ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review

Hristo Zlatanov, 26 July 2019.

User interface

The nubia Red Magic 3 actually runs a very clean, nearly vanilla Android 9 ROM. This is kind of a saving grace in more than one way since all the extra bits and pieces ZTE did decide to add or customize in some way are pretty much a chaotic and poorly translated mess.

ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review

No point in beating about the bush really, software hurdles definitely managed to spoil the otherwise great hardware experience that is the Red Magic 3 for us. From the very get go we were forced to navigate chaotic menus with very poor English translation that even refused to work and didn't save our settings half of the time. Through quite a bit of digging, some helpful tips from our readers and after more than a few ROM flashes we did manage to end up with a vaguely usable v.2.07 ROM. And this really shouldn't be the case on a device that is already available to the wide public in retail channels.

Close to stock Android UI - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review Close to stock Android UI - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review Close to stock Android UI - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review Close to stock Android UI - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review
Close to stock Android UI

Like we said, though, at least the bits and pieces the manufacturer left alone look and behave as expected. There really is very little clutter and bloat, which is a definite plus in our book. An option for gesture navigation would have been appreciated, but it's hardly the only thing missing. For instance, there is no always-on display UI. Most nubia gaming options are confined within the Game Space launcher that is accessed by sliding the dedicated key on the left-hand side of the device. A key, which we would have very much liked the option to remap, but unfortunately can't.

LED lights options - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review LED lights options - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review LED lights options - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review
LED lights options

Some of these custom settings did spill over into the general settings menu in a pretty confusing manner. The "Multi-color LED Strip" LED effects menu is particularly confusing. So opening it up gives you two options "Open Redmagic symbol lamp" and "Multi-color LED Strip ON". YES, that is the exact wording and, YES both are toggles. Now, we will let you enjoy the rest of the splendid options and their translations for yourself. The important bit to note here is that the first toggle actually controls the small logo on the back of the Red Magic 3, while the second one is for the multi-color RGB strip extending above it. There are some options here mostly related to light patterns and whether or not either lighting should work system-wide or only within Game Space 2.0.

LED strip options - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review LED strip options - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review LED strip options - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review LED strip options - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review LED strip options - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review
LED strip options

OK, so we deciphered all of these switches and that should be it for lighting, right? Well, actually there are plenty more options, but these are only accessible via an app called LED Strip, which does come pre-installed, but also features the most boring and generic settings icon you can imagine and no real shortcut to access from any other place within settings or Game Space 2.0. Opening it reveals a massive amount of customization for the RGB LED strip. And we do mean massive. Besides all the pre-made effects, you can pretty much define custom patterns of your own on an individual LED basis.

Just one tiny problem, though. As you might have noticed the nice colorful graphics and animations within the app actually show what looks like the small bottom logo on the back of the phone. This really perplexed us for quite some time since we naturally assumed we could change its colors and patterns. And since at that point in time we were yet to discover the system-wide toggles for the logo and the LED strip, we ended up frantically changing settings here without anything lighting up at all. So the app controls the big LED strip, which still needs to be turned on separately and to the best of our abilities we only managed to get the small logo to light up in red. This all makes perfect sense and is clearly very well organised...

Display settings - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review Display settings - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review
Display settings

Moving on to other confusing options, the display settings offer no mention of HDR whatsoever, nor does the rest of the OS. The panel definitely supports HDR video, yet it seems like the OS is totally unaware of that fact. Both the Netflix and Amazon Video apps don't offer up any HDR content and instead play the regular variety. And when you try to play back an HDR video captured from the camera on the Red Magic 3, you simply end up with very broken colors. Much like the ones on our YouTube camera samples you can see in the camera section. That pretty much makes the HDR nature of the Red Magic 3 display unusable in practical terms and it seems like we have nothing be software to blame. A real shame, really.

There is also a dedicated "Game Docking Station" option in the settings which only houses a single toggle. It is clearly related to the Nubia Red Magic 3 E-Sports Box docking accessory, but we really can't tell what the toggle is meant to do based on the translated text. It likely toggles the automatic detection on and off, which is pure guesswork on our part and a perplexing option to even have in the first place.

Game Space 2.0

This is the dedicated game launcher/mode accessed by sliding the dedicated button on the left side of the Red Magic 3. It definitely has its quirks, which we will mention in a bit, but at least is a bit better organised, compared to the rest of the custom nubia software bits. The gaming aesthetic is definitely there as well and we kind of like the overall style.

Game Space home screen has two style modes - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review Game Space home screen has two style modes - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review
Game Space home screen has two style modes

Apps need to be added to the space individually, but it's a very simple one-click process. You can swap default icons for custom graphics to really customize the look of the menu itself. On the bottom left are two convenient toggles for the cooling fan and large RGB strip. These rely on whatever settings you configured for the components in question. "Block msgs" is pretty self-explanatory, although we really don't see why nubia felt the need to abbreviate it as such. There is clearly no shortage of space seeing how Game Space only functions in landscape mode.

The two icons on the top right are actually pretty important. The left houses the menu for connecting Red Magic Handle accessories to the phone. Unfortunately, we can't really comment on how well these work, since nubia didn't send any over. It is worth noting, though, that you can't set up any button mapping from this menu. That would just be too convenient.

Game Space side menu - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review Game Space side menu - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review Game Space side menu - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review
Game Space side menu - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review Game Space side menu - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review
Game Space side menu

Instead this can only be done from a dedicated Game Space slide out menu, which houses a Handler option. Despite the confusing explanation mapping on-screen controls to physical ones is actually pretty straight forward. At least the two shoulder buttons on the side of the Red Magic 3 are fairly easy to map. However, there are no advanced options like macros available, or at least we didn't manage to find any. This menu also houses a number of toggles, some only found here, while other duplicates and some quick stats regarding the CPU and GPU frequencies, package temperature and connection speed. There is also a brightness slider.

Some of the options like screen hand-up are really perplexing - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review Some of the options like screen hand-up are really perplexing - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review
Some of the options like screen hand-up are really perplexing - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review Some of the options like screen hand-up are really perplexing - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review
Some of the options like screen hand-up are really perplexing

Some of these options are pretty perplexing, like the ability to keep a game running in the background while having your display off. Besides waiting out lobby's we really can't think of a practical reason you would want to do what on a phone that has no video out. Maybe we're missing something. Anyway, the four performance improvement modes the Red Magic 3 offers can also and only be accessed from the side menu. We'll talk more about these in the performance section.

The part we really, really, really didn't like though has to do with that ominous back button in the bottom right. You might logically think it is meant as an easy way to close the side menu. However it is actually the only way to close it. Worse still, it is the only back button/gesture - the only way to go back while using Game Space. YES, you read that right, the default navigation bar gets disabled, you no longer have access to the recent apps or home buttons and until you leave Game Space you have to learn to back out of things by swiping once for the side menu and then pressing the awkwardly positioned key. We have no words... Oh and in case you were wondering, the only way to exit Game Space is to slide the side button of the Red Magic 3 back up to its original location.

Fan and display refresh rate setting are only available though this hidden menu - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review Fan and display refresh rate setting are only available though this hidden menu - ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review
Fan and display refresh rate setting are only available though this hidden menu

The final icon in the Game Space main interface might look like a profile menu, but don't do our mistake and avoid it on instinct. Turns out it houses controls for two features that are not available anywhere else within the Red Magic 3 OS. One is the proverbial killer feature of the phone - the active fan. Seriously, unless you manage to find this precise menu within Game Space there is no way to turn on the fan at all. So, naturally, this means that the fan can only be used while in Game Space. There are two options for it here - auto and maximum speed. Auto never really turns the fan completely off, but does control its speed according to the current load, which is not bad.

The other major thing only found here is the display refresh rate selector. In here you can choose between 60Hz, 90Hz and Auto. As far as we can gather, the latter is meant to try and automatically detect games and apps that support refresh rates beyond 60Hz and switch over accordingly. However, we had no luck with it while we tested it out.

ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review

And just to make this perfectly clear - the Red Magic 3 ships in 90Hz as a default mode system-wide and the only way to ever drop that down to 60Hz for whatever reason you deem necessary is to enter Game Space, add the app you want to use there, go through two menus to force 60Hz and then learn to live your life without a proper back button or gesture and in toltal absence of home and recent apps buttons. This effectively forces your powerful phone to operate with pretty much zero multi-tasking. We're not talking a lack of split-screen, which, by the way, is also missing on the Red Magic 3, but rather no ability to switch between two open apps.

Nubia, your software is utterly broken and nearly unusable. It is literally ruining the Red Magic 3 and its excellent hardware. It has absolutely no place on a retail device in 2019 and needs fixing ASAP!

Performance

We get to the meat of the matter - performance and gaming on the nubia Red Magic 3. In as few words as possible, the gaming experience the phone offers is nothing short of excellent. To elaborate a little bit on the matter, we start with CPU performance and GeekBench.

GeekBench 4.1 (multi-core)

Higher is better

  • ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 (new ROM)
    11345
  • ZTE nubia Red Magic 3
    11226
  • Black Shark 2
    11192
  • Sony Xperia 1
    10985
  • OnePlus 7 Pro
    10943
  • Asus Zenfone 6 (Zen Power Boost)
    10800
  • Asus Zenfone 6
    10721
  • Samsung Galaxy S10+
    10387
  • Huawei P30 Pro (perf. mode)
    10014
  • Huawei P30 Pro
    9649
  • Xiaomi Mi 9T
    6863

Right off the bat, we would like to address, yet again, one of the biggest issues we had with the Red Magic 3 - the poor state of its software. Since the topic of nubia's OS efforts already came up in a recent gaming phone showdown review article of ours, we feel like some clarification is in order. Or review unit originally shipped with v2.03 global software, which refused to update itself automatically. That earlier OS version was in an even worse state of completion and polish than the one we ended up reviewing, which is why we got lower raw benchmark scores out of the Red Magic 3 in the aforementioned article. After some helpful advice from our readers, which we definitely appreciate, some digging around and trying a few different ROMs we ended up testing the Red Magic 3 on version 2.07. We downloaded it from a user provided link, since the one on nubia's official support page does not work. This should be indication enough of the poor current state of Red Magic 3 ROMs as a whole.

GeekBench 4.1 (single-core)

Higher is better

  • Samsung Galaxy S10+
    4522
  • ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 (new ROM)
    3547
  • Black Shark 2
    3515
  • Asus Zenfone 6
    3505
  • Asus Zenfone 6 (Zen Power Boost)
    3499
  • ZTE nubia Red Magic 3
    3493
  • Sony Xperia 1
    3447
  • OnePlus 7 Pro
    3402
  • Huawei P30 Pro (perf. mode)
    3323
  • Huawei P30 Pro
    3270
  • Xiaomi Mi 9T
    2537

In the end we decided to post the original lower v2.03 scores alongside the revised ones, just to avoid any more potential accusations and confusion as to why this is happening. Or at least try to, seeing how certain aspects of the Red Magic 3 software still perplex us quite a bit.

AnTuTu 7

Higher is better

  • ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 (new ROM)
    387726
  • Asus Zenfone 6 (Zen Power Boost)
    377024
  • OnePlus 7 Pro
    364025
  • Asus Zenfone 6
    361679
  • Sony Xperia 1
    356734
  • Black Shark 2
    343460
  • Samsung Galaxy S10+
    333736
  • Huawei P30 Pro (perf. mode)
    316156
  • ZTE nubia Red Magic 3
    314975
  • Huawei P30 Pro
    290189
  • Xiaomi Mi 9T
    211915

Another thing some of you will point out is the omission of any record test scores in apps like AnTuTu. Just to be clear on this one as well, we heard all the feedback and definitely tried some of the rather convoluted methods of boosting scores and did, in fact manage to break the 400,000 mark in AnTuTu 7.

However, we still stand firm in the believe that these kinds of extreme short performance bursts are not beneficial for anything other than high synthetic numbers. We would even go as far as to bring up the dreaded "benchmark cheating" designation, which used to plague the Android space a few years back. But, we digress.

Gaming Phones: A performance and thermal throttling examination ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 CPU throttling test with fan on

The point we want to get across here is that the nubia Red Magic 3 is clearly a chart-topper that can squeeze every last bit of performance out of the Snapdragon 855 in short, benchmark-friendly bursts. However, what we respect even more in nubia's work is the Red Magic 3's great performance/heat management and the sustained performance it brings to the table. If you would like to read our in-depth exploration on the matters of thermal-throttling, you can definitely do so in the showdown review, we mentioned earlier.

Average performance over 1h as percentage of the max availabile

Higher is better

  • Black Shark 2
    92%
  • nubia Red Magic 3 (fan)
    92%
  • ZTE nubia Red Magic 3
    91%
  • OnePlus 7
    90%
  • Xiaomi Mi 9T
    88%
  • Samsung Galaxy S10e
    75%
  • Sony Xperia 1
    73%
  • Xiaomi Pocophone F1
    67%
  • Huawei P30 Pro
    64%

The short version of our finding from that article are that the current generation of gaming phones tend to deal with heat better over time and retain more of their performance. And the Red Magic 3 does this particularly well. Arguably even better than its Xiaomi Black Shark 2 rival, since the latter heated up to a scorching 47 degrees all around during our tests. All the while, even without its active fan, the Red Magic 3 only ramped up to a toasty 42 degrees. Turning on the fan brings that temperature all the way down to 37 degrees, which is perfectly pleasant to hold.

This actually brings us nicely to the topic of performance modes on the nubia Red Magic 3. A total of four modes are included within Game Space 2.0. There is an auto mode, two separate modes to prioritise CPU or GPU performance and one last to ramp up both as hard as possible. During our testing, we had very mixed success using these modes. That is even after we updated the software and the settings we changed started to actually stick, save and take effect.

Basemark OS 2.0

Higher is better

  • ZTE nubia Red Magic 3
    5322
  • ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 (new ROM)
    5239
  • Asus Zenfone 6 (Zen Power Boost)
    5016
  • Asus Zenfone 6
    4979
  • OnePlus 7 Pro
    4797
  • Huawei P30 Pro (perf. mode)
    4675
  • Samsung Galaxy S10+
    4568
  • Huawei P30 Pro
    4272
  • Sony Xperia 1
    4211
  • Black Shark 2
    3450
  • Xiaomi Mi 9T
    3102

At this risk of sounding controversial yet again, we don't really see a lot of practical benefit in these modes beyond potentially scoring a few points higher on certain benchmarks. If that is what you are after, you can, indeed, ramp up some points, especially in CPU-heavy benchmarks. Again, however, that has little real-world gaming benefits as far as we are concerned. The active cooling fan, on the other hand, clearly does. Turning it on not only cools the surface of the phone, but also improves internal heat dissipation enough to make a noticeable, even if small, difference in sustained performance.

GFX 3.1 Car scene (1080p offscreen)

Higher is better

  • ZTE nubia Red Magic 3
    42
  • ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 (new ROM)
    42
  • Black Shark 2
    42
  • Asus Zenfone 6
    42
  • Asus Zenfone 6 (Zen Power Boost)
    42
  • Sony Xperia 1
    42
  • Samsung Galaxy S10+
    42
  • OnePlus 7 Pro
    41
  • Huawei P30 Pro (perf. mode)
    33
  • Huawei P30 Pro
    29
  • Xiaomi Mi 9T
    16

GFX 3.1 Car scene (onscreen)

Higher is better

  • ZTE nubia Red Magic 3
    37
  • ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 (new ROM)
    37
  • Black Shark 2
    36
  • Asus Zenfone 6
    36
  • Asus Zenfone 6 (Zen Power Boost)
    36
  • Sony Xperia 1
    33
  • Huawei P30 Pro (perf. mode)
    29
  • Huawei P30 Pro
    27
  • Samsung Galaxy S10+
    23
  • OnePlus 7 Pro
    19
  • Xiaomi Mi 9T
    13

An important thing to note regarding the GPU performance on the Red Magic 3 is that the phone manages to utilize the Adreno 640 GPU to the full extent regardless of nubia's performance profiles. This is great news, since you can pretty much rest assured that you will be getting the best possible frame output from the chip without having to mess with performance profiles or hidden menus and developer option tweaks. Just open Game Sense 2.0 with the Auto profile, turn on the fan if you plan on a longer gaming session and enjoy the Red Magic 3 work its magic for a smooth experience.

3DMark SSE 3.1 Unlimited

Higher is better

  • ZTE nubia Red Magic 3
    6360
  • Black Shark 2
    6330
  • Asus Zenfone 6 (Zen Power Boost)
    6282
  • Asus Zenfone 6
    6263
  • ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 (new ROM)
    6258
  • OnePlus 7 Pro
    6093
  • Sony Xperia 1
    5792
  • Samsung Galaxy S10+
    4632
  • Huawei P30 Pro (perf. mode)
    4315
  • Huawei P30 Pro
    3522
  • Xiaomi Mi 9T
    2329

3DMark SSE 3.1

Higher is better

  • Black Shark 2
    5784
  • OnePlus 7 Pro
    5462
  • ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 (new ROM)
    5279
  • ZTE nubia Red Magic 3
    5218
  • Sony Xperia 1
    5123
  • Samsung Galaxy S10+
    4420
  • Huawei P30 Pro (perf. mode)
    4215
  • Xiaomi Mi 9T
    2182

3DMark SSE Vulkan

Higher is better

  • ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 (new ROM)
    5004
  • ZTE nubia Red Magic 3
    4999
  • Black Shark 2
    4981
  • OnePlus 7 Pro
    4833
  • Sony Xperia 1
    4505
  • Samsung Galaxy S10+
    4295
  • Huawei P30 Pro (perf. mode)
    4231
  • Xiaomi Mi 9T
    2035

Beyond that, the Red Magic 3 definitely has more "performance points" and bragging rights to churn-out. If that is your thing, the current enthusiast community, even if small, definitely makes up in enthusiasm. As far as real-world use and actual gaming performance goes we believe nubia managed to craft some excellent, performance-first hardware for the Red Magic 3 that thankfully does not get hindered too badly by its spotty software.

Just to round the performance section off, we do feel it is necessary to say a few words about high refresh rate and gaming. While 90Hz definitely make a tangible difference in smoothness all throughout the phone's UI and with general use. Games, however, are a whole different story and not always created equal. In fact, the large bulk of titles out there are still capped at a maximum of 60fps or even 30fps. Running these with a 90Hz setting for the Red Magic 3 panel makes no difference to actual game smoothness. In fact, in some cases it might even lead to some frame tearing. If you experience any of that, be sure to use the Game Space 2.0 settings and force the panel to 60Hz.

ZTE nubia Red Magic 3 review

As for higher refresh rate titles, there is unfortunately no universal centralised database you can check. Razer currently maintains a list of games that is the closest thing we have. It should be noted, though, that technically these are titles that support Razer's UltraMotion technology, which refers to adaptive refresh rate. This is a bit more advanced than what nubia has to offer, since the 90Hz on the Red Magic 3 are very much fixed and can't vary dynamically to match fps output, like the Razer Phone 2 does. That being said, some of the titles on the list still might not go beyond 60fps. Still, this is a good place to start looking for high refresh rate games.

Reader comments

  • Gie

Hi guys! I just want to ask. Is it worth to buy Nubia Red Magic 3? I am planning to buy for myself. So i just need your advice if it is worth or not before getting one. Thank you for those who will answer. Have a good day everyone.

  • Murasame

Hi! I don't know if anyone experienced this on their red magic 3 yet but mine's showing a pink line. Any ideas on how to remove it?

  • ABC

Can GSMArena or anyone here confirm if the phone supports LTE Carrier Aggregation? I can't seem to get it to work on this phone. I know the Snapdragon 855 and X24 modem support it. I fear that Nubia has intentionally disabled this feature on the pho...