Sony's new "stacked" image sensors open door to smaller devices, more pixels

The Tokyo-based electronics maker produces the camera units used in hit devices like the iPhone 4S and Samsung Galaxy S3

Sony, which makes the camera modules used in the latest smartphones from Apple and Samsung, said Monday it will begin sales of a new image chip that is nearly half the size of current models.

The Tokyo-based electronics giant said its new CMOS sensors will begin shipping in October. The devices use a technology that "stacks" their processing circuitry under the pixels used to capture images, as opposed to laying it alongside as in current versions, leading to a smaller footprint that is more power efficient with faster processing.

Sony first announced it had developed the new technology in January. The company is struggling with its electronics business and selling off other component factories but remains a world leader in digital imaging technology - teardowns have shown that its tiny camera modules are used in both the Apple 4S and the Samsung Galaxy S3.

"The biggest benefit is that the new modules are much smaller," said Sony spokesman Jin Tomihari. "This will contribute to the demand for smaller components from makers of smartphones and other devices."

Tomihari said that a current 8-megapixel sensor could be made 40 percent smaller using the new technology. With most smartphones now measuring less than a centimeter thick, and battery life a major concern for consumers, size savings in key components are important.

The new design is also more efficient in processing the images it captures. Processing speed is a major bottleneck for adding better resolution cameras to devices - users are turned off if there is too much lag before their snapshots appear on screen, and high-definition video requires that devices quickly handle large images to increase the frames-per-second.

"This can allow for more pixels, but can also be used to produce finer images, such as adding another pixel to RGB for better contrast in darker environments," said Keita Wakabayashi, an analyst at Mito Securities.

Sony said a chip that produces 8 megapixels will go on sale in October, with a complete camera module to follow in November. More advanced chips will follow early next year, including a 13-megapixel version to launch in January. The chips will cost between ¥1,000 and ¥1,500 (US$12.60 to US$18.90), while the complete modules cost about five times that.

The company has made its imaging business a priority, announcing a US$1 billion investment in June to increase its output of image sensors used in devices like smartphones, tablets, and medical equipment. It has moved to outsource components in other areas, such as TV panels.

The new investment is focused on CMOS technology, used in the newest sensors announced Monday. The company also still makes CCD sensors, traditionally used in higher-quality cameras for better image quality.

Sony sells around 80 percent of its image sensors to outside customers, but the business is still small compared to its core electronics concerns.

"This is a step in the right direction, but won't have a major impact on Sony's results," Wakabayashi said.

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