Sony brings 192-point phase-detect autofocus, 4K HDR movies to your next smartphone


posted Monday, November 17, 2014 at 5:39 PM EDT


Several smartphones introduced this year -- Apple's iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, Samsung's Galaxy S5, Sony's Xperia Z3, and Motorola / Google's Nexus 6 -- have drawn high praise for their cameras, but if you look down the road a little, your next smartphone could prove even more impressive. Sensor supplier Sony, whose chips are to be found in all of these models except the Samsung, has just announced its latest Exmor RS sensor, and it looks to offer some pretty spectacular capabilities.

The Sony Exmor RS IMX230 won't be shipping in sample quantities until April 2015, so we wouldn't expect to see it at retail until around a year from now, but this new backside-illuminated chip should bring much faster, more confident autofocus when it arrives. The reason: an array of 192 on-chip phase detection autofocus pixels, allowing for both high-speed autofocus and tracking. On-chip phase-detection is already available, but it's the first time that it has been combined with Sony's unique Exmor RS stacked design, which places the pixels on top of the signal-processing circuitry, instead of on a support substrate. That circuitry means that phase detection processing is actually performed on the sensor itself, rather than relying on external processing.

Sony says the IMX230 offers a total of 192 phase-detection autofocus points on-chip. That's an array of 16 x 12 phase-detection points, as shown in the image above.

And that's not all. The IMX230 is a high-res 21 megapixel chip, and quite a bit of that resolution can be taken advantage of for video shooting, too. That's because this chip is capable of shooting video at 4K resolution -- and not just that, but also shooting 4K high dynamic range movies, too. And it's a double-whammy, because in the past, the HDR function was available only at Full HD movie capture, but now it's also available for shooting stills. Full sensor readout is possible at 24 frames per second, while 4K movies can be shot at a 30p rate. For Full HD, this increases to 60p, and 720p movies allow a maximum of 120p capture.

HDR movie samples from the previous IMX135 chip (left) compared to the IMX230 (right).

All things considered, it sounds like quite a chip. We've still a year or more to wait until we see it at retail, but once we do, smartphone users should be able to create HDR stills and movies and get well-focused images with a minimum of fuss. Pricing for samples of the chip is set at 2,100 yen, roughly equivalent to US$18 apiece. More details can be found on Sony's website.