The Megapixel Race and its Clear Winner

Like any Moore’s Law-inspired race, the megapixel race in digital cameras in the late 1990s and into the 2000s was a harsh battleground for every manufacturer. With the development of the smartphone, it became a war on two fronts, with Samsung eventually cramming twenty megapixels into a handheld. Although no clear winner of consumer-grade cameras was ever announced (and Samsung ended up reducing their flagship phone’s cameras to sixteen megapixels for reasons we’ll discuss) it seems as though this race is over, fizzling out into a void where even marketing and advertising groups don’t readily venture. What happened?

The Technology

A brief overview of Moore’s Law predicts that transistor density on a given computer chip should double about every two years. A digital camera’s sensor is remarkably similar, using the same silicon to form charge-coupled devices or CMOS sensors (the same CMOS technology used in some RAM and other digital logic technology) to detect photons that hit it. It’s not too far of a leap to realize how Moore’s Law would apply to the number of photo detectors on a digital camera’s image sensor. Like transistor density, however, there’s also a limit to how many photo detectors will fit in a given area before undesirable effects start to appear.

cmos_image_sensor_mechanism_illustration
CMOS Image Sensor Mechanism Illustration, By User:たまなるたみ – drawing created myself, GPL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=371238. Note that each pixel has its own amplifier.

Image sensors have come a long way since video camera tubes. In the ’70s, the charge-coupled device (CCD) replaced the cathode ray tube as the dominant video capturing technology. A CCD works by arranging capacitors into an array and biasing them with a small voltage. When a photon hits one of the capacitors, it is converted into an electrical charge which can then be stored as digital information. While there are still specialty CCD sensors for some niche applications, most image sensors are now of the CMOS variety. CMOS uses photodiodes, rather than capacitors, along with a few other transistors for every pixel. CMOS sensors perform better than CCD sensors because each pixel has an amplifier which results in more accurate capturing of data. They are also faster, scale more readily, use fewer components in general, and use less power than a comparably sized CCD. Despite all of these advantages, however, there are still many limitations to modern sensors when more and more of them get packed onto a single piece of silicon.

While transistor density tends to be limited by quantum effects, image sensor density is limited by what is effectively a “noisy” picture. Noise can be introduced in an image as a result of thermal fluctuations within the material, so if the voltage threshold for a single pixel is so low that it falsely registers a photon when it shouldn’t, the image quality will be greatly reduced. This is more noticeable in CCD sensors (one effect is called “blooming“) but similar defects can happen in CMOS sensors as well. There are a few ways to solve these problems, though.

cockfield-minco
A sunrise picture taken with an entry-level DSLR at 1600 ISO. At this sensitivity, noise in the clouds can be seen in the form of random fluctuations of some pixels. This effect would be mitigated by a camera with a larger sensor, a lower sensor sensitivity with a longer shutter speed (which would blur the turbine blades) or a scene with more light. Photo  © 2016 by Bryan Cockfield

 

First, the voltage threshold can be raised so that random thermal fluctuations don’t rise above the threshold to trigger the pixels. In a DSLR, this typically means changing the ISO setting of a camera, where a lower ISO setting means more light is required to trigger a pixel, but that random fluctuations are less likely to happen. From a camera designer’s point-of-view, however, a higher voltage generally implies greater power consumption and some speed considerations, so there are some tradeoffs to make in this area.

Another reason that thermal fluctuations cause noise in image sensors is that the pixels themselves are so close together that they influence their neighbors. The answer here seems obvious: simply increase the area of the sensor, make the pixels of the sensor bigger, or both. This is a good solution if you have unlimited area, but in something like a cell phone this isn’t practical. This gets to the core of the reason that most modern cell phones seem to be practically limited somewhere in the sixteen-to-twenty megapixel range. If the pixels are made too small to increase megapixel count, the noise will start to ruin the images. If the pixels are too big, the picture will have a low resolution.

There are some non-technological ways of increasing megapixel count for an image as well. For example, a panoramic image will have a megapixel count much higher than that of the camera that took the picture simply because each part of the panorama has the full mexapixel count. It’s also possible to reduce noise in a single frame of any picture by using lenses that collect more light (lenses with a lower f-number) which allows the photographer to use a lower ISO setting to reduce the camera’s sensitivity.

Gigapixels!

Of course, if you have unlimited area you can make image sensors of virtually any size. There are some extremely large, expensive cameras called gigapixel cameras that can take pictures of unimaginable detail. Their size and cost is a limiting factor for consumer devices, though, and as such are generally used for specialty purposes only. The largest image sensor ever built has a surface of almost five square meters and is the size of a car. The camera will be put to use in 2019 in the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in South America where it will capture images of the night sky with its 8.4 meter primary mirror. If this was part of the megapixel race in consumer goods, it would certainly be the winner.

design_of_the_lsst_camera
LSST Image Sensor, By Todd Mason, Mason Productions Inc. / LSST Corporation – https://www.lsst.org/sites/default/files/photogallery/Camera_CU-full.jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52230238

With all of this being said, it becomes obvious that there are many more considerations in a digital camera than just the megapixel count. With so many facets of a camera such as physical sensor size, lenses, camera settings, post-processing capabilities, filters, etc., the megapixel number was essentially an easy way for marketers to advertise the claimed superiority of their products until the practical limits of image sensors was reached. Beyond a certain limit, more megapixels doesn’t automatically translate into a better picture. As already mentioned, however, the megapixel count can be important, but there are so many ways to make up for a lower megapixel count if you have to. For example, images with high dynamic range are becoming the norm even in cell phones, which also helps eliminate the need for a flash. Whatever you decide, though, if you want to start taking great pictures don’t worry about specs; just go out and take some photographs!

(Title image: VISTA gigapixel mosaic of the central parts of the Milky Way, produced by European Southern Observatory (ESO) and released under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. This is a scaled version of the original 108,500 x 81,500, 9-gigapixel image.)

Dead-Bug Logic Probe in a Magic Marker

Logic probes are simple but handy tools that can be had for a couple of bucks. They may not be the sexiest pieces of test gear, nor the most versatile, but they have their place, and building your own logic probe is a great way to understand the tool’s strength and weaknesses.

[Jxnblk]’s take on the logic probe is based on a circuit by [Tony van Roon]. The design hearkens back to a simpler time and is based on components that would have been easy to pick up at any Radio Shack once upon a time. The logic section is centered on the venerable 7400 quad 2-input NAND gate in the classic 14-pin DIP format. The gates light separate LEDs for high and low logic levels, and a 555 timer chip in a one-shot configuration acts as a pulse stretcher to catch transients. The DIP packages lend themselves to quick and dirty “dead bug” construction, and the whole thing fits nicely into a discarded marking pen.

dead-bug-logic-probe-in-marker-body

It’s a simple build and a nice form factor for a useful tool, but for an even slimmer package like an old syringe you’ll probably have to go with SMD components. And when you graduate from the simple logic probe, you might want to check out the capabilities of this smart probe.

Arduino Versus Logic: The Coil Gun War Continues

Looks like another shot has been fired in the simmering Coil Gun Control War. This time, [Great Scott] is taken to the discrete woodshed with a simplified and improved control circuit using a single CMOS chip and a few transistors. Where will it end? Won’t somebody think of the children?

The latest salvo is in response to [GreatScott]’s attempt to control a DIY coil gun with discrete logic, which in turn was a response to comments that he took the easy way out and used an Arduino in the original build. [Great Scott]’s second build was intended to justify the original design choice, and seemed to do a good job of explaining how much easier and better the build was with a microcontroller. Case closed, right?

Nope. Embedded designer [fede.tft] wasn’t sure the design was even close to optimized, so he got to work — on his vacation, no less!’ He trimmed the component count down to a single CMOS chip (a quad Schmitt trigger NAND), a couple of switching transistors, the MOSFETs that drive the coils, and a few passives. The NANDs are set up as flip-flops that are triggered and reset by the projectile sensors, which are implemented as hardwired AND gates. The total component count is actually less than the support components on the original Arduino build, and [fede.tft] goes so far as to offer ideas for an alternative that does away with the switching transistors.

Even though [fede.tft] admits that [GreatScott] has him beat since he actually built both his circuits, hats off to him for showing us what can likely be accomplished with just a few components. We’d like to see someone implement this design, and see just how simple it can get.

Logic Noise: Playing in Tune with an Exponential VCO

Last session, we use the cheap and cheerful 4046 Phase-locked Loop chip as a simple voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO). It was dead simple, in fact, because the chip has a VCO already built in. There’s one big drawback of the 4046’s VCO; the pitch changes linearly with the control voltage. Ideally, as we’ll discuss in the next sections, we’d like the frequency to be an exponential function of the control voltage (CV), and that’s going to mean a little bit of analog circuitry.

René Schmitz has a fantastic exponential VCO design that’s almost a perfect fit for the Logic Noise series — it’s built with a minimum of parts, it’s a little bit rough around the edges, and at its core is a 4000-series CMOS chip that’s normally used for digital logic applications. The only drawback, from our perspective, is that it uses a dual (positive and negative) power supply. We’ll hack our way around that, and ignore some of René’s otherwise worthwhile refinements in the name of doing something truly quick and dirty. We’ll get 95% of the results with 70% of the work, although it’s easy enough to add on the rest if it strikes your fancy.

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Exponential Growth In Linear Time: The End Of Moore’s Law

Moore’s Law states the number of transistors on an integrated circuit will double about every two years. This law, coined by Intel and Fairchild founder [Gordon Moore] has been a truism since it’s introduction in 1965. Since the introduction of the Intel 4004 in 1971, to the Pentiums of 1993, and the Skylake processors introduced last month, the law has mostly held true.

The law, however, promises exponential growth in linear time. This is a promise that is ultimately unsustainable. This is not an article that considers the future roadblocks that will end [Moore]’s observation, but an article that says the expectations of Moore’s Law have already ended. It ended quietly, sometime around 2005, and we will never again see the time when transistor density, or faster processors, more capable graphics cards, and higher density memories will double in capability biannually.

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How CMOS Works: Some Final Words About CMOS

Finishing up on the topic of CMOS bus logic I am going to show a couple of families with unique properties that may come in handy one day.

High Voltage Tolerant Family: AHC/AHCT

AHCT w/o high side diode
Note the missing diode to VDD

First up is a CMOS logic family  AHC/AHCT that has one of the protection diodes on the input removed.  This allows a 5V input voltage to be applied to a device powered by 3.3V so that I don’t have to add a gate just for the translation.  Any time I can translate and do it without any additional gate delays I am a happy engineer.

Of course the example above works in a single direction and bidirectional does start to get more complicated. Using a bidirectional buffer such as a 74AHCT245 will work for TTL translation when going from 3.3V back to 5V providing there is a direction control signal present.

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How CMOS Works: MOSFETs, JFETs, IGFETS and More

CMOS opened the door for many if not most of the properties needed for today’s highly integrated circuits and low power portable and mobile devices. This really couldn’t happen until the speeds and current drive capabilities of CMOS caught up to the other technologies, but catch up they did.

Nowadays CMOS Small Scale Integration (SSI) logic families, I.E. the gates used in external logic, offer very fast speeds and high current drive capability as well as supporting the low voltages found in modern designs. Likewise the Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) designs, or Very Very Large Scale if you like counting the letter V when talking, are possible due to low power dissipation as well as other factors.

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