They have tried to cover this gap between perceived value and real-world usability by instead focusing on the marketing hype of being the first company in the market to offer certain features and tech, thus, earning them the first movers’ advantage. Such is the case with the Xiaomi 12S Ultra, the company's latest flagship device, which has the distinction of being the first smartphone to offer Sony's new IMX989 1.0" sensor.
They have also partnered with Leica to develop the ultra-wide-angle camera, which boasts a unique colour science and various other optical technologies. It is also one of the first phones to offer Snapdragon's 8+ Gen 1 processor, so the perceived value is already pretty high. The company is touting it as 'The New Era', which in itself is a significant endorsement. But does the device live up to the hype? Let's take a deeper look to see if it's true.
Display & Build Quality
The display is arguably the core aspect of any smartphone experience, so it is vital to ensure that you offer the best that you can, which, thankfully, the company has done. You get a brilliant 6.73-inch LTPO2 AMOLED panel sourced from Samsung, which supports a 120Hz refresh rate, Dolby Vision, and HDR10+ for up to 1000nits average brightness, with 1500nits as the peak. It wraps around the aluminium frame nicely and has a small hole punch in the top centre for the selfie camera. It is easily the USP of the device, despite the company's claims about the camera system.
On the rear, you get an eco-leather back panel with a retro texture that pays homage to Leica professional cameras. It is nice to look at but would certainly hinder heat management in warmer areas like the Middle East and Asia, where temperatures are often known to soar above 40 degrees on average.
The camera array also continues with the theme of old-school camera lenses, with a massive glass cover that resembles a DSLR lens and features a gold ring around it. The aesthetic is very old-school, but the sheer size of the whole thing throws off the weight balance and makes it prone to fingerprints and possible scratches.
The cameras offer a mixed bunch of different imaging technologies and colour sciences, with no attempt to integrate them into a cohesive photography/cinematography experience. In fact, the presence of the Sony IMX989 sensor actually serves to worsen this contrast as soon as you switch to any of the other sensors. Let us take a look at everything on the table so you have a better idea of what we mean.
Firstly, the main camera you see in the centre of the stack isn't actually the flagship 50.3MP Sony sensor; it is, in fact, the 48MP ultra-wide that the company developed with Leica. It features unique Leica optical components, as well as specific shooting modes with special colour and contrast calibrations. This means that the camera offers a completely different look and final result than the primary Sony sensor, which is actually on the left side of the array.
The new one-inch sensor offers exceptional light input, rapid shutter speeds, naturally enhanced bokeh, and good low-light performance. It even features a handful of Leica software filters to enhance the HDR and colour contrast. However, you still don't get the authentic Leica optics and colour science that are restricted to the ultra-wide camera. Similarly, the 48MP ultra-wide and periscope telephoto cameras don't get the same amount of light input that is restricted to the one-inch camera.
This means that the moment you switch between the different lenses, you will have completely different results. While this is still manageable in photography, by forcing yourself to only shoot with any one camera, you can't avoid the issue while taking videos, which often combine the input of all different sensors into one single clip. This makes video-taking essentially useless unless you're sticking to the default settings for everything, with no pan and zooms or anything else too dramatic.
The sad thing is; that even sticking to defaults doesn't help in many cases where the lack of software optimization raises its ugly head. For example, even with the extra light and exposure, Xiaomi's contrast and HDR tweaks feel amateurish and pretty aggressive, especially when compared to what brands like Apple, Samsung, Vivo, and others have accomplished when it comes to natural edge detection, skin colours, landscape colour reproduction and other facets.
This means that depending on ambient settings, your shooting experience will be filled with a lot of hits and misses. The same experience repeats itself in the 32MP wide-angle selfie camera, which is nothing to write home about. While this is on par with what Xiaomi has been known for in the camera department, it is not something you should have to contend with in a smartphone that claims to be the 'New Era' in cinematography.
Performance & Connectivity
On the inside, the whole setup is powered by the much-hyped Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 chipset. It can be paired with up to 512GB of UFS 3.1 storage and 12GB of LPDDR5 RAM. This is more than enough power to handle anything you throw at it. It pairs pretty well with the superfast display to offer a great day-to-day user experience. We can't say the same for extended gaming sessions, as the chipset is still untested in terms of thermal throttling and other issues, which are bound to be enhanced with the leather back; that is certainly not as thermally efficient as plastic or glass.
In fact, with the 4860mAh single-cell battery being charged at up to 67W, the whole setup is certainly expected to output a lot more heat, leaving the relatively straightforward cooling system to contend with both. Only time will tell whether this will prove adequate for heavy-duty usage in hotter climates, where batteries exploding due to overheating is still a big concern. There is support for 50W wireless fast charging as well, but you will have a hard time finding an affordable charger that can actually deliver that output.
Everything else is just a list of things on which the company saved some money. For example, while the USB Type-C port does support fast charging, it is also just USB Type-C 2.0, which means the transfer rate maxes out at just 480Mbps, instead of up to 20Gbps in the latest gen 3.2. You miss out on the 3.5mm jack as well, which is sacrificed for the IP68 rating. Even an under-display fingerprint sensor is just an optical unit, which is a lot less accurate and slow when compared to the latest ultrasonic sensors. The software side is handled by MIUI, which as usual, is bloated with lots of pre-installed apps and animations.
In the end, this device promises a lot and delivers some of it. We can't say whether the experience will improve with time, as Xiaomi has been notorious for forgetting its older smartphones when it comes to releasing software and security updates. We are sure the whole experience could've been a lot better had the company spent enough time refining the product as much as they have done with the aesthetics. But, at the end of the day, what mattered to them most; was being the first company to release a smartphone with the new one-inch sensor, and at that, they certainly succeeded. Whether the device's value remains once that novelty wears off, and other smartphones get released with the same camera is a conversation for another day, one that we are very much looking forward to.