Micron Unveiling Bigger, Faster Digital Imaging Sensor

Chip-maker Micron Technology Inc. (MU) planned on Thursday to unveil a thumbnail-sized digital sensor that enables pocket-sized cameras and cell phones to capture bursts of 10 high-quality photos in a single second or even high-definition video.

Production of the new 8-megapixel digital image sensor is expected to begin early next year at Micron's fabrication plants in Idaho and Italy, the Boise-based company said Thursday.

Devices using the new chip should reach consumers by late 2007 and will feature high-speed, high-megapixel digital photography capabilities normally found in more expensive, single-lens reflex cameras. Micron did not identify any customers in its announcement.

"We're saying it can go in a point-and-shoot camera selling in the $200 to $300 range," said Suresh Venkatrama, Micron's director of the digital camera segment. "It brings high-quality digital video and photography down to the consumer space."

The new sensor is a type of chip known as a "complementary metal-oxide semiconductor," or CMOS.

Analysts say the technology, which is also used in memory chips and microprocessors, will challenge the dominance of traditional light-sensing charge-coupled devices, or CCDs.

"With CMOS' lower power consumption, cost advantages and the ability to integrate more functionality onto the chip set, CCD is under a lot of pressure in this market," said Jeff Hayes, director of consumer imaging for InfoTrends in Weymouth, Mass.

But Chris Chute, research manager for IDC Digital Imaging Solutions in Framingham, Mass. said it may take a while for the new sensor to become commonplace in consumer cameras.

Most digital cameras are made in Japan and manufacturers there tend to buy image sensors from Japanese suppliers, who primarily produce CCD chips.

"This will immediately appeal to photography enthusiasts, but the average consumer is really more of a middle- to late-adopter and doesn't pay attention to the specs and features as much," said Chute. "You are probably going to see this in mainstream digital cameras and high-end cell phones in another year or so."

Micron's new sensor includes a faster processor that eliminates usual point-and-shoot delays between taking pictures. That means users can shoot up to 10 images per second at 8-megapixel resolution or 30 frames per second at a resolution of 2-megapixels.

A 2-megapixel digital picture file can be printed in the normal 4-inch-by-6-inch format without noticeable graininess while an 8-megapixel picture can be printed in the larger 8x10 format without a loss of quality.

The sensor's rapid capture rate and high resolution also allows smaller cameras to incorporate features such as image stabilization, faster auto-focus, higher quality digital zoom and recording HD video, said Micron, which also is the largest U.S. manufacturer of computer memory chips.

"There is growing interest in mobile video, especially among younger consumers," Hayes said . "With large memory chips coming out on camera phones, you are talking about capturing 20 to 30 minutes of HD-quality video on a mobile device and that pushes the consumer closer to where they consider using their phone as an everyday camcorder and camera."