(Pocket-lint) - ZTE's sub-brand, Nubia, was among the first to launch a gaming phone when they first hit the market a few years back. The Red Magic phone joined other big-screened, powerful devices in a market that, now in 2021, hasn't expanded beyond its pretty niche borders. But there's still appeal - and clearly there's some success to be had.
The Red Magic 6S Pro brings together many of the 2021's most powerful specs and features - ones that you won't find in many a regular smartphone. What's more, despite its impressive spec list, it doesn't cost a huge amount. So could this be the gaming phone to get, or should you play it safe and stick with the Asus ROG 5?
- Dimensions: 169.9 x 77.2 x 9.5mm / Weight: 215g
- Glass front and back - visible RGB fan
- Pressure sensing shoulder buttons
- 3.5mm port for wired headphones
As gaming phones go, Nubia has played it a little safer than we've seen in previous years. In fact, that's been something of a trend for gaming phones in 2021. We've moved slightly away from big, garish devices with protruding angles all over the back. But that doesn't mean the 6S Pro is completely devoid of the gamer aesthetic.
Our unit is the limited edition transparent model, and it's certainly different to most other phones on the market. Almost the entire left side of the phone's rear is covered in a colourless glass. Behind it you can see labels for various components, but the circuit boards themselves are hidden from view.
The undoubted star of the show, however, is the cooling fan about two-thirds of the way up the left edge. You switch that on in the software, and it lights up with a rainbow-coloured RGB light as it whirrs around.
Apart from that, the rear is a completely smooth glass finish, accented with various painted lines and logos. While it looks eye-catching enough, it's not the most practical of finishes. The curves down to the four sides and corners - combined with the super glossy finish, large size and weight - mean it will slip off basically anything without much encouragement.
We've heard the anxiety-inducing clap as it drops to the floor far too many times during our time with it. In the process, it's taken some of the black anodisation off the metal frame's edges. Our advice - if you buy one - is to fit the included bumper/case, as it will save you a lot of hassle.
Despite this, there's no denying the industrial strength of the phone. It feels really sturdy. It is rather large, though, as gaming phones so often tend to be. Despite that, it's still lighter than either the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra or the Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max. Neither of which are marketed as gaming phones, rather they're just big flagships.
The tell-tale sign that you're looking at a gaming phone - apart from the RGB - is the additional ports, holes, fixtures and buttons around the 6S Pro's edges. In addition to the USB-C port, volume and power buttons, the Red Magic has a few other bits too.
For instance, there's an air vent on both sides of the phone - one positioned near the visible fan, the other directly opposite. Just above the left vent there's also a red accented slider button that switches the phone into its dedicated gaming interface. Then on the opposite side there are two touch-sensitive shoulder buttons that you can map to different functions depending on the game you're playing.
The shoulder triggers can be handy for gaming. When playing Call of Duty Mobile, for example, you could have the right button as a trigger and the left for targeting or reloading. It's simple enough to do and only requires you to drag across the gaming interface options during a game - then you tap the relevant remapping icon and choose which on-screen controls you want to activate with each button.
Display and media
- 6.8-inch AMOLED panel, 1080 x 2400 resolution, up to 165Hz refresh rates
- Stereo speakers powered by DTS:X
One of the trends we do like in gaming phones is that they don't seem to feel the need to have a completely edge-to-edge screen, and therefore no notch or punch-hole camera cutting into the display area. That means the huge 6.8-inch screen on the 6S Prio's front has no interruptions to get in the way of content.
The selfie camera has been incorporated into the screen's top bezel, which is nice and slim, but still convenient enough for holding during gaming sessions.
It's flanked by stereo speakers too, and that means you get a bit more of an immersive feel when gaming. As smartphones go, the audio is loud and rich. You'll still get a better audio experience from a pair of decent wired headphones though, especially with the support for 32-bit audio quality.
While it's hard to fault as a media device, thanks to the big screen and stereo sound, it's clear the 6S Pro's screen has been designed predominantly for gamers. It focuses more on response times and frame rates than resolution. After all, its headline feature is that it can reach up to 165Hz.
Unlike some of the more expensive flagship phones, it's not an adaptive screen - so you can't just enable an automatic mode that adapts the refresh rate depending on the content. Instead, you have to go into the settings and choose your desired setting: 60Hz, 90Hz, 120Hz, 165Hz.
For the most part, we stick it in 120Hz mode, since most games don't tend to go above that frame rate. Even in this mode, though, there's a definite feel that it's super responsive and fluid. A big part of that is undoubtedly the speed of animations. Touching or swiping any part of the interface results in a near instant action on the screen, thanks to a 720Hz touch sampling rate. It's almost too fast and feels a tiny bit unnatural. Still, impressive.
The screen is bright too, so it's a great panel for gaming on, while the big size, rich colours, and deep contrast also mean it's great for video. Granted you might not get the sense from it that it's been tuned to replicate a cinematographer's colour balance, but you can tune it to your liking.
Normal mode gets a good balance of colours without them being oversaturated, but there's also a Vivid mode, as well as Natural, P3 or sRGB colour gamuts. You even get a colour temperature wheel to fine-tune it. Our preference was P3, which seemed to even things out nicely without being too muted.
The only real problem we found was in watching Netflix. It seems the phone isn't certified to work in HD resolution, so the stream was quite low quality and pixellated. This wasn't a problem in Disney+ however.
- Dedicated Game Space
- Game launcher and customisation
We've seen a number of manufacturers implement dedicated software to help you focus on gaming. For gamer phones it's a lot more in-depth than your Android average - and Red Magic's Game Space is up there with the best of them, as long as you don't mind spending time tweaking settings.
As we mentioned, flicking the red switch on the side automatically launches the game launcher interface. In its default mode, this is a carousel of cards featuring all the games you have installed on the phone.
However, there's more to it than that. In the corner of each game card there's a settings cog, and if you tap this you can deep-dive into the performance settings and customise them for each title.
For instance, for Call of Duty, you could increase the touch-sampling rate to make it more responsive (if you use the touchscreen for controls). You can boost the GPU and CPU performance to keep gameplay fast and smooth, while also adjusting the display. Selecting 'shoot' mode in the Show submenu increases brightness and contrast to help identify dark/shadowed enemies.
For a game like Genshin Impact or Mario Kart Tour you might want a completely different set of customised settings, and so this game menu lets you tune a bespoke set for each title.
Once the game starts you get more options available in the interface that you can swipe across from the left or right side of the screen. A pop-up window gives you access to some of the same performance options as before, but also quick toggles for things like blocking messages and calls, locking screen touch, or activating screen recording. On the left of the screen you get access to your shoulder button and middle button mapping tools as well. This lets you position their action points on screen, as well as adjust their sensitivity.
Software - and issues
- Android 11
- Red Magic 4.5 skin
There's lots to like but also lots not to like about Nubia's software efforts in the Red Magic flagship.
One element we think will appeal to a lot of people is the customisation options. There are a number of pre-installed themes - some more subtle than others, ranging from almost-stock-Android to bright and blocky icon alternatives.
Each theme comes with its own animated wallpaper, but you can choose from a host of available separate live wallpapers too. The default for a lot of them is quite sci-fi/cyberpunk-ish in appearance, with metallic shades and bright accents, but there are a few others that are less 'gamer'.
This customisation extends to the always-on display too, offering various still or animated all-colour graphics and clocks. For those who like to make their phone look the way they want, there's no shortage of options.
While there's no doubting the top-notch hardware and capabilities of the Red Magic 6S Pro, there's evidence the software still needs some work. If only because the experience of using the phone and its interface is inconsistent.
We had a few weird bugs to deal with while testing the phone. For instance, it decided to stop showing notifications from a couple of our messaging apps at one point - and that feature never returned to normal. So that meant having to check Telegram and WhatsApp manually when we wanted to see if someone had messaged. There was no sound, no message on the Lock Screen, no icon in the status bar. And, with app icon badges turned off by default, there was none of those either.
In a related issue, Nubia's file management system meant we needed extra steps just to send images in a chat. You'd need to press the attachment icon, then choose between the built-in files app and Google Photos, then choose the file you wanted to add the photo from - rather than it just automatically pulling in the native file, or letting you just choose one and have it as the permanent location.
Despite being a powerful and quick phone, we often found the 6S Pro struggled to load data from apps like our Spark email app, or when refreshing Twitter. It seemed to be specific types of apps (messaging/social media/email) that it has a problem with. And that's without mentioning the pre-installed third-party browser - which constantly wants to show ads in notifications.
We had issues with the keyboard too: when loaded on screen, there's not enough space between the bottom row of keys and the navigation gesture area. Because of that we'd often end up accidentally swiping back home, or switching apps, when we were trying to tap the space bar or get to the emojis.
Overall, despite it being quite a clean software that's customisable and with lots of additional benefits for gamers, the frustrating elements tarnish the experience.
Performance and battery
- Snapdragon 888 Plus platform
- Up to 256GB UFS 3.1 storage
- 5,050mAh battery capacity
- Multi-dimensional cooling
- Up to 16GB LPDDR5 RAM
Nubia seems to get it absolutely bang on when it comes to hardware in the Red Magic 6S Pro though. The main brain behind the operation is Qualcomm's top-tier powerhouse: the Snapdragon 888+. That is, quite simply, the most powerful mobile processor on the market at time of launch.
Combined with the fastest storage and fastest memory around, it makes for one speedy phone. Games load fast, downloads are quick, and the overall feel is liquid smooth (apart from some of the data loading issues we mentioned already).
Having the potential for speed, but sustaining that speed over a longer period requires two things: effective cooling and a big battery. The 6S Pro has both of those in abundance.
We set the phone so that whenever we loaded a game it would kick the turbo fan on, immediately starting to pull air through the back of the phone to keep it cool. This combines with additional cooling components - like superconducting copper foil, a cooling duct, graphene and a VC cooling plate - to ensure the phone never gets too warm.
In our testing, during some fairly long gaming sessions, we rarely felt the phone get uncomfortably warm thanks to the effective radiation of heat. Yes, it got a little warmer, but never to the point where it gave us concern that it was overheating or becoming uncomfortable to hold.
This was with the phone set in its 'Beyond' game setting, where the GPU and CPU get cranked up to near maximum. In 'Infinite' mode you get a pop-up warning that tells you the phone will overheat - so if you want to play in this mode then we'd advise picking up the external cooling fan accessory.
Battery management is similarly effortless. There's a huge 5,050mAh cell inside the 6S Pro, which can get through a busy day without even trying. Even with a couple of hours of intense gaming and the usual time spent on social media, listening to music and streaming movies, we never struggled to get to bedtime at 11pm.
For users who only use the screen for maybe a couple of hours a day, it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect two full days from this thing. Its standby battery preservation is impressive, to the point that it barely uses any of it once it's in standby mode with the screen off.
When it does need charging, there's a 30+W charger in the box, so refills are relatively quick. It's also Quick Charge and Power Delivery compatible. Or, if you want to, you can pick up a 66W Red Magic adapter and charge it extra fast.
It has cameras too...
- Triple rear cameras:
- Main (26mm): 64-megapixel, f/1.8 aperture, 0.7µm pixel size, phase detection autofocus (PDAF)
- Wide-angle (13mm): 8MP, f/2.0, 1.12µm
- Macro: 2MP
- Selfie camera: 8MP, f/2.0 1.12µm
On more traditional devices the cameras are one of the big features of a phone's story. But with a phone made predominantly to be used for smashing opponents in graphically intense mobile games, it's perhaps not as important.
Technically speaking, the 6S Pro's rear system is a triple camera setup but, really, it's only has two cameras worth using: the wide and ultra-wide. The primary sensor is actually decent when you're taking photos in good light. It delivers good detail, a nice natural depth of field, and vibrant but not unnatural colours.
What's more, because it's a 64-megapixel sensor, there's good scope for digital zoom. So even though you don't have a dedicated telephoto zoom camera, you can still do a quick 2x or 5x zoom and get good results. It's not quite as sharp as taking a photo at 1x, but the details aren't bad at all.
There is a difference when switching to the secondary ultra-wide camera. This is an 8-megapixel camera, but often leaves the image looking quite lacking in dynamic range and colour. It'll wash-out shots, and over-expose, leaving quite a flat colourless picture as a result.
Still, if you stick to the main sensor for most of what you're shooting, there's very little to complain about. It'd be nice if it had optical stabilisation, but it does the job without adding masses of extra protrusion or weight to the device.
If your main aim in buying a phone is getting the best, fastest performance and not pay top-tier flagship prices, the Red Magic 6S Pro gets a lot right. It's really fast, has a massive screen, and a battery that'll go for hours and hours. Plus, it doesn't cost all that much.
If it wasn't for consistent software issues and a slightly underhwelming camera experience, it would be one of the easiest phones on the market to recommend to anyone - not only gamers.
Despite that, if you compare it to the likes of the Asus ROG Phone 5, it comes out looking really rather good considering the price difference. And, it has an RGB fan on the back that you can see through the transparent glass. How cool is that?
Asus ROG Phone 5
For keen gamers, there's a market of phone choices out there - and the Asus should definitely be high up your shortlist. For everyone else, if you can accept that this is designed for gamers first, it's still an awful lot of phone for the money.
Lenovo Legion Duel
The combination of a big display, specific gaming features, and amazing sound quality make for an excellent gaming device. It has a pop-up selfie camera too.