions you can perform at any given time. As a reminder, the two shoulder triggers continue to be incredibly useful, and I’ve won multiple games of PUBG even though I’m not even remotely good at the game.

Conclusion

The Red Magic 3S is a phone I’d love to recommend. The performance for a $480 phone is absolutely fantastic, stopping at nothing I threw at it. Add to that a 90Hz refresh rate, loud stereo speakers, a pretty good camera, long-lasting camera, and unique gaming-oriented features, it’s an overall fantastic package. It continues to be one of the phones that tempts me the most to buy it.

But this time, that feeling was overshadowed by the major display issues I saw. The color shifting is so visible in low-light scenarios that it’s impossible to ignore, and it really took away from my experience. Yes, I understand this might be a one-off device, and that it’s not likely you’ll get a unit like this if you buy it. But I have a hard time recommending it knowing that there’s a real risk you’ll get a unit that looks this bad. I can’t deduct the points for all the great things this phone has, but in the end, I feel like buying this phone is a risk you have to be willing to take.

If you’re interested in it, you can buy it directly from Red Magic’s website.

Update: Following the publication of this review, nubia reached out to Neowin to clarify that the review unit used for this review is in fact a pre-production model, so the final product may be less prone to such issues. The review has been ammended to include this information, but the thoughts and opinions haven’t been changed. We’ve also added a link to the Red Magic website for those that want to buy the phone.

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