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Redmi Note 9S hands-on: Not undisputed, but still very good

The Redmi Note series is probably one of the most recognisable lines of smartphones in the affordable smartphone segment. It’s beloved by everyone because for the longest time they have been the go-to affordable smartphone because they can give you more everything than any other device in its price range. And today, I’ve got a brand new Redmi Note smartphone to talk about and it’s called the Redmi Note 9S.

On paper, yeah it’s classic Redmi Note. Banging specs for a banging price tag. But, times have changed. We’re not in a world where the Redmi Note is the undisputed king anymore because it’s got a fierce competitor gunning for its crown.

So, the question is, is this smartphone still worth your money? Well, let’s see if we can find out.

A solid spec machine

Since we’re talking about the affordable smartphone segment, I guess there’s no better place to start that with its specs. The Redmi Note 9S comes with a Snapdragon 720G processor at its core and up to 6GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage. The model I have here is the base model with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage and this device has a recommended retail price of RM799. Right in that Redmi Note sweet spot which is great.

64GB of storage is a pretty good place to start, but if you do need more storage you can expand it further with a microSD card. The nice thing about this phone is that it features a triple card tray so you can put two SIMs and a microSD card which means you don’t have to give up on anything.

Performance, despite this being a base model device, has also been pretty good so far. Now, I’ve only been using this for a few days but it’s held up really well. It even ran Asphalt 9 at High Graphics with little to no issues so I’m pretty happy with it.

I also like the fact that there’s just a big honking 5,020 mAh battery inside with support for 18W fast-charging. I know, 18W isn’t super fast by today’s standards, but it’s still better than nothing and you do have a massive battery cell and an efficient processor so that’s a trade-off I’m willing to make. Interestingly, the phone does come with a 22.5W fast charging brick, which is just peculiar.

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Now, I will say that I’ve only spent a few days with the phone so I can’t give you exact battery life numbers yet, but so far first impressions seem promising.

Up front, you’ll find a solid 6.67” IPS LCD panel that looks pretty cookie cutter at this price point. It’s got a Full HD+ resolution and a 60Hz refresh rate so it’s pretty much the default display in the affordable mid-range.

Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The screen is sharp with nice viewing angles so I’m not going to complain. It does look and feel a little dated especially with those bezels, but this is a sub-RM800 smartphone so that’s acceptable.

I am, however, not a fan of the single bottom-firing speaker because it’s just disappointing. It doesn’t get very loud nor does it sound very good. This spec is probably the one that feels the most dated because I haven’t heard an improvement here in a long time across the entire price segment.

The upside, however, is that this phone comes with a 3.5mm headphone jack so you can stick in your wired headphones of choice. Xiaomi’s also included an IR blaster which is always useful.

The Redmi Note 9S also gets a fresh coat of paint. The model I have here is in a colourway called Interstellar Grey and I think it looks great.

It doesn’t feel particularly premium or good in the hand, and at this point I’m not sure if the frame is metal. It definitely doesn’t feel as well put together as some of the high-end stuff, but it’s not a high end phone.

I don’t like where they’ve put the fingerprint scanner though. The side is my least favourite because I think it’s the least convenient, but I guess this is more down to personal preference because the scanner itself is rather accurate and responsive.

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More cameras, but still lacking in low-light

By now, you’d probably have noticed the massive camera bump at the back of the phone. With the little halo around the top two lenses, it does look a little bit like Bender, but I don’t hate it. It is very vulnerable to damage if you’re putting it down on the table, however.

Regardless, the camera system here is a quad camera setup. You get a 48MP wide camera, an 8MP ultra-wide camera, a 5MP macro camera and a 2MP depth sensor.

And I gotta say, it’s pretty good for a phone at this price point. In daylight, the photos are sharp and have decent detail at 1X, but the ultra-wide is just…well, it’s kind of just there. It is a fixed focus ultra-wide so you really can’t expect too much from it. There is also an AI mode which sort of amps up the colour if you’re too lazy to edit your pictures in post.

The camera app offers you the option to zoom in at 2X, but it’s digital zooming and the fall off in quality is pretty apparent. I was, however, surprised at the fact that the 48MP shooting mode doesn’t seem to work on my device.

I could switch to the camera mode and take a photo with it, but then when you try to view it it gets stuck in processing for a really long time. Then, after it’s done, all I’m left with is a really low res picture that is just awful. Maybe it’s a software bug because there was one time where it just crashed the entire app. Hopefully Xiaomi can address this in a future software update.

I did, however, like the macro camera. It’s quite a lot of fun when you’re stuck at home because you get to see regular household stuff with way more detail. Maybe a little too much detail, sometimes.

I was also a fan of the 16MP selfie shooter because it handled exposure well, did portraits really well and also has a one button command to remove all beautification.

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That being said, the smartphone’s low-light performance leaves a lot to be desired. Yes, there is a dedicated Night Mode, but in most of the shots that I took, almost always preferred the ones that were taken with regular AI on.

When you use night mode, the photos definitely turn out a little brighter, but you lose a lot in the form of contrast and even colour saturation. Results often end up hazy with plenty of noise. I guess when it comes to low-light, the affordable phones still struggle a lot.

Not the same world anymore

At the end of the day, perhaps to nobody’s surprise, the Redmi Note 9S is a really solid smartphone for its price. I mean, it’s a tried and tested formula that works at this price point and it’s just a testament to how well Xiaomi knows this segment.

But, the thing is, this is one of the most competitive segments in the market, and this time around they’ve got a fierce competitor in the form of the Realme 6.

This is an affordable mid-range smartphone that can pretty much stand toe-to-toe with the Redmi Note 9S, trading blows all day. Plus, it has an ace up its sleeve: A 90Hz refresh rate display. And the phone has all of that while still keeping the price below RM1,000.

That said, it is a smidge more expensive than the top-spec Redmi Note 9S and that could make a difference in such a price sensitive market, but if you ask me which one I’d pick right now, I just couldn’t tell you. I haven’t had the chance to test the Realme 6 just yet, so maybe my opinion will change after that.

But, right now it’s really just a toss up, and that in my experience is always good for the consumer.

Which phone would you prefer? The Redmi Note 9S or the Realme 6? Let me know in the comments below.

Photography by Rory Lee with the Fujifilm X-T20.

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