Xiaomi 12S Ultra Review: Living up to the Ultra hype

Xiaomi 12S Ultra Review: Living up to the Ultra hype

For far too long, Xiaomi has been seen as a brand that made some pretty good, but not great, phones. The draw was that Xiaomi always priced its devices lower than what Huawei or Samsung charged, thus making them appealing for their value-for-money quotient. Xiaomi has done a remarkable job shedding that reputation in the last two years, as it is now seen as a brand that, while still offering great value mid-rangers such as the Xiaomi 12 Lite, is also capable of making absolutely premium flagship phones that can trade blows with, and even beat, the Apples and Samsungs of the world. Anybody who’s used last year’s Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra won’t argue this, and the Xiaomi 12S Ultra continues this hot streak. In a year of mostly iterative smartphone updates so far, the Xiaomi 12S Ultra is a noticeable step up in some very important smartphone areas.

XDA VIDEO OF THE DAY

xiaomi 12s ultra in the hand


Xiaomi 12S Ultra: Pricing and Availability

The Xiaomi 12S Ultra is on sale now, but only in China. Those who are really interested can look into importing options, or wait and see if Xiaomi releases this globally. From what we know so far from our external sources, Xiaomi isn’t planning for an international launch. Considering the last Xiaomi Ultra device saw a global release, and this is the company’s first Leica co-branded device, we hope to be incorrect in this matter and pray that there will be an international launch later.

In China, the Xiaomi 12S Ultra is priced at:

  • 5,999 yuan (around $892) for 8GB RAM + 256GB storage
  • 6,499 yuan (around $969) for 12GB RAM + 256GB storage
  • 6,999 yuan (around $1,045) for 12GB RAM + 512GB storage
    The Xiaomi 12S Ultra is Xiaomi's best slab offering of the year, and it brings brand new camera with a 1-inch sensor and Leica optics.

      Features:

      Pros:

      Cons:


Xiaomi 12S Ultra: Specifications

Specification Xiaomi 12S Ultra
Build
  • IP68 dust and water resistance
  • Colors:
    • Classic Black
    • Verdant Green
Dimensions & Weight
  • 163.17 x 74.92 x 9.06mm
  • 225g
Display
  • 6.73-inch Samsung E5 AMOLED
  • Dolby Vision TrueColor Display
  • 3200 x 1440 resolution, 522PPI
  • 1-120Hz adaptive refresh rate
  • 1,500nits peak brightness
  • 360-degree ambient light sensor
  • Native 10-bit color depth
  • 100% DCI-P3 coverage
  • HDR10+, HDR10, HLG
SoC Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1
RAM & Storage
  • 8GB LPDDR5 RAM + 256GB UFS 3.1 storage
  • 12GB + 256GB
  • 12GB + 512GB
Battery & Charging
  • 4,860mAh
  • 67W wired fast charging support
  • 50W wireless fast charging support
  • 10W reverse wireless charging support
  • Xiaomi Surge P1 charging chip
  • Xiaomi Surge G1 battery management chip
Security In-display fingerprint scanner
Rear Camera(s)
  • Primary: 50.3MP IMX989, f/1.9, 8P aspherical lens, octa-PD auto-focus
  • Ultra-wide: 48MP IMX586, f/2.2, Leica Summicron 1:1.9-4.1 / 13-120 aspherical lens, dual-PD auto-focus, macro mode support
  • Telephoto: 48MP IMX586, f/4.1, 120x periscope zoom, HyperOIS
  • Leica Authentic Look and Leica Vibrant look photographic styles
  • Leica Vivid, Natural, BW Natural, BW High Contrast filters
Front Camera(s) 32MP RGBW image sensor
Port(s) USB Type-C
Audio
  • Symmetrical stereo speakers
  • Tuned by Harman Kardon
  • Dolby Atmos certification
Connectivity
  • Dual 5G
  • 4G LTE
  • Wi-Fi 6
  • Bluetooth 5.2
    • BLE Audio support
    • Snapdragon sound support
    • AAC/LDAC/LHDC/aptX Adaptive
  • Multi-functional NFC
Software MIUI 13 based on Android 12
Other Features
  • X-axis linear vibration motor
  • 3D cooling system

About this review: Xiaomi provided me with a Xiaomi 12S Ultra to test. This review was written after nine days of testing the phone. Xiaomi did not have input in this review.


Xiaomi 12S Ultra: Design and Hardware

  • Main camera uses a new 1-inch sensor developed by Sony, with optics from Leica
  • Premium materials, construction, and finish
  • One of the first phones to ship with Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1

Xiaomi 12S Ultra

Smartphone camera modules have gotten larger and larger through the years, but the Xiaomi 12S Ultra really takes the cake. I mean, look at this thing. It protrudes quite a bit from the backside too, so if you’re placing this phone flat on a table, it lays at an incline as if you’re propping up a keyboard.

Xiaomi 12S Ultra camera module

As if this camera module isn’t eye-grabbing enough, there’s also a 24k gold ring that wraps around the module. But yet, despite the top-heavy design, the phone can still stand on its own, thanks to its flat bottom and top.

Xiaomi 12S Ultra camera module with gold ring

This, however, means the Xiaomi 12S Ultra’s screen loses that quad-curved design seen in the Xiaomi Mi 10 Ultra and Mi 11 Ultra (there’s no Mi branding for this year’s phone, by the way).

Xiaomi 12s Ultra standing straight.
The Xiaomi 12S Ultra has a shape that’s pretty typical of modern Android flagships: the 6.7-inch screen is curved on the left and right sides, with rounded corners and minimal bezels. It’s a Samsung E5 LTPO panel, which is about as good as mobile display tech gets right now.

The Xiaomi 12S Ultra screen is as good as mobile display tech gets right now

It’s razor-sharp (3200 x 1440), can vary its refresh rate from 1-120Hz, and supports 100% of DCI-P3 color gamut, 10-bit colors, HDR 10+, etc. With a peak brightness of 1,500 nits, this 12S Ultra screen even gets virtually as bright as the Galaxy S22 Ultra’s display, which was previously leading the industry by a distance.

Xiaomi 12S Ultra screen

The chassis is crafted out of aluminum: volume rocker and power button on the right side, and symmetrical speaker grills on top and bottom. They’re also tuned by Harmon/Kardon. The back side is covered by this grippy faux leather that resembles the handle area of a camera body, with a giant camera module on top.

Xiaomi 12S Ultra

The Xiaomi 12S Ultra is a bit heftier than most 2022 flagships at 225g and 9.06mm thick, but not so much that it feels bulky.

The Xiaomi 12S Ultra with the iPhone 13 Pro Max, Vivo X80 Pro and Galaxy S22 Ultra

From left: iPhone 13 Pro Max, Xiaomi 12S Ultra, Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra, Vivo X80 Pro

Internals

The phone packs a 4,860 mAh battery, 12GB of LPDDR5 RAM, and UFS 3.1 storage up to 512GB — pretty standard stuff for a flagship. What’s new and noteworthy is the trio of silicon inside: Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1 SoC, along with Xiaomi’s self-made Surge G1 and P1. The Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1 should be familiar to readers, it’s Qualcomm’s newest update on its flagship chip, and the Xiaomi 12S Ultra is one of the first phones to ship with this chip. It’s a very valid upgrade over the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1, and everyone who has the choice to take the Plus over the standard should take it, which is something we couldn’t particularly say for previous Plus chips from Qualcomm.

The Surge G1 and P1, meanwhile, are dedicated chips designed by Xiaomi to handle battery management and charging. I am no battery expert, I’m not really sure if you really need a dedicated silicon to handle each task like this, but I can say the Xiaomi 12S Ultra has the best battery life of any Android flagship with a 120Hz, WQHD+ screen I’ve tested. This is a phone that can consistently go an entire 13-hour day out for me, and I’m a very heavy user. I’ll elaborate on battery life in the performance section further down.

Xiaomi 12S Ultra

Every part of this phone, from processor to screen, haptics to optics, is top-notch. The only nitpick I have is the in-display fingerprint scanner — it’s “just” a typical optical in-display scanner (likely sourced from Shenzhen-based Goodix) and not the Qualcomm 3D Sonic Max ultrasonic scanner that Vivo has been using in its flagships. The latter is just noticeably faster with a larger scanning area. After using that scanner on the Vivo X80 Pro and Iqoo 9 Pro,  it’s just hard for me to go back to the smaller, slower optical scanner. I am aware this is a total nitpick that applies only to reviewers or phone enthusiasts in Asia, because the rest of the world doesn’t even have access to a device with the new 3D Sonic Max scanner yet.

Xiaomi 12S Ultra


Xiaomi 12S Ultra: Cameras

  • The 50MP, 1-inch sensor with Leica optics is legitimately great, producing shots with more natural bokeh
  • The 48MP ultra-wide and 48MP 5X Periscope cameras are very good, but not necessarily better than rival offerings
  • Selfie camera and portraits can be hit or miss

Xiaomi 12S Ultra camera module with gold ring

The Xiaomi 12S Ultra packs four cameras — three on the back, one around the front — but clearly, all the attention and interest is on the main camera: a 50MP (actually 50.3MP) shooter using Sony’s new IMX989 1-inch sensor. Xiaomi says it contributed 15 million in funding to Sony to help develop this sensor, but this lens isn’t exclusive to Xiaomi — other phones including the just-launched Sharp Aquos R7 also use this sensor.

But that’s not all with this main camera in terms of gaudy numbers and big brand namedrops. This main camera also uses Leica optics, a new 8P lens that Xiaomi says was developed just for this phone. There’s a lot to cover with this camera, so I’ll separate my findings into sections. Photos in this article have been compressed, so those who want to view full-resolution photo samples can check out the Flickr album below.

Xiaomi 12S Ultra Full-Res Photo Album

1-inch sensor means stronger and more natural bokeh

So what does a larger sensor do? A larger image sensor takes in more light, resulting in greater dynamic range and image details. It also produces a shallower focus pane for that depth-of-field bokeh effect professional photographers love.

Every phone nowadays will produce some form of bokeh if you snap a shot of something/someone close enough, but the Xiaomi 12S Ultra’s bokeh is consistently stronger, with a more natural focus drop-off. In the below sample set, even if you’re viewing the images on a phone screen, you’d be able to see the Xiaomi image exhibits significantly stronger bokeh.

But if you look closer, ideally on a larger screen, you can see that the Xiaomi image not only is exhibiting bokeh between the camera and the plant behind but also between the camera lens and the camera body. The larger sensor is able to produce some separation between the two, because the lens is a good five inches closer to the camera than the camera body. Samsung’s image provides some separation between the camera and plant, but not quite the lens and body. It’s a flatter image.

xiaomi 12s ultra camera sample

100% crops, 12S Ultra (left), Galaxy S22 Ultra (right).

Since the iPhone 13 Pro Max has a smaller image sensor size than the Galaxy S22 Ultra, the difference in depth-of-field is even more jarring when pitted against the Xiaomi 12S Ultra. Pay attention to the second set, in particular, Xiaomi’s image not only showed separation between the foreground (the lamp) and background (bottles), but also the Starbucks box and the pink bottle under it, because the box protruded a few inches out towards the camera.

The iPhone’s image just looks flat by comparison.

100% crops

100% crops, 12S Ultra (left) and iPhone 13 Pro Max (right).

Leica color science really likes contrast

You may have noticed from the samples so far that Xiaomi’s images are showing deeper shadows and have more contrast than shots captured by the Galaxy S22 Ultra or iPhone 13 Pro, this is part of that Leica-inspired color science, which deliberately keeps shadows darker for a more striking contrast.

The first time you start the camera app, the phone will actually ask you to choose between two Leica color profiles: “Leica Authentic” and “Leica Vibrant”. Both profiles still keep shadows pretty dark, but the Vibrant will exaggerate highlights a bit. I generally prefer the Authentic color profile better.

I’m glad the Xiaomi 12S Ultra camera is confident and has its own identity, instead of pushing out semi-generic, flat images. For contrasty scenes (like a sunny day over a city with lots of tall buildings), the camera can produce some very atmospheric shots. The Leica watermark you see in some of the samples is optional and turned off by default.

For reference, here’s how the Google Pixel 6 Pro handled this particular high-contrast scene. It comes down to a matter of preference which shot is “better.”

A larger sensor also means it doesn’t need night mode as often

Larger sensors collect more light than smaller sensors, and since the Xiaomi 12S Ultra has a larger sensor than any mainstream flagship, it should automatically be the low-light photo king, right? It’s not so straightforward. Image sensor size is just one of many methods that allow a smartphone camera to gather light information to produce an image. There’s also the aperture size, and lots of software tricks such as pixel binning and “night mode,” the latter uses computational image stacking to recreate the long exposure shot experience of a real camera.

Because night modes have gotten so, so good, and most phones turn it on automatically, I find that, for most low light scenes, the Xiaomi 12S Ultra image often appears not as bright as rival phones.

This is partly because the 12S Ultra’s color science likes to keep shadows darker, but the bigger reason is that the 12S Ultra did not use night mode for the above shot, while the other three phones did (they turned on automatically). You really need to shoot in pitch black conditions just to trigger night mode, whereas something like a Pixel 6 Pro or iPhone 13 Pro will turn on night mode as soon as the sun sets. The iPhone needed a two-second night mode to grab the above shot, while the 12S Ultra just snapped it as normal.

In this next set, the scene was dark enough that Xiaomi finally turned on a one-second night mode, compared to the other two phones’ two-second night mode.

I suggest readers who care about these things jump into the Flickr album with full-size samples to pixel peep. But from my examination, the iPhone’s shot is extremely noisy when viewed in full size, and the lights are too blown out in the playground area. I actually prefer Samsung’s colors the best of the three.

So we can see that the Xiaomi 12S Ultra’s night shots aren’t going to be magically brighter and better lit than rivals because the others will simply resort to night mode. But night mode isn’t always ideal, because you have to keep still for seconds (the Pixel 6 Pro is particularly ridiculous, sometimes taking five full seconds to snap a night shot), so you won’t be able to use night mode to shoot moving subjects. Xiaomi’s shots are a bit more organic as a result, because it’s often just a straightforward shot, and it’s almost always less noisy if you pixel peep. In the below set, taken in an entirely black room with the light source coming from the window and monitors, you can see Xiaomi’s image exhibits the least noise. However, Vivo’s absolutely uncanny HDR is still jaw-dropping, managing to expose the monitor, window, and rest of the room properly while Xiaomi and Samsung blow out the computer screens.

Here are more night samples from the Xiaomi 12S Ultra, I really like the camera for night shots, even if the Vivo X80 Pro is still arguably the low light photo champion.

Leica portrait filter quality has a high ceiling, low floor

Because the Xiaomi 12S Ultra’s sole zoom lens is such a long zoom (5X), the phone uses the main camera for portraits and digitally crops in for a more desirable focal length. By default, the camera shoots portraits at what appears to be 50mm-ish equivalent. But there are three Leica portrait styles (aka filters) that simulate shooting with different Leica lenses: 35mm black and white; 50mm swirly bokeh; and 90mm soft focus.

I really like the 35mm black and white filter and find most shots to be very visually appealing.

But the other two filters miss more often than they hit, producing unusable shots like below.

If we revert to just standard portraits, then the 12S Ultra’s are okay, but edge detection is a bit too aggressive, and the iPhone’s portrait mode is clearly smarter at identifying what should be in the foreground and background. In the second set below, you can see the Xiaomi artificial bokeh looked very wonky around the second lion statue in the back. The iPhone correctly identified the second lion as being further in the background and applied the artificial bokeh correctly. This is like a reverse of shooting normal photos, with the Xiaomi shots looking oddly flat while the iPhone shot has (simulated) depth.

Zoom and Ultra-wide cameras are very good, but not the best

The Xiaomi 12S Ultra brings back the same 48MP 5X Periscope and ultra-wide cameras as last year’s Mi 11 Ultra. I notice the newer ISP and software processing has improved the 5X zoom from last year, and the ultra-wide for the most part grab shots that are more detailed and, in low light conditions, less noisy than the iPhone 13 Pro Max and Galaxy S22 Ultra ultra-wides.

But Xiaomi’s cameras here are not the best in the industry. Samsung’s Galaxy S22 Ultra’s 10X zoom lens is better — not only does it have twice the optical focal range, but the viewfinder remains remarkably stable even when I’m zooming in 20X, 30X.

The 12S Ultra’s ultra-wide also has a noticeably different color science from the other two lenses.

Real bokeh makes videos look more professional

The Xiaomi 12S Ultra video performance is really good. It can shoot videos up to 8K resolution, but I don’t care about that and neither should most people. Instead, shoot at 4K/30 and marvel at the crisp videos with good stabilization and best of all, noticeable bokeh because of that larger sensor. See the samples below.

The only nitpick I have with the video is that the audio recording is a bit below par compared to the Galaxy S22 Ultra. My voice is a bit more distant in Xiaomi’s clips than in Samsung’s. Although a major problem is also because I film videos outside, in one of the noisiest cities on earth. Most people in quieter regions will not have this issue.

The selfie camera is below par

There’s a 32MP selfie camera, and it’s a bit hit and miss. I really like the first shot, for example, with the strong contrast, and accurate portrayal of my skin tone and texture. But the other three, taken in lower light situations? The shutter speed is obviously much slower as there’s a bit of blur in every shot, and my skin suddenly looks heavily softened, Samsung style. In the last shot, I look plastic.