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Release set for 'sharper' digicam chip

The first camera to use a new type of image-sensor chip is finally set to arrive in stores. The camera's maker says the chip produces sharper images with greater color detail.

The first digital camera to use a new type of chip that promises sharper images and better color is finally set to arrive in stores, later but cheaper than expected.

Japanese high-end camera maker Sigma announced in advance of this week's Photokina trade show in Germany that its SD9 single-lens reflex camera will go on sale Oct. 21 priced at $1,800 for the camera body only. The camera was originally expected to go on sale last March priced around $3,000.

The SD9 will be the first camera to use the X3 image-sensor chip from start-up Foveon, a Silicon Valley chip designer that has touted its design as offering dramatic improvements in image quality. Current image sensors can only record a value for one primary color per pixel. Each pixel on the X3 sensor can record values for all three primary colors, resulting in sharper images with greater color detail, according to Sigma.

Analysts have said that despite the improved image quality promised by the Foveon chip, it will take much work to displace the CCD (charge-coupled device) image sensors that dominate digital photography today.

Michelle Slaughter, lead photography analyst for InfoTrends Research Group, noted that several camera makers, including market share leader Sony, make their own chips and are unlikely to drop widespread CCD technology for a proprietary design.

Image quality in current cameras is already more than adequate for the average consumer to get good snapshots, Slaughter added. "Many consumers are not really picky about image quality; they're not used to really studying the image quality of their snapshots," she said.

"There are the serious hobbyists that do pay a lot of attention to image quality, and those are going to be Foveon's market at first," Slaughter said. "As those users get their hands on the camera, they'll spread the word if it really is a big jump in performance and quality."

Also in advance of Photokina, Sony announced a new version of its tiny Cyber-shot U digital camera. The DSC-U20 weighs in at a scant 4.3 ounces, including batteries and Sony's Memory Stick storage media, and can capture images at resolutions of up to 2 megapixels. The camera will be available worldwide next month priced at $270.

Sony will also offer the DSC-U10, a 1.3 megapixel model with the same body style, for $200. The DSC-U10 was previously available only in Japan.

Analysts have said that style and size are becoming increasingly important as digital camera makers look for ways to differentiate their wares.