When it comes to phones, £249 can’t get any more expensive – unless you’re a Realme. In addition to the smooth 90Hz AMOLED display, the new Realme 9 offers a lot of cash, including an in-display fingerprint sensor and a dizzyingly high-resolution rear camera.
Sounds good, but there is one problem. For the same price, you can get the Honor Magic 4 Lite or the Samsung Galaxy A32 5G, two phones that compete head-to-head with just about everything Realme’s low-budget offering has to offer. What’s more, they all include 5G. Realme 9 doesn’t. Unless you’re buying the Realme 9 5G, which has faster data speeds but is otherwise worse. Confused?
Realme’s decision to launch a 4G phone in a field full of 5G competition seems ill-advised — or that the Realme 9 is actually a phone that keeps things simple, gets the basics down, and makes a lot of sense for what’s still locked into a 4G contract ?
Design: Toffee Pennies
In true Realme style (after all, the brand’s mascot is a cat named Realmeow), the 9 could have a suitably quirky color option. It’s called Sunburst Gold, but to us it looks like a bunch of toffee penny wrappers have melted to the back. If that’s not your time, we Brits can also choose from Stargaze White, while a Meteor Black version is on sale in other regions.
The plastic body of the Realme 9 is just what we’ve come to expect from a hair under £250. We love the matte texture, and the plastic frame has a faux sandblasted metal finish with a hint of yellow — well represented on the bold coloured back panel. A thin, reasonably sized 6.4-inch screen that balances one-handed usability with a reassuring weight.
Wired headphone fans will be happy to find a 3.5mm port on the base, which sits alongside a USB-C port and mono speaker. It’s loud, but smaller than most stereo two-speaker alternatives. The power button is on the right, the volume buttons are on the left, and an in-display fingerprint scanner in the bottom center of the screen is responsive enough for us. Anyway, at least compared to other budget phones.
While the phone isn’t waterproof or dustproof, you do find a case in the box to save it should it slip out of your hand. Realme also includes a 33W fast charger and a USB-C cable.
Picture: smooth sailing
Once the hallmark of flagships, AMOLED screens are now standard across the entire smartphone price range. The Realme 9’s 6.4-inch Full HD panel is about the same price as £249.
It renders blacks with endless inky depth, and the colors are especially vibrant. Turn up the brightness, all the way up to 1000 nits, and you can expect good viewing angles. You need to go up at least one price range to get better results.
There’s a pre-installed screen protector on top of Gorilla Glass 5 that keeps the Realme 9’s display well-notched. It’s also highly customizable: jump into the settings menu and you can be finer, toggle how punchy everything looks, dial back, adjust white balance, and more.
The high refresh rate of 90Hz is a double-edged sword – but it has more to do with the phone’s power (or lack thereof). When the Realme 9 is running smoothly, the menu slides under your numbers. When it needs to think about what to do next, things get messy, going from super smooth to stuttering. Contrast.
Fortunately, this slowdown happens only a few times a day. But it still takes us away from the flagship fantasies we enjoy most of the time we spend on our phones.
Camera: afraid of the dark
The Realme 9 is the first phone we’ve seen to feature Samsung’s new 108MP camera sensor paired with a 26mm, f/1.8 wide-angle lens. A big pixel count doesn’t always mean a big camera sensor, and this sensor is physically smaller than previous 108MP jobs, including the OG version we saw on the Xiaomi Mi Note 10 a few years ago.
There’s also an 8 MP, f/2.2 ultra-wide-angle camera with a 120˚ field of view, and a 2MP prime macro camera. But honestly, the last one should be ignored except for the best-lit environments.
Photos taken in bright outdoor locations look good and are easily on par with similarly priced competitors. Colors are vibrant, skin tones look warm, and details are fair. Realme’s processing power has improved a lot over the past few years, so it doesn’t make pictures look as radioactive as they used to. Images look sharp when shot with a steady hand, but blurring can easily appear if there is slight camera shake.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re taking pictures with the main camera or the ultra-wide camera: as long as the light drops a little, the first thing to consider is sharpness. Dim the lights a little more and things start to get muddy.
You’ll struggle to get good photos on the Realme 9’s main camera at night, and unless the phone is stabilized, you can rule out the ultra-wide lens. A dedicated night mode is also a must.
The biggest disappointment is the 16MP selfie camera. Unless you let the phone blind you with a room-filling 1000-nit screen flash, the results will be especially rough indoors. Daylight-only selfies end up looking less than decent.
Performance: Memory and Power
With its Snapdragon 680 chipset, the Realme 9 is a little underwhelming for a phone in 2022, even in the sub-£250 price range. Competitors like the Honor Magic 4 Lite and the Samsung Galaxy A32 5G are currently priced exactly the same at UK retailers, but with more powerful CPUs and the addition of 5G.
Realme makes up for this with a lot of RAM and storage. Out of the box, you’ll get 8GB of RAM — that’s already a huge amount, but that can be boosted to 13GB with something called dynamic RAM. This uses storage as memory, which means this budget smartphone can technically keep pace with pricier models when it comes to multitasking. If you use a lot of moderate to low-intensity apps and want a smooth transition between them, Realme has you covered. However, it doesn’t give the phone any extra gaming grunt.
In fact, last year’s Realme 8 with the MediaTek Helio G95 was more powerful than the Snapdragon in the Realme 9 — albeit at a lower cost. That’s a trend we’ve seen from manufacturers as well, with the Poco X4 5G dialing back power year after year in recent years. Component price woes related to chipset shortages? Very likely.
Intense games like Genshin Impact struggled on the Realme 9, often dropping frames, even at basic settings. Better-optimized games like Injustice 2 play relatively smoothly, despite using dial-back graphics.
While Samsung’s £249 A32 5G comes with 64GB of storage, the Realme 9 Pro offers twice as much storage – 128GB. Add microSD card expansion to the mix and you can get an extra 256GB for relatively cheap. That’s exactly what we hoped for at this price.
Without onboard 5G, we hit download speeds of around 30Mbps. On a 5G-enabled competitor at the same time and place, we saw 180Mbps. That’s a big deficit. On the plus side, the Realme 9 has dual SIM card slots, one of which doubles as an additional microSD card slot, so you don’t have to choose between storage and SIM.
Batteries: It’s a winner baby
With its huge 5000mAh battery and Realme’s excellent track record for battery life, we have no doubts that the Realme 9 will last. Given that the mid-range internals put the least stress on the system, you’ll be hard-pressed to drain the battery in a day, even with moderate use.
The phone comes with a ton of power-saving modes, and it charges quickly, too. Using the bundled 33W fast charger, it charges from zero to 100 in about 90 minutes. While this isn’t the fastest charging speed, it’s significantly better than the Samsung A32 5G, which is capped at 15W.
Realme 9 verdict
The Realme 9 is a decent phone for £249, and it can’t really do well due to its lack of 5G, mediocre performance and weak low-light camera capabilities.
What makes a phone good? Its screen is nearly the best in its class for a compact, low-cost phone. The under-display fingerprint scanner is responsive, and it houses storage and RAM. The main camera is also great when the lighting is on its side. It also adds some great style options — you can judge them for better or worse — and excellent battery life. Movie watchers, file hoarders, and anyone looking for good battery life or a great screen can confidently pick up one.
The Realme 9 is definitely not for gamers or low-light photographers. If you can justify spending more, check out the pricier Realme 9 Pro+ if you want a near-flagship camera experience on a budget. Last year’s Realme 8 may have been a less feature-packed phone, but its lower price and great gaming performance could appeal to gamers. Alternatively, the Poco X4 5G is thicker and more expensive, but offers better gaming performance, faster charging and faster data speeds.
Realme 9 specs
|Screen||6.4 inches, 2400×1080 AMOLED, 90Hz refresh rate|
|CPU||Qualcomm Snapdragon 680 Octa Core|
|camera||108MP, f/1.8 main lens with PDAF + 8MP, f/2.2 ultra-wide lens + 2MP, f/2.4 macro rear lens.
16MP, f/2.5 front
|storage||128GB onboard, microSD expansion|
|operating system||Android 11 with Realme UI 3|
|Battery||5000mAh non-removable with 33W wired charging|