CCD vs. CMOS – Image

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. For more details on device architecture and operation, see our original "CCD vs. CMOS: Facts and Fiction" article and its 2005 update, "CMOS vs. CCD: Maturing Technologies, Maturing Markets."

CCDs and CMOS imagers were both invented in the late 1960s and 1970s (DALSA founder Dr. Savvas Chamberlain was a pioneer in developing both technologies). CCD became dominant, primarily because they gave far superior images with the fabrication technology available. CMOS image sensors required more uniformity and smaller features than silicon wafer foundries could deliver at the time. Not until the 1990s did lithography develop to the point that designers could begin making a case for CMOS imagers again. Renewed interest in CMOS was based on expectations of lowered power consumption, camera-on-a-chip integration, and lowered fabrication costs from the reuse of mainstream logic and memory device fabrication. While all of these benefits are possible in theory, achieving them in practice while simultaneously delivering high image quality has taken far more time, money, and process adaptation than original projections suggested (see "CMOS Development's Winding Path" below).

Both CCDs and CMOS imagers can offer excellent imaging performance when designed properly. CCDs have traditionally provided the performance benchmarks in the photographic, scientific, and industrial applications that demand the highest image quality (as measured in quantum efficiency and noise) at the expense of system size. CMOS imagers offer more integration (more functions on the chip), lower power dissipation (at the chip level), and the possibility of smaller system size, but they have often required tradeoffs between image quality and device cost. Today there is no clear line dividing the types of applications each can serve. CMOS designers have devoted intense effort to achieving high image quality, while CCD designers have lowered their power requirements and pixel sizes. As a result, you can find CCDs in low-cost low-power cellphone cameras and CMOS sensors in high-performance professional and industrial cameras, directly contradicting the early stereotypes. It is worth noting that the producers succeeding with "crossovers" have almost always been established players with years of deep experience in both technologies.

Costs are similar at the chip level. Early CMOS proponents claimed CMOS imagers would be much cheaper because they could be produced on the same high-volume wafer processing lines as mainstream logic or memory chips. This has not been the case. The accommodations required for good imaging perfomance have required CMOS designers to iteratively develop specialized, optimized, lower-volume mixed-signal fabrication processes--very much like those used for CCDs. Proving out these processes at successively smaller lithography nodes (0.35um, 0.25um, 0.18um...) has been slow and expensive; those with a captive foundry have an advantage because they can better maintain the attention of the process engineers.

CMOS cameras may require fewer components and less power, but they still generally require companion chips to optimize image quality, increasing cost and reducing the advantage they gain from lower power consumption. CCD devices are less complex than CMOS, so they cost less to design. CCD fabrication processes also tend to be more mature and optimized; in general, it will cost less (in both design and fabrication) to yield a CCD than a CMOS imager for a specific high-performance application. However, wafer size can be a dominating influence on device cost; the larger the wafer, the more devices it can yield, and the lower the cost per device. 200mm is fairly common for third-party CMOS foundries while third-party CCD foundries tend to offer 150mm. Captive foundries use 150mm, 200mm, and 300mm production for both CCD and CMOS.

The larger issue around pricing is sustainability. Since many CMOS start-ups pursued high-volume, commodity applications from a small base of business, they priced below costs to win business. For some, the risk paid off and their volumes provided enough margin for viability. But others had to raise their prices, while still others went out of business entirely. High-risk startups can be interesting to venture capitalists, but imager customers require long-term stability and support.

While cost advantages have been difficult to realize and on-chip integration has been slow to arrive, speed is one area where CMOS imagers can demonstrate considerable strength because of the relative ease of parallel output structures. This gives them great potential in industrial applications.

CCDs and CMOS will remain complementary. The choice continues to depend on the application and the vendor more than the technology. DALSA's approach is "technology-neutral": we are one of the few vendors able to offer real solutions with both CCDs and CMOS.

Feature and Performance Comparison




Signal out of pixel

Electron packet


Signal out of chip

Voltage (analog)

Bits (digital)

Signal out of camera

Bits (digital)

Bits (digital)

Fill factor



Amplifier mismatch



System Noise



System Complexity



Sensor Complexity



Camera components

Sensor + multiple support chips + lens

Sensor + lens possible, but additional support chips common

Relative R&D cost



Relative system cost

Depends on Application

Depends on Application






Slightly better

Dynamic Range





Low to Moderate

Uniform Shuttering

Fast, common




Low to Moderate


Moderate to High






High to none


Biasing and Clocking

Multiple, higher voltage

Single, low-voltage

CMOS Development's Winding Path

Initial Prediction for CMOS



Equivalence to CCD in imaging performance

Required much greater process adaptation and deeper submicron lithography than initially thought

High performance available in CMOS, but with higher development cost than CCD

On-chip circuit integration

Longer development cycles, increased cost, tradeoffs with noise, flexibility during operation

Greater integration in CMOS, but companion chips still required for both CMOS and CCD

Reduced power consumption

Steady improvement in CCDs

Advantage for CMOS, but margin diminished

Reduced imaging subsystem size

Optics, companion chips and packaging are often the dominant factors in imaging subsystem size

CCDs and CMOS comparable

Economies of scale from using mainstream logic and memory foundries

Extensive process development and optimization required

CMOS imagers use legacy production lines with highly adapted processes akin to CCD fabrication

Posing a great challenge to the traditional Charge Coupled Devices (CCD) in various applications, CMOS image sensors have improvised themselves with time, finding solutions for the problems related with the noise and sensitivity. The use of Active Pixel Sensors having its foundation with the sub-micron technologies have helped to attain low power, low voltage and monolithic integration allowing. The manufacture of miniaturised single-chip digital cameras is an example of this technology.

The incorporation of advanced techniques at the chip or pixel level has opened new dimensions for the technology. Now after a decade, the initial tussle over the advocacy regarding the emergence of complementary-metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) technology over the charge-coupled device (CCD) have slowly dropped showing the strengths and weakness of the technologies. REFERENCES

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 sensors, as mentioned above, create high-quality, low-noise images. CMOS sensors, traditionally, are more susceptible to noise.
  • Because each pixel on a CMOS sensor has several transistors located next to it, the light sensitivity of a CMOS chip tends to be lower. Many of the photons hitting the chip hit the transistors instead of the photodiode.
  • CMOS traditionally consumes little power. Implementing a sensor in CMOS yields a low-power sensor.
  • CCDs use a process that consumes lots of power. CCDs consume as much as 100 times more power than an equivalent CMOS sensor.
  • CMOS chips can be fabricated on just about any standard silicon production line, so they tend to be extremely inexpensive compared to CCD sensors.
  • CCD sensors have been mass produced for a longer period of time, so they are more mature. They tend to have higher quality and more pixels.

Based on these differences, you can see that CCDs tend to be used in cameras that focus on high-quality images with lots of pixels and excellent light sensitivity. CMOS sensors traditionally have lower quality, lower resolution and lower sensitivity. CMOS sensors are just now improving to the point where they reach near parity with CCD devices in some applications. CMOS cameras are usually less expensive and have great battery life.