Contributed by Ray Fontaine, Image Sensor Analyst
Within our group of pixel analysts, we most often spend our days immersed in the business of analyzing the device structures and circuits of image sensors. We are, however, also in a unique position to comment on the image sensor market. Our procurement and teardown groups routinely purchase the latest and greatest electronic gadgets to track the trends in systems architecture and component design wins. Some of these convert to the full teardown articles we routinely publish, however, behind the scenes, quite a lot more data is flowing in to our internal databases.
We procured and cataloged the image sensors from over 80 leading mobile phones and tablets in 2012. A word about the methodology used for this analysis: the intent here is not to provide a comprehensive market share or revenue tracking summary. We do routinely go through those exercises, but the focus is on a first-level mining of our devices database in order to comment on what we are seeing in real products. A company’s product strategy certainly weighs in to the interpretation; consider Apple as an example. Apple famously keeps its mobile product portfolio confined to a few gadgets per year, so naturally there are fewer events per year to monitor. This analysis also does not directly reflect the volume of those sales. Motorola released considerably more products, yet had a comparatively lower share of the smartphone market.
Our mobile phone and tablet procurement roadmap essentially corresponds to the intersection of high volume, value, and technological innovation; however, it does also include coverage of events that might be triggered by a specific client need. It is reasonable to conclude that we are covering the truly important events (or one could argue the only events that matter – leading smartphones), but caution should be exercised when analyzing the aggregate data. Enough with the disclaimers – on with the data!
Of the mobile phones and tablets we tore down in 2012, most contained two camera modules. Focusing on the primary camera modules, the resolution trend we are seeing is a dominance of 5 Mp and 8 Mp sensors. A notable outlier is the 41 Mp image sensor from the Nokia 808.
Despite the release of several 1.1 µm pixel size devices to the market in 2012, they are only just beginning to find their way to downstream devices. We are seeing more of them already in 2013 (not shown in this data), but the penetration rate of 1.4 µm pixel devices will likely remain fairly high over the course of 2013. Of note, and not explicitly analyzed here, is the resilience of front illuminated sensors. All of OmniVision’s devices are back illuminated, while all of Aptina’s and Toshiba’s are front illuminated. Sony and Samsung had a mix of front and back illuminated devices winning primary camera sockets (although the majority of sensors from both companies are back illuminated).
The important question is, “Who is winning the primary camera sockets of the most desirable tablets and smartphones?” This application space appears to be trending towards a commodity market. At best, it seems to be a four or five horse race between OmniVision, Sony, Aptina, Samsung, and Toshiba.
It is useful to analyze the real data from 2012 as it is complementary to the estimates provided by several sources. What it doesn’t show, though, is momentum. Sony’s stacked CIS die, already in mass production, will put pressure on others to innovate. Toshiba has publicly committed to increasing its market share in the mobile space, and Aptina is pushing its back illuminated devices into mass-production this year. What effect will this have on the market? Keep watching our teardown and technology blog as we’ll be commenting on this over the course of 2013!