Xiaomi Redmi Note series is among the most popular smartphones sold in India. The proof of that popularity and associated sales can be adjusted from familiarity. Yesterday, while heading back home from work in a Mumbai local, one person asked me if it was a Redmi Note 9 Pro in my hand. This person judged the device simply by looking at the back panel. He even asked how I got the device when it goes on sale today. Honestly, this was not how I planned to start this review, but it was a surreal experience.
There are few devices which enjoy similar brand value and recognition among consumers. Apple iPhone tops that list and Redmi Note might be a close second. So, like clockwork, we now have the Redmi Note 9 Pro from Xiaomi. The smartphone is more of a successor to the Redmi Note 7 Pro than the Redmi Note 8 Pro. Also, the device shows that a six months refresh cycle is the new normal among smartphone makers.
While obvious comparisons have been drawn between Redmi Note 9 Pro and Realme 6 series, I think Xiaomi’s challenge is bigger than that. The real challenge is to prove that it has got the pedigree to surprise and innovate. After using Redmi Note 9 Pro for over a week, I can say, it has surprised me in a big way. So, let’s find out how in this review.
Xiaomi Redmi Note 9 Pro or Max: Which one should you buy?
This is the easiest cookie to crack. You should not even consider getting Redmi Note 9 Pro Max unless you want 8GB RAM and 128GB storage. For most people, I would suggest Redmi Note 9 Pro with 6GB RAM and 128GB storage would be ideal. This is also the variant Xiaomi loaned us for the review. I don’t see a lot of upside with that 64-megapixel camera, and the 16-megapixel selfie camera is good enough. With that addressed, let’s dive into what makes the Redmi Note 9 Pro, the new default in the Redmi Note family.
Xiaomi is calling the Redmi Note 9 Pro as Pro Cameras Max Performance. For me, the obvious place to start would be the cameras. On the back, Xiaomi has equipped the Redmi Note 9 Pro with a quad-camera setup. At the front, there is a 16-megapixel shooter inside a punch hole design. I like this selfie camera for its ability to capture details and keep the faces in focus. It sometimes puts too much emphasis on the foreground than the background, but it never seemed to be a bother. In comparison to Redmi Note 8, which I reviewed back in October, this selfie camera is a definite improvement.
But you will be spending most of your time using the quad rear camera setup. There are two ways to do smartphone cameras right now. The first way is to cram all the hardware goodness into a single package like Samsung did with the Galaxy S20 Ultra. The second way is to take the best image sensors, pair them with a great ISP, and then take it a notch further using software. This is the method adopted first by Google and later by Apple. This is also the route Xiaomi seems to have taken with the Redmi Note 9 Pro.
While 64-megapixel sensors are the new rage in the smartphone market, Xiaomi chose a 48-megapixel sensor instead. However, by choosing Samsung ISOCELL Bright GM2 sensor, Xiaomi has demonstrated it can experiment. This sensor was released alongside the 64-megapixel ISOCELL Bright GW1 in May last year. As a result, it comes with features like a remosaic algorithm for brightly lit situations and pixel merging Tetracell technology to improve low-light photography. It also adopts Dual Conversion Gain (DCG) for converting received light into an electronic signal.
Enough of the technicalities, and in short the results definitely shocked me. The images shot with the Redmi Note 9 Pro look great for its price. In some cases the results pleasantly surprise you. Then Xiaomi used software to introduce features that are simply a step in the right direction. During the launch, Anuj Sharma, Head of Marketing at Xiaomi India, spoke about color science. I won’t say that Xiaomi has nailed color science here but it has tweaked the sensor in a good way. The ISOCELL Bright GM1 was not a great sensor but GM2 is a marked improvement.
As you can see in the image above, the texture of the grey background is distinctly shown from the text in red and blue. There is no unnecessary color binding happening in this picture. This is possible because of the updated phase detection autofocus of this sensor. The 48-megapixel image does not capture a lot of detail when compared to the 12-megapixel pixel binned image. The dynamic range is also better and the Redmi Note 9 Pro tries hard to ensure that the sky looks natural.
During the day, I did not see a lot of oversharpening in the image. As you can see in the results above, there is a natural distinction between shadows and highlights. The sensor is greatly helped by Qualcomm Spectra 350L image signal processor. The 64-megapixel Samsung ISOCELL Bright GW1 is not a great sensor. In comparison, the 64-megapixel Sony IMX686 found on the Poco X2 is impressive. Now, Xiaomi has shown the way for other smartphone makers to use the ISOCELL Bright GM2 sensor for their primary camera.
While the main camera is impressive, the 8-megapixel ultra-wide is not. The ultra wide-angle camera has 120-degrees field of view and equivalent focal length of 13mm. The big compromise here is the narrow f/2.2 aperture. The pictures look fine for most part, but they don’t have as much detail as the one seen with the standard camera. While the software does correct distortion, the focal length is too short for proper results. The primary camera is so good that the ultra wide-angle camera fails to match it.
Similarly, there is also a software-based telephoto support for 2x hybrid zoom. The results again are not that great, but only usable if you ever want to get a bit closer to your subject. The Redmi Note 8 had a decent macro camera and Redmi Note 9 Pro is a serious improvement. It gets a new 5-megapixel shooter with focusing distance of between 2cm to 10cm. As a result, you can not only get closer but also capture details. With the macro camera, I was able to capture details of cherry and almond in a way that I could not have done otherwise.
The fourth shooter is primarily for depth sensing and it has a real use here. The portrait mode on the Redmi Note 9 Pro is a huge step up, and Xiaomi uses software for the new ‘movie mode’. In this mode, you can capture portraits with black bar at the top and bottom. Yes, it aims to emulate the feeling of using an anamorphic lens and the result is fascinating. This is one feature I would want every smartphone maker to add it to their primary camera interface.
Xiaomi claims that Redmi Note 9 Pro offers Night Mode 2.0, which has better algorithms to capture detailed pictures in low-light scenarios. However, in my personal experience, I did not see a lot of improvement. The night shots are decent, but you will still need light to produce a really great picture. The final result is still not in the league of Pixel or iPhone and that’s the reason why Redmi Note 9 Pro is inexpensive. The tweaks introduced by Xiaomi also extend to the video department.
You can shoot video in the above mentioned movie mode, which gives you a 21:9 aspect ratio. There is also support for 8-bit LOG with smooth zooming and super stabilization. Other features include slow-motion and short video for the TikTok generation. In a nutshell, Xiaomi has really designed a pro camera for the budget price segment. It is now a real challenge for other smartphone makers to not only match it but do better.
Performance and Battery Life
Xiaomi Redmi Note 9 Pro is the second smartphone in the country with Qualcomm Snapdragon 720G mobile platform. This is a new processor built on an 8nm process node with Kryo 465 CPU cores and up to 2.3GHz clock speeds. There is 4GB or 6GB of RAM and 64GB or 128GB internal storage. It also gets an Adreno 618 graphics processor, which is the same as Snapdragon 730G mobile platform. The performance is identical to that of Poco X2, which has a Snapdragon 730G chip.
I did not notice any slowdown during the duration of this review. In fact, it was ideal for regular use cases which involved WhatsApp messages, Facebook, Instagram and other social networks. Even if you are playing games like PUBG, the frame rates remain the same as that seen on the Poco X2. As you can see in the screenshot above, I got around 56 and 58 frames per second while playing PUBG Mobile. Even with games like Real Racing 3 or Asphalt 9, the consistency was excellent.
Since most games are yet to take advantage of 120Hz display, the frame rates we saw are in-line with the capability of the device. While playing PUBG Mobile, I noticed the device got warm, but it never so hot that I could not touch it. In most situations, it cooled as soon as I exited the game. Another advantage of this chip is the NavIC support, which is great if you use navigation a lot. I tested the GPS near Marine Drive last week, where the Redmi Note 9 Pro latched onto my location faster than another device I had at that time.
It still does not seem to take advantage of all the seven satellites but it is definitely faster. The fact that Redmi Note 9 Pro has the biggest battery yet on any Redmi smartphone gives you additional peace of mind. In my time with the smartphone, I averaged over five hours of screen-on time with heavy use. On normal days, I went to bed with more than 30 percent battery left. With Snapdragon 720G and big 5,020mAh battery, the Redmi Note 9 Pro is one of the well-rounded smartphones under Rs 15,000 in India right now.
Design, Display and Software
The Redmi Note 9 Pro comes with a new design language called Aura balance. The idea here is to bring balance to the aura design that was introduced with the Redmi Note 7 series. In the case of Redmi Note 9 Pro, you get Corning Gorilla Glass 5 at the front as well as rear. Our review is the Interstellar Black variant and it does not exactly look black. Depending on the light, it’s hue varies from black to silver to blue. It is really cool to see but it is also smudge prone and you will have no option but to put a case on it.
The device weighs 209 grams, but the weight distribution is so even that you don’t feel the heft of this device. At the front, there is a 6.67-inch IPS LCD display with 60Hz refresh rate and 120Hz touch sampling. This display is identical to the one seen on the Poco X2, but lacks 120Hz refresh rate and has a single punch-hole placed at the center. As I observed in my first impressions, I did not miss the 120Hz display on the Poco X2. This display, for me, was good enough. It has good color accuracy and is vibrant under direct sunlight as well.
The side-mounted fingerprint sensor is quick to unlock and is easy to reach. However, the volume rocker above this fingerprint sensor is not that easy to reach. This could have gone to the left hand side of the device. Xiaomi has also updated the haptics and is using the Z-axis linear motor. After using the device, I could see the difference. The haptics on the Redmi Note 9 Pro are linear and quick when comparing to something like Redmi Note 8. It is not as great as the iPhone 11 series, but Xiaomi knows the taptic engine is hard to match.
One area where Xiaomi seems to be lagging right now is software. MIUI 11 is fine, but it is reaching borderline creepy in terms of behavior. For example, as soon as you get the device, you need to disable push notifications from Mi Video, Mi Music and other applications. There is even a new app called Zili for funny videos, and I am not sure why Xiaomi is forcing this app on its customers. Among all the apps bundled by Xiaomi, the Mi Browser is one I would not like kids to see.
The contents suggested by Mi Browser can range from funny to creepy in a matter of seconds. Some of the pictures shown are revealing and makes you wonder if such content can even pass a screening system. I get the point that Xiaomi needs to make money through ads and such content tie-ups but Mi Browser needs serious rework. From my point of view, MIUI is a big letdown in the face of competitive hardware.
Verdict: Should you buy?
After using the Redmi Note 9 Pro for more than a week, I can say that this is the best Redmi Note device yet from the Chinese smartphone maker. It is so good that some of its limitations like the software can be overlooked. The three pillars of this device are design, cameras and performance. It does not disappoint in any of these areas. When we got the Redmi Note 8 Pro last year, we thought it’s successor won’t be a big update. However, I think we were not only wrong, but that too by a huge margin. The smartphone market has reached a point where innovation now comes in small hardware tweaks and software updates.
In the case of Redmi Note 9 Pro, Xiaomi has shown that it can do incremental hardware updates well and then add software features like movie mode as a topping. On paper alone, the Redmi Note 9 Pro is a tough sell against the Realme 6 Pro but it is also cheaper. The Redmi Note 9 Pro with 6GB RAM and 128GB storage costs Rs 14,999. Realme 6 Pro with 6GB RAM and 128GB storage will set you back by Rs 18,999. Xiaomi wins here not because of its hardware but because of its familiarity and brand recognition.