The iPhone 4S camera system has a fifth lens and larger aperture to let more light in.

It is widely assumed that Apple’s next iPhone is going to be thinner and lighter than its predecessor —the 9.3mm thick iPhone 4S. However, camera modules for smartphones are not shrinking as fast as other tiny components are, and it is becoming a growing limitation when designing ultra-thin gadgets. If Apple is to engineer a thinner iPhone, the company is likely going to redesign the camera system all over again. Conveniently, Sony has a brand-new back-illuminated CMOS image sensor in the works that could be a natural fit for a next-generation iPhone.

Unveiled Monday, it separates the CMOS sensors from imaging circuitry:

This image sensor layers the pixel section containing formations of back-illuminated structure pixels onto chips containing the circuit section for signal processing, which is in place of supporting substrates for conventional back-illuminated CMOS image sensors. This structure achieves further enhancement in image quality, superior functionalities and a more compact size that will lead to enhanced camera evolution. 

Of course, there is no way of telling whether Apple will put the new CMOS sensor inside the next iPhone as the company famously refuses to comment on speculation. Nevertheless, Sony’s chip also benefits from the new white-light image sensors (RGBW Coding) to produce clearer images with reduced picture distortion in dark scenes and sharper videos with a wider range of light.

It also sports the HDR Movie feature that lets the camera combine two different exposures simultaneously – during video capture, one for the foreground and the other for the background. It makes a big difference in bright light situations, as seen in the below clip.

So, what’s in it for Apple?


Check out the scheme below explaining how the new stacked chip design layers image sensors on top of supporting logic. It is also interesting that the imaging circuitry is produced independently of the supporting logic, allowing Sony to outsource the logic portion to third parties. The benefits for Apple would be many. For starters —and this is crucial— the new design and manufacturing process behind Sony’s image sensor should help engineer a thinner iPhone due to less space used by the Sony chip. Additionally, the Japanese giant’s new manufacturing process is cheaper and image quality is better, which are both important feats from Apple’s standpoint. The camera module is said to be faster, consume less power and sport higher pixel numbers. In theory, the imaging circuitry being separate of the sensors could give Apple greater control over the camera system and help increase its functionality by leveraging the company’s in-house designed A-series chip. The dual-core A5 chip found inside iPhone 4S is already responsible for some image post-processing, such as video stabilization. Therefore, the design of the new Sony chip would let Apple’s silicon take over control of the camera and its performance in ways that were not possible before. Sony said sample shipments of an eight-megapixel module would begin in March, followed by a 13-megapixel version in June. Mass production is slated to begin this fall. Sony is also thinking beyond smartphones by planning to sell the new CMOS module to the makers of surveillance hardware and audio-visual gear. Sony Corporation of Japan is on Apple’s list of suppliers and a teardown analysis has confirmed that an 8-megapixel sensor in the iPhone 4S is in fact built by Sony, as 9to5Mac originally reported in April 2011. Omnivision, another official Apple supplier, is considered to provide 8-megapixel sensors for Apple’s devices as well, while Largan Precision and Genius Electronic Optical are credited with the iPhone 4S’s all-new optics.

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