Sony’s 1-inch phone camera sensor is ready to challenge Samsung

Sony is working on a new camera sensor for smartphones, the IMX989, with a massive 1-inch sensor profile. The official Weibo handle of the Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi has confirmed that the upcoming 12S Ultra set to debut on July 4 will come armed with Sony’s massive phone camera sensor.

Xiaomi teaser IMX 789 sensor
Image Credit: Xiaomi/Weibo

Sony Semiconductor Solutions Group, the division that makes camera sensors, has yet to officially specify the camera sensor in question. However, this isn’t the first time Sony has made such a powerful image sensor. The Xperia Pro-1 is equipped with a larger Exmor RS 1.0-type CMOS sensor, which is based on the sensor of the RX100 VII and has been specially developed for Sony’s flagship.

In addition, Xiaomi will not be the first smartphone maker to chase a 1-inch camera for its high-end camera sensor. The Sharp Aquos R6 that came out in 2021 had a 1-inch camera sensor on the back, and its successor, the Aquos R7 also followed in his footstepss with a 47.2-megapixel 1-inch sensor. Leica also has a 1-inch sensor on the Leitz Phone 1 which debuted last year.

Sony aims for a one-up Samsung with a different approach

When it comes to mainstream flagships with the largest sensor profile, the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra takes the cake with a 1/1.2-inch camera sensor. However, it looks like Sony is heading in a different direction this year, one that diverges from rival camera sensor maker Samsung.

Samsung recently released the covers of the ISOCELL HP3 camera sensor that offers a stunning 200-megapixel sensor, with the smallest pixels Samsung has ever crammed onto a sensor. In addition, the respective sensor also relies on the new Tetra2 Pixel Binning technology that combines four pixels into one larger pixel and then merges four such artificially created super pixels together using special algorithms to create an even larger “super pixel”.

Xiaomi 12S Ultra is equipped with the Sony IMX989, Sony’s largest image sensor to date. the 1" ultrasensor captures a greater amount of light, provides faster focus speed and better dynamic range. #Xiaomi12SUltra officially ushers in a new era in imaging technology. pic.twitter.com/45lza1N1vQ

— leijun (@leijun) June 29, 2022

This artificially created pixel, which is four times larger, collects the maximum amount of light and produces brighter images with more detail. You can read more about how pixel binning works to overcome the drawback of pixel and sensor size to produce impressive results on the Galaxy S22 series of telephones.

Sony’s upcoming IMX989 sensor undermines the pixel-binning chore with a larger sensor that also fits larger pixels, allowing it to curb noise to much higher levels and produce more natural-looking colors. This approach gives it a fundamental advantage over the Samsung sensor, as it relies more on software tricks and algorithms.

A leak from DigitalChatStation on Weibo claims that Sony’s 1-inch camera sensor will have a resolution of 50 megapixels. Sony already has quite a few 50-megapixel sensors in its portfolio that are appearing in flagships like the OnePlus 10 Pro and the Oppo Find X5 Probut there’s no word on what other inherent benefits the IMX989 brings, aside from the larger sensor profile.

The debate over the 1-inch sensor

Keep in mind that a 1 inch sensor advertised by brands does not imply that the sensor has a physical size of 1 inch. The actual sensor diagonal is considerably smaller, probably somewhere around 16 millimeters. The disparity has to do with a long-standing advertising practice in the industry dating back to the days of CRT televisions.

Sony Exmor RS CMOS Camera Sensor for Phones

Those machines had a cathode ray tube for transporting electron currents to project an image. The tubes were, you guessed it, one inch in diameter. However, the light-sensitive area of ​​the tube was much smaller, about 16 millimeters square, which is also the physical diagonal of most modern 1-inch camera sensors. You can learn more about it in this interesting video

Regardless of the sensor size reality, Sony’s IM989 sensor will still offer a tangible advantage over Samsung’s pixel-dense ISOCELL cameras. That doesn’t mean Sony’s sensor can necessarily beat Samsung’s offering, though, as a lot depends on how well it’s tuned. Just look at how Apple’s current generation of iPhones and their 12-megapixel cameras leave the competition far behind, despite the rivals packing cameras with resolutions up to 108 megapixels.

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