Friday, August 31, 2007

Omnivision and Micron Got Good News

Barron's cites Robert W. Baird chip analyst Tristan Gerra writing that recent investor speculation that memory chip maker Micron Technology (MU) will spin-off its image sensor division “could be true”. He says the potential spin-out would be accretive to Micron’s earnings by a few cents a share “and would create a pure play and number-one CMOS image sensor supplier into mobile phones.”

Gerra today also asserts that Micron “has a significant win” at Nokia for its image sensors which will ramp up next year. He says the company also has maintained its “stronghold position” at Motorola, including the RAZR2, and also continues to be a supplier to many smartphones, including the Apple iPhone.

With yesterday's earning report and upbeat forecast Omnivision gets a lot of comments today. Marketwatch writes that average selling prices for Omnivision's sensor chips rose to $2, up from $1.92 for the three month period ended April 30, bolstered by a shift towards 2-megapixel products. It shipped 86 million sensors, up from 62 million shipped the prior quarter.

"After a long struggle last year, market share gains, richer product mix and improving gross margin are finally trickling down to the bottom line," wrote analyst N. Quinn Bolton of Needham & Co.

Some other analysts are sceptical, but my personal impression is that Omnivision overturn is for real. Finally Omnivision was able to deliver a good 2MP product and partially closed the technology gap in 1.75um pixel. No doubt this should improve the company market position.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Adlink Develops Camera Modules Tester

Digitimes: Adlink Technology, a Taiwan-based industrial PC producer, has been cooperating with one of the global top three suppliers of CMOS image sensor modules to develop an image sensor testing platform to be used on production lines.
Adlink plans to start producing its testing platform in small volumes in Q1 2008.

Richard Lyon's "Pixels and Me"

I've just bumped into a Computer History Museum's video lecture "Pixels and Me" by Richard Lyon (Foveon). Quite interesting historical content, if you have a spare 1.5 hour. One can download it here.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Image Sensors in 2007

EETimes: "The first half of 2007 has been a disaster for CMOS image sensor suppliers," said Robert Lineback, an analyst with IC Insights Inc. "This is mostly due to the decline of orders from the cellular phone segment. This correction continued in the second quarter, but market conditions should improve in the second half of 2007."

In 2006, CMOS image sensor sales totaled $4.2 billion, up more than 30 percent from about $3.2 billon in 2005, according to IC Insights. The current outlook for CMOS image sensors is for only 4 percent growth in 2007 to $3.4 billion, after a year-over-year decline in the first half of this year, according to the firm.

Overall, worldwide revenues for image sensors -- including both CCDs and CMOS image products -- fell about 4 percent in the first six months of 2007, according to the firm.

"CCD sales have been down just slightly compared to the steeper drop in CMOS imagers, which have been clobbered with lower unit volumes and the erosion of average selling prices (ASPs) in the first two quarters this year," Lineback said. "Both CCD and CMOS image sensor segments are expected to improve in the Q3 and 4Q periods."

Compounding the problem are some transitional issues in the market. "One major problem facing CMOS imager suppliers has been the slower-than-expected migration to higher resolution embedded cameras in handsets," IC Insights' Lineback said.

"Micron continues to struggle with sensors and has not seen a rebound in orders from Motorola," said analyst Doug Freedman of American Technology Research Inc.

"We expect Micron to actively pursue strategic alternatives for its image sensor business," Freedman said. "While we don't expect Micron to exit the business entirely, we do believe the company is looking for ways to separate the image sensor results from its core NAND/DRAM business."

Doug says that Omnivision ramps up a new tier one design win. "We suspect OmniVision's design win is with Motorola," he said. "Based on ASPs and volumes needed to generate the incremental revenue in OmniVision's guidance for the July quarter, we believe the company could be designed into the new Motorola Razr2 handset, which has the potential to be a key platform for Motorola in the coming quarters based on early user/industry reviews."

Other CMOS image suppliers are seeing mixed results. "We believe pricing pressure in the low-end is still an issue with Samsung pushing for share gains," Freedman said.

Like Lineback, Freedman also sees a better picture in the second half for suppliers. "Handset unit growth remains robust," Freedman said. "2-Mpixel sensors are becoming more mainstream with the industry moving from VGA straight to 2MP. We believe 2-Mpixel sensors carry a 2-to-3 times ASP advantage over VGA sensors and that advances in packaging technology will continue to push higher resolution sensors into mainstream phones and boost margins and volumes."

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Alexima Announces First Products

Alexima announced its first sensor products. AM025 has 512x512 pixel resolution and 4000fps speed. AM40 is 4MP sensor providing 400fps. The sensors are clearly targeted to machine vision applications.

Also, on About Us page there are few rare papers from past Workshops on Image Sensors:

A 2e- Noise Sensor
4 Mpixel Alexima

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Hynix to Repurchase Magnachip?

The Korea Times: In July, Hynix CEO Kim Jong-gab said the company was ready to enter the non-memory semiconductor business. Officials say the detailed plans on the new business, including the repurchase of MagnaChip, will be unveiled after October 3.

In 2004 Hynix separated from its non-memory business, which became MagnaChip Semiconductor.

Zero-Bias Photodiode Problems

Bart Dierickx published his paper "Variability limits the advantage of a photo diode’s zero bias operation" on Caeleste web site. Originally the paper was presented at 2007 International Image Sensor Workshop, 7-10 June 2007, Maine USA.

Sony APS-C Sized Sensor for DSLR

A few days ago Sony announced 12.47MP IMX021 sensor with 28.4mm diagonal, which translates to 5.49um pixel. At 10.39fps speed the sensor is quite fast for a DSLR sensor.

Sony touts 12b column-parallel ADC, which allows "dual noise cancelling technology realizing high-precision noise reduction across both analog and digital circuits". However, no sensor noise numbers are released.

IMX021 production will be carried out at Sony Semiconductor Kyushu Corporation's Kumamoto Technology Center.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Micron 1.75um Pixel Reverse Engineering

For the first time Chipworks openly publishes poly and diffusion-level picture of Micron's 1.75um pixel:

This is the old pixel from MT9E001 8MP sensor. It mostly inherits the first generation 2.2um layout, just shrinked down a little. More recent Micron pixels are supposed to improve its symmetry.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

ProMOS Plans CIS Production in Q4 2007

Digitimes: ProMOS plans to provide foundry service production in the fourth quarter at its first 12-inch fab (Fab 2) at Hsinchu, Taiwan, according to the company at an investors conference. The company plans for a capacity of 20,000 wafer starts per month for CMOS image sensor production from the fourth quarter of 2007.

From the article it's not clear whether this production relates to Toppan-licensed color filters or full image sensors.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Jova Image Sensor Lab Article

Vision Systems Design published an article about Jova Solutions' CMOS image-sensor and camera-module test station, the Image Sensor Lab ISL-1600, that provides a range of CMOS image-sensor interfaces and control, test, evaluation, and comparison capabilities and costs less than $5000.

Image Sensor Lab application software includes many of the common high-level characterization tests typically performed on image sensors during manufacturing or verification testing, like photoresponse uniformity, dead- and defective-pixel detection, Macbeth color analysis, and MTF/SFR image-sharpness measurements, dust and particle detection and luminance uniformity.

Another article by Toshi Hori, president of GEViCAM, gives a crash course on image sensor parameters interpretation. Quite simplified and incomplete, it might be of some use for those who new to image sensors.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

More on ProMOS Plans

Taipei Times: ProMOS expects to start supplying CMOS sensors for customers on a contract basis in the first quarter of next year at the earliest, Ben Tseng, spokesman for PROMOS, said.

ProMOS plans to make CMOS sensors at an old 12-inch (300mm) plant in Hsinchu, Tseng said, joining bigger local rivals such as Powerchip in making products other than DRAM chips at less cost-competitive factories.

He declined to reveal the amount of additional investment needed to upgrade the facility to accommodate CMOS sensor production.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

SMIC Not Worried about Toppan-ProMOS Deal

Digitimes: SMIC, Toppan's partner in JV that produces on-chip color filters and micro lenses for CMOS image sensors, has said that it is glad to see the Japan-based partner licensing its technologies to Taiwan's ProMOS.

SMIC maintained that its partnership with Toppan – the JV TSES in Shanghai – has been fruitful following the start of production in January 2006. ProMOS will in the future utilize Toppan's technologies for back-end production and services, SMIC added.

Toppan and SMIC announced in June 2004 that they would invest US$64 million to jointly set up TSES, with the former having a 70% stake and the latter 30%.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Toppan and ProMOS Sign License Agreement

JCN Network: ProMOS moves full speed to aquire sensor production skills. Under the license agreement, Toppan will provide ProMOS know-how for the ramp-up of ProMOS's color filters and microlens production line at the 300mm wafer image sensor production line in Taiwan.

The agreement will also enable Toppan to utilize ProMOS's production line for its production of color Filters used for 300mm wafer sized Image Sensors at ProMOS's established production line, and will also allow Toppan to supply the color resist to ProMOS.

In other words, ProMOS gets excellent color filter and microlens technology, while Toppan gets access to 300mm wafer lines, that it previously lacked. This is what's called mutual benefit.

Update: Digitimes writes that in addition to the technology license agreement, ProMOS and Toppan Printing will also extend the collaboration to a business partnership.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

New Tower Pixel Offering

I was shown a flyer with recent Tower pixels developments:

The pixels are offered as IP for Tower CIS customers. The last 2.2um generation looks extremely good. With such pixels in hand fabless companies can effectevily compete with best sensors from Micron, Samsung and the likes. I'm eager to see the products based on these pixels.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Kodak Designs Sensor for Motorola Phones

SeekingAlpha: In today's conference call Kodak CEO Antonio Perez answers on image sensors business question:

Matt Troy - Citigroup:

Okay. Antonio, I know it is still early days in the wake of the CMOS announcement, but based on your initial conversations, I’d be interested in your thoughts -- where do you see the opportunity with that product as I turn the dial? Is it selling co-manufactured chips into handset makers, is it licensing it to other chip manufacturers, is it putting it into your own cameras? I know it is some combination thereof, but I’m just wondering where you see, at last in the next 12 to 36 months, the largest opportunity based on your conversations so far?

Antonio M. Perez:

I think the largest is in the handset. As you know, we have a close relationship with Motorola. We are working diligently to help them develop improved cell phones with our CMOS sensors. I am anxious to be able to announce, for them to announce something like that. We are working very hard to get it to market quickly. That is the best opportunity, not just with Motorola but our plan is to serve anybody that is in the digital capture market.

Having said that, we have one camera that is going to come with our CMOS sensors and we would like to see many more, and other people using our CMOS sensors, like today, some of our competitors, they use our CCD sensors already in their cameras, so we don’t see a reason why if we have the quality that we believe we do have and the differentiation that we believe we do have and the pixel technology and the imaging technology that we embed in those sensors, we should be able to get a good share of that market.

Our tentative goal that we have shared with investors so far is that I don’t see a reason why we shouldn’t get to $300 million by 2010. If we hit it, well, it could be a lot more than that but that is the number that we are planning to for this purpose.

Altasens Abandons "Tapered Reset" Technology?

Broadcast Newsroom (link 1, link 2): In a surprizing move Altasense announced a switch to regular 4T technology. The pixel sizes are 2.09um and 2.7um for different sensors in the family - a very good start for the company new to 4T pixel design. The sensors are made in IBM's process.

A5262-4T 5MP HD sensor is based on 2.09um pixel. It's designed for Hitachi’s Blue-Ray DVD/HD camcorder. It does 60fps at HD resolution and 30fps at 4.5MP resolution, both with 12b output. This is quite a unique combination for today's market. The sensor is at production ramp-up stage.

A337x-4T sensors are based on 2.7um pixel and offer 72fps speed of 1080p HD video stream at 12b resolution. The engineering samples are available now.

While transition to 4T is a very logical step for the company, it's a little bit sad to see that Altasens' pixel differentiation is lost.

Omnivision Uses Non-Linear Microlens Shift Technology

Yahoo: Omnivision's new OV7680 1/10" VGA sensor features a non-linear micro-lens shift technology. The technology reduces the distance between the sensor and the lens, so the height of the camera module can be just 2.5 mm. The sensor is based on 2.2um pixels.

Omnivision already started shipping volume production quantities of the sensor.