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New chips promise high-quality photos at lower cost

A National Semiconductor spinoff makes a prototype for a digital camera using the same standard chip technology for processors that power computers.

Another step has been taken in the long march to better and cheaper digital photography.

Foveon, a National Semiconductor spinoff, said today it has produced a prototype for a 16.8-megapixel camera with an image sensor produced by the same standard chipmaking technology used to make the processors that power computers and cell phones.

With a resolution of 4,096 pixels by 4,096 pixels, the Foveon sensor rivals the best of the sensors available using the charge-coupled devices (CCDs), the standard in most digital cameras. Although CCDs are more expensive, those sensors have been offering higher resolution than those using traditional complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technology.

However, Foveon executives say their CMOS product closes the quality gap with the more expensive technology.

"In terms of quality, there's no question that we've just shattered through the quality threshold of CCDs," said Eric Zarakov, Foveon's vice president of marketing. Kodak recently announced a 16-megapixel CCD of its own.

Digital cameras aimed at consumers currently range from 1 megapixel to 3 megapixels. Cameras for professionals have doubled that range.

The Foveon chip has 70 million transistors, more than twice as many as Intel's Pentium III, noted Brian Halla, National Semi CEO and a member of Foveon's board of directors. At this point, Foveon is just demonstrating the technology and asserting that it is ready to be manufactured. Zarakov said products using the new chips could be available within 12 months.

"It could happen slower or faster depending on what the market interest is," Zarakov said. The prototype Foveon camera can take photographs that are crisp even when printed 8 feet high, but only in black and white. The ability to process color images can be added either by using multiple chips and a prism, or by dividing the pixels of the sensor into different colors.

Initially, Santa Clara, Calif.-based Foveon expects its technology to be used in cameras aimed at professional photographers, the types of cameras that cost thousands of dollars. However, CMOS (pronounced "See-moss") cameras eventually should enable the overall cost of digital cameras to come down further, Zarakov said.

Other companies, such as Conexant Systems, Canon and Scitex, have offered digital photography gear using CMOS sensors. But, Zarakov said, Foveon is the first to offer a chip that can compete with the most powerful of the CCD-based models.

A National Semi representative said the company has a 50 percent stake in Foveon and that the photography chipmaker is using National Semi's South Portland, Maine, wafer plant to make its chips. Foveon is using National Semi's latest 0.18-micron manufacturing process, a far thinner wiring than the 0.35-micron and 0.5 micron processes used in most current CMOS cameras.

Foveon has released a 4-megapixel camera using an older version of its technology, but Zarakov said the company is looking to work with other camera makers. Foveon plans to show off its new prototype later this month at the Photokina trade show in Cologne, Germany.