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Double Whammies
Digital gear goes through the wringer in the Big Easy


Robert Socha  holding newspaper
Bollinger Shipyards' VP Robert Socha at his New Orleans home on September 21, as the newspaper describes the latest evacuation. The picture was made with the same Dimage A1, taking over when Socha's own imager quit.
© Don Sutherland


ship operator
What DZLRs can do that DSLRs can't is squeeze down among the controls, while the hinged LCD gives the photographer a clear and exact view of how the frame is composed. March 2005, at the start of a two-week cruise down the coast. It can get very humid in Wilmington, N.C.
© Don Sutherland


ships in winterstorm
The salvage job from hell, photographed with the Minolta Dimage A1 in December 2003. There's nothing dry about it, and can you say c-c-c-cold? Yet with its Sony CCD, that A1's still taking pictures.
© Don Sutherland



Socha took his pictures on his own CF card, we took the shipyard tour, and then he headed for Houston while I turned south toward Venice. It was a month before I spoke with Socha again, from New York, to get some details for my report. That's when the nickel dropped.

Putting 2 + 2 Together

Sony's adventure with audio-CD copy-protection software pressed a lot of buttons and made a lot of headlines, because it wrote itself from the CDs to the computer's drive, and reached out from time to time to touch a Sony website. The risks to PCs posed by the phone-home program is almost incidental to the indignation over furtive installation of secret software that operates on private PCs without their owners knowing. It's the kind of thing people could mention in the same breath as "spyware," and resonates with all kinds of security and privacy issues. By November, the euphemism "draconian software" would draw a smirk quicker than you could say "rootkit."

Reports of the failing Sony CCDs were much more subdued. Indeed, although the problem was identified by manufacturers and fixed by Sony early in 2004, technical advisories began appearing on manufacturers' websites only recently, according to Dave Etchells, who runs imaging-resource.com. The site's been around for the better part of a decade and has a broad following for its technical dissections of digital cameras. Yet an article published by the Wall Street Journal in October could have left the impression that any awareness of the situation at all was due solely to that publication's sleuthing.

Well, the WSJ did mention imaging-resource.com's existence, although "we were never contacted by the Journal. We might have been the first to put it together," said Etchells. "In early October, we started seeing a rash of announcements coming from different companies, describing the failure of CCDs." Sony gave the first announcement. Nobody put out a press release saying there's a problem, but they were showing up as advisories on various manufacturers' support websites. They described sort of a ticking time bomb—some CCDs were failing, others were fine. Reports appeared in Japanese technical magazines.

"They linked the problem to changes in wire bonds that connect the chip to the outside world, as well as to a contaminant in the chip packaging. Our own sources indicated that the problem was caused by packaging failures that admitted moisture to the cavity where the sensor chip itself was located. The failures do, in fact, seem to occur with greater frequency in higher humidity.

With only a few exceptions, digicam manufacturers fall mum on the subject of who's making their imaging chip. You'd think that in the epoch of "Intel Inside" for computers, "Sony Inside," "Matsushita Inside," or "Kodak Inside" for cameras would be a popular marketing ploy. But it isn't. On the contrary, it's often said there are contractual agreements veiling the identity of the CCD's maker. (And often, obviously, there aren't—Olympus cites Kodak as their chip-maker, Sigma cites Foveon, and Canon, with characteristic humility, cites none other than themselves.)

But few manufacturers today say they're in the "camera business." They're in "imaging." Cameras are a part of it, but so are circuits and software. There's nothing odd about it. Kodak has always been on-again, off-again in the manufacture of cameras, but there's been Kodak film uninterrupted since 1888. There's no such thing as the Fujicamera company, but there's certainly a Fujifilm. Processing and papers is what the industry has been about historically. In the digital age, some of this translates to in-camera processing architecture. We say "Color Science Inside," or "TruePic Inside," or "Digic II inside." If you think of the imaging chip as nothing more than a capture device, a dumb collector of photons that are merely raw materials of a picture, you're not likely to blow public kisses to its manufacturer.

"There are three major manufacturers of imaging chips," said Etchells, and their products find their way into the majority of digicams. Any given manufacturer may use imagers from more than one maker for different models of cameras. Within each of the chip-maker's lines may be many models of imagers, at different sizes and with different numbers and sizes of pixels, some perhaps manufactured with different methods on different production lines.

So if there's a glitch in construction at a central supplier, it might show up in many makes of cameras, many models. Yet of all the models and makes, the largest number of models reported with the glitch are of the Sony make. Even without Sony's candor on the subject, that would suggest the origin.

I exchanged how-I-survived-Rita stories with Mr. Socha, then mentioned his Dimage 7Hi—the one that had led its life in muggy New Orleans for years, and which expired somewhere between Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

A Satisfied Customer

"Oh, I brought it back to my dealer," said Socha. "He said there were two ways we could proceed. I could either send the camera in to have the CCD replaced, which might take six to eight months, or I could send the camera in and have it immediately replaced with its current equivalent." Socha's Dimage 7Hi had been out of warranty for two years, but he got the brand-new replacement anyway. He'd had it a week when I called.

A general recall has not been issued, but Dave Etchells reports that different manufacturers have different policies regarding those cameras that fail (a summary is posted on imaging-resource.com/badccds.html). "Most manufacturers are saying if it fails, send it in, we'll take care of it—but it has to fail first. Olympus is the most proactive—they're saying if the camera is within a certain range of serial numbers, just send it in for a replacement."

A rumor's gone around that Sony is picking up the tab on the replacements, though it goes unconfirmed as of press time. The replacement offer in most cases extends through four years after the original purchase date. Obviously, not every camera that needs repair needs it for this reason. It may be necessary to explain to customers that if they drop their camera on the floor—or take it out into a howling hurricane—they're not necessarily getting a new one for free.

Some form of discretion and tact will undoubtedly be required of the retailer. For although the defect was corrected in 2004, cameras with the iffy chips probably continued to ship until 2005. There may still be some mint-in-box specimens on shelves here and there.


   







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