Everything about the “1.0μm Black Pearl,” SK hynix’s Image Sensor

By March 20, 2020 April 7th, 2020 No Comments

SK hynix has greatly strengthened the product competitiveness of its CMOS Image Sensor (CIS) business and has expanded its portfolio. The company has finalized new product line-ups with 1.0μm (micrometer) “Black Pearl” technology and plans to start selling the products from the first quarter of this year. The SK hynix newsroom team had an opportunity to have a look at the “new products” and discuss the changes in smartphone camera market trends and how the new Black Pearl CIS product line-ups evolved with these changes.

“Cameras,” the Game Changer in the Smartphone War: Evolution of Mobile CIS with Demand

In the smartphone market, manufacturers are fiercely competing to equip more cameras to their smartphones. As most smartphone specifications have been leveled up, the number of cameras equipped has become a key factor to determine the competitiveness of smartphones. In addition, as the flagship market is saturated and the sales volume slows down, the competition for securing the cost-effectiveness of the mid– to low-priced smartphones has become fiercer. Accordingly, the number of cameras installed in mid- to low-priced products as well as flagship products is rapidly increasing these days.

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According to SK hynix’s own research, the average number of cameras per smartphone almost doubled from 2.2 in 2017 to 3.9 in 2020. For the latest flagship products, even products with five can be easily found. This means that the demand for image sensors for mobile devices is increasing rapidly as well. In particular, as telephoto cameras, which were mainly used for flagship products, are now being actively adopted in low- and medium-priced smartphones, demand for related image sensors is also expected to skyrocket.

As the total number of cameras increased, the rear cameras were subdivided into wide-angle, ultra-wide-angle, telephoto, depth, and macro cameras. Accordingly, the image sensor is also evolving in a direction appropriate for each camera’s characteristics. The image sensor for the main wide-angle camera which requires versatility is increasing the size of a pixel or securing the highest pixel density possible. For a telephoto camera that zooms in on a subject, image sensors are evolving to obtain a high magnification with small pixels. For ultra-wide-angle cameras which have a much wider field of view (FOV) than general cameras, image sensors are evolving in the direction of securing image quality by maximizing the resolution.

As the design where the area occupied by the camera hole in the front display is minimized and the entire front is covered by the display becomes common, a higher level of image quality is required for the front cameras. While the front cameras are getting smaller, consumer expectations for the shooting quality are continuously increasing. Therefore, the key competitive advantage now is how to achieve higher resolutions with smaller modules than competing products.

The four new 1.0μm Black Pearl CIS line-ups, which will be presented by SK hynix in the first quarter of this year, are the result of efforts to respond to such market changes. The company plans to actively target the rapidly changing smartphone camera market with the four new products ranging from 8 megapixels (MP) to 20 MP.

Optimized for Ultra-Wide-Angle Cameras – “Hi-1634 and Hi-2021” Realize the Best Performance at 1.0μm Level

SK hynix reduced the pixel size from 1.12μm in the previous products to 1.0μm for the newly launched four 1.0μm Black Pearl CIS products, in order to respond to the resolution competition with the smaller module size. They feature Quad Pixel function to resize the pixel areas, as well as the Quad to Bayer (Q2B) Re-mosaic algorithm that is more efficient compared to the one adopted in competing products. With these features, the new Black Pearl products not only are compatible with various types of cameras, but also boast excellent shooting quality in low-light environments.

Among the new line-ups, Hi-1634 (16 MP) and Hi-2021 (20 MP) are products optimized for ultra-wide-angle cameras among smartphone rear cameras. In January, SK hynix started mass-production of these products, and they are now being supplied to customers. Ultra-wide-angle cameras require more pixels than basic cameras, because the spatial resolution decreases when the FOV increases. With the smaller pixel size, Hi-1634 and Hi-2021 are capable of fitting more pixels in the same space. In addition, by realizing the best performance that can be achieved with a pixel size of 1.0μm, these products have secured a high image quality that can be adopted even in the flagship smartphones.

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In addition, Hi-1634 and Hi-2021 products’ Quad Pixel function allows them to respond to diverse shooting environments. They also possess various advantages including high resolution, low-light adaptability, and size competitiveness, making them highly useful not only in ultra-wide-angle cameras but also in front cameras. With these advantages, Hi-2021 is recognized for its outstanding competitiveness in the market, such as being chosen for front cameras of major smartphone manufacturers’ mid- to low-priced line-ups this year.

“Hi-847” with Powerful Zoom Function and “Hi-1337” with Excellent Versatility

Hi-847 (8 MP) and Hi-1337 (13 MP) products are optimized for telephoto cameras among smartphone rear cameras. SK hynix began mass producing Hi-847 in last February, and the mass production of Hi-1337 is expected to begin in March.

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Hi-847 is an image sensor that supports 3x zoom despite a low module height. In the general module design, only 1.0μm 8 MP products are capable of 3x zoom, and only two companies including SK hynix provide such product in the current market. In addition, Hi-847 boasts higher cost-effectiveness compared to its competitors.

Hi-1337 supports 2x zoom, and it can be used in more various camera types as it has more pixels than Hi-847. Besides being applied to the rear telephoto camera, it can also be installed in a wide-angle camera, or a front camera that requires a low module height, making the application more diverse.

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Starting with 1.0μm Black Pearl line-ups in the first quarter, SK hynix plans to introduce a 0.8μm 48 MP product in the second half of the year. The company aims to secure competitiveness in the CIS business and solidify its position in the market.

Ho-young Cho, Technical Leader (TL) at CIS Marketing Strategy of SK hynix said, “SK hynix officially names all of its CIS products as “Black Pearl” starting from this year, and plans to continuously introduce products that can deliver the best value to customers in not only the memory semiconductor market, but also the CIS market. We will do our best to establish a position in the CIS market that matches the brand’s meaning, like a black pearl considered as the rarest and the most beautiful pearl among all.”