Hands-On With the Leica-Powered Xiaomi 14 Ultra Smartphone

Xiaomi 14 and 14 Ultra announced outside of China. Hands-on Xiaomi's latest smartphones.

After launching in China, Xiaomi is bringing two devices in its 14 Series, the 14 and 14 Ultra, to global availability at its keynote in Barcelona on the eve of Mobile World Congress.

The continuing partnership with Leica underpins the new devices, highlighted by CEO Matthias Harsch, who said a few words live on stage and introduced a new research and development project between the two brands. Several changes on the hardware and camera side attempt to push the mobile photography envelope further, along with a greater emphasis on video recording compared to previous iterations. All told, Xiaomi says it’s equipped the 14 Ultra with the most professional setup used to date “to deliver unmatched, professional photography and videography quality.”

Xiaomi 14 and 14 Ultra announced outside of China. Hands-on Xiaomi's latest smartphones.

Some things stand out off the bat, like the flatter 6.7-inch AMOLED display and more ruggedized vegan leather back on the 14 Ultra, whereas the regular 14 sticks with a glossy back and familiar square camera module. Xiaomi claims its proprietary Guardian Structure unibody aluminum frame and Shield Glass make this a more formidable all-around device than preceding models.

New Optics and Sensor

The 14 and 14 Pro have launched in China already, though only the 14 and 14 Ultra will get broader availability, leaving the Pro as a Chinese exclusive. The 14 Series is the first time Xiaomi has equipped its phones with Leica Summilux lenses — all previous Leica collaborative models had Summicron lenses. Summilux optics are known for being faster with larger apertures, and the 14 Ultra’s primary lens has a maximum aperture of f/1.63 with an eight-piece lens element and higher precision image stabilization.

It also has a variable aperture between f/1.63 and f/4.0, allowing stepless adjustment across three different faults within that range. Xiaomi says the tiny carbon-plated blades inside resist varying temperatures and feature a 12-bit high-precision motor. The advantage, particularly in Pro mode with all its manual controls, is that it’s possible to adjust the aperture in 0.01 increments, though I didn’t get a chance to try this out to see how it works. While not mentioned in greater detail, the lens coating should be better as well, especially on the regular Xiaomi 14, which could avoid the kind of ghosting and lens flare that sometimes plagued the 13T and 13T Pro.

Xiaomi 14 and 14 Ultra announced outside of China. Hands-on Xiaomi's latest smartphones.

The optical upgrades are led by a 50-megapixel LYT-900 Type 1.0 image sensor offering 23mm and 46mm equivalents, an in-sensor crop, plus a considerably better dynamic range at either focal length. Along with that, Xiaomi also claims a 43% power efficiency improvement over previous Type 1 sensors in its phones, like the Sony IMX989 in the Xiaomi 13 Ultra.

The 14 Ultra will get two telephoto lenses, one a 50-megapixel with 3.2x optical zoom (75mm equivalent) at f/1.8 and a 50-megapixel periscope lens with 5x optical zoom (120mm equivalent) or 10x hybrid zoom (240mm equivalent) at f/2.5. Both telephoto lenses support macro shooting at 10 and 30-centimeter minimum focusing distances, respectively.

Xiaomi 14 and 14 Ultra announced outside of China. Hands-on Xiaomi's latest smartphones.

Rounding out the 50-megapixel ultra-wide camera is a 12mm equivalent with a 122-degree field of view. It also offers macro capability down to a minimum of just five centimeters.

All told, the 14 Ultra has four lenses — all 50-megapixel sensors — with six different focal lengths. The company is also throwing in some nuance to various modes, as in how Portrait mode will have four focal length equivalents (23mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 75mm), all of which will apply to video recording as well. A tracking mode within the camera app can follow a subject as they move around, though it’s unclear if the tracking loses focus when subjects turn around or the line of sight to their faces is cut off somehow.

Xiaomi 14 and 14 Ultra announced outside of China. Hands-on Xiaomi's latest smartphones.

Software and AI

Xiaomi’s launch event focused a lot on HyperOS, its new unified AI-driven platform that will also impact its smartphones, including camera output. It’s also making notable connections between the new hardware and software. Its imaging engine is supposed to serve as a “control center behind the camera,” with Xiaomi’s “AISP” group of AI models contributing to the phone’s computational photography.

There’s much to unpack here that will be more apparent with more substantive hands-on time, but here is the gist. Fusion Capture is a mix of AI algorithms that will help in different ways, like how AI-enhanced stability kicks in for 30x hybrid zoom images to make them sharper and easier to focus. UltraRAW could deliver 16-bit color depth and 16 stops of dynamic range, with a helping hand from Adobe Labs to calibrate them and make them seamlessly applicable in Photoshop and Lightroom. Xiaomi is also making HDR previews in the camera app more accurate to what the image will look like rather than seeing the rendered finish afterward.

Xiaomi 14 and 14 Ultra announced outside of China. Hands-on Xiaomi's latest smartphones.

Perhaps more ominous is the ability to create portraits out of thin air through Portrait AI, a HyperOS feature coming to the 14 Series phones. It will work in-device, analyzing photos of a person’s face (from selfies or otherwise) and enabling users to create entirely new headshots and portraits through a text prompt.

Master Portrait is designed to bring “next-generation portrait photography with depth and emotion.” Better color, spatial, and light depth produce more realistic and tonal portrait shots. The examples in the keynote looked good, but it’s hard to tell what portraits will look like in the average shooter’s hands.

Xiaomi 14 and 14 Ultra announced outside of China. Hands-on Xiaomi's latest smartphones.

On the Pro side, there are some quirks without explanation. It’s not clear why the Leica Authentic shooting profile won’t work with 50-megapixel full-res images, even when they’re JPEGs. You can shoot in Ultra RAW on the 14 Ultra but not on the regular 14, which isn’t surprising, but there was also no opportunity to gauge the 14 stops of dynamic range Xiaomi brags about in its marketing of the Ultra.

What About the Regular Xiaomi 14?

We’ll cover this device in a full review at PetaPixel, but with its 6.3-inch display and overall size, it may be the best small phone camera around. It only gets some of the same hardware upgrades or features in the Ultra. Still, it has better lens coating, higher dynamic range, and many options to work with, including the ability to shoot in RAW at full resolution on all three lenses.

What’s also unique about this device is that it uses a proprietary 50-megapixel image sensor for the main lens co-developed by Xiaomi and Leica called Light Fusion 900, which we’ve previously detailed.

Leica Partnership Expands

Xiaomi and Leica also announced a collaborative initiative in opening the Xiaomi and Leica Optical Institute. It will run as a research center where experts from both brands and members of renowned universities and industry experts work together to research sensors, optics, mechanics, electronics, algorithms, and more. The ultimate goal is to “push mobile further” in photography and videography.

Xiaomi 14 and 14 Ultra announced outside of China. Hands-on Xiaomi's latest smartphones.

Indeed, video features got a lot more attention this time than usual. Xiaomi took media to a film studio and soundstage outside Barcelona to demonstrate how the 14 Ultra’s Master Cinema mode works. A crew with actors on set cut a short, unspoken scene recorded in 10-bit LOG and Rec 2020 color gamut. LOG video benefits from the higher dynamic range within the main sensor, making it easier to produce the kind of cinematography a user might be looking for.

Master Cinema has direct input from Adam Bernstein, the Academy Award-winning director most famous for Breaking Bad, who shot a short film in Rome entirely with the 14 Ultra. The openness of the Xiaomi system via Director Mode means you can use other compatible Xiaomi phones and tablets as external monitors to see what the 14 Ultra sees in real-time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to work at all for still photos.

Xiaomi 14 and 14 Ultra announced outside of China. Hands-on Xiaomi's latest smartphones.

Pricing and Availability

Xiaomi will also release a photography kit (like it did with the 13 Ultra) that is part case and part grip. However, this time, the grip will have a built-in 1500mAh battery inside to help prolong any photo or video sessions. It will come with an adapter to attach 67mm filters and a lever to adjust the focal length between the different lenses. You can set the dial to customize what settings you want to modify. And lastly, there’s a dedicated video recording button.

The 14 Series phones won’t be available through any direct retail or carrier channels in North America but will be readily available through Amazon and other online retailers shipping there. The launch covers virtually every other market, from Asia, India, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.

Converted for USD, the Xiaomi 14 Ultra will start at about $1,400, while the Xiaomi 14 will start at roughly $1,080, clearly putting both in flagship territory. The company will offer one free out-of-warranty repair and one screen replacement within 12 months of purchase.

Image credits: Ted Kritsonis