Apple savvy in focus: The iPhone 4 camera

Apple's tech smarts can be seen in the iPhone 4 camera, which packs a technology that U.S. camera maker Kodak is just now integrating into its high-end camera.

Apple's iPhone 4 camera packs a technology that a lot of buyers of the phone may have missed: a new image sensor tech that is coming into focus--pardon the pun--as camera makers like Kodak adopt the technology in higher-end cameras.

Steve Jobs discusses the iPhone's backside illumination (or illuminated) sensor technology at the phone's rollout event.
Steve Jobs discusses the iPhone 4's backside illumination (or illuminated) sensor technology at the phone's rollout event. CNET/James Martin

The technology, called backside illumination, or BSI, was highlighted by Steve Jobs when he took the stage to roll out the new iPhone, as Joshua Goldman of CNET Reviews wrote here .

Apple's savviness shines through here. The company had to do its homework to get out in front of this trend, particularly in smartphones, which are not necessarily known for having the latest and greatest camera technology.

BSI sensors improve the image sensor's sensitivity by boosting the amount of light captured. As a result, they improve low-light performance while reducing noise. Sony was one of the first to announce the technology back in 2008. Another company, OmniVision, has made this available for smartphones.

OmniVision's BSI design takes the traditional CMOS (complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor) image sensor and turns it upside down, which is actually the most unobstructed way for light to strike the pixel. Why? Because conventional front-side illumination image sensors are left with relatively little photo-sensitive area after all of the transistors, dielectric layers, and metal circuitry are added on top.

Kodak's upcoming EasyShare Max uses a Sony backside illumination CMOS sensor.
Kodak's upcoming EasyShare Max uses a Sony backside illumination CMOS sensor. Kodak

I stumbled across one of the most recent applications of the technology during my trek across the vast north, central, and south halls at CES earlier this month. There, I bumped into the Kodak booth, where the U.S. camera company was showing off its new high-end EasyShare Max--(which is also mentioned here ).

To contrast the difference with conventional sensors, Kodak has posted an example of a BSI sensor-generated image on its EasyShare Max page. In ad copy, Kodak describes BSI as follows: "CMOS sensors deliver higher quality pixels--better pixels are better than more pixels. Kodak's first BSI CMOS sensor delivers stunning low-light picture quality with less noise and less blur--no flash needed."

The copy about better pixels is important--a point Apple has made too. Kodak, to date, has been mostly an advocate of more pixels, not necessarily better pixels.

And Kodak is late to the BSI sensor party. It is not only following Apple but a host of other camera manufacturers like Sony-- most recently in its Cyber-shot --and Samsung , as CNET Reviews has pointed out in the past.

But the fact that Apple, a smartphone maker, was one of the first to get this into a phone demonstrates Apple's tech smarts and heightens the anticipation for future iPhone 5 and iPad 2 products.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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