Sony’s tiny new CMOS sensor means big things for small cameras

tinyThe line between smartphone and point-and-shoots is about to get blurrier. Sony has announced its new backside illuminated CMOS image sensor that “embodies the continuous evolution of the camera” – in other words, smaller, lighter, thinner devices. In (still) other words: smartphone cameras.

Sony doesn’t mince words explaining the drive behind its new sensor. “The popularization of smartphones and other devices in recent years has been accompanied by an increasingly diverse use of camera functionality. This has brought heightened demand for more sophisticated cameras, to ensure adaptability to a wider range of scenes, and Sony developed this stacked CMOS image sensor to meet such demand.”

The stacked design will allow for improved light sensitivity and should decrease noise (thanks to Sony’s RGBW coding function). HDR Video capture should also get better, with more accurate, high-res color even against bright light, which can wash out movie subjects easily. However there could possibly be a cost in clarity when it comes to color production in stills.

But the benefits (especially as it applies to smartphone cameras) outweigh the hypothetical losses. These sensors would use less power and allow the camera mechanism to work faster — and overall, better — for smaller devices.

sony sensorThree versions will be released soon. An 8-megapixel, ¼-inch (without RGBW coding or HDR video) sensor will debut in March, a 13-megapixel, 1/3-inch sensor in June, and an 8-megapixel, ¼-inch sensor (with the above-mentioned features) in August.

If you remember, Apple uses Sony sensors for its iPhone. According to early speculation, Apple wants to go thinner and lighter with the next iteration, but it can’t do that unless the insides shrink as well. This tiny, 13-megapixel CMOS sensor could easily work its way into the next iPhone’s spec sheet.

This also could pave the way toward slimmer “next” or “third” gen cameras like Sony’s NEX-3, which we’ve seen go from hobbyist to mainstream devices within the last couple of years. Making them smaller just makes them that much more accessible to a wider audience.

And let’s not forgot who Sony may be partnering with quite soon: Olympus, home of the very popular MFT PEN series. In fact, many major camera brands use Sony sensors, so the impact this development could have stretches industry-wide. We’ll stick by our argument that the DSLR is far from dead, but we could see it and its full-frame sensor become more and more of a niche item in the wake of a sensor this powerful for its size.