Xiaomi's Redmi 9, recently sent to Android Headlines for review, is a budget-friendly device. But, priced at $219.99 and often on sale as low as $159.00 or less, it's no less a worthy competitor. In fact, even though it's presently priced by at least one retailer at just over $129 as of this writing, this phone is a veritable powerhouse at the lowest reaches of the market.
Of course, there are plenty of tradeoffs to go along with that. The cameras are, in no shape or form, going to perform like a flagship. Neither is the processor, for that matter. Or anything else, if we're being honest. But that's not at all audiences this phone is aimed at either. This is a phone for those who need an Android device that works. And, moreover, one that works well while offering a great experience in all of the expected areas.
Redmi 9 does that and does it well.
The cameras, for example, offer detailed, color-accurate shots except under the poorest lighting. The 5,020mAh battery will last all day, even though it takes quite some time to recharge at 10W. Xiaomi's MIUI delivers a clean, easy-to-use experience.
We could talk all day about how good the Redmi 9 is, especially with considerations for its price. But let's take a deeper dive into exactly how that's the case. And where it isn't.
Redmi 9 has a great in-hand feel but not the best materials or design
The company sent me a Redmi 9 review unit in Sunset Purple. The color starts at a deep, darker shade of the hue and shifts to a more orchid tone. For those who don't favor the royal color, Ocean Green and Carbon Grey are also available.
This phone may best be described as "gorgeous" aesthetically, despite its low MSRP. And that's also despite that it's very clearly made of polycarbonates — or plastic. Or it could be because it's so affordable that it just feels that way. In either case, it's very hard to be disappointed in this design for the cost.
That's because Xiaomi's Redmi unit did an excellent job of ensuring a solid-feeling, single-piece design. That just feels and looks more premium. And, at least in part because of its soft-touch feel and the ridged, round camera surround, that sense of quality also extends to in-hand-feel. But also because the camera hump barely protrudes at all, compared to many other smartphones, there are no shape edges to be found, and both ports and buttons are clicky and well-built.
Additionally, there's very little — if any — flex in the frame and no creaking or groaning under pressure. The weight and build feel as though it would be on-point for a device at least twice the price.
The textured back also serves a secondary purpose. This phone doesn't feel slippery in-hand. Instead, it's somewhat grippy. The company includes a clear protective case in-the-box. But the grip is such that users who just don't want to use a case can probably get away with that.
However, the premium feel is primarily down to the sculpted edges the company used. And the single-piece frame and rear panel design. Under review, the Redmi 9 just felt great to hold.
Of course, not everything here is perfect either. The fingerprint reader, for example, responds quickly and is accurate. But it's placed in the same camera bump as the cameras. So I found that I was constantly having to wipe down the camera lenses due to fingerprints. That's made worse by the above-mentioned ridged edge surrounding the camera too.
With the sudden change in texture, it was easy to recognize that my finger was approaching the fingerprint reader. However, the surround isn't evenly spaced in relation to the distance from the edge of that to the camera hardware. So it wasn't easy to recognize how close my finger was to the cameras.
Now, that's not a big deal and certainly not a dealbreaker although it's definitely worth noting. The design adds distinction to this handset and has an interesting aesthetic. But it isn't going to help keep fingerprints off the cameras.
The display is one area that Redmi 9 is quite obviously not a flagship
Redmi 9 carries forward from the build to the 6.53-inch display and showcases a screen quality that's not always present in review devices. The quality here isn't always seen in even mid-range handsets. But that's not at all to say it's a perfect panel.
The screen has a 400-nits brightness that should be visible under just about any lighting conditions. And it was still visible and usable, even under direct sunlight. In fact, there's even a dedicated sunlight mode to match the more standard and widely-seen reader and blue-light killing DND modes. That's setting aside the built-in color temperature adjustments and other customizations as part of the display software.
The screen is also more pixel-rich, with an FHD+ resolution that keeps on-screen content clear and pixelation-free for the most part.
But it isn't the richest display around, even at this price point. Instead, it hits 70-percent of NTSC at a contrast of 1500:1 contrast ratio. So it is very clearly not a high-end panel.
That's not to say the display isn't vibrant. As noted above, it is a very good screen. In addition to being clear and bright, it's responsive. I never saw any lag between my inputs and the visuals. And Gorilla Glass 3 keeps durability at a higher-than-average level for the bracket. Color accuracy is, within a certain margin, spot on.
But Redmi 9 simply doesn't quite support the range of display features and technologies that would be required to say it's a truly 'great' panel for the cost. Or to say that it's a truly accurate display in terms of color representation. So this isn't going to be the phone for users who need a top-level smartphone display experience.
Performance from Redmi 9 is above-average for the price
The Redmi 9 is a 100-percent budget-phone. The fact that budget phones have improved so much over the past few years isn't going to alleviate the biggest problems with that. But, under a thorough review, the Redmi 9 also highlights some of the areas where budget-friendly Android has gotten better. Or, at the very least, how MediaTek's offerings have improved — despite still being built on the 12nm FinFET process.
This handset is powered by the Helio G80 chipset, to be precise. That's backed by either 4GB RAM and 64GB storage or 3GB RAM and 32GB storage. My test unit was the 4GB variant. And, of course, the higher memory almost certainly had a measurable impact on the performance. So that should be considered for anybody thinking about buying this phone based on my review.
With that said, this chipset, on this phone, was more than capable. In fact, it easily played everything from Zen Koi 2 to Call of Duty: Mobile without hiccups. The latter is also a testament to the wireless radios here but we'll discuss that later on. On the performance-specific front, this phone handled those titles without latency or lag. And there weren't any obnoxious visual or input artifacts either.
Similarly, the phone ran all of my photo editing software and video software without a hitch. That may be saying a bit more too. Since I was multitasking across apps and games. It's more than a bit impressive.
Where the problems with using a budget handset really shined through were in more intensive games and apps. But not in the performance. While none of the apps was running at the fullest and games with quality settings were running at a lower resolution, framerate, etc, responsiveness was on-point. The hangups came in terms of loading times.
Where a flagship could load up Zen Koi, Chrome, Photoshop, Lightroom, or Call of Duty: Mobile in a snap, this phone could not. In fact, it took several seconds in many cases. And up to 20 seconds in the case of at least one app.
And that is, without a doubt, going to be obnoxious for anybody expecting better than that.
Battery life with Redmi 9 was beyond acceptable but don't expect fast charging
Interestingly enough, I was surprised to find that Redmi 9 doesn't pack the same level of charging found in Xiaomi smartphones I've had the chance to review in the past. The discharge time, as we'll discuss momentarily, was great. But charging the device up can be a bit of a hassle. Especially if charging is required throughout the day.
Of course, charging shouldn't be required during any given day, to begin with. This phone lasted a total of 8-hours and 11-minutes. That's screen-on time, with standby pushing battery life up to 21-hours and 51-minutes. And none of the battery saving features were turned on either. In fact, the screen was set to maximum brightness for my battery test. So this phone will last longer under the average user's use.
For clarity, that's just shy of four hours of video and music streaming, just over three hours of gaming, and just over an hour of day-to-day activities. The latter includes browsing, phone calls, messages, and other standard smartphone uses.
And, for those who will mostly have this device in a pocket during work, six hours of standby drains a single percent.
Conversely, it is a real chore to recharge this smartphone since, from dead, a half-hour only refilled 20-percent of the capacity. And things didn't improve much from there. Just 40-percent is had from an hour of charging. I left the battery charging from dead for an hour-and-a-half and saw just 61-percent charge. It took just 13-minutes less than 3-hours to charge the battery to full.
For the sake of comparison, a modern Xiaomi flagship can and does charge up in under 45-minutes. So this was a big disappointment since I expected more.
These are not top-end cameras by any stretch but will suit most users
Now, the Redmi 9 is, as we'll keep repeating here, not a flagship. But that doesn't mean we can't expect great photos anyway, as many other devices have proven at this point. And it's on this point that my opinion is somewhat split for this handset.
For starters, this camera is simple — albeit loaded with Xiaomi's MIUI camera features such as macro mode and beauty features. That means it's straightforward to use. But it also leads to faster loading, processing, and autofocus times. Coupled with the fact that, generally speaking, HDR mode works well, colors are captured accurately, and detail is good overall, this is a pretty good camera for the price.
On the HDR front, for instance, one of my sample photos shows a light-bulb in the foreground. There's also a brightly lit blue sky in the background. And the overall environment was shadowy. In standard mode, heavy backlighting with this phone washes out the photo almost entirely. With HDR on, most of those issues are alleviated to dramatic effect. The photos speak for themselves.
But there are a few issues worth noting too. For starters, there's no night mode and in the interest of full disclosure, there aren't any night shots in our sample gallery via Flickr either. That's because the camera here is simply not great at capturing shots in the lowest light environments. There's no dedicated Night Mode to account for that either.
One of the biggest issues is the simplicity of the software though. Not only does HDR need to be turned on manually since it doesn't always detect the need properly. It also turns off automatically as soon as the camera app is closed. So does the dedicated macro mode and every other special feature.
That's something Redmi could fix with an update in the future. But as of the writing of this review, it leads to a subpar experience for those who need those features in the Redmi 9.
HDR also creates a bit of grain in indoor shots. More than I'd expected to see, at any rate. That didn't dissuade my use. Especially since so many budget phones on the market pack absolutely awful camera experiences. But I would absolutely not recommend this phone based on the camera alone.
Two words. MIUI 11.
One interesting and noteworthy point to be made about Redmi 9, which I noticed throughout the review, is just how similar the software is to my daily driver. For reference, that's a Xiaomi Mi 10 Pro. And that's saying quite a lot. Like Samsung, Xiaomi includes almost every feature on this front from its flagships.
So what users get from this phone is a wealth of software, including an edge-screen-like array of quick-launch apps and tools. And including theming and customizations. From Game Turbo and Second Space to Video toolbox and Lite mode, Redmi doesn't skimp on making its phones a consumer-driven experience. And all of the extras are intuitive too.
Setting that aside, this phone also stacks in all of Google's latest inclusions and Android 10 features such as dedicated system-wide Dark Mode. Digital Wellbeing, of course, is part of that bundle. As is Google Assistant, the Discover feed panel, and other Android-level features. All laid neatly over an experience that feels incredibly stock even though it isn't.
Perhaps best of all, the Redmi 9 doesn't include a whole lot that users won't use. There are a few extras such as the standard calculator, phone mover, sharing, and a dedicated app for the IR blaster built into the top edge — for controlling remote-controlled TVs, media players, etc.
There is also a dedicated Mi Browser and Community apps, as well as uninstallable games. But it doesn't feel at all bloated. And even the pre-installed LinkedIn and Facebook apps can be removed. As can Netflix and WPS Office.
Unfortunately, Redmi 9 also touts downloadable links for games and apps that aren't installed at all. Primarily, that's in dedicated folders so it's more difficult to accidentally install things users don't want. But that doesn't, for one reason or another, really take away from the experience. None of the extras do, in fact.
The OS continues to run smoothly across the board. And everything that isn't necessarily wanted is kept well out of the way, where it can be accessed or ignored. Or uninstalled entirely.
Audio here isn't too powerful but also isn't tinny
For audio, the Redmi 9 only packs a single bottom-firing speaker. That is, for most smartphones, an immediate death sentence. After all, this is smartphone hardware. And that means tiny speakers with very little power and no bottom end. Or at least it should.
Under review, the audio from Redmi 9 came across surprisingly well in most genres. The sole exception, mostly due to personal preference since I prefer pounding bass in songs that feature it, was bass hues. The tones are well-represented but lack punch and power. They don't necessarily get lost, except at the highest volumes. But depth is lacking across the board.
Audio is, in a word, balanced. The details and even some of the depth of more complex tracks shine through better than one might expect at under $250.
But that's not how people are going to listen to music on their smartphones, to begin with.
Redmi 9 also packs a headphone jack and Bluetooth 5.0. Both of those perform as expected. Audio comes through clearly, with all the precision that's come to be expected from a modern smartphone. All lending to a much more enjoyable experience than the built-in speaker can provide. But I also didn't mind listening to the speaker when push came to shove.
And, as noted above, call quality was on par with the majority of the better flagships I've used.
Connectivity is as expected without 5G
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I maintained a solid 4G connection throughout my review of the Redmi 9. Although bars did drop, as expected, indoors. When I was outside or on-the-go, however, connectivity worked as well as any other smartphone that's meant for my network.
Of course, this is not a US-geared smartphone. And GSM or 4G LTE are the only supported network types. So this phone would not work, necessarily, on every carrier. At least not without provisioning, where the bands are supported. For carriers that do fully support unlocked phones, the experience is going to be great.
For my test, Google Fi was used. That's an MVNO making use of T-Mobile and US Cellular towers. As well as Sprint's remaining network infrastructure.
The experience on mobile data was, as noted above, great. I was able to make calls and send texts, download apps, and browse normally. Calls came through clearly, allowing both myself and the person I called to be heard without problems. The same held true for headsets attached via the 3.5mm port. And for Bluetooth. Wi-Fi calls worked as expected too. And, of course, so did speakerphone calls.
The headphone jack enables FM Radio too when plugged in.
On the Bluetooth front, this phone utilizes version 5.0. So the range is going to be better than might be expected for those coming from older devices. In terms of Wi-Fi, that's a dual-band affair. Redmi 9 supports WiFi 802.11 b/g/n across 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks. It also supports Wi-Fi Direct and NFC.
All of which performed flawlessly in my test. And at the same speeds that I'd expect on my network from any handset not supporting 5G networking.
So what's the takeaway here?
As discussed right at the introduction, Redmi 9 is built to fill a niche at the lower-priced end of the market. That niche is for phones that don't necessarily offer the most future-forward technologies or features. But this phone, as we've covered, offers a significant amount of that anyway.
Best of all, Redmi 9 accomplishes that in a well-built package that feels great in-hand. And comes in some fairly novel but clean-looking colors.
Aesthetics aside, the performance here is not on point. It's not even close. Instead, it surpasses the point of a phone at its price — within reason. There's no lag in inputs and no latency in application response either, even if those do take a bit longer to boot up. Where that does begin to fall apart is with the camera, primarily because of missing features that have long-since become standard.
And it's on points like that where the Redmi 9 fails to gain appreciation as a 5-star rated device. It comes close. But between the cameras and the charging speed, the lack of any ingress protection, and other points noted above, it doesn't quite make it there.
Now, if we ask whether that means this device is any less worthy of purchase, the answer is a resounding "no." Redmi 9 should absolutely be on the shortlist for any buyer looking for a smartphone in the sub-$250 range.