Over the years, the Xiaomi Redmi Note series has always been one of the top recommendations for value for money budget smartphones. Fast forwarding to this year though, the competition is more fierce than ever. We are seeing features on budget smartphones that we would have never associated with them before. And that puts the Redmi Note 9S in somewhat of a predicament. But does it do enough to overcome that?
Design and build quality
During usage, the Redmi Note 9S does not come off as cheap. As a matter of fact, the impression is quite the opposite. You get a nice heft to the device which we know a lot of people like. The plastic frame of the phone is not a trouble either, given the premium Corning Gorilla Glass 5 coverage all around the device. There are also some noteworthy features on the Note 9S that other smartphones do not come with. For example, the 3.5mm headphone jack which has come in handy a few times when jumping into a quick call or the IR blaster. But honestly, the IR sensor has been untouched just because I do not find a use for it in my daily workflow. Perhaps instead of this, Xiaomi could have looked at adding NFC support for contact-less payments.
Aside from this, the Interstellar Grey finish of the phone is eye-catching. You also find the usual array of microphones, speaker, Type-C USB port, volume buttons, the SIM slot and the power button. Rather surprisingly, you also get an LED notification light which has become almost extinct in this day and age. Having support for dual-SIM is great but the 9S takes it up a notch with simultaneous support for expandable memory via a microSD card. Not just this, the power button also doubles as an accurate and moderately fast fingerprint scanner. We appreciate Xiaomi going for this design choice however personally, it does not sit well for people with smaller hands. As it is, the phone comes with a 6.67-inch display which makes for quite a tall and thick chassis. Perhaps a smaller form factor is something that a lot more of the general public would have appreciated.
Speaking of display, it is a flat IPS LCD panel with a resolution of 2,400 x 1,080 pixels. At its size, this makes for a 395ppi which is slightly on the lower end however does not make a massive difference in the real world. Furthermore, you find support for HDR10 content on it making things look richer. But that 450nit advertised brightness may be concerning to a few, especially if usage is outdoors.
While we have not faced any issues with content consumption, something that must be addressed is the display’s refresh rate. With 90Hz panels now becoming a common ground even at this price, it is odd that Xiaomi did not go for one on the Note 9S. Furthermore, the choice of opting of an IPS LCD panel is also a bit underwhelming. Most manufacturers tend to opt for a 60Hz refresh rate but on an AMOLED panel which is a decent sacrifice. However, the Redmi Note 9S feels like a two way sacrifice when it comes to display. Not only does it not have the responsiveness of a 90Hz display but it also does not sport the vivid colors we usually associate with AMOLED panels.
It is worth noting that through my usage, the phone has received a software update addressing display issues. But our concern is more on the hardware of the display than the software. And perhaps this is where other smartphones like the Realme 6 can capitalize.
Usage and processing power
Under the hood, you find Qualcomm’s octa-core Snapdragon 720G coupled with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of UFS 2.1 storage. Of course, this is also pushing MIUI 11 on top of Android 10 and the overall experience has been average at best. The phone excels during low to moderate usage conditions, which includes browsing, texting and a bit of video watching. If focused on one game with little to no applications open in the background, it can do a job too.
However, expecting superior multitasking is asking for a bit too much. Multiple games in the background do not stay in memory given our 4GB variant and switching between applications is also fairly choppy. There are elements of stutter and lag and we think this could be more refined with a lighter operating system. We are certain you can get by with a decent gaming experience but nothing that truly stands out. And given the battery capacity of the smartphone as well as the display size, this is a bit underwhelming to see.
As far as the smartphone’s temperatures go, it is a bit of a mixed bag. If you are downloading something in the background, it will heat up moderately. And for some lightweight games, it does so too. But as games start to get more demanding, the smartphone does start to feel warm to touch. This though, is not a huge deal breaker.
You find an interesting setup on the Note 9S when it comes to camera. The quad setup is not too obtrusive in terms of design, made up of a 48MP primary lens, an 8MP ultra-wide lens with a 119-degree field of view, a 5MP macro lens and a 2MP depth sensor. On the overall, the smartphone’s performance is ideal when the scene is bright. As things start to darken up, pictures get softer and details are washed away. There is a dedicated 48MP mode on the camera, a professional mode and a few features that users can play around with. But when it comes to raw picture taking, you will definitely need patience. The shutter speed of the phone too is on the slower side so taking pictures of fast moving objects may be a bit out of question.
We have liked the majority of pictures the phone has taken though. Using its macro lens is a nice experience although here, the phone struggles with exposure control, where it blows out macro pictures especially in outdoor conditions. The ultra-wide angle lens too, while good for outdoor landscapes struggles quite a bit with indoor photography. Almost a trend, I often took pictures with night mode enabled when lighting was on the lower end. This improves pictures by a considerable margin although you have to wait even longer for the phone to take a picture. As for the phone’s night time performance, its more of the same again. Without night mode, you will struggle to reproduce desirable images but with it, the phone is able to bring out a good level of detail.
As for the front sensor, you find a 16MP centered hole-punch camera. I am not much of a selfie person but the sensor seems to hold its own. Dynamic range though struggles when taking portrait selfie images during the day. And while the phone can record 4K video at 30fps, it does not have much stability, given the lack of optical image stabilization (OIS) support.
Battery capacity and endurance
Given the larger form factor of the device, one thing we are thoroughly impressed by is battery endurance. The Redmi Note 9S comes with a huge 5,020mAh cell, which given the phones internals will easily last you 2 days worth of moderate usage. Even on standby, the cell is great and perhaps this will come in handy if you want to watch a lot of movies or constantly play games.
Not just this, it also supports 18W fast wired charging. We ran a charging test from 0-100 per cent where the smartphone took a 100 minutes using the out of the box 22.5W charging brick. Interestingly, in 30 minutes, the phone was able to charge up to 34 per cent. Of course at this price point, there is no support to wirelessly charge the smartphone.
In the past, the Redmi Note series was the undisputed king when it came to budget smartphones. But with the Note 9S, things are a bit different. One smartphone that directly competes with it has to be the Realme 6. And the fact that it brings a smoother display experience with similar internals at a lower price means making a choice is difficult. Priced at Dh899, we think the Xiaomi Redmi Note 9S will struggle a bit because we feel it has not adapted enough to consumer demands in 2020. That being said, its battery life is a huge plus point alongside its camera performance but whether these features are enough to tempt buyers boils down to personal preference on aesthetic, design and user interface.