January 18, 2022

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ZTE Red Magic 5G Review: Great gaming phone with a 144Hz refresh rate

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The ZTE Nubia Red Magic 5G is a big-screen gaming phone.

Simon Hill/Business Insider

  • The ZTE Nubia Red Magic 5G is an enormous, extremely powerful, niche gaming phone that offers impressive specs at a very reasonable price.
  • We played several different games for hours on the Red Magic 5G, and it was a joy to play with, thanks to its 144Hz refresh rate.
  • Based on our testing, the phone also won a place in our guide to the best gaming phones.
  • Beyond games, we tested the camera and other features to see if the Red Magic 5G can serve you just as well as a normal smartphone.
  • Although its performance impresses and the price offers real value, there are some weaknesses here that may give you pause — unless you’re an avid gamer.


While you can use any smartphone to play games, we’ve seen a rise in niche devices that are specifically designed with gamers in mind. The Red Magic 5G is one of those gaming-specific phones. With an impressive 144Hz screen refresh rate, plenty of processing power, and some thoughtful gaming features, this is a compelling smartphone. 

Starting at the fairly reasonable price of $579, the Red Magic 5G is deserving of a place among the best gaming phones. But, if you’re considering buying one, you’ll want to know how it serves in other departments. It’s rare to see a phone at this price boasting a top processor, a high-quality screen, a triple-lens camera, and 5G connectivity.

I’ve been using the Red Magic 5G for more than a week now to find out whether it’s as much of a bargain as it appears. This is without a doubt, one of the most capable smartphones I’ve ever used. It’s an absolute joy to play games on, and there’s a lot to like in daily use, but the software and camera failed to impress me. The Red Magic 5G also has an eye-catching design, complete with customizable lighting, that’s simply not going to be to everyone’s tastes.

If gaming is top of your priority list, then the Red Magic 5G demands to be considered. Let’s take a closer look at the spec sheet and dig into what this phone can do. 


  • Dimensions: 3.07 x 0.38 x 6.63 inches
  • Screen: 6.65-inch FHD+ AMOLED screen with a 144Hz refresh rate
  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 5G octa-core 2.84GHz processor
  • RAM: 8GB or 12GB of RAM
  • Storage: 128GB or 256GB internal memory, which is expandable 
  • Rear cameras: 64-megapixel wide, 8-megapixel ultra-wide, 2-megapixel macro rear cameras
  • Front camera: 8-megapixel camera
  • Operating system: Android 10 OS (Red Magic 3.0)
  • Water resistance: None
  • Security: In-display fingerprint sensor 
  • Battery: 4,500 milliampere hours, which can last a day and a half, depending on usage
  • Charging tech: Fast charging up to 55W, 18W charger included
  • Warranty: 1-year warranty

Design and screen

Smartphones grow larger every year, but even taking that trend into consideration, the Red Magic 5G is a very big phone indeed. Like most smartphones nowadays, the front and back panels of glass sandwich a metal frame. The back is gently curved with a triple-lens camera top and center. A strip of LED lighting runs down to the logo at the bottom, which also illuminates. The two can be customized separately, lighting up to alert you to notifications and pulsing along with the on-screen action when you play games.

On the bottom edge, you’ll find a USB-C port, speaker, and dual SIM tray, while the top has a standard 3.5mm audio jack. The left side, which will be the bottom when you hold the Red Magic 5G in landscape orientation to play games, has pogo pins to join up with the optional dock accessory and a switch that activates the dedicated gaming mode. On the right, or top in landscape, there are touch-sensitive triggers, a power button, and the volume rocker. Both sides also have grilles to allow hot air to escape as part of the cooling system, which includes an internal fan.


The unique color combination on our ZTE Nubia Red Magic 5G review unit was eye-catching.

Simon Hill/Business Insider

While the smooth glass finish gives the Red Magic 5G a classier look and feel than its predecessor, the Red Magic 3S, it is slippery. Twice my review unit slid right off tabletops and tumbled to the floor, mercifully escaping undamaged. It comes with a screen protector already on the screen, but you’re going to have to get your own case. The Red Magic 5G is easy and comfortable to hold in landscape orientation for gaming sessions, but you really need both hands to use it, even in portrait orientation. 

The Red Magic 5G comes in Eclipse Black, Hot Rod Red, and Pulse, which is a blend of metallic red and blue. I’ve been using the Pulse model for this review and it is certainly eye-catching. While it’s refreshing to see unique design and color combinations, I think many people will feel a little self-conscious pulling a shiny, bright, red and blue phone from their pocket while riding the bus or at a bar. My 10-year-old son loves the style, and it certainly screams gaming phone, just maybe a little too loudly. 

The main reason the Red Magic 5G is so big is the beautiful 6.65-inch AMOLED screen. Not only does this display look great, whatever you’re viewing on it, this is also the first smartphone screen to feature a 144Hz screen refresh rate. The faster rate is telling when you’re in the middle of competitive gaming action and fast reactions are paramount. You can also set the screen refresh rate to 60Hz or 90Hz to conserve battery life. 

As the highest available at the time of writing, that 144Hz screen refresh rate is a major selling point for the Red Magic 5G. Sadly, the list of games capable of taking advantage is limited right now. The refresh rate denotes how often the onscreen action is updated, but it must be paired with a game that supports a high frame rate for you to feel the benefit.

To complement that screen refresh rate, which gives the Red Magic 5G a supremely smooth feel, there’s a 240Hz touch sampling rate. As a result, every touch and swipe results in immediate feedback onscreen. This gives you the best possible chance of emerging victorious from your chosen game. The touch-sensitive shoulder triggers are also very responsive, and you can customize what they do for different games. 

The screen resolution is a slightly unusual 2,340 x 1,080 pixels, but I found it sharp and legible, with brightness that cranks up when you need it to. The weak spot in the display is the fingerprint sensor; I found that it often took more than one attempt before it would recognize my thumb and unlock.

One major omission in the Red Magic 5G is the lack of a water resistance rating. This is understandable, considering the grilles for the fan, but it does mean you have to be careful around the wet stuff. Gaming in the bath is out. 

Performance and battery life


The phone has programmable buttons for gaming and fans to prevent overheating.

Simon Hill/Business Insider

The phone has the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 5G octa-core 2.84GHz processor inside, so it has plenty of power. That’s the same chipset you’ll find in the Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus, and it’s sure to be in many other flagship phones this year. 

My red and blue review unit boasts 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, but it costs $649. If you opt for the cheaper black or red models at $579, you get 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. This is important, because there’s no room for a microSD card here, though 128GB is likely enough for most people. “Real Racing 3” is one of the few Android games to support the phone’s 144Hz screen refresh rate, and it requires around 2GB of space, for example. 

I found the Red Magic 5G to be lightning fast in general use. The generous RAM ensures it’s capable of holding several games in memory, so I was able to jump in and out of games quickly and pick up exactly where I left off.

Here’s how it did in a Geekbench 5 benchmark test, compared to other top phones:

  • Red Magic 5G ($649): single-core score of 934 and a multi-core score of 3,361
  • Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus ($1,200): single-core score of 772 and a multi-core score of 3,318
  • iPhone 11 Pro ($1,000): single-core score of 1,333 and a multi-core score of 3,473
  • OnePlus 7 Pro ($500): single-core score of 746 and a multi-core score of 2,516
  • Google Pixel 3a ($350): single-core score of 345 and a multi-core score of 1,254

As you can see, the Red Magic 5G can keep up with phones that are several hundred dollars more expensive. Nothing I threw at this phone presented so much as a hiccup in the silky performance. 

There’s a 4,500 milliampere-hour battery inside the Red Magic 5G and it offers impressive stamina. I was able to use the phone for reading the news and checking my emails in the morning, a decent gaming session and some YouTube later in the day, with peeks at Twitter and incoming notifications throughout, and it still had something left in the tank at bedtime. I would expect to get around a day and a half from my normal usage.

Now, much depends on what you do with your Red Magic 5G and what settings you adopt. I left the screen refresh rate on the default 90Hz, switching to 144Hz only for gaming sessions. I also don’t have 5G connectivity in my area, which could put substantial extra pressure on the battery. This is likely a future-proofing feature for most people right now, just like the Wi-Fi 6 support. However, if you are interested in 5G, it’s worth noting that the Red Magic 5G can connect to sub-6 networks, but not mmWave. Check which technology your carrier is employing before you buy. 

For mammoth gaming sessions with the 144Hz refresh rate, cooling fan engaged, and performance maxed out, I was able to get almost five continuous hours from a fully charged Red Magic 5G. 

Graphically rich games make heavy demands on the battery, so the Red Magic 5G’s stamina is impressive. When it does finally run out of juice, you can charge it back up quickly with the 18W charger supplied. You also have the option of buying a 55W charger, sold separately, that can completely recharge the Red Magic 5G in just 35 minutes. I think the regular charger is going to be fast enough for most people. It can go from zero to around 75% in just an hour, though the charging rate does slow down as the battery fills. 

Gaming features


Gaming on the ZTE Nubia Red Magic 5G is a joy.

Simon Hill/Business Insider

Because it’s a gaming phone, the Red Magic 5G has a special dedicated launcher for games, called Game Space. Flip the physical switch on the side of the phone and you’ll see your game collection presented in a carousel. You’ll also find controls for the internal fan and the LED lighting. 

Swipe in from the right edge and you get a panel that’s packed with options for your chosen game, including toggles to block interruptions, change the screen refresh rate, configure controls, record video, snap screenshots, and boost CPU and GPU performance. That last option pushes performance to its limits, but also drains the battery much faster. 

Easily one of the best things about the Red Magic 5G’s design is the touch-sensitive shoulder buttons. The software allows you to map those buttons to different controls or to areas of the screen, which makes them impressively versatile. Whether you want a tap to launch a grenade or slam on the brakes, you can configure it just so. 

The cooling system combines liquid cooling with an internal fan. By default, it decides when to turn on and how fast to spin based on the internal temperature. I never felt the need to fiddle with it, but you do have the option to change the settings if you want to. I found that the Red Magic 5G did get warm at times, especially with long multiplayer gaming sessions, but it never became uncomfortably warm. When the fan kicks in, you can both feel and hear it. Warm air is expelled from the grille and it gets quite loud at the highest setting. 


Game Space is a special, dedicated launcher for mobile games on the ZTE Nubia Red Magic 5G.

Simon Hill/Business Insider

The speakers do offer stereo sound, but only the earpiece speaker is front facing. The other speaker is bottom firing, and I sometimes found myself muting the sound slightly because of the way I was holding the phone. Headphones are advisable, as they offer far superior sound quality, and they help block out the fan sound so it’s less likely to bug you.

Vibrations can make gaming more immersive, and the Red Magic 5G has a special vibration system that’s supposed to sync with the onscreen action. Sadly, support is very limited, but you will find it in popular games like “Call of Duty Mobile,” “PUBG,” and “Asphalt 9” — it does add a little something extra. 

Speaking of limited support, the 144Hz screen refresh rate only works with certain titles right now. Red Magic listed “Real Racing 3,” “Dead Trigger 2,” “Bullet Force,” and “Vainglory.” I played the first two on the list and found that, whether I was racing to victory in grand prix or blasting zombies into bits, the action was seriously smooth. 

I also tested out the Red Magic 5G with mammoth sessions of “Bloons TD 6” and “Gwent.” This phone lets you play whatever games you like, for hours at a time, without overheating or running out of juice. It delivers the gaming phone experience mobile gamers want.

Software and interface

The Red Magic 5G runs Android 10 with Red Magic OS 3.0 on top. It mostly feels like stock Android and it doesn’t come with a ton of pre-installed apps that you don’t need, which is pleasing. What I didn’t like were the strange names for settings, poor quality translations in pop up messages, and general rough edges. I applied a trial and error approach to fiddling around with unfamiliar settings, but I’d like to see just a bit more polish.

Another worry with the software is how often it will be updated. This is a regular issue with Android phones, and it’s not just about getting new features and bug fixes, it’s also about having the latest security. I have received two updates already in the last week, but the security patch is dated January, whereas my Pixel 4 has the latest March patch.

Whether the Red Magic 5G will get the next version of Android, and if it does, how long that will take, are also unknowns. When I asked about this, I was told that “the product team will do its best to provide one update every two months once the product is available.”

There’s an element of worry when buying a phone like this from a Chinese manufacturer, but Red Magic phones are manufactured by Nubia, which is a subsidiary of ZTE. A quick spot of research reveals mixed results with people needing repairs or trying to return phones. 

One good thing worth mentioning, before we move on, is that the Red Magic 5G does have NFC and it works with Google Pay.


The Red Magic 5G has a triple-lens camera on the back. It comprises a 64-megapixel Sony IMX686 sensor, an 8-megapixel ultra-wide-angle lens, and a 2-megapixel macro lens for close-up shots. There’s also an 8-megapixel front-facing camera above the screen. 

With a solid camera that’s capable of decent results in good lighting, the Red Magic 5G is likely good enough to tick the photography box for most people. Cameras in smartphones have soared to new heights in the last few years. The Red Magic 5G doesn’t come close to competing with top phones like the iPhone 11 Pro or the Pixel 4, but it probably doesn’t have to. If you’re switching to this phone from an older device, I think you’re going to be satisfied with this camera.

nubia redmagic 5g camera samples

Photos (left to right): Ultra-wide angle shot of a trail, closeup of flowers, indoor picture of a cat, and a portrait-mode photo of a young girl.

Simon Hill/Business Insider

Photos of landscapes are detailed, close-up shots come out well if you ensure they’re in focus, and the night mode allows you to capture shots in dark environments. Best of all, the portrait mode produces pleasing shots of people and achieves a nice background blur. It struggles a little with complicated hairlines, but that’s a common issue with portrait modes. Photos are 16 megapixels by default, though you can ramp up to 64 megapixels if you want to. 

On the downside, graininess is often a problem, especially indoors or in low-light conditions. The camera also frequently struggles with exposure, either overexposing or underexposing areas in mixed light. There is some smoothing with the “Beauty” filter, which is on by default when you photograph people, but it works on a slider, and you can always turn it off.

The camera app takes a little getting used to. It’s weird that there are zoom controls, but no option to go wide-angle in the basic Photo mode, especially when you consider that this phone has an ultra-wide-angle lens, but no telephoto lens. Thankfully, you can find the wide-angle option in the Pro mode. It’s very useful for situations where you want to cram more into the frame and the software does a nice job of editing out the distortion. 

There are also a ton of different modes listed under Camera-Family, but most of them are gimmicky and unlikely to be things you’ll use often. I found Macro mode to be almost completely useless, as it’s very difficult to get your subject in focus. I got better results with close-ups just using the normal camera mode. Night mode works well to lighten shots in the dark, but you can expect a lot of blur and graininess. 

dark mode

Night mode is activated in the photo on the left, but not on the right.

Simon Hill/Business Insider

Interestingly, you can capture 8K video with the Red Magic 5G, though the app advises that this is for outdoor capture. Shoot a video indoors and you’ll see noise creeping in wherever there’s a hint of darkness. The ability to capture 4K video at 60 frames per second (fps) is likely enough for most people. It can also shoot slow-motion video, capturing 1080p at 240 fps or 720p at 480fps.

It’s no world-record-beating camera, but in most situations, the Red Magic 5G camera captures decent shots of people and places. It’s on par with most other mid-range phones, except for the Pixel 3a.

The bottom line


The cameras take good pictures, but you’d get better shots from a more expensive flagship phone.

Simon Hill/Business Insider

The Red Magic 5G is a powerful gaming phone with thoughtful features that mobile gamers will appreciate. The screen is responsive, with a 144Hz refresh rate that’s unsurpassed at the time of writing. The Red Magic 5G also sports a decent camera, with 5G and Wi-Fi 6 support providing some future-proofing, and stereo speakers. On the downside, the design won’t suit everyone, the software is not polished, and future updates are uncertain. 

  • Should you buy it? If you’re a mobile gamer on a fixed budget and you like the style of the Red Magic 5G, then it could be a great buy for you. You will struggle to find a spec sheet like this for a device from a better-known manufacturer without spending a lot more money. 
  • Which model should you get? The red and blue “Pulse” model may be loud, but with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, it’s the one I would choose. 
  • What are your alternatives? If you’re willing to spend a lot more and want a great all-around phone, then consider the Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus or the iPhone 11 Pro Max. For gamer styling and a boatload of accessories, check out the Asus ROG Phone 2. Finally, if money is tight, look at the Black Shark line of phones from Xiaomi. 

Pros: Fast processor, large screen, 144Hz screen refresh rate, special game mode, cooling system, customizable lighting, low price

Cons: Loud design, limited 144Hz support, lack of polish in software, no room for microSD card, concern about software updates



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