I've been reviewing each iteration of the RedMagic gaming smartphone family for over a year now, and in that time, I've already reviewed three of the company's phones. A few weeks ago, the RedMagic 5S was announced, keeping up with the usual mid-year refresh we see from the company.

With it, I'm four reviews into the RedMagic world, and what once felt like a smartphone family full of possibilities is starting to feel more and more like wasted potential. Since I started reviewing these phones, software limitations and issues were what held them back from near perfection, and after all this time, the same exact story is still playing on repeat. Just like the RedMagic 5G, the 5S is a fantastic piece of hardware, with software that makes it hard to recommend.

Specs

CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon 865
GPU Adreno 650
Body 168.56x78x9.75mm (6.64x3.07x0.38in), 218g (7.69oz)
Display 6.65 inches, 1080x2340, 19.5:9, 387.5ppi, AMOLED
Camera 64MP with Quad Bayer technology, Front - 8MP
Video 8K - 30fps, 4K - 60fps, 1920fps Slow Motion; Front - 1080p - 30fps
Aperture f/2.0, Front - f/2.0
Storage 256GB UFS 3.1
RAM 12GB
Battery 4,500mAh, 18W fast charging (55W charger sold separately)
Material Metal and glass
Price $649

Day one

Design

The design of the RedMagic 5S is pretty much unchanged from the RedMagic 5G barring some very small changes. The most noticeable difference from my previous review unit is the color, which has a dual-tone red and cyan color that's absolutely beautiful, especially when you let light shine on it. It really is gorgeous, but this color option was also available with the RedMagic 5G.

The other big difference is on the back, where the RedMagic logo is. Before, this was used as an RGB light strip, but that's gone now. That's because RedMagic is using, for the first time in a smartphone, a silver plate as a cooling element, which is where the RedMagic logo is displayed now, but with no backlight. This silver element does help with cooling, especially paired with the new Ice Dock accessory. We'll get into that later.

Otherwise, everything about the design is pretty much the same. The right side of the phone has the touch triggers - now with an increased touch sampling rate of 320Hz, up from 300Hz on the RedMagic 5G. There's also the power button, volume rocker, and an air expel vent. That vent does push the buttons a little lower than I'd like, but you can get used to it.

On the left, there's the air intake vent, the pin connector for the Magic Adapter accessory, and the competitive switch, which enables game mode.

The top edge has a 3.5mm headphone jack and a microphone, just as before.

Finally, the bottom edge has a USB Type-C port for charging, a bottom-firing speaker that's part of a stereo setup (the other is on the front panel), the SIM card slot, and another microphone.

Display and sound

The display on the RedMagic 5S is pretty much the same as the RedMagic 5G, too. It's a 6.65-inch AMOLED display at Full HD+ resolution, and with a 144Hz refresh rate. Its predecessor was the first phone to have such a high refresh rate, but now RedMagic isn't alone in that. As you'd expect, everything looks incredibly smooth, and that does come at a cost to battery. You can change the refresh rate between 60Hz, 90Hz, and 144Hz to accommodate your needs.

The display looks pretty nice otherwise. I would say the colors might look a little better on this than the RedMagic 5G, but it feels pretty similar. My usual complaint of the colors shifting at low brightness levels is less noticeable this time around, in my opinion, which is a very welcome change. However, software limitations continue to be a problem, and the lack of display scaling settings means everything looks way too big for my taste.

In terms of sound, the RedMagic continues to shine. The stereo speakers are some of the loudest I've heard in a smartphone, and they're as awesome as ever. I'm always glad I can hear videos loud and clear even when I'm surrounded by noise. If I could change anything, I'd love for the bottom speaker to be moved back to the front of the phone instead of the bottom edge where it's easier to block, but otherwise, it's great.

One thing I don't like as much is the vibration motor on this phone. It feels too soft and not as precise as many others.

Camera

The camera setup on the RedMagic 5S is also the exact same as the ones on the RedMagic 5G. A 64MP main camera paired with an 8MP ultra-wide lens, plus a useless 2MP macro camera that's basically here for marketing purposes. It's not an amazing camera, and there's little reason to use it.

The camera on RedMagic devices isn't meant to be a big selling point, but somehow, I always end up liking the cameras quite a bit. They deliver pretty vivid colors - even if they tend to be oversaturated - and they look sharp enough, too. The ultra-wide camera isn't as great, but if you're in a pinch to get more things in the frame, it's alright. Night mode is also pretty nice, and in most situations, it helps a lot with lighting. It's not a one-size-fits-all solution, though.

Just as before, though, software is the biggest drawback of these cameras. For one thing, the ultra-wide-angle camera is only accessible in Pro mode - a complaint I already had with the RedMagic 5G. That means you can't use HDR with it, for example. Also, if you change the aspect ratio to 16:9 with the wide-angle camera, it only takes 2MP photos instead of just cropping the 8MP image to 16:9.

I also find it weird that the macro camera option is hidden in the middle of a ton of options in the "camera-family" section of the app, but that really just goes to show how much that camera matters. Oh, and yes, you do still get an annoying zoom circle every time you use the macro camera, and you do have to disable it every time, just like on the previous phone.

Performance and the Ice Dock

High-end specs and top-notch performance have always been RedMagic's bread and butter, and that definitely holds up here. This time around the company actually stuck with the same chipset, the Snapdragon 865, instead of upgrading to the 865+, and apparently that's because it wouldn't be able to sell the phone in China if it used the latter. The storage was upgraded to UFS 3.1, though, which promises some significant performance improvements.

To make up for that, RedMagic created a new accessory, the Ice Dock. If having a fan inside a fan inside the phone wasn't enough, now you can add another huge fan on the back of the phone. The silver plate I mentioned above also comes into play, since that's the area where the Ice Dock attaches to and where it cools down the most.

The Ice Dock starts spinning up immediately when you plug it into an outlet, but you need to connect it to the USB port on the phone to enable a "GPU boost" feature in game mode. To test its effectiveness, I did my usual testing procedure with RedMagic phones, where I ran the usual benchmarks three times in a row. This time, I did it without the Ice Dock and then with it attached.

AnTuTu Benchmark

Even without the Ice Dock, and using the same chipset, the RedMagic 5S gets significantly better scores than its predecessor. The CPU test is ppretty much in line with those numbers, but you get a major bump in GPU performance and memory tests are also faster.

In subsequent runs, the total score was 625607 for the second test and 624535 for the third one, so the phone still does a good job at maintaining performance during lower periods of time.

Now, let's take a look at the results with the Ice Dock. Right off the bat, the first test run has a slightly higher score, mostly thanks to better performance in the GPU tests.

In the following runs, the total score first dropped to 624227, but that was mostly owed to lower storage performance. GPU and CPU performance was very close to the first run. Then, in the third run, it bounced back to 628014. The performance impact isn't huge, but it definitely helps sustain that performance even better.

GeekBench 5

GeekBench is a CPU-focused test, and interestingly enough, it seems like the Ice Dock does nothing to truly help in this area. Here are the results without the Ice Dock:

In the second run, I got 786 in single core, a pretty big drop, but the multicore score was closer, at 3050. In a third run, it was nearly identical, with a 787 single-core score and 3048 for the multi-core section.

Turning to the Ice Dock tests, scores are actually just lower across the board. In the first run, the single-core result was in line with the normal test, but multi-core was noticeably lower.

And in the following runs, the story is the same. The second test yielded a 785 single-core result and 3006 in multi-core performance. The third and last test scored 787 in single-core and 3040 in multi-core. Regardless of whether I used the Ice Dock or not, though, scores were much lower than on the RedMagic 5G for some reason.

GFXBench

Finally, GFXBench tests the GPU alone and it's the most intense of the stress tests, which would theoretically make it the best way to test longer-term performance. However, we observe similar patterns between running the tests with and without the Ice Dock, and the scores don't change that much between each run.

Because there are a lot of numbers at play here, I'll just have links to the results for each run. Here's the first run without the Ice Dock:

You can check the results of the second run here and the third run here. As I said before, the numbers don't change that significantly between runs. The story is similar using the Ice Dock:

You can see the second run here and the third run here. Again, the scores fluctuate a a bit, but not dramatically. What you will notice is that the phone actually seems to perform slightly worse or similarly for the on-screen tests, but it does much better in the off-screen tests when using the Ice Dock.

There are some performance benefits to the Ice Dock, and it makes the phone feel very cold to the touch regardless of what I'm doing. I should mention, though, the grip that attaches to the phone broke during completely normal usage, and it just became impossible for me to use it normally. Hopefully, my case was a one-off, but considering the performance benefit isn't that big, it may not be worth the extra $45 you'll need to pay for it.

As for battery life, it's very similar to the RedMagic 5G. I never have trouble getting through the day with it, but I do miss the time when I used to be able to get two days out of RedMagic phones. Of course, I've been using the phone set to 144Hz, so I could probably get more juice out of it if I went lower.

Software

As usual, software is holding back the RedMagic 5S from being a much better phone. For a while, I've been looking at RedMagic phones as promising devices that could get much further with software improvements, but seeing the RedMagic 5S have all the same flaws and quirks as its predecessor, it starts to feel more like wasted potential. The company has done nearly nothing to make the experience better in terms of software, and it's just getting tiring.

So, all the same issues are here. The navigation gestures appear to be the same as the native Android 10 gestures, but they're different enough that you can't swipe swipe across the bottom of the screen to switch apps quickly. If you're watching a YouTube video, it also doesn't automatically go into a picture-in-picture mode, it just plays audio in the background.

Changing the default launcher requires some sleuthing

You still can't properly set default apps for things like YouTube links, since the page where you would do this only gives you an option to reset the defaults for a certain app. Plus, while RedMagic fixed the issue where you couldn't set third-party launchers as the default, it only did it partly. You won't be asked to set a default if you install a new launcher, and even if a third-party launcher asks you to set it as the default, the page that opens doesn't work. You need to look for the right page in the system settings yourself. Plus, when you do set a third-party launcher as the default, navigation gestures no longer work, but that's not exclusive to RedMagic. The lack of display scaling options is also annoying. Additionally, RedMagic claims NFC support in its press materials, but there is no sign of it anywhere.

Some of these may seem like small annoyances, and I wouldn't have a huge problem with it if this was the first time I was seeing these issues. But I'm dealing with these things all over again, and it's frustrating that there's no real progress being made. Software has been a problem for too long to continue to forgive these problems, and I would take a price increase if it meant these oversights would be fixed.

Conclusion

Just like its predecessors, the RedMagic 5S has stellar hardware, and the company continues to find innovative ways to maximize the performance of its devices. After being the first to add a fan inside a phone, RedMagic is the first OEM to use silver to help cool its smartphones, and adding the external fan makes it even more suitable for intense gaming sessions. That's combined with the faster storage and what were already top-notch specs to make for a very powerful device.

But at this point, I'm getting tired of the software issues on RedMagic phones. Almost everything that was problematic with the RedMagic 5G is still an issue with its successor. I would rather take a price hike or a more mild hardware refresh in exchange for some work on software quality. The RedMagic 5S isn't a worse phone than the 5G, but I have to dock points for it not being better. It's time for the company to put some real effort into creating a software experience that matches its hardware.

If you're still interested, you can buy the RedMagic 5S here, starting at $579 for the 8GB+128GB model. The Ice Dock is sold separately for $44.90.

 

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