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Examples of corrupted output from a defective CCD imager. Courtesy of Konica Minolta, with modifications by Michael R. Tomkins. CCD failures: the bigger picture (UPDATED)
(Monday, October 10, 2005 - 11:30 EDT)

Visitors to this site will doubtless have noticed a common thread across several of our recent news items: We've reported on digital camera service advisories from no less than four manufacturers, with all four offering to fix certain problems experienced by their customers regardless of warranty status.

NOTE: Since this item was published, we have compiled a new and more in depth source of information on this issue. Please consider visiting our article CCD Sensor Problems in Consumer Imaging Products as well as (or instead of) this item!

In each case, the story has been similar - CCD sensor failures (particularly in conditions of high heat and humidity) leading to cameras that capture images with either no picture at all, or with extreme distortion and purple color casts. An example of the latter symptom, courtesy of the Konica Minolta Europe website, can be seen further down this page. We first started hearing about this problem in the last several weeks, with a significant uptick in emails over the last week or two. There has understandably been considerable concern among our readers, with many wondering whether this was an ongoing problem that could affect current cameras.

The description of the issue at hand, coupled with the timing of the advisories, hints at a larger story behind the scenes. Fabrication of CCD image sensors is a major undertaking, one that is quite different from fabrication of normal computer chips, requiring dedicated production lines. The expense of creating and operating these lines makes it relatively prohibitive for smaller manufacturers to gain a foothold. The net result is that the CCD imagers used in the majority of cameras are created by one of a handful of manufacturers, with Sony representing a very significant portion of the total CCD sensor market. It appears that the sensors in question were manufactured on Sony's fab lines, and given that company's leading market position, the affected sensors have made their way into quite a range of cameras, camcorders and other products from a number of companies.

Thus far, Sony itself has announced a repair program, as have three other digital camera manufacturers - Canon, Fujifilm and Konica Minolta. We fully expect to see additional repair programs announced by other digital camera manufacturers in the near future. The full extent of the problem isn't known, but information provided by Sony regarding their own repair program says that the affected cameras were manufactured between October 2002 and March 2004. It should be noted that these are manufacturing dates, though - cameras manufactured in March 2004 could easily have still been on retail shelves through the end of that year, and possibly even into early 2005. It should also be noted that with all of the manufacturers, the problem affects only certain specific models - many cameras manufactured during the period in question will be completely unaffected.

The root cause of the problem is only hinted at by the advisories, but in our investigation of the problem we've uncovered more specific information. Semiconductor chips can be assembled into a variety of different package types and styles. Most chips these days are delivered in plastic (epoxy, actually) packages that are inexpensive, but that may not offer environmental protection as good as that of more expensive ceramic package types. Apparently, the generation of Sony sensors affected by the problem were packaged in plastic, and the design or manufacturing parameters for the packages involved resulted in their being susceptible to elevated moisture and humidity levels in typical digital camera usage. Only in very unusual circumstances (high heat, very high humidity, high pressure) does this quickly lead to a problem. In most cases, it takes a very long time for moisture to creep into a plastic chip package. Hence, only now, two or more years after the earliest of the cameras affected by this were manufactured, are we starting to see a widespread pattern of problems.

Based on what we've heard behind the scenes, the "fix" was actually a pretty simple one: Just bite the bullet and use the more expensive ceramic chip packaging. Since camera makers seldom identify the exact supplier and model of imager they're using, we have no direct way of knowing whether current cameras are actually shipping with ceramic chip packages on their CCDs. Still, it's likely that the various manufacturers will be operating in a "once bitten, twice shy" mode for the foreseeable future. Interestingly, while the scale of the repair programs are likely to be a significant nuisance for the camera makers, at least one source has told us that the cost of the repairs is actually being borne by Sony, not the individual camera makers. (Kudos to Sony if this is the case.)

Details of the specific repair programs vary from company to company, but in all cases we've seen to date, the manufacturers have stated an intention to correct the problem free of charge, regardless of the current warranty status of the individual camera. For specific details on the repair process, we'd refer readers to the local office of their camera manufacturer, as the procedure will vary with the company and country. Most companies look to be offering a fast-turnaround repair service, but some may instead offer a replacement policy. Some of the advisories have noted that for cameras outside warranty, any camera problems unrelated to the CCD sensor issue will be treated as regular unwarrantied service, which is logical. We'd expect this to be the case even for manufacturers who've not explicitly stated this in their service advisories.

Of course, the million dollar question in some consumers' minds is whether it is safe to buy current digital cameras. We obviously don't have a crystal ball to look into the future with, but given the range of dates mentioned in Sony's advisory, it certainly sounds like this particular problem was actually dealt with from a design / manufacturing standpoint over a year ago. There thus doesn't seem to be any reason to hold off on purchasing current models. To the contrary, the responsible way in which this problem has been handled by the various companies involved bodes well for the future, should anything like this crop up again.

Hopefully this article has cleared up questions our readers have about this significant event in the digital camera industry. At this point in time, we have no more information than what's put forth in this article (so there's no point in emailing and asking us about the time frames of possible announcements by other camera manufacturers, etc). If you have any solid, relevant information to add though, please don't hesitate to email us. (You can either remain anonymous or receive credit for any information provided, at your choice.) Should we hear of any further service advisories issued by camera manufacturers, we'll of course promptly report on them on our news page.

To sum up, the current list of digital camera models we're aware of that may be affected is as follows (camcorders, PDAs, and other such products being outside the remit of our site, we're not including these in our list). The company names link to our coverage of the service advisories, where you can find links to service advisory pages that we're aware of for different regions of the world:

Examples of corrupted output from a defective CCD imager. Courtesy of Konica Minolta, with modifications by Michael R. Tomkins. Click for a bigger picture!

  • Canon:
    • PowerShot A60
    • PowerShot A70
    • PowerShot A75
    • PowerShot A300
    • PowerShot A310
    • PowerShot S230 Digital ELPH / Digital IXUS V3 / IXY D320
    • PowerShot SD100 Digital ELPH / Digital IXUS II / IXY Digital 30
    • PowerShot SD110 Digital ELPH / Digital IXUS IIs / IXY Digital 30a
  • Fujifilm:
    • FinePix A303
    • FinePix F410 Zoom
    • FinePix F700
    • FinePix S2 Pro
  • Sony:
    • Cyber-shot DSC-F717
    • Cyber-shot DSC-P10
    • Cyber-shot DSC-P12
    • Cyber-shot DSC-P2
    • Cyber-shot DSC-P31
    • Cyber-shot DSC-P32
    • Cyber-shot DSC-P51
    • Cyber-shot DSC-P52
    • Cyber-shot DSC-P7
    • Cyber-shot DSC-P71
    • Cyber-shot DSC-P72
    • Cyber-shot DSC-P8
    • Cyber-shot DSC-P92
    • Cyber-shot DSC-U10
    • Cyber-shot DSC-U20
    • Cyber-shot DSC-U30
    • Cyber-shot DSC-U60
    • Cyber-shot DSC-V1
    • CD Mavica MVC-CD250
    • CD Mavica MVC-CD400
    • CD Mavica MVC-CD500
    • FD Mavica MVC-FD100
    • FD Mavica MVC-FD200
  • Konica Minolta:
    (note: all affected models were actually released prior to the merger with Konica, and hence carry only the Minolta brand name)
    • DiMAGE A1
    • DiMAGE 7i
    • DiMAGE 7Hi
    • DiMAGE Xi
    • DiMAGE Xt
    • DiMAGE X20
    • DiMAGE S414
    • DiMAGE F300
  • Nikon:
    (note: added 10/11/05 14:35ET)
    • Coolpix SQ
    • Coolpix 3100
    • Coolpix 5700
  • Ricoh:
    (note: added 10/13/05 09:28ET)
    • Caplio RR30
    • Caplio 300G
    • Caplio G3
    • Caplio G3 model M
    • Caplio G3 model S
    • Caplio ProG3
    • Caplio G4
    • Caplio G4 wide
    • Caplio 400G wide
    • Caplio RX
  • Olympus:
    (note: added 10/13/05 09:56ET)
    • Camedia C-5050 Zoom
    • Camedia C-730 Ultra Zoom

UPDATED 2005-10-11 14:38ET: Nikon Japan and Europe have published service advisories as well. This item has been updated to include information on the affected Nikon models.

UPDATED 2005-10-13 09:28ET: Ricoh Global has published a service advisory as well. This item has been updated to include information on the affected Ricoh models.

UPDATED 2005-10-13 09:28ET: Olympus Japan has published a service advisory as well. This item has been updated to include information on the affected Olympus models.

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