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Redmi Note 9T: Low price 5G handset

Redmi Note 9TIf you think you need a 5G handset, the $400 Redmi Note 9T from Xiaomi is the cheapest option.

At a glance:

For: Good performance, long battery life.
Against: Heavy, not good looking. Camera is ordinary.
Maybe: 5G – you probably don’t need this yet.
Verdict: You get a lot of phone for the money.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
Price: NZ$400
Web: Xiaomi.

Xiaomi gives you a lot of phone for $400. You could pay double and end up with something that does nothing more than the Redmi Note 9T.

One paper the phone isn’t promising. It doesn’t look great, it doesn’t feel great and it’s not exciting. The camera is not special. There’s nothing spectacular to see here. No-one would aspire to own a Redmi Note.

Yet there’s nothing wrong either. The phone is far better than a simple comparison list of features matched against other phones would suggest.

Serviceable, affordable Redmi Note 9T

Moreover, the Redmi Note 9T gets the job done and, depending on what else you might have chosen, will leave you with hundreds, even thousands of dollars in your pocket.

This last point is the kicker. Sometimes you need to carry a tool, not a piece of jewellery.

The Redmi Note 9T is a sensible, no-nonsense, low-risk choice. If that’s what you’re looking for, you won’t be disappointed.

Solid performance

For me, the surprise in a $400 phone from a, for me, unfamiliar brand, was the performance. The processor is fast. I’ve seen low-cost phones stumble and stutter as they struggle to keep up. There wasn’t any hint of that here.

Xiaomi has made compromises to keep the price low, but not in the processor department. When you’re ploughing through work or entertaining yourself you can forget this is a bargain basement phone.

Likewise, the battery is huge by the standard of mid-priced and low-priced phones. The Redmi Note 9T packs 5000mAh. That’s enough to go for a straight 24 hours of normal use, or about two working days if you put your phone down when you’re not busy.

Big screen

You need a large battery when there’s a big screen. It’s 6.5 inches with 2340 by 1080 pixels. The screen is long and thin, about 163mm by 78mm which makes it sizeable without being unwieldy

While the picture is fine, you’ll see better displays with better colour. The refresh rate is 60Hz, that’s noticeably lower than with upmarket phones, but par for the course with less expensive models.

The screen is bright by any standard and automatically adjusts in sunlight. You’ll be able to see it in most circumstances.

Cameras

If you want a fancy phone camera, you need to spend more than $400. The Redmi Note 9T comes with three lenses. The main camera is 48 megapixel, which sounds more impressive than the results warrant. It works fine in bright daylight, not so well in low light conditions.

Xiaomi’s camera software gives the impression the hardware is more sophisticated than it is in practice. I found the software hard to use, but that could be because this is a short-term review. Perhaps it gets easier over time.

On the whole, still and video photography is serviceable. It will do, but it won’t win you any prizes or excite your creativity.

Look and feel

Modern phones are slabs of glass and metal or plastic punctuated by camera containing bumps. It’s hard to make one that is outright ugly, but the Redmi Note 9T has a face only a mother could love.

Xiaomi describes the review model as “Nightfall Black” whatever that is supposed to mean. It’s more a dark grey with a moulded, textured plastic case. At 200g it’s heavy, but not too heavy.

Do you even need a 5G handset?

At the time of writing there are pockets of 5G mobile coverage around New Zealand, mainly in city centres.

Both Vodafone and Spark plan to build more sites, but there won’t be widespread coverage for a few years. Unless you have a specific need for 5G now it may pay to wait before buying a new handset.

It’s unlikely you will have that specific need. Carriers promise faster download speeds and lower latency with 5G mobile, but there are few apps that need the extra performance.

For now, there is nothing practical, productive or worthwhile you’ll be able to do on a 5G phone like the Redmi Note 9T that you couldn’t do on a 4G handset. It won’t stream video more smoothly, it won’t mean better Zoom calls.

Redmi Note 9T verdict

It’s unlikely you need a 5G phone. At least not today. That said, if you do, the Redmi Note 9T is by far the best value option. You won’t find a better phone for $400.

It has flaws and compromises, but you’d need to spend three, four, maybe even five times as much to fix them.

Xiaomi phones are not widely distributed in New Zealand. The review model was provided by PB Technology and can be found in that company’s stores.  

Spark’s timid Covid-era 5G mobile launch

There could not be more contrast between Spark and Vodafone’s 5G launches. The two launch events tell a tale about the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on carriers.

Last December Vodafone launched its 5G network. On day one it had 100 5G towers in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown.

This week Spark’s 5G network opened for business. In Palmerston North.

That’s right. Spark chose New Zealand’s eight largest city to showcase the latest mobile generation.

Toyota

The company says it is working with Toyota to uncap the value of 5G in Palmerston North.

You might think this would involve something exciting like driverless cars. After all, Spark tested New Zealand’s first autonomous vehicles last year.

Instead, the partnership delivered a dreary virtual test drive app. It’s the kind of video streaming application that 4G mobile handles with aplomb.

Vodafone’s launch had holograms, long-distance veterinary surgeons, remote cranes and 5G controlled factories.

Contrast

There could not be more contrast between the two 5G launches. Vodafone had exciting technology and glitz. Spark has Palmerston North and 4G apps.

Vodafone went hard and early. Spark’s launch is timid. The company says it will offer 5G in four more locations before the end of the year. By then it will be a full 12 months behind Vodafone.

To be fair, Spark had to wait for the government to deliver 5G spectrum before it could move. Vodafone had suitable spectrum in its pocket.

While we are being fair, the world has changed a lot since Vodafone’s launch. Spark’s cautious arrival on the 5G scene could be the right strategy for pandemic times.

Prudent

Like New Zealand’s other telcos, Spark may yet have a wall of bad debt to deal with. Not splashing money on a big 5G roll out and a fancy launch looks prudent today. It’s possible Vodafone’s investors wouldn’t have funded a 5G launch if they knew what was coming.

It is not as if rivers of gold will flow into the coffers after a 5G launch. As Telcowatch shows, Vodafone’s market share didn’t move after it launched its 5G network.

Vodafone may look confident. Yet that confidence doesn’t extend to charging customers more to use its 5G network. Likewise, Spark isn’t going to ask the people of Palmerston North to pay a 5G premium.

Even the boring Toyota demonstration app seems sensible and wise. It’s not as if there are any practical applications for everyday users that depend on 5G to work. Why pretend otherwise? Vodafone’s examples looked exciting, but it will be ages before they are everyday reality here.

And that’s the key. While the above story may read like a criticism of Spark, it is not. Spark has cut its coat according to its Covid-19 era cloth. We need to adjust our expectations for less techno-dazzle and more back to basics.

Bloomberg on patchy 5G networks

5G mobile tower
(Bloomberg) — Fifth-generation networking hype has been in full force since Qualcomm Inc. declared “5G is here, and it’s time to celebrate” in February of last year. The reality, however, has required patience from consumers due to the time needed to roll out the new networks and the dearth of applications to put speed to compelling use.

Source: We Tested 5G Networks Across Asian Cities. The Verdict: Patchy

The message at last February’s Mobile World Congress, the phone industry’s annual gathering, was that 5G is ready.

The technology was working then. It still is. There is a lot more 5G around the world than last year. Dozens of carriers have launched networks. This includes Vodafone in New Zealand.

5G networks not about consumers

Bloomberg’s report makes clear there is a gap between reality and consumer expectations.

To get acceptance of 5G, carriers need to sell the idea to consumers. They promised consumers faster speeds on mobile handsets. Up to a point they delivered, although as Bloomberg points out, delivery is patchy.

The truth is that 5G is not and never was about the consumer experience. It is all about enterprise and industrial applications. Engineers optimised 5G for communications between machines, not person-to-person calling.

A voice call on a 5G phone is no different from a voice call on a 4G network. Video streaming works fine on a 4G connection. There are no obvious mobile consumer applications that must have faster data.

The only 5G consumer user case anyone talks about is mobile games with lower latency.  Gaming is a big and important business. Yet carriers did not invest billions so commuters can shoot aliens faster while sitting on a bus.

The world wasn’t waiting for faster mobile phone data

A lack of must-have consumer apps explains why phone makers didn’t race to get 5G models to market. Yes, people will want to buy phones that can make use of the faster speeds. But they are not going to go out at midnight and queue around the block for the privilege of getting them first.

Wonderful things happen when mobile devices and sensors communicate at fibre-like speeds. No doubt 5G will transform many aspects of life. Everything imaginable will connect and either report back or act on the result of data.

Like an iceberg looming in front of a giant transatlantic steamer, the part of 5G that matters most is out of sight. It will have the biggest impact. The technology was always going to underwhelm consumers. It’s not for them. Let’s stop pretending otherwise. There is a better story to tell.

United Kingdom plans anti-Huawei 5G alliance

According to The Times, the UK plans to form an alliance of democratic nations to create a 5G alternative to Huawei. This comes after the UK spent months resisting US pressure to ban Huawei.

The Times says the 5G alliance group will include the G7 nations: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the United States as well as Australia, South Korea and India.

No doubt if the plan goes anywhere there will be pressure on New Zealand to join. It is the only Five Eyes intelligence alliance member not in the Times’ list.

Huawei top equipment maker

Huawei is the world’s top telecommunications network equipment maker. It has the most advanced cellular technology and is a leader when it comes to 5G networks.

Thanks to favourable currency conditions Huawei manages to make better 5G technology and, in many cases, sell it for less than rivals.

There are dark mutterings from the US that Huawei climbed to the top of the telecommunications market by stealing intellectual property.

Whether or not this is true, Huawei also enjoys significant tax breaks from the Chinese government and favourable trading conditions in the world’s second largest economy. Unlike western governments China is not frightened to intervene in key markets. The nation has long had an industrial policy to become a world leader in telecommunications technology.

5G alliance response to spying accusations

The headline reason Huawei has western democracies clinging together are reports the company either already does, or could soon start, giving Chinese intelligence agencies access to data carried on networks.

While there is no smoking gun proof this has happened yet, the potential for it to happen is real enough. And that’s before you consider the rising tensions between China and the US.

Behind the headline reason is a second, more nuanced argument. Huawei dominates telecommunications hardware.

Huawei’s main competitors still in the market are Nokia and Ericsson. Both are a fair distance behind Huawei. They can’t compete with Huawei’s rapid development cycles, they struggle to match Huawei’s price advantage.

Monopoly

Before the spying accusations became public the gap between Huawei and the also-runs was widening. There was a danger Huawei would move from dominance to something more like a near-monopoly.

Think of how Google dominates web search. Strictly speaking search is not a monopoly, but only one company matters.

Believe it or not, the world could manage without web search. It can’t manage without telecommunications networks. And much of the world would certainly be in trouble if the only supplier of that network technology was based in an increasingly aggressive, potentially hostile country.

Crippling

So crippling Huawei before it reaches that position stops it from becoming a serious threat. Well, that’s the theory and the thinking behind the UK’s alliance plan.

There’s another angle to this. Huawei aside, Chinese companies dominate the supply chains for telecommunications hardware. Both Nokia and Ericsson have operations in China. Many of the chips and components they use come from Chinese factories.

During the early stages of the Covid–19 pandemic we saw the chaos that comes when supply chains shut down. The Chinese government could shut them down whenever it chooses. Sure that would come at a huge cost, but the risk cannot be ruled out.

Tensions between China and the West, especially the US, are higher than they have been for decades. Things have reached the point where even suggesting the formation of an anti-Huawei technology alliance will be seen as ratcheting up the tensions.

5G alliance means precious little optimism

The UK 5G alliance plan may come to nothing. It’s possible tensions will reduce. But optimism in this area is in short supply right now.

Nokia and Ericsson are the most likely winners if the UK plan gets anywhere. Samsung and NEC also have 5G network equipment, but the two are even further behind and can’t offer a comprehensive suite of products.

Assuming it is Nokia or Ericsson or both the winners will get guaranteed markets and, presumably, buckets of government money. The move won’t be good for innovation and will reduce choice for mobile carriers.

On the other hand, a 5G alliance will bring much needed certainty to the sector. Everyone will be able to get back to building networks and stop worrying about the politics of what should be engineering or commercial decisions.

Rakon impatient shareholders can’t wait for 5G payoff

A group of Rakon shareholders are getting impatient with its undervaluation and want directors to put the company on the block.

In Tech company shareholders frustrated at low value RNZ reports:

A group representing 14 percent has written to the board asking it to immediately market the company to international investors through a tender, amid reports that some Australian investment funds have been showing interest.

“[We] believe the company is significantly undervalued and the company is failing to highlight this value to outside investors,” the letter said.

The story doesn’t carry a byline.

Rakon’s disgruntled shareholders want the company sold to international investors as a way of unlocking their investment. They make it clear they don’t think they will get a big payout from what should be a boom as the 5G mobile telephony market gathers momentum.

Waiting for 5G acceleration

RNZ goes on to quote Rakon chief executive and managing director Brent Robinson. He says:

“As 5G accelerates, so will Rakon and its financial position will be more attractive.

“Be patient, it’s early days for 5G and I believe Rakon’s performance should improve a lot, as far as profits are concerned over the next few years.”

Rakon is a 50 year old New Zealand technology company. It makes frequency control components including quartz crystals. Telecommunication accounts for over half the company’s revenue.

On paper, Rakon is well placed to profit from the worldwide 5G roll out. It appears to be the kind of company New Zealand’s economy needs.

Mobile carriers are spending billions building 5G networks and will continue spending vast sums for the best part of a decade as they build out 5G further and further. Rakon sells its components to 5G equipment makers like Huawei and Nokia. It should be a bonanza.

Not fast enough

The problem is that despite the huge investments in 5G, the roll-outs are not proceeding at the predicted speed. Asia is moving fast. Vodafone has already built a network here, Spark is about to follow. Other countries are not moving as quickly.

It doesn’t help that Rakon’s customers are caught up in a trade war, possibly an espionage row, between the US and China. It is possible that Rakon can supply one team, but not the other. That would hurt its market.

Rakon’s share price has languished to the point where it is a possible takeover target. The shareholder letter suggests at least some of Rakon’s owners want out.