LAS VEGAS—Flagship phones have a new price: $399. Here at CES I took a look at the Nubia Red Magic Mars, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845-powered gaming phone that is going for an insanely low price when it hits the market on Jan. 31.
“We just want to introduce our very strong devices to more customers,” says Nubia’s Jason Chang. “We don’t want to get profit from that because it’s a new product series; we just want to try the market.”
Nubia is a youth-focused spin-off of ZTE that has been competing in China for several years now, but it’s never released a US product before. Since the beginning of 2018, it’s been testing the waters internationally, something that’s easier since ZTE is no longer its majority owner.
That means Nubia is protected from the drama that’s dogged the larger phonemaker all year. Once the No. 4 phone company by market share in the US, ZTE was temporarily banned from using US components in a conflict over Iranian sanctions and is struggling to get back into US wireless carriers. “We have separate R&D, separate marketing, and separate sales teams,” Chang says.
How About the Phone?
The Red Magic Mars has a Snapdragon 845 processor and comes in three versions: 6/64, 8/128 and a ridiculous 10GB RAM and 256GB storage. It has 16MP and 8MP cameras, a 1080p screen, and a large 3800mAh battery. There’s a single speaker on the bottom.
You can see where Nubia saved a little bit of money there, by deciding against a higher-res screen. It has some unique gaming phone touches: there’s a custom RGB light strip on the back that you can control with an app, and a gaming launcher that lets you max out the processor at the cost of battery life. On the sides of the phone—the top, if you’re playing a game in landscape mode—there are touch triggers that act as special gaming buttons.
The phones run Android 9 Pie, and Nubia says they’ll work on the AT&T and T-Mobile networks here in the US.
The units that Nubia had at CES were clearly not ready for the US yet; their firmware and apps were trapped in some netherworld between China and the US. Most of the interface was in English, with some grammatical errors, and the copy of PUBG the demo guy was playing was totally in Chinese.
So, cautious optimism here. Holding the phone, it’s well-built, with sort of a Lenovo Legion gaming look to its back and a slim body. It feels like a flagship. But we’ll have to refrain from judging until we see the software that Nubia is actually rolling out in the US. If it’s stable, then this will be the cheapest flagship phone in the US; the OnePlus 6, another Snapdragon 845 phone that’s less expensive than top flagships, costs $580. While there’s a less expensive Snapdragon 845-based phone in China and India, the Xiaomi Pocophone, it does not work well here.
Nubia will sell the Red Magic Mars direct via redmagic.gg, hopefully building an enthusiastic customer base, which will help springboard it into carriers, Chang says.
Nubia’s Crazy Dual-Screen Phone
The Red Magic Mars wasn’t the wildest thing at Nubia’s booth, though. That was the Nubia X, a phone that’s currently out in China.
The Nubia X has a main 6.26-inch OLED display on the front and a 5.1-inch OLED display on the back. It’s wild. There’s no front-facing camera: if you want to take a selfie, you turn the phone around and use the rear screen as a viewfinder. That also means there’s no notch on the nearly bezel-less main screen.
Most of the time, the secondary screen is off (good, that saves battery) but you can also put it in an always-on display mode showing the time and an image, or load apps on the rear screen.
The Nubia X is an example of the intense level of innovation that’s going on in China that we just aren’t seeing in the US market because Chinese phone makers, by and large, don’t play here. Whether it’s the Oppo Find X’s motorized front camera, the Vivo NEX S’s pop-up, or Huawei’s 5x hybrid zoom, we’re not seeing many of the world’s newest smartphone features in the US.
Nubia hasn’t decided whether or when it will roll out the X in the US, but hasn’t decided against it, according to Chang.