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Samsung thinks thin with sensors, displays

The company is slimming down hard drives, webcam sensors and LCDs for mobility and design

Samsung Electronics focused its lens on ever thinner devices at an event on Tuesday where it announced image sensors for laptop webcams and discussed other technologies designed to help make products less power-hungry and more svelte.

The growing demand for mobility is creating a market for hardware that's lighter and sleeker, and Samsung is tackling those needs with greater efficiency and more compact designs, executives said during the event at Samsung's San Jose, California, offices. Slimness increases both portability and design options for devices, they said.

More than 70 percent of laptops now have webcams, but continuing advances in thin display design, such as LED backlighting, require that Samsung match advances in sensor design to make new webcams fit in the new, slim display panels, said Richard Yeh, director of marketing in Samsung's System LSI Division.

Striving to meet that demand, Samsung on Tuesday introduced two slim high-definition image sensors. The 1.3-megapixel S5K6A1 sensor is designed for webcams that can capture 30 frames per second at 720p resolution and is less than 3.5 millimeters thick. The 2.1-megapixel S5K5B3 sensor is capable of 1080p capture at 30 frames per second and is less than 4.5mm thick. Samsung expects the sensors to enter mass production during this quarter.

The bottom halves of laptops are also getting slimmer, and Samsung is pushing down the size of HDDs (hard disk drives) to allow for those new designs. The company is now working on its thinnest HDDs yet, which will probably measure 7mm, said Ho Seong Lee, vice president of the company's storage systems division. The biggest challenge in making HDDs thinner is downsizing the spindle motor while keeping it rigid for shock resistance, Lee said.

By 2012, Samsung forecasts complete laptops may be as thin as 15mm, compared with about 25mm for the thinnest units this year.

On Tuesday, Samsung also moved to boost the speed of small HDDs with the Spinpoint MP4 (Mobile Performance 4), a 2.5-inch internal HDD that spins at 7200 rpm, up from the 5400 rpm speed typical of laptop-sized drives today. By the end of the year, more than 20 percent of the 2.5-inch drives sold will run at 7200 rpm, Samsung predicts.

The MP4 has a 16GB cache memory and will come in sizes ranging from 250GB to 640GB. It will begin shipping to laptop makers this month.

Samsung also offers flash-based SSDs (solid-state disks), which it said can be made in almost any form factor. But SSDs will continue to complement HDDs rather than replace them, such as when users buy a netbook with an internal SSD for size and weight but plug in an external HDD for high capacity, Lee said. HDDs remain the best value for high-capacity storage, and Samsung expects 2TB mobile drives and 4TB desktop drives to hit the market next year, he said.

LED backlighting is also slimming down TVs, Samsung said. Further advances in the technology should reduce the thickness of sets by another 40 percent over the next two years, said Scott Birnbaum, vice president of Samsung's LCD business. As an example of where thin displays may be heading, the company showed off the WindowWall by Runco, an array of LCDs that can display one image together or different content on each panel.

Soon, LED backlights may also transmit information during commercials or other programming, Birnbaum said. The lights can flicker at very high frequencies to communicate binary ones and zeroes to a device with a photodiode that can pick up the light pulses, he said. For example, holding up a phone with a photodiode would allow the viewer to pick up the information. Standardization is the biggest hurdle to overcome in making this technology real, Birnbaum said.