ZTE Nubia Red Magic Review: If gaming is your passion

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With smartphone hardware now capable enough to run graphics-intensive games with ease, we’ve finally reached a point where we can take the idea of smartphone gaming seriously. Not just that, but the games themselves are now more capable; Asphalt 9: Legends, PUBG Mobile and Fortnite Mobile all show just how much fun it can be to play games on your smartphone. And for someone like me with very little time and far too many internet woes, the smartphone is the ideal tool to game

With that in mind, I’d been looking forward to trying out the Nubia Red Magic. The phone was launched globally back in April this year, and has taken a while to come to India, where Nubia seems to have taken a long break before returning. Reports last month suggested that the company would return with the Red Magic, and that is now indeed the case. I’ve given this gaming-focused phone a go, and here is my review.

Designed for gaming

If there’s one thing that gives away what this phone is built for, it’s the design. No matter where you look at it from, there’s a definite splash of the modernity in everything you see, including the typical aesthetics you’d see in specialized gaming peripherals such as mice and keyboards. The sharp lines, angled shape and bright red accents on the dull black metal unibody give the phone a futuristic appeal that ties in well with its gaming chops.

Oddly though, there’s just a single speaker, located within one of the red accents at the back of the phone. I’d have expected front-firing stereo sound on a phone like this at the very least, so the rear firing audio is a bit awkward. However, you do have the ability to plug in 3.5mm headphones, and most gamers would use a headset while playing.

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While smartphones today are going the glass way, cold, dull metal remains one of my favorite build materials for a phone. The unibody design does give the phone good hand-feel. At the front, the Nubia Red Magic gets a standard 6-inch 18:9 aspect ratio full-HD+ IPS LCD display. While this doesn’t quite seem as modern as the taller notched screens you get for around the same price now, it’s ideal for gaming. The chin and forehead don’t look too great, but the use of a standard screen plays better with most games.

What particularly works for the Nubia Red Magic is its RGB light strip at the back. Running down the middle of the phone, the strip adds an element of drama to the mix, particularly when you’re gaming on the phone. Under ordinary circumstances, the strip isn’t illuminated. But if you have unread notifications, charging, or receiving a call, the strip will illuminate, and work the same way as a typical notification light does.

When you turn on ‘Game Boost’ (more on that later), you’ll see the lights come alive. You can customize the light patterns in this mode, and this can also be set to react to your voice. It’s entirely unnecessary and obviously a power drain as well, but I must admit it’s fun to see the lights illuminate. I’m not sure why RGB lights appeal so much to gamers, but I did enjoy the show during my time with the Nubia Red Magic.

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The good and bad of the specifications

Although the Nubia Red Magic is a few months late to launch in India, its specifications largely hold up even today. I say largely because there is one important department where buyers might be disappointed – the chipset. Powered by last year’s Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 SoC, the Red Magic isn’t entirely convincing as a powerhouse phone today.

It did have the capability to be positioned as a device with top-end hardware back in April this year when it was launched, but the delay in bringing it to India may deter it to an extent. Furthermore, given that devices such as the Asus Zenfone 5Z and Xiaomi Poco F1 sport the newer Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 SoC for the same price works against the Red Magic. Nonetheless, the Snapdragon 835 is a capable chipset on its own, and is largely capable of handling high-end Android games for now, although it won’t remain as capable as the Snapdragon 845 in the long term.

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The rest of the specifications though do restore some faith in the phone’s performance prowess. The Nubia Red Magic sports 8GB of LPDDR4X RAM, 128GB of internal storage (non-expandable), a 3,800mAh battery with fast charging through a USB Type-C port, and the ability to plug in analogue headphones through the 3.5mm jack at the top.

Near-Stock Android

While most manufacturers go the custom UI way, the Nubia Red Magic gets near-stock Android under the hood. This is different from the company’s typical approach; the most recent launch, the Nubia Z18, comes with a custom user interface designed around the needs of the China smartphone segment. This isn’t an Android One device though, so the interface is simply a light skin based on stock Android Oreo, with a few tweaks for the specific needs of the phone.

The biggest advantage of this is freeing up resources for more intensive tasks, such as gaming or multi-tasking. Indeed, the UI feels familiar, clean and easy to use, and places no burden on the phone itself. Even the settings menu and notification shade are uncomplicated, with only a couple of key differences – controls for Game Boost mode and the LED strip – differing this phone from any stock Android device.

Even within the system itself, the only bloatware you’ll find is the Kika Keyboard app, which unfortunately can’t be uninstalled. On the whole, the system is geared around keeping things simple, and it works well enough to the point where you won’t find the UI slowing you down. The light UI even skips face unlock, while retaining a fingerprint sensor at the back of the phone. The awkward shape and position of the sensor makes it a bit hard to get used to, but once you learn the placement, the sensor itself works well enough.

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The key software tweak on the Nubia Red Magic for gaming comes in the form of ‘Game Boost’, a specialized mode that’s meant to make gaming better on the phone. Game Boost is controlled with a hardware switch on the right side of the phone: slide up to switch on, down to switch off. This helps you quickly trigger the mode even after you’ve already started your game, which puts a convenient amount of control in the hands of the user.

Game Boost controls three key elements of the gaming experience. The primary tweak boosts performance for whatever task the phone is on, which will presumably be a performance-intensive game. Second, it blocks app notifications so your game experience goes uninterrupted, and also locks the on-screen navigation keys so you don’t accidentally jump out of the game. The keys can still be used but require a double-tap to unlock while in Game Boost mode. Third, it triggers the LED light and controls the patterns, but also lets you switch this off if you don’t want it. These three work together to make gaming significantly better on the phone.

Performance geared around gaming

As is to be expected of a phone with this level of hardware, performance levels are adequate. The Nubia Red Magic uses the combination of its software, RAM and chipset to run all kinds of games well, including the graphics-intensive PUBG Mobile and even options such as Hitman: Sniper, and Riptide GP with ease. During my time with the phone, I didn’t have any issues at all playing games and generally using the phone for regular purposes. However, as I’ve mentioned before, the over one-year-old Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 SoC may not hold up as well in the long run as the newer Snapdragon 845.

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Running games at the highest graphics settings is a pleasure, and the 6-inch rectangular screen doesn’t pose the typical issues that notched screens might toss up. The screen is also bright and sharp, giving you a good view over the game you’re playing. Nubia has quite clearly cracked the gaming focus on the Red Magic.

The device sports a large 3,800mAh battery, which can be fast-charged with the included charger. With regular tasks, the phone will run for a day easily on a full charge, with screen-on time of about 4-4.5 hours. However, gaming is a power-intensive function, and the LED strip also draws a bit more power than your typical notification light. With a lot of gaming, you’ll likely see the need to charge your phone more often. But about an hour of gaming each day can be factored into regular use and won’t take away from the phone’s ability to last the day.

Simple Cameras

While camera performance is neither a key factor in a phone like this, nor is it touted very seriously, the Nubia Red Magic does sport a decent set of cameras. At the back, you get a 24-megapixel single rear camera, while the front sports an 8-megapixel shooter. The Snapdragon 835 SoC enables up to 4K video recording at the back, and there’s also a basic flash module. The rear camera is built into a hexagonal module, which looks interesting.

It isn’t a camera with any fancy capabilities, but it’s a functional, usable shooter nonetheless. You get Nubia’s typical camera app, which includes modes such as clone photography and light painting, as well as some level of beautification for shots on the front camera. However, when it comes to the basics, the phone does a decent enough job. It gets the colors and tones right for the most part (save for a bit of dullness), and takes decent enough daylight shots for a phone of its price.

Details tend to suffer a bit because of the lack of image stabilization of any kind, so unless you keep your hands very still, you’ll see a bit of loss in detail in the final images. Low light shots aren’t fantastic or even good, but they are once again entirely usable. If your purpose is primarily gaming, you’ll be happy with the results of this camera if you only use it for the occasional shot and don’t have too many expectations from it.

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I’ll admit, it’s difficult to look at a smartphone with 2017 hardware entirely positively for a review I’m doing in October 2018. The Nubia Red Magic had a somewhat-dated chipset even when it launched globally in April this year, so it’s hard to forgive a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 SoC anymore. While the rest of the specifications are impressive, the long-term viability of this phone is questionable given its choice of chipset, particularly when the focus is on performance.

The Nubia Red Magic remains a capable smartphone on its own, and sources suggest its price will be under Rs 30,000, which could be a bit too high for a phone like this. And considering that there’s already talk of the Red Magic 2, Nubia bringing old stock to India so late won’t go down too well. The launch is being timed with the Diwali season, which could help the phone sell to avid smartphone gamers.

All these things aside, the Nubia Red Magic is a phone true to its gaming purpose and fulfils that positioning well enough. Good specifications, good software and beautiful design do work in this phone’s favor. If you think you can work with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 SoC for your gaming needs, the Nubia Red Magic will work well for you, and that LED strip is a definite conversation starter. If you’d rather have the newer Snapdragon 845 SoC, the Asus Zenfone 5Z and Xiaomi Poco F1 are worthwhile alternatives to consider.