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Sensors shoot for cameras

Posted: 16 Mar 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Mark LaPedus? camera phone? picturem? CMOS? image sensor?

Mainstream camera phones remain one of the hottest consumer tickets in town, but a nagging problem persistslackluster picture quality.

Seeking to boost the picture quality in entry-level, high-volume camera phones, vendors are rolling out CMOS image sensors that promise to bring the products from the VGA dark ages into the megapixel era.

Eastman Kodak Co. plans to enter the high-volume CMOS image sensor segment today with the introduction of a 1.3Mpixel product for use in mainstream camera phones. Kodak says that its unit provides the image quality currently available in high-resolution, charge-coupled devices at a significantly lower price point than that for rival CCDs.

What's more, at the recent International Solid-State Circuits Conference, Samsung Electronics Co. and Sony Corp. pushed the limits of the technology by separately describing CMOS image sensors with resolutions of 7.2Mpixels and 6.4Mpixels, respectively.

Vendors are racing to market for good reason. Gartner Inc. says the global CMOS image sensor market will jump from $3.2 billion in 2005 to $5.6 billion by 2008.

CMOS image sensors are rapidly moving into a range of new applications, such as automotive systems, cellphones, medical products and security items. "We're just at the beginning of the CMOS image sensor market," said Robert Gove, VP of the imaging group for Micron Technology Inc.

Camera phones are the fastest-growing market for CMOS image sensors, with expected sales increasing from 365 million units in 2005 to 475 million units in 2006, according to IC Insights Inc. And camera phones are becoming a bigger part of the overall handset market. In 2006, some 54 percent of all handsets shipped will be camera-enabled, up from 45 percent in 2005, the research firm said.

Despite the popularity of the products, many camera-phone users want higher resolutions, the ability to use storage media and some state-of-the-art features found in modern digital still cameras, says In-Stat Inc.

Quality complaints
In-Stat also said that dissatisfaction with the picture quality in today's mainstream camera phones is widespread. Most users have a high-resolution digital camera in addition to their camera phones. And only 3 percent of those surveyed used their phone as their only digital camera, In-Stat said.

CMOS image sensor vendors claim that they are making strides to boost the quality and sensitivity of their products for mainstream phones.

The device Samsung introduced at ISSCC is a 1/2-inch, 7.2Mpixel CMOS image sensor. With pixels measuring 2.25?m, the device uses a four-shared-pixel structure and a pixel-level charge-summation function.

But, in reality, the market is limited for products with resolutions above 2Mpixels, especially for camera phones, said S.K. Lee, CEO of Pixelplus, a fabless company that makes CMOS image sensors. Pixelplus is sampling a 3Mpixel product, but Pixelplus is pushing 1Mpixel and 2Mpixel devices for cellphones.

For high-volume camera phones, the best market for CMOS image sensors is shifting from lower-end VGA devices to products with resolutions of 1Mpixel and higher, said Michael DeLuca, product manager for Kodak's Image Sensors Solutions group. Kodak's new 1.3Mpixel product, the KAC-0130, is geared for next-generation mobile phones.

CMOS image sensor leader Micron is also expanding its effort with a 1/4-inch, 2Mpixel sensor for mainstream camera phones. By yearend, the sweet spot for high-volume phones will center on 2Mpixel units, said Micron's Gove.

Several startups are also making a push. For example, TransChip Inc. has released its second-generation CMOS camera module, a programmable, 2Mpixel imager. MagnaChip Semiconductor has launched a high-performance, 1.3Mpixel CMOS image sensor for camera phones.

But don't count out VGA. OmniVision Technologies Inc. recently unveiled an ultra-thin VGA camera module for thin, low-cost VGA phones.

- Mark LaPedus
EE Times




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