Sony announced its next-generation 21 MP smartphone camera sensor that delivers higher image quality and improved functionality, such as 192 simultaneous points for its image plane phase detection auto-focus system and live HDR for 4k video recording.
The new Exmor RS IMX230 sensor consists of a new signal processor, which helps it achieve such high performance. On top of that, there is a section of back-illuminated pixels, resulting in a stacked construction. According to Sony, this type of construction delivers higher quality imaging and higher functionality for its size compared to competing sensors.
Sony has been using this type of stacked sensor design since 2012. This compact design is likely the reason why the company's Xperia Z series phones can manage to fit a 1/2.3" large sensor without compromising on the thickness of the devices, while other companies struggle to fit even a 13 MP sensor in a flat-back and slim device.
The image plane phase detection AF makes it possible to record high-speed action or capture quickly moving objects in clear still images. The sensor can use up to 192 autofocus points to detect any movement within the frame and focus on it instantly.
Sony had previously announced in 2012 that its new sensors would support HDR for video recording, but not for still images. The new IMX230 sensor supports both, and it's also able to capture HDR stills at the sensor's full 21 MP.
Perhaps the most impressive part about this new sensor and its image processing capabilities is that it can shoot 4k video in HDR in real-time. The sensor also supports 1080p@60fps smooth recording and 720p@120fps slow-motion recording.
The new sensor is expected to ship in April 2015, which is around the time we'd expect the Xperia Z4 to show up, too. For everyone else who might want to buy the IMX230, the sensor will cost about $18. Sony is also going to release a 16 MP version of this sensor by the end of next year.
Apple is bound to ship a higher resolution camera in its iPhone 6S and iPhone 6S Plus next year, and if it's going to continue the tradition of going with Sony's sensors, it should use either an older 13 MP sensor (such as the one in this year's Moto X) or this new 16 MP sensor. Apple has proven itself in camera software expertise, so the company could show great results with the older sensor, too, but chances are it's going to use this new sensor, unless Sony can't supply it with enough units.