A smartphone with Leica optics and large imaging sensors is introduced by Xiaomi

The new Xiaomi smartphones were launched in mainland China today, but there's little doubt about what they're all about after a quick glance. The back of the smartphone is dominated by a dome covering several cameras with one of the biggest sensors we've seen in a smartphone – a 1-inch sensor protected by Leica glass.

Many people – men especially – say that size does not matter. However, the glass in front of lenses is not perfect, and it can only do so much when it comes to imaging sensors. There's no doubt that larger sensors mean higher resolution, but they also mean that they have more space for bigger pixels. This can improve the sensor's cooling, as well as performance in low light.

Xiaomi and Leica have jointly developed different imaging systems for the 12S smartphones. During my recent mockery of Leica, I also mocked Hasselblad for its smartphone integration, but in this case, it actually makes sense to me. The phone might actually be able to make the most of its sensors by using lenses designed by Leica (carrying the Leica Summicron brand, no less).

Some of the cameras include sophisticated lens designs that I have never seen on smartphones; I look forward to trying one out and seeing if it works as well in real life as it does on paper.

According to the company, its lenses improve photo quality drastically. The alphabet soup in the press release makes it sound like the smartphone has re-invented the wheel, and makes some pretty juicy clams.

In case you've read a photography press release or two, you might summarize the first paragraph above as 'We incorporated technology that was pretty common on compact cameras in 2005 or so' and the second paragraph as '... and we created some filters that have been in Hipstamatic since 2009, but they look like Leica cameras.' The ‘Leica look’, of course, is heavily dependent on the films you use in Leica’s legendary cameras.

Even with the press release sleight of hand, the cameras themselves are impressive, and fitting Sony's IMX989 1-inch sensors into smartphones is quite the feat, both from an engineering perspective and as an illustration of its commitment to photography.

It is a corollary to ask you if you have ever heard of the A-10 fighter plane? It was built around a ridiculously large machine gun that fired depleted uranium rounds and was used to bomb tanks. Those are the optics I visualize with this smartphone; they aren't the kind you just slapped on a phone at the last minute because the product folks thought it would work.

The sensors, mated with high-quality glass, promise exceptional low-light photography capabilities. When that's combined with some smart computational photography skills and a 10-bit RAW format, you're getting to talking about some real advanced camera technology. Low-end compact cameras have been dying for a long time, and these phones might be the final nail in the coffin.

The wild part is that we're talking about a camera with 50.3 megapixels of resolution and a wide-angle lens equivalent to 23mm, making it a serious SLR challenger. To the best of my knowledge, this is the most advanced camera/lens combination of any smartphone. Of course, megapixels aren't all that counts.

This is a sample image taken with the new flagship smartphone. The shutter speed was set to 1/1250 and ISO 225. 

It has a large 4,860 mAh battery and smart battery management, so you should be able to stay active for a while. The Snapdragon® 8+ Gen 1 Mobile Platform powers the smartphone. As well as a 6.73” AMOLED color display, the Xiaomi 12S Ultra is equipped with a cooling pump that circulates cooling liquid via a capillary network to prevent overheating.

Xiaomi 12S Ultra starts at around $900, Xiaomi 12S Pro starts at around $700, and Xiaomi 12S starts at around $600. It is unclear whether or when these phones will be available outside of mainland China.

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