Follow the Sensors…

March 15, 2010

After the release of the Pentax 645D, Kodak’s “PluggedIn” blog confirmed what many had suspected: Their KAF-40000 sensor was the one Pentax used to create the new camera.

Inside Kodak's Sensor Fab

Inside Kodak's Sensor Fab

Kodak has something of a tradition of announcing when their sensors are being used in high-profile cameras, such as Leica’s M8, M9, and S2—even giving the Kodak catalog numbers.

But their openness on this subject is a bit unusual.

As you may know, creating a modern semiconductor chip fab is staggeringly expensive—up to several billion dollars. So it’s understandable that behind the scenes, sensor chips are mainly manufactured by a few electronics giants.

And selling those chips has become a cut-throat, commodity business; so camera makers sometimes obtain sensors from surprising sources.

But it’s hard to trumpet your own brand superiority, while admitting your camera’s vital guts were built by some competitor. So many of these relationships are not public knowledge.

But if we pay careful attention… We might be able to make some interesting deductions!

Panasonic Sensors

Panasonic Image Sensors

Some of the big names in CMOS image sensors (“CIS” in industry jargon) are familiar brands like Sony, Samsung, and Canon. But cell-phone modules and other utilitarian applications lead the overall sales numbers; and in this market, the leader is a company called Aptina.

No, I didn’t know the name either. But that’s not surprising, since they were only recently spun off from Micron Technology.

Yes, that’s the same Micron who makes computer memory. As it turns out, many of the fab techniques used to produce DRAM apply directly to CMOS sensor manufacture.

Another of the world’s powerhouses in semiconductor manufacturing is Samsung. And it’s widely known that Samsung made the imaging chips used in many Pentax DSLRs. (It would have been hard to keep their relationship a secret: Samsung’s own DSLRs were identical twins of Pentax’s.)

Samsung currently builds a 14.6 megapixel APS-C chip, called the S5K1N1F. Not only was this used in Pentax’s K-7, but also in Samsung’s GX-20. And it’s assumed that Samsung’s new mirrorless NX10 uses essentially the same sensor.

Panasonic’s semiconductor division does offer some smaller CCD sensors for sale, up to 12 megapixels. But with MOS sensors, it is only their partner Olympus who gets to share the Four-Thirds format, 12 Mp “Live MOS” chip used in the Lumix G series.

Meanwhile, it remains mystifying to me that the apparently significant refinements in the GH1 sensor don’t seem to have benefited any other Four Thirds camera yet. (Why?)

As I discussed last week, Sony’s APS-C chips apparently make their way into several Nikon models, as well as the Pentax K-x, the Ricoh GXR A12 modules, and probably the Leica X1.

But Sony has also brought out a new chip for “serious” compact cameras—intended to offer better low-light sensitivity despite its 2 micron pixels. It’s the 1/1.7 format, 10 Mp model ICX685CQZ. You can download a PDF with its specs here.

On the second page of that PDF, note the “number of recommended recording pixels” is 3648 × 2736.

Isn’t it rather remarkable that the top resolution of the Canon G11, and also their S90, matches this to the exact pixel? And how about the Ricoh GRD III, too?

Crypto Sony

Crypto-Sony?

And even Samsung’s newly-announced TL500—it’s the same 3648 x 2736!

None of these cameras provide 720p video—an omission that many reviewers have gnashed their teeth about. However you’ll note in the Sony specs that 720p at 30 frames/sec is not supported by that sensor.

Sony has also made a splash with a smaller 10 Mp sensor, using backside-illumination to compensate for the reduced pixel area. This is the IMX050CQK (with a specs PDF here).

In Table 3 of that PDF, again notice the 3648 x 2736 “recommended” number of pixels. And sure enough, this matches the first Sony cameras released using the chip, the WX1 and TX1.

But if you start poking around, the Ricoh CX3 is another recent camera boasting a backside-illuminated, 10 Mp sensor, which has the same top resolution.

So is the FujiFilm HS10 & HS11. And the Nikon P100.

Now, it seems startling that even Canon and Samsung (who surely can manufacture their own chips) might go to Sony as an outside supplier.

But when you compare CMOS sensors to older CCD technology, their economics are slightly different. CMOS requires much more investment up front, for designing more complex on-chip circuitry, and creating all the layer masks. After that though, the price to produce each part is lower.

After creating a good CMOS chip, there is a strong incentive to sell the heck out of it, to ramp up volumes. Even to a competitor. So we may see more of this backroom horse-trading in sensor chips as time goes on.

In fact, Kodak’s point & shoots introduced in the summer of 2009 actually didn’t use Kodak sensor chips.

But that’s something they didn’t blog about.

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4 Responses to “Follow the Sensors…”

  1. petavoxel Says:

    Incidentally, Sony’s 12-megapixel APS-C sensor called the IMX021 was announced and discussed in 2007; and you can download a specs PDF here. It may have evolved a little since then; but even the 2-year-old Nikon D90 (presumed to use this chip) still makes a strong showing.

  2. Specularist Says:

    I think the D90 uses the IMX038 rather than the IMX021 (this is perhaps what you meant by evolved), though details seem to be thin on the ground – probably for the reasons you mention!

    I’m keen to see how good the Pentax is, though I suspect we could get a good idea by cropping a KAF-50100 to 40 megapixels.


  3. […] video and the exact 3648 x 2736 pixel dimensions look suspiciously like Sony’s ICX685CQZ.  I strongly suspect this is the same chip used by Canon in the S90 and G11; and by Ricoh in the GRD […]


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