Xiaomi Redmi Note 9S full review
Xiaomi's Redmi line has always been synonymous with astonishing value, and the new Redmi Note 9S that was announced in late March is yet another blinder from the Chinese firm. In India this phone is known as the Redmi Note 9 Pro.
This sub-£200 smartphone packs a massive 5,020mAh battery that promises up to two-day life, along with some decent core hardware and photography smarts that would be more at home in the mid-range.
Following on from the class-leading Redmi Note 7 and Redmi Note 8T before it, the Note 9S is another contender that will fly high in our best budget phone rankings - but, in 2020, it faces stiff competition from the Realme 6 and Xiaomi's own Redmi Note 8T.
Redmi Note 9S has now been joined by the Redmi Note 9 and Redmi Note 9 Pro. Read our Redmi Note 9 review.
Design - Seeing Red(mi)
Each new Redmi phone comes with a still very Xiaomi but slightly refined design. Here, with Redmi Note 9S, we've moved away from the screen notch we've seen in previous generations to a new 'Dot Drop' display. This involves a tiny cutout at the top of the display for the selfie camera, while the speaker is easy to miss at the very top of the display tucked into the frame, leaving all else free for screen, screen and more screen.
And what a lot of screen there is. At 6.67in, you know why Xiaomi refers to this Redmi phone as a 'Note' model. But while it's on the large side, the phone itself is not unwieldy.
With an impressive 91% screen-to-body ratio and a tall 20:9 aspect, the Note 9S is comfortable to hold in one hand, if a little difficult to reach your thumb right across the screen and operate without resorting to two hands.
It's also on the heavy side at 209g, which is thanks to a generous battery inside, but a reasonably slim 8.8mm chassis and rounded edges at the rear help keep things manageable.
A large body combined with a slippery surface might mean it is more likely to fall from your grip, but protective Gorilla Glass 5 goes a long way to shielding it from damage. A clear silicone case is also supplied in the box, which will help stave off some of the fingerprints that the mirror-finish body attracts.
There's a slightly odd contrast between the high-gloss rear panel and the matte plastic frame. We're not sure if we like or dislike it. It's interesting.
The screen itself is difficult to fault, plenty bright under even direct sunlight, with Xiaomi claiming a rating of 450 nits. Colours are realistic, viewing angles are good, and the Full-HD+ resolution is pin-sharp. But we do miss the vibrance and deep blacks of OLED that you see higher up Xiaomi's range, with this model instead using an IPS panel.
Do note that this is a 60Hz panel, whereas the Realme 6 is the currently the cheapest phone to support a faster refresh rate of 90Hz. Many of today's flagships are now specifying 120Hz. (Read more about what this means.)
The design on the whole is pleasing, and we particularly like the Aurora Blue finish of our review sample. Redmi Note 9S is also available in Glacier White and Interstellar Grey.
There are a few nice extra touches, which are becoming increasingly rare on more expensive phones, from the IR blaster at the top to the dedicated 3.5mm headphone jack at the bottom, which means if you want something more personal than blasting out audio from the phone's mono speaker you can simultaneously charge the Redmi and listen to music without having to fiddle around with adaptors.
The slot-loading SIM tray at top left also deserves a special mention, not only able to accommodate both a microSD card (up to 512GB) and two nano-SIMs, without forcing you to make a choice between extra storage and a second phone number, but both those SIM slots support 4G.
On that, the Redmi Note 9S does not support 5G networks, and NFC for making mobile payments is also sorely missing, but all other connectivity bases are covered with dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi with 2x2 MIMO, GPS and Bluetooth 5.0. If you do want NFC you might want to instead consider the Realme 6 or Redmi Note 8T, which are two very close competitors.
While in-display fingerprint sensors are all the range for smartphones higher up the food chain, and are increasingly creeping into cheaper models, Redmi Note 9S instead has a sensor built into its power button on the side - something we first saw in the Sony Xperia line.
We actually really like this positioning, arguably more so than when it appears in the display, because it's just such a natural action to pick up your phone and press the power button to wake the screen, and without even realising it you're unlocking it and ready to go. Easy.
But for all we love about the Redmi Note 9S' design, there is one element that is difficult to overlook, and that's the chunky square quad-lens camera module jutting out at the rear. Perhaps if the phone was also black it might jar less, but in our opinion it really detracts from the overall design.
That it is centrally sited is a good thing for stability when using the phone on a flat surface such as a desk, but we much prefer the look of the vertical assembly at top left on both Realme 6 and Redmi Note 8T.
Battery - Wow
The key selling point of this phone is arguably its battery. This is a massive 5,020mAh cell and, given the budget- to mid-range hardware inside this phone, it could easily last you up to two days, depending on your usage.
If you are someone who is always picking up your phone, it at least ensures a full day's life, from the moment you wake to the time you close your eyes at night, without you ever having to reach for a power bank.
The Redmi Note 9S actually recorded the longest battery life we've ever seen in the Geekbench 4 battery test, with a score of 15 hours 3 minutes. It's a synthetic benchmark rather than real-world testing, but that score is incredible.
But this is a budget phone, so it does lack the wireless-, reverse wireless-, and super-speedy wired charging of some more premium models. Whereas the Realme 6 can support up to 30W wired charging, this Redmi Note 9S maxes out at 18W - which, to be fair, is still plenty fast.
In the box you get a faster 22.5W charger, which feels as though it should be a good thing, but in reality it's only going to impress if you have another gadget capable of accepting that faster input.
Using the supplied charger we managed to get to 36% charge in 30 minutes, which is significant when you consider the high capacity of the battery. However, do not that in the box came a European two-pin plug, so we needed to use a three-pin adaptor with it for testing.
Performance - Punching
Xiaomi's Redmi Note 9S might be a budget phone, but its performance is decidedly mid-range - faster than the likes of the Google Pixel 3a and Samsung Galaxy A70, if falling short of the Galaxy S10 Lite.
Its on-paper specifications suggest it should sit somewhere in between the Realme 6 and Realme 6 Pro, with the same 4GB allocation of memory as the standard model (at least in our review sample - it's also available with 6GB), but the 2.3GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 720G processor of the Pro.
Weirdly, in the Geekbench 5 processing performance test, it outperformed both models, but not by enough that you might actually perceive a difference in the real world. Yet it performed less well in the older Geekbench 4 test, so it's really swings and roundabouts, and just goes to show how much you should rely on synthetic benchmarks.
In our own real-world testing performance was flawless, and though this is some way off top-end models that cost four or five times the price, casual users won't feel as though they are sacrificing anything.
As you're navigating your way around the phone you may spot that Xiaomi has also upgraded the haptic feedback (vibration) engine, which makes it feel more responsive.
Graphics tests using GFXBench showed all three phones pretty much on par. You can see the full results in the chart above.
Cameras & Photography - Quad Squad
Xiaomi is buying into the idea that customers are easily swayed by both the number of camera lenses and the number of megapixels offered. This budget phone has a 16Mp selfie camera on the front, and becomes a fully paid up member of the Quad Squad with its four rear camera lenses.
Headlining here is a 48Mp lens, but don't presume all four are so highly rated. There's also an 8Mp ultra-wide lens, a 5Mp Macro camera, and a 2Mp depth sensor. So it's basically the same camera as on the Redmi Note 8T, but with an upgraded Macro lens.
As with many of its high-megapixel phones, Xiaomi uses pixel binning to combine the information from four individual pixels into one super pixel, so the resulting shots are actually 12Mp. Unless you're planning on sticking them up on a billboard, this will be plenty. If you really want massive photos, there is a 48Mp shooting mode, but expect much lower-quality results.
As you can see from the photo slideshow below (click the image to scroll through some of our test shots), images shot on a nice bright, sunny day turn out pretty well at first glance. Colours are generally realistic, if a touch over-saturated, but it's only when you zoom right in you notice that images are actually rather grainy, and not sharp right to the edges.
The camera app is generally easy to use, and you can swap between standard Photo, the aforementioned 48Mp, Portrait, Night, Panorama and Pro modes, but this being an AI camera the general idea is to point and shoot. If you're a keen photographer you won't love this phone camera, but for most people it will easily suffice - and especially at this price.
The camera can also shoot 4K video at 30fps, and supports image stabilisation. There are both Slow Motion and Short Video shooting modes, in addition to the default Video mode.
Software - You and MIUI
As a long-time Xiaomi user, the MIUI interface has become so familiar to me that I barely blink an eye to its differences when compared to standard Android. Fact is, MIUI is Android, but with a custom interface that we've come to prefer. The Redmi Note 9S runs the latest MIUI 11 OS, which is based on Android 10.
It's fair to say the two have come much closer together in recent years, but still one of the first things you'll notice on MIUI is that there is no app tray, with all shortcuts sprawled out on the home screen. The latest version of MIUI 11 is said to include an option for an app drawer, but it was not available on this review sample, running MIUI 11.0.6.
Most Android custom interfaces seem to take this approach, and if you've ever used an iPhone you might even prefer it. The setup certainly makes it less likely that you wind up with hundreds of apps you installed and forgot about buried somewhere deep in the app tray.
There are also some differences in the layout of the Settings menu (a search bar makes it easy to find what you need), but really the main difference is in the preinstalled apps and the extra functionality offered by MIUI.
You'll find Xiaomi's own apps for things like Themes, Security, Cleaner, Music, Mi Video, Notes, Weather, Mi Store, Mi Community and more. This isn't bloatware, but you might decide they're not for you. And that's okay, just don't use them. Stick them all in a folder so they don't get in your way. You don't really need to worry about the storage space they consume, with 64GB as standard and 128GB as an option.
The MIUI Global ROM supports full Google services, including Google Play out of the box, so it's easy to install any apps you wish to use. We had no issues with compatibility, and actually find MIUI easier to use for managing such things as App Permissions. The Google Discover panel, a swipe in from the left of the home screen, can also be toggled on and off.
MIUI really comes into its own when you come to things like Dual Apps and Second Space, allowing you to run two separate instances of any app installed on the phone (very handy if you're using two SIMs), or to cordon off a section of the phone for tucking away out of sight apps and media.
If you are struggling with the size of the display you can also access One-handed mode or Quick Ball, both long-term components of MIUI. The former shrinks down the tappable area of the display to put everything in easy reach of your thumb, and the latter gives easy access to frequent functions.
But if you really want to celebrate the sheer size of this screen, you can also hide away the onscreen navigational buttons and find your way through the operating system using gestures alone.
Redmi Note 9S also benefits from a system-wide Dark Mode under MIUI 11, and you can switch on Quick Replies that allow you to directly respond to messages within the notification drop-down. Something that is missing here in this budget model is the Always-on Display functionality, however.
Do budget phones get better than this?
Even for someone who routinely reviews Chinese smartphones, it's still difficult to fathom just how much phone you can get for so little money - literally and figuratively.
Go back only a few years and buying a budget phone would demand a compromise somewhere in its spec, whether that be in performance or design, photography or battery power. Our harshest criticism of Redmi Note 9S is that it lacks NFC (which, actually, is pretty annoying if you're hoping to use it for mobile payments).
This phone is not flawless, but for a relatively small amount of money Xiaomi has assembled a handset that boasts a stylish, premium design, plenty of power for everyday tasks, a reasonably decent camera and a long-lasting battery. So it's interesting that Redmi Note 9S is only the second-best budget phone to grace the doors of the Tech Advisor Test Centre.
Realme's decision to massively undervalue its budget line in no way detracts from the awesome package offered by the best cheap Xiaomi phone we've seen to date. Regardless, it's difficult to ignore what you'll get from Realme for only a little extra cash - and actually, when the Xiaomi Redmi Note 9S officially goes on sale in the UK, it's likely that the tables will be turned and it will cost £30 more than the Realme 6.
If the Redmi's lack of NFC is a problem, the Realme has it - along with a faster display refresh rate of 90Hz, a higher-rated 64Mp camera, faster 30W wired charging and a nicer design that is more in line with the Redmi Note 8T. You'll still prefer the Note 9S if battery life is your primary concern, however.
Where to buy Xiaomi Redmi Note 9S
Although Xiaomi has confirmed Redmi Note 9S will be coming to the UK and Europe, it's currently available to pre-order only in Europe, and the UK is still waiting for an on sale date and pricing. As is often the case with Xiaomi phone launches, we could be in for a long wait.
If the European pricing is anything to go by, we should be looking at around £249 for the 64GB model and £279 for 128GB. These phones will retail at €249 and €279 in Europe.
But you don't have to pay that much, and you don't have to wait.
It's possible to buy Redmi Note 9S from outside the UK, and make significant savings in doing so. GearBest lists the 64GB and 128GB models at £179.58 and £204.18 respectively, but coupon codes bring down those prices to £171.38 and £187.78, making even the top option some £30 cheaper than the £219 Realme 6.
Use GBREDMIN9S123 for the 64GB model, and GBNOTE9S456 for 128GB, but do note that these codes will work only for UK customers. Click here to buy Xiaomi Redmi Note 9S from GearBest.
These are the Global versions of Redmi Note 9S, and come preinstalled with full Google services and an English-language operating system out of the box. We strongly advise you against buying Chinese ROM versions, which will likely be listed at lower prices still.
A catch when buying from Chinese sites such as GearBest is that you may be asked to pay import duty upon the phone's arrival in the UK. This is calculated at 20% of whatever value is printed on your shipping paperwork. Even so, Redmi Note 9S offers phenomenal value.
The Redmi Note 9S (aka Redmi Note 9 Pro in India) might have had its thunder stolen by the equally awesome Realme 6, but it remains one of the best budget phones we've seen. This is a fantastic phone for less than £200, a real all-rounder with decent performance and cameras, as well as mind-blowing battery life. The Redmi recorded the longest time in the Geekbench 4 battery life test that we've seen to date.
We are not fans of the rear camera module, and the lack of NFC is an unexpected shame, but those niggles aside it ticks all our boxes at this price point.
In the next update we'd love to see waterproofing (the Redmi Note 9S is merely splashproof) and wireless - or at least faster wired - charging, which are gradually creeping into cheaper phones. To truly take on Realme it also needs a 90Hz display. But, for now, this is a fine example of not a lot of money very well spent.
Xiaomi Redmi Note 9S: Specs
- 6.67in Full-HD+ (2400x1080, 20:9) IPS Dot Display, 91% screen-to-body ratio, 450nits brightness, 1500:1 contrast, 84% NTSC, HDR10, Gorilla Glass 5, P2i splashproof nano coating
- MIUI 11.0.6
- 2.3GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 720G processor (8nm)
- 5th-gen Qualcomm AI engine
- Adreno 618 GPU
- 4GB/6GB RAM
- 64GB/128GB storage with up to 512GB microSD support
- dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi with 2x2 MIMO
- dual-4G Nano-SIM
- Bluetooth 5.0
- Quad-lens AI camera: 48Mp (f/1.79, 1.6um Super Pixel 4-in-1) + 8Mp ultra-wide (f/2.2, 1.12um) + 5Mp Macro (AF 2-10cm) + 2Mp depth sensor (1.75um), 4K video @30fps
- 16Mp punch-hole AI selfie camera
- 3.5mm headphone jack
- IR blaster
- Fingerprint sensor built into side-mounted power button
- 5020mAh non-removable battery
- 18W fast charging (22.5W fast charger in box)
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