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Realme 9 5G review: Better connectivity, but at what cost?

Ben Johnston
8 Jun 2022
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
249
inc VAT

The Realme 9 5G offers great performance and connectivity, but it struggles against the 4G variant

Pros 
Impressive battery life
Affordable 5G
Solid performance
Cons 
4G model has a much better screen
And a better camera
And better fast charging
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Viewed in a vacuum, the Realme 9 5G is a respectable budget phone, offering a lot of functionality for a relatively low price. The tricky part, however, is that the 5G version was released alongside an identically priced 4G model.

More confusing is that Realme has taken a handful of important features and just sprinkled them between the pair, making both better at certain things, while leaving neither as the obvious, superior choice overall.

The bottom line is, if you’re intent on getting 5G with your next smartphone, the Realme 9 5G is one of the best in its budget. With that connectivity comes a slick 120Hz display, decent performance that measures up to the competition and one of the longest-lasting batteries we’ve tested thus far. It’s just hard not to look over the fence at the 4G model and feel like you’re missing out.

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Realme 9 5G review: What you need to know

The 9 5G isn’t the cheapest model that Realme has released recently, but it’s not the most expensive either. It sits somewhere between the ultra-budget C31 and C35 and the more premium 9 Pro Plus. Think of the 9 5G – and its 4G counterpart – as the middle of the lineup from a brand that floods the market with budget phones.

Running the show is one of the latest 5G-capable chipsets, the Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 695, alongside an Adreno 619 GPU handling graphics processing. Rounding out the list of specs is 128GB of storage, 4GB of RAM and a 5,000mAh battery.

In addition to the 16MP selfie camera, the rear camera array features a 50MP main unit, as well as a dedicated 2MP macro lens and a 2MP depth sensor.

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Realme 9 5G review: Price and competition

The Realme 9 5G will cost you £249. As mentioned, the 4G version costs the same, and this gets you a superior AMOLED display, a 108MP camera with a secondary ultra-wide unit, double the RAM (8GB) and 33W fast charging.

Elsewhere, the Xiaomi Poco M4 Pro 5G is also £249. The similarities are even more obvious, with both offering a 6.6in LCD display, 5G connectivity and a 50MP main camera. The Poco M4 Pro 5G’s screen top out at 90Hz, however, while the Realme 9 5G performed better in all of our benchmarking tests.

The recently released OnePlus Nord CE 2 Lite uses the same Snapdragon 695 processor as the Realme 9 5G, producing near-identical results in our testing – the difference is that the Nord CE 2 Lite costs slightly more at £279.

If you can afford to pay even more, then the standard OnePlus Nord CE 2 is currently our favourite mid-range phone and costs £299. It doesn’t have the 120Hz refresh rate of the Realme 9 5G, but its 90Hz panel is an AMOLED affair and performance is better across the board and battery life is near enough equal.

Realme 9 5G review: Design and key features

The Realme 9 5G’s 6.6in display is bordered by slightly chunky bezels, especially on the chin, but they’re not so bold as to be unappealing. The selfie camera sits neatly tucked inside a hole punch notch in the top left. One small point of contention here is that the screen is raised a fraction above the frame, rather than sitting flush – this isn’t obstructive in most cases but you may find your thumb catching ever so slightly if you swipe right to the edges.

Otherwise, this is a good looking phone for £249, with rounded corners, sleek sides and a discretely raised camera module. Like the 4G model, the only thing that hurts the overall aesthetic of the Realme 9 5G is the cheap-feeling plastic backing. It looks stylish enough – especially in the ripple-effect Starlight White model that I received for review – but the hand feel exposes the budget price.

Face and fingerprint unlocking are both present here, with the latter folded into the power button on the right side, rather than an optical in-display sensor found on the 4G. The bottom of the phone is home to a 3.5mm headphone jack and USB-C charging port, while the left side incorporates the volume control buttons and a dual-SIM intake tray – only the 4G model benefits from a microSD slot.

Though the 6.6in screen and 195g weight are pushing it as far as one-handed use goes, the Realme 9 5G is still a fairly comfortable phone to use. Moreover, despite the cheap feel of the plastic chassis, it’s got a solid build overall; it lacks an IP rating, so isn’t inherently resistant to water or dust, but otherwise feels rugged enough for daily use.

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Realme 9 5G review: Display

An obvious point of compromise with the Realme 9 5G is the display. It’s not that the IPS panel used here is disastrously bad, it’s just that the 4G version makes up for its limited connectivity with a Super AMOLED panel, casting a shadow that can’t be ignored.

The 6.6in screen has an FHD+ resolution (2,400 x 1,080) and unlike the 4G model, there’s no Gorilla Glass protection here. General scrolling is nice and smooth with the 120Hz refresh rate, but the phone defaults to an “Auto-select” adaptive mode that appears to stick with 60Hz more often than not. This can be locked to 120Hz in the settings, however.

There are two display modes to choose from – Natural and Vivid – and both have their strengths and weaknesses. Vivid does exactly what it says on the tin, boosting the saturation to give colours more ‘pop’ but this does come at the expense of colour accuracy. Natural is your best bet, even if it does underwhelm in other areas, covering just 82% of the sRGB gamut, with a volume of 82.3%.

I measured an average Delta E (colour variance) of 2.85, which is weaker than the Realme 9 4G’s score. The contrast ratio of 1,115:1 is a bit on the low side, too, but again this falls just within the acceptable limits for this price. Brightness is better, hitting a maximum of 442cd/m2, which is decent enough for most outdoor use.

“Decent enough” also accurately sums up the OS. Running on Android 12 with Realme’s UI 3 plastered on top, the layout isn’t as obnoxious as some other own-brand UI’s we can think of and there’s enough customisation options to make it your own.

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Realme 9 5G review: Performance and battery life

The display is a bit of a mixed bag, then, but luckily, the internals paint a much more positive picture. The Snapdragon 695 5G processor is made up of two Kryo 660 Gold CPUs running at up to 2.2GHz and six Kryo 660 Silver CPUs running at up to 1.8GHz. It’s paired here with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage.

While it’s not out at the front of the pack, the Realme 9 5G keeps pace with the other models in both single and multi-core processing. In fact, when you consider that models like the OnePlus Nord CE 2 and the Xiaomi Redmi Note 11 Pro 5G cost more than the Realme 9 5G, the latter’s performance here is admirable.

The Realme 9 5G held its own in the GFXBench GPU tests as well, with only the Nord CE 2 managing slightly higher frame rates. The most dramatic difference is when it’s compared to the Realme 9 4G – if you’re prone to intensive bouts of mobile gaming, these figures make it clear that the 5G model is the one you’ll want to opt for. In fact, if your budget is a strict £250, the Realme 9 5G should be your top choice for mobile gaming.

While not quite as outstanding as the 4G variant, the 9 5G’s battery life is still extremely impressive – making the top 15 in our phone battery life rankings. Lasting for a total of 24hrs 31mins in our standard looping video test, the Realme 9 5G should effortlessly see you through a full day of intensive activity, with the potential for a second as well.

The included 18W fast charger isn’t as zippy as the 33W brick included with the 4G model, however, juicing the Realme 9 5G back up to 100% from empty in around two hours.

Realme 9 5G review: Cameras

The Realme 9 5G’s rear camera array consists of three lenses: the 50MP (f/1.8) main snapper, accompanied by a 2MP (f/2.4) macro lens and a 2MP (f/2.4) depth sensor. On the front, you’ve got a 16MP (f/2.1) selfie camera.

Extras like macro lenses and depth sensors tend to feel like padding on budget phones, and I can’t help but think that it would have been more beneficial for the Realme 9 5G to focus on having just one really good camera.

Next to the superior lens used for the Realme 9 4G, you can see that the 5G’s camera doesn’t manage to capture the same level of detail. There’s a slight overexposure to the image with a lack of contrast in the shadowy areas. Still, it’s not a bad picture, as far as budget phones go, with enough colour in the leaves and the sky to get by.

Interestingly, the 5G actually fares better than the 4G with a 3x digital zoom. Where the latter loses its vibrancy and washes out most of the contrast, the 5G’s zoomed-in picture remains largely the same. It’s still not perfect, but it offers a level of consistency that its supposedly superior sibling doesn’t quite achieve.

In keeping with the idea of extra cameras being added for the sake of it, the macro lens is nothing particularly special. Compared to a similar shot on the 4G model, you can see that colours here are muted, the focus isn’t very strong and there’s a fair amount of noise in the artificial blurring.

Night mode isn’t worth the price of admission either. The overall image is effectively brightened up but this comes with the caveat of extreme lens flare from multiple light sources. This exposure washes out a lot of the detail too, with the brickwork to the left especially lacking in definition.

Video is captured at up to 1080p at 30fps, which isn’t fantastic but is about right for a phone of this price. As with the 4G model, the footage isn’t anything special, with limited detail and middling stability, but it will do in a pinch for most circumstances.

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Realme 9 5G review: Verdict

Realme has shot itself in the foot with its release strategy, since all of the 9 5G’s failings can be directly linked back to the 4G model. The latter’s superior screen, cameras and fast charging all hang heavy over the Realme 9 5G, calling to question exactly how much you’re willing to sacrifice for better connectivity.

That being said, the Realme 9 5G is still an extremely competent budget phone. The battery life is outstanding, performance manages to compete with more expensive phones and the camera is decent enough for the price. If you want 5G on the cheap with capable gaming performance as an added bonus, you could do much worse than the Realme 9 5G.

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