(Pocket-lint) - Redmi is the affordable arm of smartphone giant Xiaomi. We say affordable, but Xiaomi is already an affordable brand compared to some stalwarts like Apple or Samsung, meaning that Redmi is known for offering very good value for money.

The Note family is one of the most popular that Redmi offers. We've no idea why it's called the Note, it's nothing like the Note that Samsung offers, it's just a great phone that offers great value for money.

Premium design

  • Dimensions: 162.3 x 77.2 x 8.9mm / Weight: 199g
  • Punch-hole camera in display
  • 3.5mm headphone jack

Look at the Redmi Note 9 and it's hard to spot that this isn't a flagship device. The colourful and glossy exterior brings with it a quality design, but in this case the rear plastic bodywork wraps around the edges to meet the display. 

There's a seamless quality to it, but this is a big phone, something that's predicated by the 6.5-inch display. At the same time, Redmi has been careful to keep the bezels to a minimum, the front camera sitting in a neat punch-hole to the top left, keeping things generally tidy.

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There's no IP-level waterproofing at this level of device, but it does get P2i's nano-level water protection. That means the components are coated to repel water and avoid damage. While that's not the same as stopping water and dust ingress, it can provide protection against an accidental dunk. 

There's only a single speaker on the bottom - common on devices in this bracket - but it's accompanied by a 3.5mm headphone socket so you can, at least, connect your headphones for a better audio experience. However, that speaker hole is very easy to cover when you're gaming, muting the sound as a result.

What dominates the rear of the phone is the camera housing. Four lenses sit in a central cluster, slightly raised, and beneath is the fingerprint scanner. While many may have moved to offer under-display scanners, there's no avoiding that rear scanners still work reliably, even if they make for a slightly less sophisticated design. Here we like the implementation: this fingerprint scanner is fast and reliable, in many cases better than the under-display scanners you'll get in a flagship phone.

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The Note 9 is a little on the thick and weighty side, but some of that is explained by the big battery inside. What we like the most is that this phone feels serious: the lack of glass doesn't bother us; that weight brings a robust feel.

Specs and core hardware

  • MediaTek Helio G85, 3/4GB RAM
  • 64/128GB + microSD (up to 512GB)
  • 5,020mAh battery, 18W fast charging 

While flagship phones all have a very similar hardware loadouts, there's a lot more variance lower down the range. The Redmi Note 9 moves over to MediaTek for its hardware, but things aren't quite that simple, as the Redmi Note 9S and Note 9 Pro have Qualcomm hardware instead - so you can see how Redmi is using different manufacturers to leverage its pricing.

For this regular Note 9, the MediaTek Helio G85 sits at its heart and that's broadly equivalent to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 700 platform (which the 9S and Pro each offer). The important thing here, however, is that this is a step above most other phones at this price, which might have a Helio P22 or Snapdragon 600.

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That sets the Redmi Note 9 off to a great advantage, because it's naturally more powerful. Moving into the Note 9 from the Sony Xperia L4 - which almost exactly the same price - there's a world of difference in its performance. While this phone isn't quite as powerful as flagship phones, apps are fast to open and you can still play all the latest games.

For example, load up Call of Duty Mobile or PUBG Mobile and it's a decent experience. We've been getting those chicken dinners in PUBG Mobile, where some lower power phones just don't seem to be able to keep up. Yes, you can't play on the higher graphics settings, but you still get a smooth gameplay experience. That's important because this is an affordable phone that doesn't leave you feeling like you're missing out.

There are two different versions of the Note 9 to choose: the most affordable has 3GB RAM and 64GB storage; the model we're testing here has 4GB RAM and 128GB for a modest price bump. But both support microSD so can be easily expanded by buying a card. Both also support dual SIM, although there's no 5G - not that that's going to be a huge problem for many people.

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Then there's battery life. There's a huge 5,020mAh cell in the Redmi Note 9 - which accounts for some of the size and weight. There's also 18W fast charging with a 22.5W charger in the box - again, it's great to have these fast charging features on an affordable phone. That will see the Redmi Note 9 last through two days of use - and for power users, you're much less likely to need to reach for a charger in the middle of the day. 

What does reveal itself is that pushing that hardware hard - like with those intensive games - will see a bigger battery drop than you might get on more powerful devices. But compare the battery life to something like the Samsung Galaxy S20+ and the Redmi wins as it just has better endurance.

Display

  • 6.53-inch LCD panel
  • 2340 x 1080 pixels (394ppi)

The most important thing about the Note 9 display is the size and the resolution, because it brings with it Full HD+ detail where many rivals will only be 720p (or 'HD'). That pushes the pixel density up, so this display is sharper than the iPhone SE and content on it looks great.

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This isn't an AMOLED display, but at this price you're still getting a nice vibrancy and colours from the LCD panel. The Redmi's peak brightness is 450 nits and that means it doesn't quite cut through reflections like some Samsung phones will. At top brightness things look a little forced and you lose some colours and definition as a result. 

However, the autobrightness isn't as responsive as we'd like and we've spent plenty of time adjusting this phone's brightness to suit, especially when gaming. There'a a Game Turbo option that will swing in to optimise the experience - including turning off autobrightness when you open a game. That's great, but we still found - despite autobrightness being notionally turned off - that the brightness sometimes dipped and needed to be corrected. 

One other thing we have noticed is that the polarising layer is on the landscape plane, meaning that if you wear polarising glasses it will black out completely when viewed in that orientation, which is an inconvenience when using the camera.

Cameras

  • Quad rear cameras
    • Main: 48-megapixel, f/1.79 aperture
    • Wide: 8MP, f/2.2
    • Depth: 2MP
    • Macro: 2MP
  • Front-facing: 13MP, f/2.25

The Redmi Note 9's headline camera feature is the 48-megapixel sensor. We've seen a number of high-resolution sensors being used in lower-priced phones recently and we have mixed feelings about them. More megapixels does not necessarily equate to better images so you can pretty much dismiss the 48MP being as such - as the default output is a 12-megapixel photo (unless you engage the 48MP mode). 

The main sensor means there are not especially large 'pixels' on its surface (0.8µm), but the four-in-one methodology means these effectively combine into a larger equivalent (1.6µm) - the argument being that it can then give you more data to draw from for better results at the 12MP output.

Combining the pixels doesn't give super low-light performance though, although there is a night mode that takes a longer exposure to give you some low light options.

That 48MP sensor should also benefit digital zooming because you can crop closer, but it doesn't give you much more usable detail, so seems a little pointless.

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There's no optical zoom here, although the viewfinder in the camera app will let you click through to 2x zoom, or out to 0.6x zoom which is the wide-angle camera. The wide angle is fun, although a little soft towards the edges, but does provide some variety when composing your photos. There's digital zoom up to 10x.

This is Redmi's AI supported camera - that's artificial intelligence - where there's some roll down of technology from Xiaomi's phones. While this does a good job of detecting what it's looking at, in many cases that seems to make no difference to the photo you get. It's also a toggle option, so you have to turn it on or it's doing nothing. 

What's nice is that you'll get a label appear in the app when something is happening. Take HDR (high dynamic range) as an example - leave it on auto and when it's applying an HDR effect, an HDR label will appear. That's also an indicator of when things aren't happening and again. Again, HDR is the perfect example: it's reluctant to swing in unless it's an extreme HDR case and that's probably because it's not actually very effective, basically lifting shadows and losing some of the natural colour and contrast. 

What this really amounts to is a camera system that's not really using the AI skills it purports to offer. Where some cameras will give a boost or pop to photos, the Redmi Note 9 doesn't really go that far. That means photos taken in good conditions can be a little flat and dull, something that a bit of tweaking after you've taken them can make a lot better.

However, given the phone's price point, a lot of this is perfectly fine - you need to put it in the context of a phone double the price to really get something that's smarter, like the Google Pixel 3a

There's also a macro sensor to make up the numbers and this is easily the weakest part of the camera system: the photos almost look like water colours given their lack of detail, especially if there's any sort of background to the object you're taking a picture of. The main camera won't focus anywhere near as close as the macro, however, so it does give you some more options.

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The depth sensor will attempt to enable the bokeh mode - software-made background blur - and that works to an extent, although it only really seems to be effective with portraits, which are reasonable. There's some extreme beauty mode available, which doensn't rely on seeing a face - you can use it to smooth out the fur of your dog, for example. 

Ironically, the portrait mode also works pretty well on the front camera where there's only one lens, which begs the question of whether the depth sensor is essential on the rear camera? We'd say probably not. The front camera is average overall, best in good light and quickly losing colour and sharpness as the light drops. That's pretty common on this level of phone.

Video tops out at 1080p and although there's video stabilisation, it's not great and won't smooth out motion like footsteps that some higher-spec phones will.

Overall, Redmi has followed the trend for adding a lot of cameras and shouting about a lot of camera tech that doesn't really lift the offering. Yes, it's great that you appear to be getting a lot for your money with a 48-megapixel quad-camera system, and there's a lot to play with here, but don't fall into the trap of believing that this is going to rival the camera systems on more expensive phones.

Software 

  • Android 10 with MIUI 11

The Redmi Note 9 comes with the latest version of Android, layered with Xiaomi's latest software - MIUI 11 - although we're expecting the roll-out of MIUI 12 to take place from the end of June 2020 onwards, including updates in some areas.

MIUI has come on leaps and bounds in the past few years, but it brings with it a lot of changes from the sort of stock experience you might get with a Nokia phone running Android One.

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That means you have to deal with a lot of pre-installed junk that you can't get rid of, like some really tedious games and apps that duplicate a lot of the services that Google already provides. That's a hangover from serving parts of the world where Google services aren't provided, i.e. China. That means there's three browsers, two galleries, additional video, music and office apps, many of which you'll probably never bother using.

Aside from those things, it doesn't take long to wrestle MIUI into some sort of shape. It's a little intrusive by default, but there are plenty of selections you can make to get it singing sweetly and start behaving like an Android phone again. But none of that really invades the core experience here and there's support for some things that you don't get on other budget devices - like NFC for example. 

We've found the software to run smoothly overall, as we said above, and there's very little sign that you're using a budget device until you try to push the phone hard. For those using social media or browsing emails, this phone is as capable as any other, which is a good thing indeed.

Verdict

What really comes through inthe Redmi Note 9 is the quality of the design, the great battery life, and how much power you get. Yes, it's sitting on MediaTek hardware that some might not be that excited about, but in reality it's perfectly capable and will deliver on the apps you want it to.

The software offers a lot, but there's no avoiding the bloat that comes with this phone. While Nokia and Motorola offer cleaner Android experiences, it's not too hard to tailor this phone to your needs. The camera system also gives you a lot to play with, but it's a little oversold. The danger is that you might want to believe it's better than it actually is, because of that big 'quad cameras' claim - when it's only really the main sensor that holds much potential. Again, it's competitive at this price point - but easily bettered if you have a little more money to spend.

The battery life is excellent and it's combined with an above average display for this class of phone. That's to its credit, because these are elements that genuinely matter.

Ultimately, there are many reasons to consider the Redmi Note 9. This is a great budget phone, delivering a lot of performance for your money.

Alternatives to consider

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Motorola Moto G8

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The Moto G has been the budget phone to beat for a long time and the G8 doesn't disappoint. It has cleaner software with less bloat than the Redmi Note 9, but in head-to-head specs, it's the Redmi that comes out on top - but the Moto does have Qualcomm hardware.

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Realme 5

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Realme is the budget arm of Oppo, offering plenty for your money in this category. Again, it can't stand-up on the spec sheet compared to the Redmi Note 9, but does come with Qualcomm hardware. 

Writing by Chris Hall.