OmniVision Technologies yesterday announced two new camera sensors for smartphones and tablets and guess what? Both could be a perfect fit for a 2013 iPhone, if not for the next one.

We’re talking about 16-megapixel sensors that shoot 4K video at a remarkable 60 frames per second.

Per Chipworks’ teardown analysis, Apple is using OmniVision’s OV5642 camera module inside the iPhone 4. Another teardown, also by Chipworks, shows OmniVision’s second-generation OV5650 back illumination and OV297AA modules being used on the iPad 2, the new iPad and the iPod Nano music player.

If Apple were to adopt these new OmniVision 16-megapixel camera modules, you could be capturing video either in 4K2K or Quad Full High Definition (QFHD) resolution with an iPhone in your pocket.

Now, if only you had a 4K display to watch these clips in their full ultra high-resolution glory…

According to a press release out yesterday, Omnivision’s 1/2.3-inch OV16820 and OV16825 sensors built on the 1.34-micron OmniBSI-2 pixel architecture, seen below, are capable of capturing video at a 3840-by-2160 pixel resolution in smooth 60 frames per second.

For comparison, a 3840-by-2160 video has four times the pixels of your standard 1080p clip. The sensors also capture a 4,608-by-3,456 pixel resolution video at 30 frames per second and can snap 16-megapixel images in burst mode.

The 1/2.3-inch OV16820 and OV16825 image sensors are capable of operating in full resolution (4608 x 3456) video at 30 FPS, 4K2K (3840 x 2160) video at 60 FPS, and 1080p HD video at 60 FPS with extra pixels for electronic image stabilization (EIS).

Additionally, the sensors enable full resolution 16-megapixel burst photography, a critical feature for DSC applications. All required image processing functions, including defective pixel and noise canceling, RAW scaling, image size, frame rate, exposure, gain, cropping and orientation are programmable through the serial camera control bus (SCCB) interface.

The ability to shoot 4K2K clips has been unheard of in the cell phone industry thus far, but it’s inevitably coming beginning next year. This major upgrade in the camera department will let Apple market future iPhones as prosumer camcorders.

Just don’t count on the next iPhone gaining 4K video capture as the new sensors won’t go into mass production before the fourth quarter of 2012 whereas supply chain sources say the next iPhone is due for an October release.

There’s just one slight problem: as pointed out by my friend Theo Valich who runs Bright Side of News, “currently, there are no smartphone or tablet CPUs capable of handling 4K from anybody. Not enough bandwidth”.

Another biggie, according to his sidekick Anshel Sag: the new OmniVision sensor is “too big to fit in a phone”, unless you want an iPhone with a Nokia 808-style bulge. For more on this, I suggest reading Sag’s in-depth article over at Bright Side of News.

Another problem that shouldn’t be ignored: 4K displays are few and far between and have yet to be mainstreamed.

But as Cult of Mac news editor John Brownlee puts it, “OmniVision’s crazy new 4K camera sensor could be the missing link between the iPhone 5 and Retina Macs”.

Plus, video file size will be a big issue, too.

Therefore, the ability to shoot 4K clips would be of limited use because these will have to be downsampled on standard 1080p TVs or even on Apple’s 2,560-by-1,440 pixel resolution Thunderbolt Display.


Ultra high-resolution video capture won’t make much sense unless Apple upgrades its displays and Macs to 4K resolution.

This is where rumors of both Retina-enabled Macs and an Apple television set with 4K resolution begin to make sense. Let’s not forget that the television industry is pushing 4K display technology this year.

Bear in mind Apple could also tap these sensors to upgrade iSight cameras on Macs and ThunderBolt displays.

We also know Steve Jobs had its sights set on reinventing photography so, theoretically speaking, these modules would allow for a nice Apple-branded point-and-shoot camera or prosumer video camera.

Walter Isaacson said in an interview with the New York Times following the release of his authorized Steve Jobs bio book that  “He had three things that he wanted to reinvent: the television, textbooks and photography”.


Concept render of a rumored Apple-branded television set

With the iPhone 4S, Apple turned to Sony for an eight-megapixel camera module on the back. The handset’s back-illuminated sensor also features improved optics that lets 73 percent more light through the lens and 1080p video recording, an improvement over 720p video capture on the iPhone 4.

For the front-facing VGA camera on the iPhone 4S, Apple used OmniVision’s part numbered “OV531AF”.


Omnivision’s five-megapixel OV5650 component found inside the new iPad.
Credit: Chipworks

That being said, whether Apple taps OmniVision, one of the suppliers named in the company’s full list of production partners, is anyone’s guess. A prudent watcher would conclude that Sony and OmniVision will split the Apple business 50:50 going forward.

Of course, we’re only speculating at this point and your guess is as good as ours so feel free to share your opinion down in the comments.