New Sony camera may be the iPhone 12’s secret weapon

(Image credit: Sony)

Sony is working a new camera sensor called the IMX686. And it may end up in the  iPhone 12 in 2020.

The Japanese company has not revealed any technical specs. We can suppose it will be a Quad Bayer sensor — like the rest of its top IMX chips — which has the ability to group pixels in groups of four to increase light sensitivity and image quality at the expense of the resolution. We can also assume that the latter will be higher than Sony’s current top-of-the-line 48MP sensor, probably 64 megapixels.

(Image credit: Sony)

Sony has teased what this sensor can do in this video, including photos taken by the sensor connected to PC board (not integrated in a phone). While we can’t see the images at their full resolution, they look gorgeous.

The night images have rich colors and detail. The night shot with the stars and the sunset are particularly subtle. And the way it captures colors, assuming these images are straight from the sensor with no retouching, is rather natural and pleasant to the eye.

The photo sensor wars

Sony’s image sensors are arguably the best in the industry. The three kings of photography and video — Apple, Huawei, and Google — use them in their flagships. But things may be about to change with Samsung’s new 108MP Isocell Bright HMX sensor — another Quad Bayer sensor with a large pixel size and photosensitive area. This sensor is expected to show up in the Galaxy S11.

The Samsung Isocell Bright HMX compared to current competing Sony sensors.

The Samsung Isocell Bright HMX compared to current competing Sony sensors. (Image credit: Xiaomi)

The giant Korean chip is at the heart of the Xiaomi Mi CC9, which recently topped the DxOmark benchmark beating all the flagships and tying with the Huawei Mate 30 Pro. Of course, DxOmark is not a perfect measure of photographic quality — and it’s not a measure of only the Isocell Bright HMX but of the other sensors in the camera package as well. However, this should give Sony some pause.

Obviously, the Japanese company is not sitting idle. Its sensors group — which works on sensors for mobile decices, compacts and full size cameras — and its IMX686’s tease comes suspiciously well-timed with the first release of Samsung’s HMX beast.

And while this is just informed speculation, knowing Sony and Apple’s tight relationship on the iPhone’s photography and video area, we can probably assume that this new chip may end in the iPhone 12 in 2020. Apple may not be a fan of high pixel counts, but the apparent quality of the IMX686 may be too hard to ignore. Reportedly, the Samsung Galaxy S11 will use the 108MP sensor.

The iPhone 11 Pro Max has landed on the 3rd position in the DxOmark ranking after both Huawei and Xiaomi with a 117 overall score. But we put the iPhone 11 Pro at the top of our best camera phone list and it beat Google's latest phone in our Pixel 4 vs iPhone 11 Pro camera face-off.

It seems like the smartphone camera wars will continue well into 2020. 

Jesus Diaz

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story and wrote old angry man rants, among other things. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce, and currently writes for Fast Company and Tom's Guide.