The Sensor Battles Continue

An interesting followup to the sensor wars article: not quite noted yet by most of the Web, the new Canon XF405 Camcorder has a 1" sensor. It's not a Sony sensor ;~). 

It appears that Canon has brought their dual-pixel technology down to 1", in an effective 8mp sensor for video cameras. I'm not sure why Canon targeted 8mp. That would imply that the sensor is actually 3920 x 2160 in photosite count, meaning that every pixel has Bayer interpretation to get the additional two color data points. It also means that you have fairly large photosites (something on the order of 3.5 microns, compared to the 2.5 micron size of the Sony 1" sensor).  

That Canon is apparently now fabbing its own 1" sensor has implications on the lower end of Canon's still camera lineup. The PowerShot models still in Canon's lineup currently tend to use Sony-supplied sensors. I'm guessing that Canon is going to reign that in.

Meanwhile, dpreview published an article based upon their recent visit to Japan that should put to rest the "only Sony Imaging gets Sony sensors in the future" myth. Well, almost put it to rest, had they not added their speculation to one point.

The critical quote: "...any manufacturer can approach Sony Semiconductor and ask for their own design requirements, often building on Sony’s own sensor advancements that are made public." 

This explains the "Nikon designed D850 sensor" pretty clearly. As most of us believe, it's likely Sony Exmor technologies with Nikon changes and additions, and fabbed in the old Toshiba plant that Sony bought. 

Unfortunately, dpreview decided to mix their own assumptions with what they learned in their meetings: "Although Sony tends to hold its proprietary sensor technology for its own cameras for roughly two years..." This sentence is footnoted, at least, that says "While we weren't explicitly told this, one might surmise it from the fact that the sensor in the a7R II has not appeared in any other manufacturer's camera since its launch over 2 years ago." 

Okay, dpreview, the key word there is "explicitly." This implies that your were implicitly informed of this. Which means that the second clause ("one might surmise...") is now somewhat contradictory. The first clause indicates you heard something from Sony, the second clause indicates you didn't and are guessing. Which is it? (I'm betting the latter.)

Moreover, I'm not sure what exact technology Sony Semiconductor would have been providing Sony Imaging exclusively for two years. About the only unique thing in the A7rII sensor is BSI. BSI has been available for awhile from Sony, though no one other than Sony put it into a full frame sensor until Nikon did with the D850. And I'm pretty sure that Sony Imaging didn't develop BSI ;~). 

This is the crazy thing about these soft interviews with the Japanese executives: either no one is asking the hard questions—probably for fear of losing access—or they're just taking the company line as it is handed them without truly critical analysis. 

That last has real implications. If Sony Semiconductor did indeed withhold large sensor BSI from other players for two years, that implies that they'll withhold Stacked large sensors from other players for two years. And that completely destroys the "we make our technologies available to others" aspect that Sony Semiconductor seems to want others to believe. 

Sony introduced another stacked sensor camera today, the RX10 Mark IV, which shoots 24fps for 292 frames (raw or JPEG) and has the basically the same tech in it as the A9. 

These two things—Canon making 1" sensors, Sony Semiconductor's actual policy—are not unrelated. Nikon is Sony Semiconductor's biggest large sensor customer. With the rumors that Nikon has its own dual-pixel technology headed to a new mirrorless entry, that puts things in an interesting place. Yes, I'm aware of dpreview's "Sony Semiconductor is not allowed to communicate any intellectual property it gains to Sony’s camera division" comment. 

That's called a Chinese Wall, and rarely are such walls actually effective. Indeed, I know firsthand that Sony Semiconductor's ability to withhold information is not even close to perfect. 

Thus, Nikon has an interesting choice to make: do they continue to just play off of Sony Semiconductor's technologies for most of their cameras, mixing and matching and adding as they see fit? Or does Nikon begin to take the Canon approach? 

Sony fan boys are probably saying that they couldn't care less, good riddance Nikon. But they should care. Sony Semiconductor's ability to build those Sony Imaging sensors, particularly at volume and at lowest cost, are partly driven by the fact that Sony Semiconductor has multiple customers absorbing costs and driving yields.

I take Nikon's insistence on describing and even promoting the D850's sensor as "Nikon designed" with no mention of partnership to be a warning signal to Sony.  

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