Consumers need to think about sensor size rather than pixel count, says Aptina's Sandor Barna, because larger image sensors are likely to appear in all types of devices. Barna, the Vice President and General Manager of sensor maker Aptina's Consumer Camera Business Unit, spoke to us about the challenges facing compact cameras, the niche that will continue to exist for them, and hints that more large sensor compacts are on their way.

Understanding the effect of sensor size is important for customers, he explains: 'The analogy between film and optical format is pretty striking. In the film days, everyone was focused on the size of the film (35mm, 120, etc.) - grain vs. sensitivity (film speed) was a tradeoff decision you made each time you bought some film. In digital, optical format [sensor size] is analogous to film size - pixel count is like the minimum grain size, with a similar sensitivity trade-off. If we applied the old film logic to digital cameras, the optical format would be on the side of the box, not the number of megapixels.'

The image quality benefits brought by larger sensor sizes can help ensure there continues to be a market for compact cameras, he says (though he acknowledges the industry needs a better way of describing sensor size than the current obscure 'inch-type' naming system.)

Aptina's Sandor Barna: 'I believe there's a market for a compact with noticeably better image quality.'

Challenges for compacts

'Smartphones are getting better and your snapshot ability now matches your camera's,' he says. 'Then you think about the constant availability of smartphones and their ability to simply upload to Facebook and you see why compact cameras are declining.' And, he suggests, even the slight sensor size advantage that compacts currently have could soon disappear: 'Some of the less established smartphone makers will try to make a camera with a larger optical format [sensor size]. Mainstream [compact] cameras are susceptible to that because they offer no real advantage.'

But there's still a market for a dedicated camera device, he believes - even for people who don't consider themselves 'photographers.' 'Last time I went on vacation, I wasn't comfortable shooting with my phone, but a current compact wouldn't give me the results I wanted, either - I think there's still a market for people wanting to record planned events - weddings, vacations. I believe there's a market for a compact with noticeably better IQ and features like zoom that smartphones struggle to offer.'

'The places camera makers can differentiate are the areas that you can't introduce those compromises in a phone. Zoom is one of them - smartphone makers don't like the idea of adding this large, moveable, breakable part and their customers won't accept the thicker form factor,' he says: 'there are also system processing constraints in smartphones - the number of processor cycles that can be dedicated to the camera is restricted.'

'So you have to go into spaces that the smartphone can't go,' he says: 'and the main one is optical format [sensor size]'

'But,' he says, 'you have to keep the ease-of-use comparable to that of a smartphone camera - and that's a big challenge. DSLRs aren't for everybody and they're not always convenient. People want a smaller device with that automatic mode they can leave it in. And camera makers need to eliminate the painful process of uploading to a computer, then posting to your favorite website.'

Some smartphone makers are already experimenting with larger sensors (the sensor in Nokia's Lumia 1020 is around 3.5x larger than the ones used in most smartphones)

Go big, or go home

This pressure to offer higher image quality doesn't just affect compacts, he says: 'I think the trend is towards larger format - we've seen an increasing push towards full-frame in the DSLR market and I see everything pushing towards larger formats.' But that still leaves room for something between a smartphone and a DSLR, he says: 'As I said before - I think a 1" sensor represents such a big gap that I don't see that smartphones can go there.'

'For Aptina this trend represents an opportunity to expand - not just with 1" sensors but right up to APS-C,' he explains: 'We've had a lot of interest. In terms of 1", we've been working closely with our current customer base and have been having interest beyond the customer currently using them - we expect to see cameras announced at the beginning of next year.'

'Video is another market opportunity - look at the success GoPro has had,' he says: 'even if you're not using it for action, being able to take a 30 second video clip of your children is very powerful.' However, despite this enthusiasm for video, Barna is not convinced that higher-resolution video is what's going to push the market in the short-term: 'I don't think it'll be 4K yet because I don't think 4K is ready yet - until the point at which people have 4K televisions it'll be a special application. It's really useful for cropping at the moment. Once the monitors are common, you'll start to see it. Home distribution of 4K video will be the breakthrough though - Hollywood is already shooting in 4 - but for user-generated content, 1080 is probably all anyone needs in their pocketable device.'

Aptina designs and produces sensors for a range of products, from smartphones (for which it's just introduced the Clarity+ technology), to consumer cameras such as the Nikon 1 and action cameras, such as the GoPro.