Sony’s smartphone division continues to turn in unimpressive performance, but the company remains the market leader in image sensors. Its latest stacked CMOS design, the IMX586, promises a leap in image quality by dramatically increasing the resolution to 48 effective megapixels (8000 x 6000), which Sony says is the highest pixel count in the industry.
Image quality isn’t simply a matter of adding more megapixels — that can be counterproductive, with smaller pixels leading to noisy photos in low light. The 0.8-micron pixels used in this sensor will be the smallest on the market, in fact. But Sony says it’ll get around this by using a quad Bayer color filter array and allowing each pixel to use signals from the four adjacent pixels, which supposedly raises light sensitivity to the equivalent of a 12-megapixel image captured with 1.6-micron pixels.
Phones from Nokia’s 808 PureView in 2012 to this year’s Huawei P20 Pro have experimented with similar pixel-binning techniques on sensors with 40 megapixels or more, but Sony’s IMX586 is likely to be a more mainstream solution. Sony is keeping the size down to 8mm diagonal, meaning there won’t be the need for a huge camera bump, though the lens in front of the sensor will of course play a big part in the camera’s ability to resolve an image. The focus is also on producing usable 48-megapixel images rather than downsampling by default — this might not be incredibly useful for everyday snaps, but it should at least allow for much better digital zoom.
You can expect to see the IMX586 on smartphones next year; Sony is planning to start shipping samples this September, with a unit price of 3,000 yen ($27) each.