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About this comparison: This camera versus was done after months and weeks of testing an Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max and Xiaomi 12S Ultra respectively. Each phone was provided by the company for review purposes, but neither Apple nor Xiaomi had any input in this article.
The iPhone is the most mainstream phone, which makes it almost seen as the “default smartphone.” This means anytime a major Android smartphone arrives, it should be compared against the iPhone, even if they don’t appeal to the same market. That’s the case here, as the Xiaomi 12S Ultra has been grabbing a lot of attention for its 1-inch camera sensor with Leica optics, even though the phone is selling only in China for now. This means this comparison is more for enthusiasts and those curious about smartphones than an actual buying guide. It’s also worth mentioning that the smaller iPhone 13 Pro has the exact same camera hardware as the iPhone 13 Pro Max, so all camera results here apply to that phone as well.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max vs Xiaomi 12S Ultra: Specifications
|Specifications||Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max||Xiaomi 12S Ultra|
|Dimensions & Weight||
||Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 1|
|RAM & Storage||
|Battery & Charging||
|Security||Face ID||Optical in-Display fingerprint scanner|
|Software||iOS 15||MIUI 13 over Android 12|
|Other Features||Dual physical SIM or eSIM support||Dual physical SIM|
Camera Hardware Overview
Apple, like Google, had traditionally not cared too much about chasing camera hardware the way Asian phone brands do, instead relying on software improvements and optimizations. But with the iPhone 13 series, especially the Pro models, Apple made a point of really marketing camera improvements made, which included a larger main camera sensor, faster aperture for the ultra-wide, and longer 3X telephoto zoom. The larger main camera sensor, which teardowns have shown to be 1/1.66-inch, gives the iPhone 13 Pro Max a pixel size of 1.9µm.
These numbers, however, still pale in comparison to the Xiaomi 12S Ultra’s, which boasts a 50MP main camera with a 1-inch sensor, which, after pixel-binning, results in a 3.2µm pixel size. In fact, looking at the physical difference between the 1-inch Sony IMX989 sensor in the Xiaomi 12S Ultra to the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s sensor is jarring to see.
The 12S Ultra’s ultra-wide camera is a 48MP camera, f/2.2 shooter, and rounding out the triple lens system is a 48MP 5X Periscope zoom lens offering 5X optical zoom.
The iPhone 13 Pro Max features an additional LIDAR (light detection and ranging) scanner while the Xiaomi phone has a 3D ToF (time-of-flight) sensor. Both do similar things, but the LIDAR is a bit more advanced from previous experiences. For selfies, the Xiaomi 12S Ultra uses a 32MP f/2.4 camera to the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s 12MP f/2.2 shooter.
As I said, there’s no denying that the Xiaomi 12S Ultra has gaudier camera hardware numbers, but as Google has proven in the past, the camera software is equally important, so these numbers won’t mean a thing if Xiaomi’s image processing is significantly weaker than Apple’s Let’s find out.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max vs Xiaomi 12S Ultra: Main Camera
The first thing to note is that the Xiaomi 12S Ultra has two camera color profiles: “Leica Authentic” or “Leica Vibrant,” while the iPhone 13 Pro Max has three color profiles: “Vibrant Cool,” “Warm,” and “Cool.”
They do the exact things the name implies, though the difference is quite minimal by default. I shot mostly in the color profiles I prefer, which is the authentic mode for 12S Ultra, and vibrant cool for iPhone 13 Pro Max. We can see that the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s images are actually a bit punchier — reds are brighter, the neon-light drenched sky is more purple, heavy shadows are darker, etc. I’d say the real-life scene was somewhere in the middle. Apple has definitely begun playing with colors a bit more in post-shot processing starting with the 13 series, and Xiaomi’s “Leica Authentic” perhaps goes a bit too natural. But nonetheless, all of these shots are excellent, particularly when viewed on a phone screen or in photo gallery form on a website (which is what you’d be seeing if you’re reading this on a computer).
But the significantly larger image sensor of the 12S Ultra’s camera just flat out wins as soon as you zoom in to the actual size and pixel peep. A larger image sensor pulls in light information, resulting in greater dynamic range and details. Below are 100% crops of shots, notice the iPhone 13 Pro Max image is noisier, softer on details, and in the latter two shots, exhibit major digital oversharpening.
If you want to pixel peep yourself, I have placed some full-sized photo samples in this Flickr gallery here.
Another trait of the larger image sensor is it shoots with a much shallower focus plane. If there is distance between the subject and background, you can see the depth a lot more clearly in Xiaomi’s images thanks to the noticeable bokeh. A shallow focus pane isn’t always better, as it makes close-up shots trickier, but for typical photos in which the subject is a normal distance away, it usually looks better. All the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s images look flat compared to the Xiaomi 12S Ultra’s shots.
One of the recent major breakthroughs in nighttime smartphone photography has been “night mode,” the multi-stack HDR trick that simulates the effects of shooting a long exposure shot with a real camera. Huawei and Google pioneered this around 2018, and every brand has followed suit in recent years. The iPhone 13 Pro Max’s night is one of the best, for it turns on automatically and seamlessly, and doesn’t require the user to hold still for too long — usually a second and a half (unlike the Pixel 6 Pro, which will often take an absurd four seconds to grab a night mode shot).
But Xiaomi had other ideas with the 12S Ultra. Because that larger sensor is so light-sensitive, the 12S Ultra doesn’t really turn on night mode until it’s in a near pitch-black scene. And as a result, the 12S Ultra’s night shots will often be “not as bright” as rivals, because it’s shooting normal shots while others are using night mode. This is noticeable in both samples, below, particularly the second set, of the graffiti taken in a dark alley.
I think for the first set, the Xiaomi 12S Ultra shot is more aesthetically pleasing, as the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s night mode did too much and made all the lights a bit too bright, but in the second set, the iPhone image really shows off the vibrancy of the graffiti’s colors.
But that’s viewing these images in smaller form. Again, if we pixel peep, Xiaomi shots are noticeably less noisy, and appear more natural, without the overprocessing that is a side effect of night mode.
I must also mention that not needing night mode is in itself an advantage because the camera can snap the shot faster. Night mode photos generally don’t work well when shooting moving subjects because the shot takes one or two seconds (or in Pixel’s case, four to five seconds).
Some readers may be in disbelief that the iPhone is losing this category in most areas so far but worry not, the iPhone 13 Pro Max will pick up wins in other categories later. But if we are just talking about the main camera, the drastic difference in camera sensor size is just too much.
Both phones’ ultra-wide cameras are very good during the day, the iPhone’s ultra-wide is a tad wider, and often exposes tough high contrast scenes a bit better than Xiaomi’s ultra-wide. In the first two samples in the below set, the iPhone colors and overall exposure are more aesthetically pleasing. The first shot, in particular, was tough, as I shot against very harsh sunlight. I couldn’t even keep my eyes fully open when I looked up. We often say smartphones have gotten boring, but there’s been a lot of subtle improvements in recent years. If we go back just a couple of years, the ultra-wides of the iPhone 11 and Xiaomi Mi 10 Pro would have completely butchered this shot.
There isn’t much point in pixel-peeping ultra-wide shots, but we’ll do it for the sake of this exercise. Once again, the iPhone 13 Pro’s shot, if we examine it at 100% scale, exhibits a lot of oversharpening, look at rocks in the second set in particular. But again, this doesn’t matter nearly as much as main camera shots, because ultra-wide photos are meant to be examined in all their sweeping glory, not crop in and nitpick. I’ll take more consistent exposure over minor sharpness improvement in ultra-wides any day.
If we move to low-light scenes though, then it gets interesting. Here, Xiaomi will turn on night mode (so, too, does Apple), but because the 12S Ultra’s ultra-wide also uses pixel binning technology with a slightly larger sensor, its night shots are better illuminated. This isn’t always good, I think the iPhone’s ultra-wide keeping shadows so dark makes for a moodier, more atmospheric shot, but the iPhone’s images are noticeably softer on details and noisier than Xiaomi’s in all three sets below.
Ultra-wide is a close one. I’d give the clear win to iPhone during the day, and a slight win to Xiaomi at night, which gives the overall win to Apple.
This one shouldn’t be a surprise, the Periscope zoom lens technology that Xiaomi uses to achieve 5X optical zoom is just superior to the telephoto setup Apple uses for 3X shots. The Periscope zoom lens is a complicated technology that sees a camera lens placed sideways in the phone’s body, and utilizes many more layers of lenses to help magnify the image before it reaches the ISP. Not only is Xiaomi’s 10X shot clearly sharper and cleaner than Apple’s 10X zoom, but even the 12S Ultra’s 5X zoom is also more detailed than the iPhone’s 3X zoom if we scale them to the same size.
I will say, however, that the colors in the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s zoom shots are more aesthetically pleasing, they pop a bit more.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max vs Xiaomi 12S Ultra: Portraits
Since the iPhone 13 Pro Max has a 3X telephoto lens, it is used for portrait shots by default, as 3X zoom is a good focal range for portraits. But you can swap out to use the main camera for portraits. Xiaomi 12S Ultra, on the other hand, will only use the main camera for portraits, but Xiaomi applies a digital crop to make the framing a bit tighter, closer to 35mm.
You know how earlier, Xiaomi’s main camera shots all looked like they had more depth and bokeh than the iPhone’s main camera shots? Well, that’s all hardware sensor differences. Now that we move to portrait mode photos, which are software-driven, the script is flipped. Here, the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s portraits exhibit stronger and more realistic-looking bokeh.
Xiaomi loses the last two sets particularly badly. In the set with the lion statue, the iPhone 13 Pro correctly identified the leaf in the foreground, and the second lion in the background, and applied artificial bokeh accordingly. Xiaomi’s image tried to keep the second lion statue in focus too, messing it up in the process because it shouldn’t be — that statue is further back in the focus plane. In the last portrait set of me, I think my skin tone, clothing texture, and general color, look more realistic in the iPhone shot. Xiaomi’s image looks like I was cut out from another photo and pasted onto this background.
This is clearly due to Apple’s superior portrait mode processing, but also perhaps the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s superior LIDAR scanner, which allows the iPhone to pull off accurate 3D mapping of scenes, while the ToF sensor in the Xiaomi 12S Ultra is likely nothing too special.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max vs Xiaomi 12S Ultra: Video
The iPhone has long been the video camera king and although 2022 Android flagships have closed the gap, the iPhone 13 Pro Max keeps the title. We can see here the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s colors and exposure are better from the start, and when I begin jogging, stabilizes better too. Xiaomi’s footage is a bit blown out here, likely due to the sensor size taking in so much light. Xiaomi’s image processing accounts for this and fixes matters, but it seems to not be doing as well as a job in video.
Xiaomi’s mics are also way too sensitive to wind noise. This is just a clear win for Apple on every front.
Macro photography and other trick shots
Both phones’ ultra-wide sensors can double as a macro lens, but the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s is much better. Not only does it turn on automatically (Xiaomi’s requires two taps to turn on), but the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s macro can get so much closer. Xiaomi’s shots by comparison almost can’t even count as macro photography.
However, Xiaomi’s camera software has several more trick photography shots up its sleeve, including a very fun clone video and photo mode, which lets 12S Ultra and other recent Xiaomi phones quickly stitch together two instances of the same person into a still image or video. Yes, there are third-party software apps that can do this, but the 12S Ultra can do this within the default camera app and in only a few seconds.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max vs Xiaomi 12S Ultra: Which camera is better?
The answer to this question comes down to which camera you value more. The Xiaomi 12S Ultra’s main camera snaps clearly superior photos than the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s. More detailed, less noise, superior dynamic range, and bokeh. But the iPhone 13 Pro Max’s main cameras record better videos. More stable, better audio, better exposure.
The ultra-wide camera is mostly a tie, with a slight edge to the iPhone 13 Pro Max in my opinion, and the Xiaomi 12S Ultra wins in zoom prowess. But Apple comes back and takes the macro and portrait shots category by a landslide.
Which of these categories matters more to you? Only you can answer this. I do think Apple has to continue to increase its image sensor size to keep up with Android hardware, while Android brands should focus more on consistency across all cameras instead of seemingly putting the bulk of the attention on the main shooter and calling it a day.