Can OmniVision Forgive Apple For Its One-Night Stand With Sony?

Published in Investing on 20 March 2012

Chipworks puts the iPad camera speculation to bed.

A version of this article originally appeared on our US site, Fool.com.

Well, well, what do we have here?

Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL.US) launched its latest and greatest iPad last week, and the expected teardowns have already begun. iFixit got their skilled hands on a unit in Australia and promptly put it through its paces after tearing it asunder.

Reduce, reuse and recycle

The repair shop was able to identify a large number of the chips found inside, with some assistance from Chipworks. A key theme was that Apple continues to use many of the same parts as in previous iDevices when possible, effectively reusing the same ingredients. Obviously, the major spec upgrades are seeing notable improvements, like the Retina display and A5X processor.

A couple of familiar chips include the audio codec from Cirrus Logic (NASDAQ: CRUS.US), which has long been a mainstay of iDevices, and the Broadcom (NASDAQ: BRCM.US) Wi-Fi and Bluetooth chips (although the Bluetooth was upgraded to 4.0).

One of the hottest areas to watch is the coveted image-sensor spot, but the identification process is painstaking compared to simply visually identifying the other chips on the logic board, so iFixit never serves up the juicy details there, leaving the dirty work to Chipworks.

Who will it be?

There has been hope and speculation that OmniVision Technologies (NASDAQ: OVTI.US) would re-enter Cupertino's good graces after losing the precious iPhone 4S spot to rival Sony (NYSE: SNE.US). Just before the iPad event, Baird upgraded the image-sensor specialist's shares to "outperform" with a $23 price target, based on the expectation that OmniVision had won the slot and was collecting roughly $3.20 per iPad.

Baird analyst Tristan Gerra accurately called it when he predicted that Sony had displaced OmniVision in the most recent iPhone, and it looks like -- Ding! Ding! Ding! -- he has once again hit the nail on the head with his prediction that OmniVision was back in the saddle.

Looks like Needham & Company was wrong in its belief that Apple's arch-frenemy Samsung had swooped in and won the highly contested seat.

Those two letters "OV" are what pure relief looks like to OmniVision shareholders, myself included. This happens to be another example of where Apple is reusing old parts, since this specific sensor is actually the exact same one that was used in the previous iPhone 4, a device released in 2010.

I shouldn't be complaining, but… it could be have been better

The cost of this sensor has naturally come down and it's hardly state-of-the-art like OmniVision's eight-megapixel BSI-2 shooter that's found in the Asus Transformer Prime, for example. Also, remember that Apple still sells the iPhone 4 at a lower price point, so it can use its leverage with volume and is probably getting these sensors on the cheap.

I also wouldn't be too surprised if Apple is pouring salt in OmniVision's wound and reminding it of Sony's recent design win for additional leverage, since Apple is notorious for pitting suppliers against each other.

OmniVision didn't just win the rear camera spot; it won the front, too. This isn't all that exciting, though, since the front sensor is of such low quality that it doesn't fetch nearly as much as the five-megapixel one on the flip side. The 0.3-megapixel front camera is the same one that was found in the fifth-generation camera-equipped iPod Nano, as well as the preceding iPad 2.

So while this is welcome news for OmniVision, it's not entirely unexpected since the company issued relatively upbeat guidance during its last earnings release, while attributing much of the strength to its entertainment category, which includes tablet-bound sales. This is less impressive within the context of Apple just using old parts, as opposed to if OmniVision's latest and greatest was outright stealing the show and wowing Cupertino's iPants off.

Was Sony just a one-night stand?

The upcoming sixth-generation iPhone is much more important, since Apple does go with cutting-edge camera sensors in that device as more users are apt to use the handheld iPhone as a camera instead of awkwardly wielding an enormous pane of glass to take pictures and video. Without a doubt, Sony and OmniVision are aggressively battling for this spot as we speak.

Now that OmniVision has scored this iPad win, all eyes will refocus on the company if it can make sure that the Sony-iPhone design tango was just a one-night stand.

Until then, I'll take any good news I can get.

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> Evan owns shares in Apple and OmniVision Technologies.

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