The Xiaomi 12s Ultra is the best camera phone I’ve used, but it’s missing one thing
There is so much to love about the Xiaomi 12s Ultra. It has a huge 1-inch camera sensor that captures nuanced, rich photos. It performs incredibly well, day or night, and even its videos look superb, held together by lock-tight stabilization at up to 8K resolution. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the best camera phone I’ve ever used, and after testing every major flagship smartphone for over a decade, that’s a mighty accolade – but it’s still lacking.
Notably, the Xiaomi 12s Ultra is missing a feature that Samsung introduced on the Galaxy S9, brought back to the S10 and then scrapped for the S20 series. The feature was pretty much useless back then, so why would the world’s most powerful camera phone need a once-useless feature? I’ll explain everything, but first it’s worth a quick recap that runs through what the 12s Ultra is and why it’s not launching outside of China.
First of all – the Xiaomi 12s Ultra is special because it is the first true 1-inch smartphone with a camera sensor to be launched in the West. That means a huge Sony RX100 sensor in a portable body. If you’re thinking – but didn’t the Sony Xperia Pro-I have a 1.0-type sensor? Yes, it did, but it used a cropped 1-inch sensor, as GSM Arena pointed out (opens in new tab) in his review so that the entire sensor part was not used to take pictures. With an effective sensor size to match many phones on the market, the Xperia Pro-I didn’t deliver the best-in-class advantages of large sensors.
If you are a photography enthusiast reading this and ready to place an order for the Xiaomi 12s Ultra, keep that in mind. Unfortunately, Xiaomi announced in July that the 12s series, which includes the Ultra, will not launch outside of mainland China – as originally covered by Engadget’s Richard Lai.
“Xiaomi will offer the Xiaomi 12S series exclusively in Mainland China. Our strategic partnership in imaging technology will have a long-term impact beyond the scope of this series in Xiaomi’s international markets.” So we’ll have to wait until Xiaomi 13 for Leica goodies.July 4, 2022
With the July revelations also shedding light on Xiaomi’s investment in Sony’s imaging division, with the company funding up to half the cost of developing the sensor, Xiaomi is clearly not here to play along. Consider the partnership with Leica – the Xiaomi 12s Ultra is the first in its recent co-branding deal – and Xiaomi is committed to making the best camera phones money can buy. So what’s wrong with the Xiaomi 12s Ultra?
The new Superphone’s sensor might actually be too big for a smartphone, or at least too big to have a fixed f/1.9 aperture on the main camera. A large sensor plus a small aperture creates a shallow depth of field. That means you get a lot of blur in front of and behind your point of focus – and it gets more pronounced the closer you get to a subject.
Most of the time, a shallow depth of field is great. It pulls focus so your subject stands out, and it’s what portrait modes on smartphones try to emulate – that expensive DSLR prime lens.
Well, the Xiaomi 12s Ultra isn’t a DSLR or mirrorless camera killer. With its 1-inch camera sensor, f/1.9 aperture and 23mm focal length, it can’t capture rich bokeh (depth of field) when shooting subjects over a meter away. But subjects a meter or less away have a pleasing background and foreground separation. That’s impressive for a phone and great in many situations – see the images below – but it also has its downsides.
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Smartphone cameras have to be versatile, and while inherently shallow depth is great for some things, half the shot can be blurry.
An example: For an online verification system, I had to photograph my passport. Although I did my best to position everything perfectly, the Xiaomi 12s Ultra’s camera blurred the edges. I also tried switching to the ultra-wide camera, which doubles as a macro camera, but this created too many shadows as I had to get the phone really close to my ID side.
Anyone who uses their smartphone as a document scanner also encounters this problem. From bank statements to legal documents, if the sheet of paper you’re photographing has a bump or crease, the 12s Ultra will make it look artistically blurred – pretty but unhandy.
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I’ve created a grid of images comparing the depth of field of five of the best camera phones available today, the Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max, Google Pixel 6 Pro, Oppo Find X5 Pro, Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra and of course the Xiaomi 12s Ultra. This shows how other phones with inferior, smaller sensors are actually better at keeping foreground and background objects sharp.
Xiaomi knows exactly what’s going on. As you approach a subject, the 12s Ultra switches from the main camera to the ultra-wide camera to control that blur. However, if you’re a control freak like me, this is more frustrating than helpful. The secondary cameras are good, but they don’t offer the quality and nuance of the large-sensor primary camera. I, in turn, quickly disabled this feature in favor of manual switching.
The Missing Link
So what can Xiaomi do to make the best feature of its camera phone even better? Take Samsung and Sony as an example. The Samsung Galaxy S9 introduced variable apertures to mainstream smartphones, alternating between f/1.5 and f/2.4. The Sony Xperia Pro-I goes one step further with its dual aperture that takes you from f/2 to f/4. Smaller apertures (larger f-numbers) result in less background blur.
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Changing the aperture of the Xiaomi 12s Ultra to an f/4 or f/5 lens would be easy, but that would also be a bad move. In addition to permanently dialing back the background blur, it would affect the phone’s performance in low light. What Xiaomi needs to do, having cracked the 1-inch sensor nut, is a meaningful variable bezel for its next ultra phone.
Sony’s f/2 to f/4 dual aperture would help the 12s Ultra be a more effective, versatile smartphone camera, although a wider f/1.9 to f/5 could be more useful, and the large 1-inch Sony IMX 989 sensor in the Xiaomi 12s Ultra could probably handle that. After all, we’ve done a lot of manual shooting in our time with the phone, and the 12s Ultra can handle a high ISO (sensor sensitivity) better than most phones.
Capture the night photo below. It is a handheld, processed RAW photo taken in Pro mode with a high ISO of 3200 and a shutter speed of 1/5. While most camera phones would produce a lot of noise or produce a softer, fuzzier shot with a night shot like this, the Xiaomi 12s Ultra does a great job.
With that confidence in the Xiaomi 12s Ultra’s excellent sensor, not to mention Xiaomi’s image processing and the work done with Leica to improve its color science, I’m seriously excited about smartphone photography again.
And while variable aperture was relatively useless on the Samsung Galaxy S9, with its 1/2.55-inch sensor, and only moderately useful on the 1.0-type cropped sensor in the Sony Xperia Pro-I, it is on the next Xiaomi Ultra -Phone like this could be a game changer for smartphone cameras.