Mi 14 Ultra Review: A ‘Camera’ Phone!

Xiaomi’s Evolution in Camera Technology

In 2020, Xiaomi introduced its first product with the suffix “Ultra” – the Xiaomi 10 Supreme Commemorative Edition, which stands out from the Xiaomi 10/Pro mainly in its greatly improved imaging performance. The combination of a large sensor, multiple focal lengths, and a quad-camera setup remains the standard for flagship cameras.

Xiaomi 10 Ultra

Having gained recognition from the market and consumers, Xiaomi continued the Ultra series, bringing forth the Xiaomi 11 Ultra with three large sensors, the Xiaomi 12S Ultra with a one-inch Leica sensor, and the Xiaomi 13 Ultra featuring the culmination of advancements. These three heavyweights signaled Xiaomi’s shift towards emphasizing “light and shadow” in the realm of photography, setting itself apart from the crowd of computational photography.

Xiaomi Ultra series

Last year, as Ray Technology assessed the mobile imaging landscape, there were concerns about companies exhausting their best technologies after years of intense competition. Following these developments, how could these companies meet the expectations of consumers? Especially for Xiaomi, known for three years of major unveilings, how could the Xiaomi 14 Ultra upgrade itself to earn the approval of Mi fans and photography enthusiasts?

Ray Technology assessment

After traveling through four cities with the Xiaomi 14 Ultra and taking thousands of photos, I finally understood that its positioning was no longer just a flagship camera phone but a true evolution into a camera that fits in your pocket.

Complete Focal Lengths, Enhanced Experience

Compared to professional cameras, the biggest advantage of smartphone photography lies in its portability and versatile focal lengths. Achieving a full focal range from 24-300mm in traditional cameras requires constantly changing lenses, which are not only expensive but also inconvenient to carry around.

Why do I care so much about a smartphone’s lens configuration? Because the lenses determine what subjects you can photograph, and lacking a certain lens may exclude you from capturing specific scenes.

Xiaomi 14 Ultra excels in this aspect, offering four lenses catering to the commonly used focal lengths of 13mm, 23mm, 75mm, and 120mm. Each lens boasts 50 million pixels, large apertures, support for fast capturing, night photography, and 8K video recording.

Xiaomi 14 Ultra lenses

The main camera features a new one-inch sensor, LYT 900, with aperture options upgraded from F/1.9 and F/4.0 to 1.63, 2.0, 2.8, and 4.0. A large aperture enhances bokeh and low-light shooting capabilities. With ample light intake, the camera can achieve the same brightness in less exposure time, resulting in faster shooting speeds.

The other three lenses use the familiar IMX858 sensor, equipped with 2 exp-DOL capabilities and Fine12bitAD customization for nearly instantaneous high-speed shooting. Their performance in image quality and white balance closely matches the main camera, displaying not only exceptional quality but also remarkable stability, with a high success rate in capturing satisfying photos almost effortlessly.

It Doesn’t Feel Like a Phone

Since partnering with Leica, Xiaomi has adopted an artistic flair that extends to its photographic style. Mentioning Xiaomi photography now conjures images of “Germanic flavors, street photography, human stories, light, and shadow,” which has become synonymous with Xiaomi’s imaging.

Strictly speaking, Xiaomi 14 Ultra utilizes what could be termed as the fourth-generation Leica toning. The previously released Xiaomi 14/14 Pro achieved a balance between daily aesthetics and Leica’s profound toning. As a product that pushes the limits in imaging, the Xiaomi 14 Ultra’s toning leans towards the more “radical.”

Xiaomi 14 Ultra photography

The weather in Dali has been exceptionally fine recently, with deep blue skies complementing the distant snow-capped mountains. However, due to the strong lighting conditions, using other smartphone brands would lead to noticeable overexposure in the background. Attempting to reduce exposure might cause loss of detail in darker areas, or even color distortion.

Xiaomi 14 Ultra is very “smart.” It first slightly reduces the brightness of the background, then performs light attenuation around the edges of the photo, and adds Leica’s classic style for a softer transition between light and dark, giving the entire photo a kind of indescribable “premium feel” or a more “tranquil and pleasant” look.

For example, in this sample taken before sunrise, the slightly darkened Erhai Lake, the faintly yellow sky, and the thick clouds form a unique scene. Upon closer observation, one can also see that the light from the sky is partially blocked by the clouds, causing the water below to darken significantly. Xiaomi 14 Ultra perfectly reproduces this “transition between light and dark,” creating an artistic play of “light and shadow” that may sound a bit mystical, but undeniably allows one to feel its “aura.”

Black and white photography has always been a subject I particularly like but have struggled to capture well. On one hand, to express the so-called “humanistic narrative” in the most basic black and white form requires a strong sense of composition and the ability to capture moments in an instant. On the other hand, it is also closely related to black and white filters. Currently, most smartphone filters on the market crudely eliminate other color information in photos, leaving only the most basic black and white, which is clearly not what we want — sample images where the brightness levels in different areas meet our requirements.

Leica, as the “king” of black and white cameras, has a unique understanding of black and white photography. The play of light and shadow, the transition of gray tones, and the contrast in the image make the entire photo more charming and narrative, or rather, true black and white tones can emphasize the main content by toning down the colors.

As mentioned earlier, Xiaomi 14 Ultra is considered the fourth-generation Leica-tuned model, and in the realm of black and white photography, Xiaomi and Leica have developed a unique understanding together. Just like in this sample image of the withered tree and water surface, the control over contrast, grayscale, black and white brightness is very well executed, making the originally simple lines more textured.

Capturing light and shadow can be said to be one of Xiaomi 14 Ultra’s “killer features.” Whether it’s sunrise, sunset, or the scene of sunlight hitting the courtyard at noon, it can quickly capture the light in the scene, starting with a more fundamental restoration of light, giving the entire photo a unique “sense of light and shadow” found in the professional photography field.

Since Xiaomi 13 Ultra last year, we have noticed that Xiaomi aims to gradually move its Ultra series closer to professional cameras. Apart from focusing on tonal image quality, Xiaomi has also equipped it with a photography handle kit, featuring physical shutter buttons, zoom levers, and customizable dials, making the shooting experience of Xiaomi 13 Ultra more akin to a mirrorless camera. Xiaomi 14 Ultra also has this “attachment,” and the connection method has become simpler, just plug in the interface and you’re ready to use it.

After attaching a photography handset set, naturally, I switched to the professional mode of the Xiaomi 14 Ultra, adjusted the exposure compensation down, slightly increased the shutter speed, and was able to capture a picture with even exposure and clear light and dark levels.

Moreover, Xiaomi’s stylized photos can to some extent enhance and influence consumers’ aesthetic sense. It can be said that Xiaomi has done a great job in popularizing aesthetics.

AISP, Xiaomi’s new “killer feature” in imaging

The progress of Xiaomi 14 Ultra in terms of tone reproduction is undeniable. Its performance even made many of my friends around me question, “Was this really taken by a phone?”

Apart from the deeper collaboration between Xiaomi and Leica, the progress can also be attributed to Xiaomi 14 Ultra’s integration with Xiaomi AISP, the world’s first imaging processing platform to incorporate AI large models into computational photography. As the name suggests, it can harness the latest AI capabilities to simplify the computational photography process.

According to Xiaomi, Xiaomi AISP has a computing power of 60TOPS, providing complete algorithms for every photo taken by the user. As per official data, even when shooting 150 consecutive photos, Xiaomi 14 Ultra can ensure that each photo undergoes complete algorithm processing. This means that within 30 seconds, Xiaomi 14 Ultra’s AISP can process over 30GB of data, with a write bandwidth speed of up to 8000Mbps.

The extremely high processing speed enables every photo taken by Xiaomi 14 Ultra to undergo meticulous tuning, ensuring accuracy and convenience in light restoration, skin tone adjustment, and background blurring.

Some readers may be skeptical about computational photography. They believe that images captured by a camera should be authentic, rather than altered through various algorithms. In reality, reproducing what the naked eye sees accurately on the screen is a challenging task. Instead of solely pursuing authenticity, it is essential to consider enhancing the overall look of the photo. After all, who doesn’t enjoy effortlessly capturing a beautiful picture?

Moreover, Xiaomi’s approach to computational photography differs from the common perception of enhancing brightness and saturation using algorithms. Xiaomi adopts a restrained attitude and invests significantly in research and hardware production costs to minimize algorithm interference, giving Xiaomi 14 Ultra the “hard” power to reduce such interference.

Besides making strides in tone reproduction with Xiaomi 14 Ultra, Xiaomi AISP also proves beneficial in portrait, telephoto, and video scenarios.

For example, in my daily usage, telephoto functionality plays a significant role. Telephoto capability is a yardstick for determining whether a phone can be considered a flagship device. The extended focal length provides stronger image compression and a variety of composition techniques. Initially, many users were unsatisfied with the telephoto performance on phones because it often fell short of expectations. Beyond 30x zoom, the quality tended to deteriorate, thus claims of 50x or 100x zoom were merely promotional gimmicks.

Upon receiving Xiaomi 14 Ultra, I initially thought that as long as it could capture at extreme zoom levels, clarity was not a priority. However, after testing it, Xiaomi 14 Ultra’s performance pleasantly surprised me.

For instance, in the comparison shots at 30x zoom, the difference between Xiaomi 13 Ultra and Xiaomi 14 Ultra is striking. The 13 Ultra exhibits visible smudging and blurriness due to hand tremors, whereas the 14 Ultra addresses these issues, making the previously touted high zoom levels genuinely practical.

Telephoto lenses have various applications in landscape photography. Below is an image captured handheld with Xiaomi 14 Ultra at a 360mm focal length, showcasing precise focus and rapid response without blurring caused by hand tremors or strong winds at the time.

Portrait photography is another area where Xiaomi AISP excels. Frankly speaking, Xiaomi’s portrait performance in recent years can be described as “average,” particularly compared to its competitors, making Xiaomi’s portrait mode seem even more “ordinary.” However, cameras are not just for capturing scenery and daily life; portrait photography also constitutes a considerable proportion.

Hence, the only shortcoming I found with Xiaomi 13 Ultra was its portrait mode, which had obvious cutout traces and unnatural skin color reproduction. However, all these issues have been resolved in Xiaomi 14 Ultra.

With the support of Xiaomi AISP and its hardware, Xiaomi 14 Ultra excels in capturing portraits by simultaneously lowering background exposure, blurring the background, and enhancing image detail perception. Compared to using a camera and requiring multiple post-processing steps, Xiaomi 14 Ultra truly offers a ready-to-use solution.
Interesting enough, in portrait mode, Xiaomi 14 Ultra offers two additional portrait modes. Particularly noteworthy is the Master Portrait package, which includes four special effects: 35mm humanistic, 50mm focusing, 75mm portrait, and 90mm soft focusing. Users can adjust the aperture size according to their preferences to achieve more textured portrait shots.

The following images are all directly output from Xiaomi 14 Ultra’s portrait mode:

Moreover, the brand-new main camera of Xiaomi 14 Ultra provides exceptional image resolution. I took a photo with a medium format camera, and the difference in visual perception between the two is minimal. Both the details of the subject and the background blur are very close. Without the watermark from Xiaomi 14 Ultra, many readers wouldn’t be able to distinguish which photo was taken with a camera.

The emergence of Xiaomi AISP also proves that mobile photography doesn’t solely rely on hardware to deliver the best shooting experience. After all, a phone is still a phone; it requires a certain algorithmic intervention to capture more textured photos. Apparently, Xiaomi 14 Ultra understands this and has achieved a top-notch level in the industry.

Flagship should naturally come with flagship specifications.

Apart from the surprises brought by Xiaomi 14 Ultra in terms of imaging, it has also received significant enhancements in other aspects.

Firstly, the Xiaomi Surge T1 communication chip, as the name suggests, enhances the phone’s signal reception capability, especially in densely populated areas or areas with weak signals. Xiaomi officials claim that with the T1 communication chip, Xiaomi 14 Ultra’s mid-to-high-frequency cellular communication performance can increase by 37%, while WiFi and Bluetooth performance can increase by nearly 16%. In the aspect of “signal grabbing and speed grabbing,” Xiaomi 14 Ultra is far ahead.

Coincidentally, during this holiday season, I took several high-speed trains. In a practical test, the download speed difference between Xiaomi 14 Ultra and iPhone 15 Pro was nearly 6 times. When the high-speed train entered a tunnel, the iPhone couldn’t even directly connect to the test server, while the internet speed of Xiaomi 14 Ultra not only didn’t decrease but actually increased, truly a “high-speed train warrior.” (The SIM cards used for testing are from the same tier of Telecom’s 5G package.)

For many users who purchase flagship devices, the most worrying aspect of daily use is the phone’s durability. Once dropped mistakenly, replacing the screen could cost a few thousand yuan. In terms of durability, Xiaomi has equipped Xiaomi 14 Ultra with a more robust Unibody aluminum frame and dragon crystal glass, making the hardness of the frame alone double that of Xiaomi 14 Pro. This feature helps reduce the impact on the phone when it falls, thereby indirectly extending the phone’s lifespan.

Moreover, features like a 90W wired fast charge + 80W wireless fast charge, a new generation of dual-loop heat dissipation architecture, and Qualcomm’s third-generation Snapdragon 8 processor are standard operations and will not be elaborated on here.

Xiaomi 14 Ultra, the “trailblazer” of mobile imaging.

Regarding the future of mobile imaging, I believe it still relies on the triple combination of optical hardware, imaging algorithms, and computing power. Manufacturers should think more about enhancing the imaging capabilities that assist users in taking good photos rather than just focusing on hardware and algorithms. They should explore new attempts and devote more effort to self-developed technology and imaging innovation to build their unique imaging capabilities.

Clearly, Xiaomi’s performance in the imaging aspect has exceeded our expectations for mobile imaging. Its presence has proven that “professional cameras are not the only ones capable of taking good photos”; rather, it’s a photography tool carried around daily to capture and record life at any moment.

From the analysis of hardware and parameters, theoretical testing verification, to the firsthand experience and impressions of sample shots, I believe Xiaomi has developed a relatively mature mobile imaging concept: striving to have the creative ability comparable to a camera and maintaining the authenticity of the shooting and creation process.

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