Sony’s new DRAM-enhanced image sensor is a game changer for smartphone photography

As if the makers of standalone cameras don’t have enough problems holding off smartphones, Sony has just announced a sensor that has the potential to be yet another game changer for what’s possible in mobile device photography. Its new design adds a layer of DRAM between the pixel layer and the circuit layer. That allows it to capture and readout images several times faster than current designs.

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Sony announced the new chip architecture at ISSCC this week, as the latest in its long line of innovations in sensor design. The addition of on-board DRAM will help solve at least three major issues with current smartphone cameras: rolling shutter artifacts, slow-motion videos, and multi-image noise reduction artifacts. We’ll look at each in turn.

A great band-aid for rolling shutter headaches

One problem with low-cost imagers, like those used in smartphones, is that they don’t have a mechanical shutter. Their images are read out one piece at a time while the sensor is still actively recording data (called a rolling shutter). That means that objects moving at high speed appear distorted, like the locomotive in this illustrative example from Sony:

While the new sensor still has a rolling shutter, its high speed readout greatly reduces artifacts

While the new sensor still has a rolling shutter, its high speed readout greatly reduces artifacts

On the left, the typical 1/30s readout time smears the profile of the moving locomotive. On the right, while still technically a rolling shutter, the new chip’s 1/120s readout time greatly reduces the potential for distortion.

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