Over the last couple of years we've seen a rise of so-called gaming phones. Some focus on higher refresh-rate displays, others liquid cooling, and some - like the OnePlus 7 Pro - do both of those things without making a dedicated gamer phone.

For Red Magic - a sub-division of Chinese brand Nubia - it was about going all-in. The third-generation Red Magic phone has liquid cooling, a pulsing LED strip on the back and is the first to feature an internal fan as well. Is it the gaming phone to beat all others?

Big beast

  • Metal body/glass front
  • RGB LED strip on the back
  • 171.7 x 78.5 x 9.7mm; 215g

There's no two ways about it: the Red Magic 3 is a big phone. It's not quite Huawei Mate 20 X big, but it's still pretty hefty. It's taller than an iPhone XS Max, and measures 12mm taller than its Red Magic Mars predecessor. The Magic 3 is only slightly wider than those two phones though, but that means it's rather chunky in today's world of more slender 21:9 aspect ratio screens.

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There's no mistaking this is a Red Magic phone though. A look at the back will all but confirm that. It has a same hexagonal fingerprint sensor near the top, as well as the single camera placed behind a Superman-logo-shaped triangular cover. Then there are the angles, lines and red accents at the corners and, of course, the long RGB LED strip right down the middle.

The key to good effects from a lighting array is the ability to customise the colours and animation. In that regard, the Red Magic 3 doesn't disappoint. You can set the LED strip to come on whenever you launch, when you get notifications, and when you plug in your phone to charge. You can even choose from a number of different animations and colour sequences.

The only sad part is that, because it's on the back, you rarely get the full effect of the light when you're gaming. Especially not in the daytime, or on light summer evenings. Hold it fairly close to a wall at night time - as inconvenient as that is - and the impact is much more apparent.

As for notification pulsing, that's only really useful if you happen to place your phone face down on a surface.

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Look closely around the body work and you'll see a number of vents and grilles dotted around. There are two subtle yet long ones running along the top and bottom of the front panel, used for the powerful front-firing speaker. But the other two - one on the right edge and the other below the camera on the back - are for thermals. That's right, this phone has an internal fan, which keeps air moving through the body to ensure the phone doesn't overheat under high load.

That's not all either. There are a couple more buttons and points of interest, as you'd expect from a gamer phone. One the left edge, right up near the top is a red button that you slide upwards to launch the dedicated gaming mode.

Game Space is a bit magical

  • Dedicated game space
  • Control internal cooling fans
  • Enable/disable notifications

Red Magic isn't the only gaming phone company to include a dedicated gaming mode. Black Shark has one, and it's similar in operation to the method employed by Nubia (the makers of the Red Magic phone line).

When you flick the switch, an entirely new interface launches, showing nothing but games titles in a scrollable carousel. As you'd expect, it's red and black, to match the motif of the smartphone itself. But it's more than just an app launcher.

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The game mode allows gives you access to dedicated gaming features and controls, like being able to switch on the cooling fan, which is off by default. Switch it on, place your ear near one of the aforementioned vents, and you'll hear the subtle whirring of a miniature fan inside the device.

It's only in gaming mode where you'll also get the ability to switch on the dedicated touch-sensitive shoulder buttons that live on the right edge of the phone. To the untrained eye, these look like the edge-mounted fingerprint sensor from phones like the Samsung Galaxy S10e, but they're not.

Thankfully, these aren't pre-programmed for specific functions. You have to map them on the touchscreen to control specific virtual buttons. For instance, when playing PUBG Mobile, you can have them both act as a trigger, or one on scope and the other as trigger. And this actually gives you quite the advantage, freeing up your thumbs to only control direction and field of view, while your index fingers on both hands are out of the way, taking care of shooting your enemies.

In other games, obviously you can remap them for different functions, depending which controls you have on screen. However, it's in PUBG Mobile where we felt the most benefit. It's genuinely awesome running about the map and not having to try and use a claw grip with fingers and thumbs on the screen, or generally just failing at trying to use just thumbs for everything.

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The gaming mode also gives you the ability to switch on the 4D shock system, which works in dedicated games to offer a bit of extra oomph in the vibration. In PUBG that's when you're getting shot at, for example.

This option appears in a little slide-over menu that you bring in from the right side of the screen, which also includes little snippets of data like current processing load, temperature, speed, and the ability to block messages and calls.

It's all about focusing you in on your gaming, and making it as prime and experience as it can be a smartphone, and in this regard, the Red Magic 3 does a fantastic job.

Like being punched in the eyes

  • 6.65-inch AMOLED panel, 19.5:9 aspect ratio
  • 1080 x 2340 resolution (388ppi)

If what you're after from your games is eye-popping vibrant colours and deep contrast, the Red Magic 3 is for you. But it's far from perfect. Colours, particularly reds, oranges and pinks, look far too saturated to fully enjoy the content on screen.

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For some games, this excessive hyper-real calibration works well - particularly those animated with 2D, cartoony flat shapes and gradients - but games and apps where more natural representation would be better do suffer.

Open Strava, for example, and the orange banners are so saturated it's almost like being punched in the eyes with oranges. But not real oranges. Cartoon oranges coloured in by a four year old with the most orangey orange felt tip pen you've ever seen. With other games, we often found the red was so excessively red that it killed any subtle shading or gradients in the image.

There is an option in the display settings to switch to a supposedly more "natural" look, but while it presents less saturated, it's too far the other way. Colours that should be at least a little vibrant lack, particularly blues and greens.

If we were Red Magic, we'd create a profile somewhere in between the existing two. Not oversaturated and not lifeless.

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Then there's the issue of its long aspect ratio. For the most part, with modern games, it's not a problem. With that said, we did notice a few games were so cropped, they were missing elements of the imagery, or parts of the UI were half cut-off by the sides and edges of the display. We'd almost prefer it if the default was to add black bars on either side of the screen where the images are otherwise cut-off.

Speed demon with clean, albeit imperfect software

  • Snapdragon 855 processor
  • 8GB/128GB or 12GB/256GB
  • Android Pie w/Red Magic 2.0 interface

While its display doesn't quite satisfy, the overall performance and speediness is quite the opposite: this is a quick phone. Then again, so is pretty much any phone powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor.

What we appreciate about the Red Magic approach is that - for the most part - the software is very much like stock Android. Aside from some fairly plain and not particularly attractive icons and wallpapers, there's not much to separate it. And it's fairly simple to change the icon shape to the more standard round versions, should you want.

More important than this is that with the software being light, the phone's operability is nimble. Everything happens quickly, with no noticeable delay or lag in any daily tasks.

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Some things are a bit unusual, or unreliable, though. For instance, go to switch the display mode to natural and it switches fine. But then to change it back to colourful and it won't - not without a phone restart.

Then there's the fact that the general screen resolution seems to scale things oddly, like there's a little too much space between the icons and text in some menus, or the text seems a little too thick in others. What's more, the display settings only gives you three different display size options: small, default and large. No in-between options.

You can switch between light and dark themes, but it only changes the background of the drop-down notifications/settings shade and the app drawer. The settings menu still stays white even when you choose the dark mode.

 Battery performance

  • 5,000mAh battery
  • 27W fast wired charging
  • PD support

It's probably no surprise to anyone to know that - with its 5,000mAh battery - the Red Magic 3 is more than capable of going a full day without any effort whatsoever. Even with a couple of hours gaming thrown into our daily routine of checking social media, emails and messenger apps, the battery still had plenty of juice left at the end of a day. 

If, for whatever reason, you decided to use this phone like an average, everyday phone with moderate-to-light use, you could probably push it to two days use without much anxiety.

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The real reason behind the huge battery though, is to allow you to game, and game some more. Even with four hours of gaming pushed into a day, the phone was still alive come bed time. 

What's more, with its 27W fast wired charger, you can easily top it up again in an emergency if you spend a little too much time trying to win your chicken dinners on PUBG. 

Camera

  • Single 48MP rear camera
  • 16MP front camera
  • 8K video capture (beta feature)
  • 4k/60fps

It's not unusual in 2019 to find an Android phone boasting a 48-megapixel sensor in its primary camera. Just like those other devices - whether Honor 20 or Moto One Vision (the first a Sony sensor, the second a Samsung sensor) - Red Magic uses a process called pixel-binding to effectively combine four pixels into one, creating a 12-megapixel image. 

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In regular still photos shooting in good light, the Red Magic 3 produces good results. Shots are detailed, colours are natural and there's a nice overall feel to the highlights and shadows. The only issue is, you don't see this unless you look at it on a different screen. Browse your gallery on your phone and you'll think your photos are way over-saturated, and that's down to the display issues we've already mentioned. 

There's more to this camera than you would assume there would be in a gaming phone. It might not have the multi-camera setup that so many other phones have these days - such as the Oppo 10x Zoom - but its software is loaded with some cool additional features. The one that perhaps sets it apart is the family of multi-exposure tools. 

Using multi-exposure you can create some pretty creative effects, like getting darker parts of the second image to fill in the lighter parts of the first, or having to pictures matching up side-by-side, or - if you have a tripod - make it look like you have two of the same object in a scene. 

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Red Magic went a bit over the top with video spec too, offering up to 8K resolution video recording. It's labelled as a beta in the settings, and we soon found out why: shooting while moving saw the camera produce a fairly horrendous rolling shutter effect, making everything in shot wobble like jelly. Sticking to 4K or under is more than enough, especially since you'll likely not have an 8K display to watch the footage back on anyway. 

Verdict

When you boil it down, having a phone this powerful with a decent camera and long battery life at this price is a total bargain. It's fast, goes all day, can handle any of your games, and controls really well thanks to shoulder buttons and a dedicated gaming mode.

It's not perfect, though. Its big size and heft make it a phone that's not exactly ergonomic, while that screen is one of the most extreme over-saturated ones we've seen in quite some time.

We can overlook a lot of that though in a phone that's half what it would cost you to get a big-name smartphone with a similar spec. Plus, as a gaming phone, it really works: those touch-sensitive shoulder buttons really do add a major boost to your online PUBG Mobile sessions. 

The Red Magic 3 is available from Red Magic here.

Alternatives to consider

Pocket-lintBlack Shark 2 review image 1

Black Shark 2

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It might not be able to boast having fan cooled internals (there's an optional accessory for that), but Black Shark makes a really good gaming phone thanks to its sold-separately thumbstick controllers. It's a really good day-to-day flagship experience too when those controllers aren't attached.

Pocket-lintRazer Phone 2 review image 1

Razer Phone 2

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Razer is a gaming brand, through and through, and having purchased Nextbit a few of years back, it now makes gaming-centric smartphones. It took a different approach to the others though, by offering a screen with a higher refresh rate, meaning animations are a little smoother on games that support it.