Maxim sensor strategy targets analog integration
Ismini Scouras
7/16/2012 12:00 PM EDT

NEW YORK — Maxim Integrated Products is attempting to take analog integration to a new level by combining up to seven sensors in a tiny 2 x 2 mm optical package. According to one analyst, the move is an effort to gain a greater foothold in smartphones, a market in which it is already dominates with its power management ICs.

Maxim’s latest devices measure RGB light levels, ambient visible light, proximity to the sensor, ambient IR levels and temperature while consuming little power. This greater analog integration is in line with Maxim’s strategy in the digital optical sensor sector: to reduce footprint, while providing lower power and more functionality.

“We see this as a big step for sensor fusion from the optical perspective,” said, Dan Christman, vice president of the Human Interface Group at Maxim (San Jose, Calif.).

There are four new devices, including the MAX44004, a low-power ambient light sensor (ALS) that consumes 5µA, and the MAX44005, MAX44006, MAX44008, which all consume an industry-low 20µA each. The MAX44005 includes an RGB color sensor plus an ALS (clear), ambient IR, IR proximity, and temperature sensors. The MAX44006 and MAX44008 integrate RGB color sensors plus an ALS (clear), an ambient IR and temperature sensors.

In addition to smartphones, the sensors are aimed at tablets, portable consumer devices, displays, digital light management, security systems and medical devices.

According to Stephen Ohr, research director with Gartner Inc., Maxim’s strategy is to try and capture more market share in smartphones. Maxim is already a major player in the smartphone sector by supplying Samsung with power management ICs that incorporate three switch mode regulators, 20 to 25 LDOs, small LED backlit drivers and a USB interface on one chip.

“What I visualize Maxim doing, especially with the feature set they put in this image capture device, is get a bigger footprint in handsets to see if they can pull more of the mobile phone content and essentially collect more revenue,” Ohr said.

Maxim is a relatively new player in the optical sensor business. It entered sector in December 2010 when it introduced an ambient light sensor. The largest player last year was Sony, with 19 percent of the $8.6 billion worldwide market, followed by Sharp at 12 percent and Omnivision at 11 percent, according to Gartner estimates.

Maxim executives said that the company’s analog prowess gives it a competitive edge in providing low-power sensor fusion, and designers can expect to see greater integration in the future.

The most notable integrated function in its latest device is the ambient light detector, which is a separate part from the CMOS sensor in the Apple iPhone, Ohr said. However, there is room for even greater integration as Maxim can eventually include an A/D converter for color separation in camera module applications.

“What you are going to see from Maxim is new innovative sensor technology that can provide more value to the end client and therefore solicit more apps development, which in turn will sell more appliances,” said Ian Olsen, executive director of business management in Maxim’s Human Interface Group.