The Xiaomi 12s Ultra is the best camera phone I’ve used, but one thing is missing

There’s so much to love about the Xiaomi 12s Ultra. It has a huge 1 inch camera sensor that takes rich and nuanced photos. It performs incredibly well whether shooting day or night, and even its videos are excellent, held together by waterproof 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 over a decade of testing all the major flagship smartphones, that’s a big reward – but there is always something missing.

Specifically, the Xiaomi 12s Ultra lacks a feature that Samsung introduced on the Galaxy S9, brought back to the S10, and then removed for the S20 series. The feature was pretty useless back then, so why would the world’s most powerful camera phone need a feature that was once useless? I’ll explain everything, but first it’s worth a quick recap of 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 camera sensor smartphone to be launched in the West. That means a massive Sony RX100-sized sensor in a pocket-sized package. If you think – but didn’t the Sony Xperia Pro-I have a 1.0 type sensor? Yes it did, but it used a 1 inch cropped sensor as pointed out by GSM Arena (opens in a new tab) in his review, so the whole part of the sensor was not used to take pictures. With an effective sensor size that matched many phones on the market, the Xperia Pro-I didn’t offer the best benefits of large sensors in its class.

If you are a photography enthusiast reading this, about to place an order for the Xiaomi 12s Ultra, keep that thought. Unfortunately, in July, Xiaomi announced that the 12s series, which includes the Ultra, will not launch outside of mainland China, as Engadget’s Richard Lai originally covered.

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With the July revelations also highlighting Xiaomi’s investment in Sony’s imaging arm, with the company raking in the funds up to half the cost of developing the sensor, Xiaomi is clearly not here to play. Factor in its partnership with Leica – the Xiaomi 12s Ultra being the first of its recent co-branding deal – and Xiaomi aims to make the best camera phones money can buy. So what’s the deal with the Xiaomi 12s Ultra?

In a bend for the books, the new superphone’s sensor may actually be too big for a smartphone, or at least too big to have a fixed f/1.9 aperture on its main camera. Large sensor and small aperture create shallow depth of field. That means you get a lot of blur in front of and behind your point of focus – and that’s 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 that’s what portrait modes on smartphones try to mimic – that expensive prime lens, DSLR look.

Now, the Xiaomi 12s Ultra is not 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 blur) when shooting subjects further away. a meter away. But subjects a meter or less away have a nice separation between background and foreground. It’s impressive for a phone, and excellent in a host of situations – see images below – but it has its downsides too.

Smartphone cameras need to be versatile, and while naturally shallow depth is great for some things, half your shot out of focus can be a pain.

An example: I had to take a photo of my passport for an online verification system. Even though 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 that created too much shadow as I had to move the phone closer to my ID page.

Anyone who uses their smartphone as a document scanner, you will also come across this problem. From bank statements to legal documents, if there’s a dent or crease in the sheet of paper you’re photographing, the 12s Ultra will artistically blur it – pretty, but impractical.

I created a grid of images comparing the depth of field on 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, well sure, that of Xiaomi. Ultra 12s. This illustrates how other phones with inferior and smaller sensors are actually better at keeping foreground and background objects in focus.

Xiaomi clearly knows what is going on. As soon as you get close to a subject, the 12s Ultra switches from the main camera to the ultra-wide camera to damage control of that blur. If you’re a control freak like me, it’s more frustrating than helpful. The secondary cameras are good, but they don’t offer the quality and nuance of the main big-sensor camera. In turn, I quickly disabled this feature in favor of manual switching.

So what can Xiaomi do to further improve the best functionality of its camera phone? Take a leaf from Samsung and Sony’s book. The Samsung Galaxy S9 introduced variable apertures to mainstream smartphones, switching between f/1.5 and f/2.4. The Sony Xperia Pro-I goes one step further, with its dual aperture taking you from f/2 to f/4. Smaller apertures (larger f/numbers) result in less background blur.

Changing the aperture of the Xiaomi 12s Ultra to an f/4 or f/5 lens would be easy, but it would also be a bad decision. Besides constantly reminding of background blur, it would hurt the low light performance of the phone. What Xiaomi needs to do, now that it’s cracked the 1-inch sensor nut, is aim for a meaningful variable aperture for its next Ultra phone.

Sony’s dual f/2 to f/4 aperture would help the 12s Ultra be a more efficient and versatile smartphone camera, although a wider f/1.9 to f/5 might be more useful, and the large 1-inch Sony IMX 989 sensor in the Xiaomi 12s Ultra could probably handle it. After all, in our time with the phone we’ve done a lot of manual shooting, and the 12s Ultra is better at handling high ISO (sensor sensitivity) than most phones.

Take the night shot below. This is a hand-edited raw photo captured in Pro mode with a high ISO of 3200 and a shutter speed of 1/5. While most camera phones generate a lot of noise when faced with a night shot like this, or produce a softer, blurrier shot, the Xiaomi 12s Ultra does an outstanding job.

An edited raw photo captured on the Xiaomi 12s Ultra in Pro mode

(Image credit: Basil Kronfli)

So with that faith in the Xiaomi 12s Ultra’s excellent sensor, not to mention Xiaomi’s image processing, and the work it’s done with Leica to improve its color science, I’m once again seriously excited about the smartphone photography.

And, while a variable aperture was relatively useless on the Samsung Galaxy S9 with its 1/2.55-inch sensor, and only moderately useful on the Sony Xperia Pro-I’s 1.0-type cropped sensor, on the upcoming Xiaomi Ultra phone , it could be a game changer for the smartphone camera.

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