With a limited launch in mainland China today, one glance at the new smartphones from Xiaomi leaves little doubt what the smartphone is all about. A third of the back of the smartphone is dominated by a dome covering a number of cameras with one of the biggest sensors we've seen in a smartphone so far – a 1-inch sensor covered with Leica glass.
A lot of people – men especially – will tell you that size doesn't matter. In the case of imaging sensors, that just isn't the case; the glass in front of lenses can only do so much and perfect glass doesn't exist. Bigger sensors means higher resolution, yes, but it also means that the sensors have space for bigger individual pixels. This helps both with the cooling of the sensor and could indicate much better low-light performance.
The entire 12S series of smartphones features different imaging systems jointly developed by Xiaomi and Leica. I know that in the process of making fun of Leica recently, I was making fun of Hasselblad for its smartphone integration, but in this case it actually somewhat makes sense. By using lenses designed by Leica (carrying the prestigious Leica Summicron brand, no less), the phone might actually be able to make the most of its sensors.
The range of cameras available on the various cameras include some pretty sophisticated lens designs rarely seen on smartphones; I can't wait to get my hands on one and see if it works as well out in the real world as it looks on paper.
The company claims that its lens designs drastically improve the photo quality the camera can deliver in general. The alphabet soup in the press release makes it sound as if the smartphone has re-invented the wheel, and makes some pretty juicy promises:
Xiaomi 12S Ultra primary camera adopts an 8P aspheric lens, in order to address common photography issues such as flare, ghosting, and chromatic aberration, the camera module of Xiaomi 12S Ultra also adds anti-glare lens coating, lens edge ink coating, cyclic olefin copolymer material, and infrared light filter with spin coating technology. Together, these features offer a clearer overall picture that is consistent across the lens.
In addition to the advanced optical design, Xiaomi 12S Series “co-engineered with Leica” also utilizes Leica imaging profiles, inheriting Leica's century-old image aesthetic and reproducing Leica's tone and aesthetics with the aid of cutting-edge algorithms. For the end user, this means access to two photographic styles: The “Leica Authentic Look” and “Leica Vibrant Look”, both offering enhanced creative freedom to the photographer.
To those of us who've read a photography press release or two, the first paragraph above can be summarized as “We stuck tech in this camera that was pretty common on compact cameras in 2005 or so” and the second can be summarized as “… and we created some filters that have been around in Hipstamatic since 2009, but these look kinda like Leica cameras look. Ignoring, of course, that the ‘Leica look' is heavily dependent on the films you put in the camera giant's legendary cameras.
Press release sleight of hand aside, the cameras themselves do look impressive, and sticking Sony’s IMX989 1-inch sensors in smartphones is a hell of a feat to pull off, both from an engineering point of view and as a commitment to photography from the smartphone maker.
To use a corollary: Have you ever heard of the A-10 fighter plane? Usually referred to as the Warthog, was essentially a ridiculously large machine gun firing depleted uranium rounds, and they built a plane around it to be able to blow up tanks. That's the image this smartphone conjures for me; this isn't the kind of optics you just slap into a phone at the last minute because the product folks thought it was a good idea.
The sensors, mated with high-quality glass, promise exceptional low-light photography capabilities. Pair that with some smart computational photography skills, and a 10-bit RAW format, and you're starting to talk about some truly advanced camera tech indeed. These phones could very well be the final nail in the low-end compact camera category that's been at death's door for so long.
Wild, for the photography buffs, is that we're here talking about an SLR-challenging 50.3 megapixels of resolution and a 23mm-equivalent wide-angle lens. This is, as far as I'm aware, the most advanced set of lens/sensor combos of any smartphone on the market. Of course, megapixels aren't everything.
The rest of the smartphone looks decent on paper as well – 67W high-speed charging, a large 4,860 mAh battery and smart battery management should keep you running for a while. The phone is powered by the all-new Snapdragon® 8+ Gen 1 Mobile Platform. The Xiaomi 12S Ultra is even equipped with a cooling pump that uses a capillary network to pump cooling liquid around and keep things from overheating and a 6.73” AMOLED color display.
The phones are currently only available in mainland China, with the Xiaomi 12S Ultra starting at around $900, the Xiaomi 12S Pro starting at around $700, and the Xiaomi 12S starting at $600. No word on if or when these will make it outside of the country's borders.