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Rumored S20 Ultra wouldn't be the first with a 108MP camera. But are more megapixels better?

The Xiaomi Mi Note 10 also has not four, but five rear cameras.

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The Xiaomi Mi Note 10.

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Next week Samsung is expected to announce a new suite of Galaxy S phones at its Unpacked event in New York. Rumors and leaks point to three phones: the S20, S20 Plus and the S20 Ultra. That S20 Ultra, whispers say, will have a main camera with a huge 108-megapixel sensor. This would certainly make the S20 Ultra a headline grabber -- but not a world first.  

That title would go to the Mi Note 10, which Xiaomi released last year. This 6.47-inch phone beats Samsung to the punch by at least two months with its five-camera setup that includes a 108-megapixel lens. It's joined by a 2-megapixel macro camera for super close-up shots, a 20-megapixel ultrawide-angle lens and two telephoto shooters, one with 12 megapixels and the other 5 megapixels. 

Yep, that's a lot of cameras. And yep, that's a lot of megapixels. But if more megapixels automatically meant better photos, the Mi Note 10's 108-megapixel camera would be almost 10 times better than the iPhone 11 Pro's 12-megapixel shooter. But that's often not the case.

A quick rundown: Megapixels refer to the number of pixels a camera captures. The iPhone 11's main camera shoots photos with a 4,032x3,024-pixel resolution -- which adds up to just over 12,000 pixels. Thus, 12 megapixels. The Mi Note 10's camera shoots photos with a resolution of 12,032 x 9,024. On paper, you'd think that means more detail. But for more megapixels to mean anything, you need a bigger sensor. Otherwise the same amount of light will be distributed among more pixels, resulting in noise and color inaccuracy. 

The Mi Note 10 demonstrates both the downside and upside of more megapixels. Photos with plenty of light are impressive, and retain great detail even when you zoom in closely. But photos with suboptimal lighting are sometimes just average -- and often are prohibitively blurry. 

See the comparison below, which compares a "regular" shot with an "Ultra HD" 108-megapixel photo. (There's a separate mode for taking 108-megapixel photos in the camera. The standard default is set to a 27-megapixel resolution.) The first thing you'll notice is how much more vivid the colors are in the laksa. The center of the image is also crisper. But both photos are plagued by serious motion blur.

This flowerbed, meanwhile, was slightly sharper in the Ultra HD shot, although not enough to notice in anything other than a side-by-side comparison. 

When not hampered by this blur, the Mi Note 10 shoots respectably detailed and vibrant photos. Sometimes they can look over-processed, as in the high-contrast shot of Sydney's Central Station below. In the picture below that, you'll see zoomed shots look great. I shot the statue at 2x zoom, and the phone did a superb job at handling the water flowing out of the fountain in the backdrop. (Note, both of these photos are taken in 27-megapixel resolution.) 

A little overprocessed, but a pleasant shot nonetheless. 

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

This shot was taken at 2x zoom. 

Daniel Van Boom/CNET
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Here's the 20-megapixel ultrawide-angle camera in action. Below is an example of the Mi Note 10's Night Mode.

Daniel Van Boom/CNET

Despite the sumptuous camera specs, the Mi Note 10 isn't a super expensive phone. It officially retails in Australia for AU$888, which converts to just under $600 or £455. (The phone isn't officially available in the US, but a quick Amazon search shows it can be found for under $500.) You get a lot for that, including the vibrant 6.47-inch display, a beautiful design and 6GB of RAM. The processor, a Snapdragon 730G, which leans on the midrange side, still offers enough power for most people's needs.

It runs Android 9.0 Pie, now a generation old following the release of Android 10 last year, with Xiaomi's own MIUI 11 user interface layered on top. MIUI is certainly not as clean as pure Android, but it looks and functions better than Huawei's EMUI and Oppo's ColorOS user interfaces. 

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The phone officially retails in Australia for AU$888, but can be found on Amazon in the US for under $500. 

Ian Knighton/CNET

Xiaomi Mi Note 10 key specs

  • 6.47-inch, 2,340x1,080-pixel AMOLED display
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G processor
  • 6GB RAM, 128GB storage
  • Five-camera setup: 108-megapixel standard, 12-megapixel telephoto, 5-megapixel telephoto, 20-megapixel ultrawide-angle and 2-megapixel macro lens camera
  • 32-megapixel front-facing camera
  • Headphone jack
  • Android 9.0 Pie with MIUI 11 user interface
  • 5,260-mAh battery
  • Fast charging