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Apple Inc. Unlikely to Use New Samsung Camera Sensor

By Ashraf Eassa - Mar 15, 2016 at 10:15AM

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A custom sensor tailored to Apple's exact needs seems more likely.

Apple's latest iPhones. Image credit: Apple. 

The Samsung (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF) Galaxy S7 has one of the best, if not the best, camera that can be found on a mobile device. This performance is largely enabled by new sensors from both Sony (SONY 3.54%) as well as Samsung itself (Samsung appears to be dual sourcing functionally equivalent sensors for the S7).

An article from BGR raises the possibility that the upcoming Apple (AAPL 2.07%) iPhone 7/7 Plus could use the same rear camera sensors used in the Galaxy S7 (or, at least, one of them).

I believe that this is highly unlikely. Here's why.

As far as I can tell, Sony does custom sensors for Apple
For many product generations, Apple has used image sensors from Sony, widely regarded as the market leader in such sensors. However, from what I can tell, Apple doesn't appear to use "off the shelf" image sensors from Sony but instead works with the Japanese company to have sensors built to Apple's specifications.

Indeed, it's worth noting that over the last several years, Apple appears to have hired many sensor specialists from many established sensor makers such as OmniVision and Aptina. This may suggest that Apple engineers work hand-in-hand with Sony's engineers to build highly customized, Apple-exclusive image sensors.

Apple likely to continue to work with Sony; Samsung partnership seems unlikely
Going forward, I expect Apple to continue to work with Sony on iPhone image sensors for the foreseeable future. Even if Samsung were to eventually exhibit the same technical prowess in such products as Sony does today, there are clear business relationship issues that would probably make such a collaboration unlikely.

Indeed, Apple already relies on Samsung to manufacture a large portion of the A9 chips in the iPhone 6s/6s Plus and it is said that Apple may soon come to rely on Samsung for at least some iPhone displays, per some reports.

Given Apple's already large dependence on Samsung for critical components, it may not be wise for Apple to increase its dependence on this competitor. If anything, it's probably in Apple's best interests to make sure that its non-Samsung suppliers continue to get substantial business so that they can further fund the development of competitive products and technologies.

Interestingly, and unsurprisingly, KGI Securities' Ming-Chi Kuo recently suggested that Sony would actually supply both of the 12 megapixel sensors that are expected to be used in Apple's dual-lens variant of the iPhone 7 Plus.

It will be interesting to see what Apple and Sony deliver
In terms of camera performance, the current generation iPhone 6s/6s Plus are behind what the Samsung Galaxy S7 can do. Given how important camera image quality seems to be to Apple, and given that Apple is expected to use the current generation iPhone 6s/6s Plus sensors in the upcoming 9.7-inch iPad Pro, I firmly believe that Apple is planning a big camera quality improvement.

It remains to be seen what the specifications are on the camera sensor that ultimately makes it into the iPhone 7, but I don't think that Apple will use either of the sensors used in the S7. It is more likely to be a custom-designed sensor tailored to meet Apple's needs.

For Apple's sake, let's hope those needs are commensurate with an unequivocally leadership camera subsystem. 


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