Why is it difficult to fit a full-frame sensor into a compact digicam? [They've done it for film.]

Started Nov 30, 2012 | Questions thread
dylanbarnhart
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What happened in the last 2 decades to allow this technical marvel
In reply to theorist1, Dec 1, 2012

as evidenced by the fact that this has taken nearly two decades after the introduction of the first consumer digital camera

There are so many technology improvements in the last 2 decades to allow a full frame format camera to be born.  I don't know all of them, but here are some.

First of all, making a full frame sensor was crazy hard.  The reason is low yield on the silicon waffle.  One minor microscopic flaw on the silicon and the whole sensor goes into the trash.  When making smaller sensors, only a small piece of silicon having the defect has to be thrown away, and other small pieces around it are "keepers".  Silicon waffle yields have been increasing steadily over the last couple decades.  A real full frame sensor wasn't available with any meaningful quantity until 2005 when the Canon 5D classic was first introduced.

Second is the processing power required to handle the sensor output is enormous.  20 years ago, the fastest computer processor couldn't handle 24MP in a reasonable amount of time.  Even today, use your quad-core desktop and see how many RAW files can be converted to JPEG per second?  Now your quad-core desktop uses 400 watts and weight 10+ lbs.  How is it possible to make a 1.06 lbs camera take many frames per second?  It took many years for Moore's law to catch up and produce such a tiny processor that works fast enough. Not only that, the processor has to give out nearly no heat at all because it can't blow out hot air like your computer/laptop. Many improvements done for cell phone processors made this possible.

Then comes the battery.  Unlike film, processors are more hungry, and so are LCD screens.  Improvements in Lithium-Ion efficiency for other things such as cell phones, allow the battery to be small enough and still lasts a whole day of shooting.

Then there are improvements in lens coating that reduces reflection off the shiny sensor.

Then there are improvements in lens manufacturing precision to avoid blurring out those extra megapixels.  Put 24MP full frame in an old compact 35mm film body and you won't get a sharp picture.

Then there are miniaturization technologies that allow physical and electronic components to be small.  Again, these are borrowed from cell phones. Look at how big cell phones were just 10 years ago.

Then there are improvements in flash storage.  Even the fastest SD card from a decade ago can't flush the buffer fast enough for 24MP, not to mention the exorbitant cost.  In 2002, the largest SD card was 256MB (not GB). That's exactly 1,000 times smaller than the current state-of-the-art 256GB SD card, and over a 100 times slower as well.

Last but not least is global economy.  The Sony RX1 would cost double as much if it were 100% produced in Japan.  All large hardware companies use parts and from around the globe to optimize for cost.

Without all of these technologies, a 24MP full frame digital camera from 2 decades ago would weight 10lbs, cost $100,000 and take 1 picture per minute.  Nobody would buy it considering medium format film cameras were better in every way.

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