As impressive as smartphone cameras are these days, even the best camera phones face a couple of major limitations. One is the selection of lenses, since there’s a limit to how many different ones you can reasonably equip a phone with, and the other is the quality of those lenses, which is limited based on their necessarily small size. But Xiaomi has just shown off a phone that solves both of those problems.
The company took to Weibo (opens in new tab) – a Chinese social network – to reveal a modified version of the Xiaomi 12S Ultra (which already includes a one-inch sensor) that you can mount a Leica M-series lens to. The post included a video that’s been uploaded to YouTube by XDA Developers (opens in new tab), so you can watch it below.
One inch is impressively large for a smartphone camera sensor, but as is true of any smartphone that touts photography as a key selling point, the bottleneck then becomes the smartphone-sized lenses used. While the standard Xiaomi 12S Ultra’s 50MP Sony IMX989 is styled like any other smartphone camera, this newly-unveiled Xiaomi 12S Ultra concept doesn’t have a lens over the sensor at all – or at least not until you attach one.
In order to keep the sensor as clean as possible when a lens isn’t attached, the company has opted for a sapphire crystal cover, that should repel scratches well; dust between the lens elements and the sensor seems like it would still be a persistent challenge, however.
Since you can attach and swap Leica M-series lenses, you’re not limited to just the one lens there, so you can take advantage of that powerful one-inch sensor across a variety of lenses (assuming you invest in a variety).
And these Leica lenses are designed for proper mirrorless and rangefinder cameras, so they’re much bigger and more capable than the lenses you’d typically find on a smartphone. If one was permanently attached to this Xiaomi phone, it would be impractical, but you can simply remove it when not in use, to keep the phone’s conventional form factor intact.
For now, this is just a concept phone, so there’s no guarantee it will ever go on sale, but it’s not impossible to imagine that we’ll one day see this or something similar sold.
Analysis: a niche but exciting idea
A phone like this Xiaomi 12S Ultra concept is never likely to be mainstream, since it will only appeal to people who already have or want a proper camera, and aren’t satisfied with quality or look of conventional smartphone photos, but for those few, it could be a revelation.
There’s a saying that the best camera is the one you have with you, and since we all carry our phones around with us everywhere, that makes them the best – or at least the most useful – even if they’re not the highest quality.
Carrying around a DSLR or mirrorless system is, for most of us, something we’d only do when we actively plan to be taking photos while out, and even then, it’s an extra thing to carry, which can be an annoyance.
So, Xiaomi’s 12S Ultra concept could offer the quality of a proper camera without the need to carry a separate snapper. You will, of course, still need to bring at least one lens out with you, but there’s less weight and size there than in a whole dedicated camera system.
Plus, there are a wide variety of Leica M-series lenses out there, so there are already loads of compatible options, and for people who already own some, this Xiaomi concept could be even more tempting. So there’s no doubt this would be one of the best camera phones and best Xiaomi phones around, if it ever did launch.