Xiaomi Redmi Note 9s Review – Not The "Budget" Phone You Were Expecting

Advertisement
Advertisement

With the Redmi Note 9s, Xiaomi delivers a superior, but imperfect sub-$300 experience that most competing phones still won't match.

Xiaomi Redmi Note 9s
$249
Rating
Pros
  • Over 8-hours of screen-on time
  • US GSM networks supported
  • Bluetooth 5.0 and a 3.5mm audio jack
  • IR Blaster
  • Dedicated Micro SD slot, 2 additional SIM slots
  • 6.67-inch 1080 x 2400 pixel ISP LCD display panel
  • OS and display are responsive, lag-free
  • Camera accuracy, color capture, and detail is high
  • Autofocus is fast and all expected AI features are intact
  • Lag-free performance is well above expectations
Cons
  • Over 2-hours to charge
  • No NFC
  • No AMOLED means no true, deep blacks/lower contrast
  • Night Mode can be best summarized as "pointless"
  • Camera doesn't perform brilliantly with heavy backlighting
  • Some darkening around the front-facing camera
  • Overheating could become a problem for some users

Xiaomi's Redmi Note 9s, recently sent to Android Headlines for review, is a stellar device with consideration for its cost. Priced at just over $200 and up to just shy of $250, the handset delivers above-par specs, just for starters. But that's been joined with other major improvements from the cameras to audio and software which really set this phone apart.

Not only did Xiaomi pack a truly mid-range chipset with ample RAM and storage into a sleek, flagship-like design. It also put obvious effort into the software optimizations, display experience, and battery life. The over-5,000mAh capacity unit delivers screen-on time that's above average, for example. Better still, it does that without sacrificing brightness or clarity.

Now, obviously, this is not a mid-range device. And that means that there is a world of trade-offs to consider. On the audio front, for instance, the speakers are well-tuned for what they are. But they aren't incorporated alongside a Hi-Fidelity audio DAC. Nor do they deliver pounding bass with a lot of depth. The battery takes quite a while to charge even at 18W fast charging rates.

Advertisement

Conversely, Night Mode doesn't perform as well as in some other cameras — including some in the same price bracket. But none of that is really going to prove to be an issue here. That is unless those are aspects that really need to be near-perfect. But, regardless, it bears digging in to see just how good this device is and where it isn't so great.

The Redmi Note 9s is beautiful with a couple of oversights

01 Redmi Note 9s Hardware Title Review AH 2020
Redmi Note 9s cuts a striking, shiny figure in Aurora Blue

In terms of design aesthetics, finding caveats, drawbacks, or problems with the Redmi Note 9s proved a challenge under review. But that doesn't mean that they don't exist. Now, this device ships in Aurora Blue, Glacier White, and Interstellar Black. My review unit was the Aurora Blue variant. As shown in the images here, that color almost glistens under any lighting, with no gradients to speak of but a very chrome-like sheen.

Put simply it looks stunning. Up until it's been held in-hand for a while and begins collecting fingerprints and dust. Now, this phone is exceptionally easy to clean up. But it also collects smudges very easily due to how shiny it is. That makes for an interesting conundrum wherein the phone should, theoretically, be very easy to keep clean but really it isn't. Real diligence was required to make that happen.

Advertisement

Setting that aside, this phone simply looks modern and stunning. And it feels great-in hand too. It isn't too slippery and each edge feels smooth to the touch.

The super-snappy fingerprint reader is built directly into the power button as well. That makes it very easy to unlock the device on pick-up, while face recognition is nearly as fast and rounds out the experience. So if the thumb or index finger isn't placed quite properly during a pick-up, it still unlocks very cleanly.

That's not to say the design is perfect, however. While the buttons, 3.5mm port, USB-C port, and SIM drawer fit snugly and click cleanly into place, the square camera at the back is somewhat obnoxious to put down on flat surfaces. It also breaks the in-hand feel on those very rare occasions where the hand slips to touch the camera.

Advertisement

The Redmi Note 9s also doesn't seem to be that sturdy, if the review unit I received is any indication.

Now, Xiaomi shipped this device on its own in a box rather than in its retail packaging, and it's possible any damages to the phone were in place before shipping. But this phone arrived with not-insubstantial dings and dents already in its frame. That doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in the build's durability.

The screen was intact and it'll always be possible to buy a case for this handset. So that isn't necessarily a deal-breaker, especially in the sub-$300 price bracket. But it's worth noting that for all of its great appearance and in-hand feel, it could be difficult to keep those characteristics.

Advertisement

Moreover, Xiaomi ensured that this phone is rated for splash-protection rather than being waterproof via a P2i coating. That's as opposed to going for a full IP rating. So it's difficult to say this phone will stand up to any kind of water, steam, or dust exposure at all. The Redmi Note 9s is not necessarily a smartphone with the norm there either. But buyers should be aware, all the same.

With a display that's more than bright and clear enough

02 Redmi Note 9s Display Review AH 2020
The sole real caveat with the clear, responsive Note 9s display is that it cuts off or leaves black bars for some media

As far as displays go, the panel found in my Redmi Note 9s review unit was absolutely not a let-down. Compared to other smartphones in a similar price bracket, it may even be fair to say this is better than most. That's because it's a 6.67-inches IPS LCD with a 1080 x 2400 pixels resolution.

Covered by Corning Gorilla Glass 5 and at up to 450 nits brightness, this phone not only feels solid under-thumb. It's bright enough for use in almost any lighting, with the notable exception of direct sunlight — but not to the point of being unusable. The panel additionally responds readily to touches without any lag.

Advertisement

Bearing all of that in mind, what the Redmi Note 9s delivers is a great looking display that's bright enough and responsive enough to compete with the more pricey phones on the market.

Now, there's also no clear indication of what the refresh rate on the panel is. I didn't notice any blurring during my review of the Redmi Note 9s but that doesn't mean that nobody else will. More importantly, as this is an LCD panel, contrast isn't nearly as high as AMOLED displays.

Colors also aren't quite as vibrant. But that's something that feels more than made up for via resolution. Most budget smartphones are stuck at a much lower resolution. So those who are looking for a better display at a cheaper price would do well to consider this Xiaomi-built handset.

Advertisement

The only major caveat is that, as with so many modern smartphones, media hasn't quite caught up with taller resolutions. So, held in landscape mode to watch a movie or in portrait to play a game, there are sometimes black bars running parallel to the content. That can be eliminated in some apps or in videos with a pinch-gesture. But it's not ideal.

There's also some darkening of the pixels surrounding the center-mounted selfie camera. That could prove to be a problem for some users but it was slight enough that I usually found it easy to ignore.

Audio isn't perfect but gets better with headphones

Single, bottom-firing speakers are never encouraging but a 3.5mm headphone jack more than makes up for that here

With only a very few exceptions, audio quality from built-in smartphone speakers leaves quite a lot on the table. It's not that it's necessarily always bad, but very few smartphones deliver a powerful, immersive experience with plenty of power across all of the tones. Unfortunately, my review of the Redmi Note 9s proves that this isn't one of those phones.

Advertisement

That's not surprising, given the pricing and the obvious focus on design, cameras, and incredibly smooth experience. But it also doesn't mean the audio here is bad. To begin with, the volume isn't as loud as some other mobile devices and that seems to be deliberate. There's no distortion, tonal drop-out, or other artifacts at the highest volume.

The phone is certainly loud enough to hear ringing or notifications from across a small home, so there's no caveat there.

Instead, everything stays stable across the range down to the lowest volumes. What is lacking, is real bass punch and depth. So this phone isn't standing out from others across the entire Android spectrum on that front. Bass tones are well-represented but tend to be drowned out by mids.

Making up for that, there's no tinniness to be found either — not in any of the songs or genres I tested. Redmi manages to keep high notes and tones well under control compared to most budget-minded smartphones.

Those caveats would already be well-managed by the fact that most users are going to want to listen via headphones. Here, there are two options for that. The first is Bluetooth 5.0, delivering a higher-than-average range and almost lossless audio.

Second, users can also just plug in a pair of traditional headphones for an even better experience. Not many phones these days come with 3.5mm audio ports. So that's a feature that's not to be discounted, at any price.

The audio jack pumps out a vastly improved sound experience. The sound effects menu in Settings further contains equalization and other adjustments such as enhancements based on the type of headphones used. Moreover, users can reassign and switch up what their wired headphones' buttons do. And that all equates to a much better listening experience than would typically be expected at under $400.

The performance offered an enjoyable experience in most apps

04 Redmi Note 9s Specs performance Review AH 2020
Game Turbo automatically takes gaming on Redmi Note 9s to the next level

As noted below in the software-segment, Xiaomi's Redmi Note 9s includes plenty of boosting features both as a standalone app and in the recent apps UI. So, given the high level of performance here, it isn't immediately clear whether any dedicated performance boost is needed anyway. But there is a dedicated mobile gaming tool included out-of-the-box anyway. And that tool, found on other Xiaomi gadgets and dubbed Game Turbo, works exceptionally well here.

As might be expected, that offers up granular control over performance optimizations, which apps are able to have deep memory access, and more. Among those settings, users can adjust individual games in terms of touch responsiveness, the sensitivity of repeat taps, and resize touch-resistant areas.

The result of that is a smoother gaming experience that doesn't quite take this phone to flagship levels, with most games defaulting to lower graphical settings. But it does offer a similar experience to top mid-range handsets and that's more than should be expected from a budget phone.

Of course, a test of the Redmi Note 9s's gaming capabilities isn't the sole purpose of this review either. In terms of performance elsewhere, there was very little to slow this phone down. Certainly, it doesn't process the video and photo editing as quickly as flagships. And the AI does feel marginally slower. But the overall experience was one that most users will find nearly indistinguishable from top devices.

Digging deeper, it was also immediately clear that this isn't a flagship when this device was in use in warmer environments — such as outside in the shade in 96-degree temperatures. There, overheating was present to the point of discomfort but not quite to unusable levels. That's a problem that could probably be solved with further optimization and only appeared in more intensive apps. But it is a problem.

Software is still very Xiaomi but closer to stock than expected

The software environment is still somewhat bloated with Redmi Note 9s but most of the UI feels stock

Software with the Redmi Note 9s feels mostly stock, in terms of performance and the ease with which settings are accessed and found. Users will find all of the latest perks of Android 10 installed out-of-the-box with the exception of gesture navigation. Xiaomi instead went with a drawer-less design, putting all of the apps on the home screen.

That small annoyance can be readily pushed aside though with considerations for just how smooth the experience really is. There's no latency to be found and reorganizing apps on the Redmi Note 9s was a snap during my review. There's no bloated UI to slow things down during that process and Xiaomi does a good job of ensuring third-party bloatware is kept to a minimum.

Of course, that's not to say that there is no bloatware at all. Xiaomi only includes a total of 11 Google apps, foregoing some common apps such as YouTube Music, Google Drive, Photos, and others. And it offsets that with installations of its own.

There's a dedicated Security app, for instance, and that double-checks installations alongside Google Play Protect. A dedicated device cleaner is part of the experience too, with deep cleaning options even found in the Recent apps UI.

Those apps keep things running smoothly, while the remainder of the apps comprises what's expected in a mobile world dominated by Samsung. Xiaomi packed in a dedicated Theming app as well as the Mi Video app, a file manager, Notes, and it's own calculator. There's also a Scanning tool, Recorder, Screen Recorder, and a place to offer feedback and access support.

Of course, standards such as Mi Mover, ShareMe, and Mi Remote are included too.

For third-party apps, Xiaomi built its Redmi Note 9s with Facebook, Netflix, and LinkedIn pre-installed. Each can be uninstalled. There are additional apps where the three apps are stored, but those aren't downloaded by default. In fact, they don't show up unless the "More apps" folder is opened and they can be deleted with a long-press. Or users can choose to install them or any of the "Promoted apps" displayed in a bottom-bar UI within that folder.

So, overall, the bloat here doesn't feel significant. That leads to an operating system that performs smoothly out-of-the-box without too many tweaks needed.

48-megapixels equate to a more than an acceptable experience for the price

06 Redmi Note 9s Camera Review AH 2020
The cameras on the Redmi Note 9s perform better than many competitors in its cost bracket and comes loaded with features

With the exception of Night Mode, the Xiaomi Redmi Note 9s could easily be the best budget smartphone camera I've ever reviewed.

Not only is the interface incredibly intuitive and controls easy to navigate. Color accuracy is very good, holding natural tones with a vibrancy that any photography buff should appreciate. Snaps are quick, even in night mode, with autofocus feeling almost instantaneous in most cases. Detail capture is much higher than expected too, resulting in less blur than has typically been experienced in the price bracket.

The images speak for themselves. But, of course, that's setting aside the above-mentioned night-mode.

This may, in fact, very well be among the least impactful Night Mode I've ever used. Aside from one or two shots, Night Mode made very little, if any, discernable difference. Mostly, it just lightens things up by a very little bit, as is highlighted in our Flickr gallery of sample shots — where the shots alternate from Night Mode to the normal camera mode.

So Xiaomi has utterly failed on that front, though that may be improved with a software update.

Similarly, shots captured with a lot of backlighting had a tendency to show bloom artifacts. And zoom quality, once 2-times zoom is surpassed, degrades quickly.

But setting aside those caveats, this camera performs far better than would reasonably be expected at this smartphone's cost. That holds true for the short video mode, slow motion at up to 960 frames-per-second, and 48-megapixel mode as well. In terms of color capture, AI-driven autofocus, and corrections, as well as Pro mode, this camera performs. And it performs at a level more akin to upper-end mid-rangers than a budget phone.

That's looking past the additional features Xiaomi includes in its phones, such as beauty and other AI effects.

Redmi Note 9s battery life is middling but not bad

07 Redmi Note 9s Battery Review AH 2020
Battery life from this phone was respectable but not great, but 18W charging is great at under $250

It goes without saying that 18W fast charging via Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 is great for under $300. But that doesn't necessarily equate to a great experience compared to at least some of the competition. That's setting aside the fact that many mid-rangers and flagships now feature 65W charging.

The disparity there, shown in my review of the Xiaomi-built Redmi Note 9s battery, was clear. In fact, anybody coming from a faster charging device or a handset with a smaller battery and 18W charging is going to notice. Getting to a full charge took right around 2-hours and 25-minutes.

That's not to say this couldn't be quicker with the included charger. But there shouldn't be much difference between the PD/Quick Charge 3.0 charger I used and the one included in the box. Xiaomi didn't send one with this review unit. Making matters worse, filling up the 5,020mAh battery for 15 minutes resulted in just under 10-percent charge.

So there doesn't appear to be much by way of charging faster during the first few minutes either. It bears pointing out that this is a larger battery than most competitors ship with. But taking just fifteen minutes shy of one-and-a-half hours to hit the halfway point feels like a long time.

Longevity, conversely, isn't what I expected from a 5,000mAh-plus battery either. I tested this device with the screen brightness turned up and power-savings turned off as they are out-of-the-box. That equated to 16-hours and 32-minutes of standby time with 8-hours and 45-minutes of screen-on time. That sounds like a lot, of course. But this is a phone that doesn't feature top-tier processing either.

Of that time, I played music with the screen on for just eight minutes short of two hours. Calls, browsing, and everyday tasks such as messaging occurred over the course of around a half-hour each. I also gamed for 3-hours and 25-minutes and streamed video for 2-hours.

Leaving the phone alone for extended periods, thankfully, doesn't drain the screen much at all. A 6-hour standby period equated to around a percent of battery lost.

All of that stacks, equating to a respectable battery life with mediocre charging times. Great for the price bracket but not compared to devices focused on longevity. This phone lasted a day, plus an hour and 17-minutes.

Connectivity is standard but with extras thrown in for good measure

08 Redmi Note 9s Connectivity Review AH 2020
Connections perform as expected from a modern smartphone with the Redmi Note 9s

In terms of connectivity with the Redmi Note 9s, I was able to stay on 4G LTE for the duration of my review. That's surprising since not many Chinese OEM smartphones work in the US. My carrier for the test was Google Fi, operating on Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular networks.

What makes connectivity particularly good with the Redmi Note 9s isn't that it works in the US though. That's a definite perk but this phone actually features a triple-slotted SIM drawer. The first two are dedicated to SIM cards, while the third slot is a dedicated microSD card slot. That means that users can get full access to the SIM slots without interference and without sacrificing storage expansion.

In the modern world of smartphones, that's a novelty not to be overlooked.

Secondary to that, and the fact that Wi-Fi, Casting, Hotspotting, and everything else worked as expected, there's a lot more here under the skin too. To begin with, there's an IR blaster included in the Redmi Note 9s. That lets users sync up their phone as a remote for TVs and other remote-controlled devices. Xiaomi includes an FM radio as well, along with the inclusion of a 3.5mm headphone jack.

On the Bluetooth side of things, this phone packs Bluetooth 5.0. So, even if users choose to forego wired headphones, the experience isn't greatly diminished. Wireless external displays are supported in settings too.

The one drawback noted during my review of the Redmi Note 9s is that buyers won't find an NFC chip inside. That means no tap-to-pay in the US and other regions where that's a common payment option. Xiaomi's Redmi makes up for that with the other tech included. But that's a hard trade-off for users who really need NFC.

Should you buy the Xiaomi Redmi Note 9s?

09 Redmi Note 9s Final Review AH 2020
Redmi Note 9s is a great device for the cost if lack of ruggedization isn't a worry

The overwhelming majority of caveats found in the Redmi Note 9s, after a thorough review, aren't going to be deal-breakers for most users. Night Mode's shortcomings in the camera stand out among the others, as does the long wait for charging. But that's not necessarily any better in the majority of pricier smartphones either.

Now, my test device was the 128GB storage, 6GB RAM variant — priced at just under $250. That likely goes a long way to improving the experience. And performance may not hold up as well in the 64GB, 4GB RAM version. But this phone, or at the very least this configuration, doesn't lag behind many flagships well into the $400 bracket. Performance is, of course, aided by the use of a Snapdragon 720G SoC.

Setting aside Night Mode, the performance of the 48-megapixel quad-camera array felt much closer to an upper mid-range device. Meanwhile, the build — while possibly not as durable as might be hoped — sits closer to flagship level.

On the audio front, the built-in speakers are well-balanced but ultimately disappointing. That's despite the lack of any real tinniness or distortion. But the company built this device with a 3.5mm headphone jack included alongside Bluetooth 5.0. So that's not really going to get in the way of anybody's listening.

Coupled with the fact that the Redmi Note 9s works on some US networks and offers a design not often seen in budget phones in that region, it becomes almost impossible not to recommend this device.