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Following the announcement of its 1" sensor, we spoke to Aptina's Sandor Barna, who believes these larger sensors could save the compact camera by offering a leap in quality that smartphones can't compete with. Barna, the Vice President and General Manager of Aptina's Consumer Camera Business Unit, told us about the unfilled gap in the market that 1" sensors can address, explained the freedoms that the larger format gives the company's designers, and why this is currently best exemplified by a product it wasn't involved in: The Sony RX100.
'I believe there's an unfilled gap,' he said: ''Up until recently you've had two types of cameras - DSLRs, if you want the best image quality, or compact cameras if you need something smaller but there's nothing in between. And now you've also got smartphones, which have got to the stage where they're pretty decent. They're good enough for your day-to-day snapshots of things you see. They're slow to react and you have no zoom, but having them with you all the time makes up for some of those shortcomings, so those have started to challenge compact cameras.'
|Barna is impressed with Sony's RX100 that fits a 1" sensor into a really compact body, while also offering a useful zoom range.|
'Mirrorless cameras have come along but I think that gap still isn't filled for a lot of consumers,' Barna continued: 'I think the closest we've yet seen is the Sony RX100. Nikon has done a great job with its 1 Series cameras, but the work Sony has done with its retractable lens really shows the benefits the sensor format can offer.'
'I think a 1" sensor is great for that market: it neatly bridges the gaps between 1/2.3" sensors, with their limited performance in indoor conditions, and the higher performance, but also size and cost that come with APS-C. Maybe 1" is a better trade-off - it allows a smaller lens and the bigger zoom ratios without the package becoming too large,' he said: ' And speed-wise, it allows you to use a smaller lens for the same angle-of-view [compared to APS-C sensors], which means a dramatic increase in the speed you can move the lens for autofocusing.'
|The 1" sensor is around four times larger than the 1/2.3" sensors used in most compact cameras and three times larger than the 1/1.7" type used in most high-end enthusiast models. It's around a third of the size of an APS-C sensor, though.
The industry-standard 1/X.X" naming system does not directly relate to the size of the sensor, so we've specified actual dimensions in mm.
'A 1" sensor, for the same aperture, captures around four times more light than a 1/2.3" sensor can. Of course you can take another step up to APS-C and get another three times as much light, but then everything gets bigger and more expensive again. If you look at the size of a normal lens on a Sony NEX camera, it gets so unwieldy,' he said: 'It's a size/cost trade-off - it's a scale and you pick where you want to be on that scale.'
Response to the RX100 has been incredibly positive, but there has been a lot of consternation about the price. That's not something that Barna expects to change: 'They're not going to be able to get the price down a lot more. A sensor that's four times the size is going to cost at least four times as much to make, and then the cost of the lens and everything else goes up too.'
But Barna thinks the benefits offered will be enough to overcome this: 'If we get to the point that people realize they don't need flash indoors, I think that'll be seen as a real benefit. With 1/2.3" sensors you have to use flash and the results are terrible - they're flat and disappointing.'
The larger scale of the 1" sensor gives Aptina the space to include some interesting technologies. Its 1" AR1011HS sensor includes its DR-Pix technology that uses one signal path within each pixel at low ISO settings (to maximize dynamic range) and a different one (to offer reduced noise) at higher ISO settings.
|We weren't fans of the first Nikon 1 series cameras but were impressed by their image quality|
Aptina's customer relationships are confidential, so Barna won't discuss whether this DR-Pix technology is used in the Nikon 1 System's sensors (indeed it's only investigation by Chipworks that confirms the company's involvement), but its inclusion would help explain how the Nikon 1 cameras were able to out-perform some larger sensor cameras at high ISO. It would also explain the change in performance above ISO 400 that caused DxOMark to conclude the output is being 'smoothed.'
The DR-Pix technology takes up space, though: 'there's an additional transistor and capacitor in each pixel, so we can't fit DR-Pix into the small pixels used in our 18MP 1/2.3" sensor. We've tried to apply DR-Pix in pixels as small as 2.5 microns, and we might ever get it down to 2.2 microns, but that's almost four times the size of the pixels in our latest 18MP sensor. To use them in a 1/2.3" sensor would take the resolution down to 4MP and that's just not going to fly.'
|Sandor Barna is Vice President and General Manager of Aptina's Consumer Camera Business Unit|
DR-Pix isn't the only aspect of the AR1011HS's sensor Barna is proud of: 'Our 1" sensor is very fast which, combined with the size of the lens it needs, makes it easier to offer fast autofocus performance. There are limits in terms of megapixels per second that you can read-out but our sensor benefits from massive parallelism - a technology we first demonstrated with a sensor we developed with Japanese broadcaster NHK.'
And the chip is attracting interest, he says: 'We've had lots of interest and we're doing detailed evaluation with several major name brands.'
In addition to stills, the AR1011HS can either capture 4k60 video or combine quartets of pixels so that it offers 1080p60 video but with full color capture for each output pixel - something that has captured attention beyond the stills market: 'The video market is also primed and ready - they are very seriously looking at it, both for shoulder-mounted broadcast cameras and high-quality movie cameras,' says Barna: 'In terms of stills there's been some concern that maybe it's a little behind the curve on resolution and there'll potentially be more interest in future versions.'
And this is promising, he says, as he believes it could offer a sustainable future for the compact cameras. 'You look at the current compact cameras - all these manufacturers are selling compact cameras for under $100 - they're not even designing them. They're coming from ODM (third-party design companies) companies in Taiwan and China. A 1" sensor allows us to give them a better camera. It's a good trade-off - it offers a balance of quality, size and cost that separates it from smartphones in a way that would be very hard to follow, because smartphones are size-constrained. It would be a smaller market, at a higher price, but that would be healthier for everyone and could last for a long time.'