CCD vs CMOS

What is the difference between CCD and CMOS image sensors in a digital camera?

Digital cameras have become extremely common as the prices have come down. One of the drivers behind the falling prices has been the introduction of CMOS image sensors. CMOS sensors are much less expensive to manufacture than CCD sensors.

Both CCD (charge-coupled device) and CMOS (complimentary metal-oxide semiconductor) image sensors start at the same point — they have to convert light into electrons. If you have read the article How Solar Cells Work, you understand one technology that is used to perform the conversion. One simplified way to think about the sensor used in a digital camera (or camcorder) is to think of it as having a 2-D array of thousands or millions of tiny solar cells, each of which transforms the light from one small portion of the image into electrons. Both CCD and CMOS devices perform this task using a variety of technologies.

The next step is to read the value (accumulated charge) of each cell in the image. In a CCD device, the charge is actually transported across the chip and read at one corner of the array. An analog-to-digital converter turns each pixel’s value into a digital value. In most CMOS devices, there are several transistors at each pixel that amplify and move the charge using more traditional wires. The CMOS approach is more flexible because each pixel can be read individually.

CCDs use a special manufacturing process to create the ability to transport charge across the chip without distortion. This process leads to very high-quality sensors in terms of fidelity and light sensitivity. CMOS chips, on the other hand, use traditional manufacturing processes to create the chip — the same processes used to make most microprocessors. Because of the manufacturing differences, there have been some noticeable differences between CCD and CMOS sensors

CCD (charge coupled device) and CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) image sensors are two different technologies for capturing images digitally. Each has unique strengths and weaknesses giving advantages in different applications. Neither is categorically superior to the other, although vendors selling only one technology have usually claimed otherwise. In the last five years much has changed with both technologies, and many projections regarding the demise or ascendence of either have been proved false. The current situation and outlook for both technologies is vibrant, but a new framework exists for considering the relative strengths and opportunities of CCD and CMOS imagers.

Both types of imagers convert light into electric charge and process it into electronic signals. In a CCD sensor, every pixel’s charge is transferred through a very limited number of output nodes (often just one) to be converted to voltage, buffered, and sent off-chip as an analog signal. All of the pixel can be devoted to light capture, and the output’s uniformity (a key factor in image quality) is high. In a CMOS sensor, each pixel has its own charge-to-voltage conversion, and the sensor often also includes amplifiers, noise-correction, and digitization circuits, so that the chip outputs digital bits. These other functions increase the design complexity and reduce the area available for light capture. With each pixel doing its own conversion, uniformity is lower. But the chip can be built to require less off-chip circuitry for basic operation
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