Budget smartphones continue to close the gap with higher-end models in almost every way – even as the prices of flagship phones hit stratospheric heights.
Take Xiaomi’s latest Redmi Note 9S (available on Amazon and Shopee), which starts at $299 for its base 64GB model.
It has a trendy all-screen facade broken only by a hole-punch cutout for the selfie camera. Meanwhile, the phone’s curved glossy glass back is an attractive contrast with its matte sides.
It has a side-mounted fingerprint sensor located exactly where my middle finger would rest when my left hand is gripping the phone. The volume rocker above this sensor though requires me to adjust my grip to press.
Its 1,080p LCD screen is large and bright with good contrast. A dark mode, available in the settings, turns the background of compatible apps and webpages to black or dark grey for more comfortable viewing and to conserve battery power.
I really like Xiaomi’s haptic feedback. The vibration when tapping on the virtual keyboard is controlled, not overly strong. In fact, it is almost as good as the one on Google’s flagship Pixel 4 XL.
I was not as impressed with the Note 9S’ four rear cameras, which are housed in a big square camera module. The main camera is a 48-megaxpixel (MP) shooter that uses a Samsung image sensor. There is also an 8MP ultra-wide camera, a depth sensor for portrait shots and a macro camera for close-up photography.
Photos turned out more noisy than expected, especially when zoomed in. Switching from the default pixel-binning mode to the full 48MP version results in even grainier-looking images.
While the Note 9S has a night mode, the resulting images are only slightly better than the standard photo mode, with less overblown highlights from light sources.
For portrait shots, I found some artefacts at the edges of my subject, especially around the hair. You can adjust the amount of blurring or bokeh in the settings.
A major omission in the Note 9S is the near-field communication (NFC) function. This rules out the use of mobile contactless payments at checkout counters. As expected, the phone also lacks typical flagship features such as wireless charging and water resistance.
On the other hand, the Note 9S retains features that have been phased out in some higher-end phones, such as the 3.5mm headphone jack, microSD card slot and infrared blaster that can control devices such as air-conditioners.
With its mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 720G chipset, the Note 9S felt snappy and responsive while navigating the phone. But coming from using a flagship model with a smooth high refresh rate display, the Note 9S’s standard 60Hz screen feels choppy to me when I scroll through a webpage.
The Note 9S can last me around 1.5 days of normal use, thanks to its massive 5,020mAh battery. In our video-loop battery test, the phone clocked an uptime of 11hr 18min.
This battery is probably why the phone weighs a hefty 209 grams. It also takes over two hours to fully recharge the battery using the bundled charger, despite its 18W fast-charging feature.
The Note 9S is a budget-friendly smartphone that, except for its cameras, punches above its weight.
Good haptic feedback
Excellent battery life
PRICE: $299 (64GB), $349 (128GB, version tested)
PROCESSOR: Qualcomm Snapdragon 720G (Dual-core 2.3GHz, hexa-core 1.8GHz)
MAIN DISPLAY: 6.67-inch LCD, 2,400 x 1,080 pixels, 395 ppi pixel density
OPERATING SYSTEM: MIUI 11 (Android 10)
MEMORY: 128GB (microSD expandable up to 512GB), 6GB RAM
REAR CAMERAS: 48MP (f/1.8), 8MP ultra-wide (f/2.2, 119-degree), 5MP macro (f/2.4), 2MP depth (f/2.4)
FRONT CAMERA: 16MP (f/2.5)
VALUE FOR MONEY: 4.5/5
BATTERY LIFE: 5/5
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