Xiaomi 12S Ultra is a great story-teller phone with an almost perfect camera | Hands-on

A rare engineering masterpiece.

Xiaomi 12S Ultra
The 12S Ultra has three cameras on the back. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

The Xiaomi 12S Ultra is chock-full of potentially great hardware. It is slick and very powerful but its headlining feature is its “true 1-inch-type” camera sensor. It’s not the first smartphone in the world to use a sensor as big as it does but it’s surely the first to –also—pair it with Leica optics. It is the only such phone to have a global appeal, too, which makes it all the more difficult to tell you that this phone is not coming to India. So, if you thought Xiaomi would pull a Mi 11 Ultra (review) like miracle here, well, don’t keep your hopes high.

It was mighty bold and ambitious of Xiaomi to compare the Mi 11 Ultra with the Sony RX100 M7 back in the day. You can say that it was able to deliver a compelling package, too, in the end. But with the 12S Ultra –that saw a relatively more subdued release in China not long ago— it has been more grounded and focused. The result is a great story-teller phone with an almost perfect camera system.  

Before diving into what we like (and what we don’t), let’s give you a quick rundown of the hardware.

The 12S Ultra has three cameras on the back. The housing –and design— mimics a real mirror-less down to such level of detail, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference. The attention to detail is immaculate. Two of those cameras –the ultrawide and telephoto—are same as the Mi 11 Ultra’s. The main sensor, though, is a brand-new 1-inch IMX989 that Sony seems to have built exclusively for this phone. It is one of if not the biggest we’ve seen on any smartphone at the time of writing.

Xiaomi 12S Ultra
The 12S Ultra has three cameras on the back. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

A big sensor like the one that the 12S Ultra has would naturally entail larger pixels and more light gathering capability. This should help particularly in low light so you can, for instance, pull more details in shadows while cutting down on noise. It can also get you shallower depth of field in photos that would seem like they were taken from a professional camera. Generally speaking, a bigger sensor almost always means better photos.

The IMX989 has a resolution of 50.3MP with individual pixels at 3.2µm in its 4-in-1 binned 12.5MP state. This sensor sits behind an 8P lens with f/1.9 aperture and optical image stabilisation custom tuned by Leica to minimise flare, ghosting, and chromatic aberration.

Xiaomi 12S Ultra
There are two processing styles to choose from in this phone. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

The Leica treatment extends into the phone’s processing algorithm, too. You can choose between two photographic styles – Leica Authentic and Leica Vibrant. The difference, though it is subtle, really comes through well if you have the keen eye to spot it. The same is true about the overall output as well.

It’s not that the Xiaomi 12S Ultra takes significantly better photos than a top-end Samsung Galaxy or iPhone, or even its own sibling, the Mi 11 Ultra, but it does everything a little more effortlessly.

Also Read | Xiaomi 12 Pro review: The feel-good flagship

Don’t let the specs scare you, the 12S Ultra is actually fun to play around with. The devil is in the detail and the phone nails them almost all the time regardless of the lighting. Xiaomi’s colour choices are pleasing, even true-to-source mostly, giving you a nice, contrasty look that doesn’t look artificial. More importantly, you don’t need to get into the manual mode to get the best results. Point-and-shoot works brilliantly.

Xiaomi 12S Ultra
Xiaomi portrait lens effects. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

Xiaomi has another neat little party trick up its sleeve. The 12S Ultra ships with three portrait lens effects, each with their own distinct look and styling. There’s a black and white 35mm equivalent that’s easily the most addictive. The other two, swirly and soft focus, also do well to replicate the effect of a 50mm and 90mm lens, respectively, giving you lots of legroom to flex your creative muscle.

Without further ado, here are the Xiaomi 12S Ultra’s cameras in action:

Xiaomi 12S Ultra first impressions

It goes without saying that the benefits of the 12S Ultra’s massive 1-inch sensor may not be obvious to the average user. It’s a phone designed from ground up for the pro-consumer. Only and only if you’re pixel-peeping, will you be able to appreciate everything that Xiaomi has been able to pull off here, which is nothing short of an engineering masterpiece.

It is not perfect. The exposure could be slightly better when working with tricky light or portraits could be more consistent especially when there are multiple people in the background and while at it, we wish Xiaomi was using dual aperture, too. But regardless of those minor idiosyncrasies, there is absolutely no doubting the 12S Ultra’s potential. The Leica partnership seems on point and we can’t wait to see where the duo will take things from here.  

Disclaimer: The writer’s travel and stay for this hands-on event in Pondicherry were arranged by Xiaomi.

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First published on: 22-08-2022 at 17:11 IST