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The Online Photographer

"Vision is the art of seeing the invisible." ——Jonathan Swift

Monday, December 04, 2006

$10 Digital Camera—How Do They Do It?!

by Ctein

So Walgreens is selling a digital camera for $10—I kid you not. It's not a recyclable camera you have to turn in to get the photos out. Just plug it into the USB port in your computer, download the photos, and go out and make more. It's barely the size of the box of pocket matches. Irresistible! I bought four of them.

Contemplate the miracle. It can't have a manufacturing cost much over $2 for a device that can electronically photograph a scene, digitize and process it into an image file, store it, and send it to your computer. Plus, it will work as a Web cam.

Yes, it's bloody amazing. When I designed my first digital camera 35 years ago, I knew they'd eventually get cheap enough to compete with conventional cameras. If you'd told me that would be possible to manufacture one for 50 cents (in 1971 dollars) I'd have said that was completely nuts.

What's inside? The case and mechanical parts are at the top. The black circle on a square base on the left is the lens assembly (ƒ/2.8, even. Oooh). The silver rectangle next to it is the LCD counter. Below it is the circuit board, enlarged below.

The aluminum disc is a beeper that sounds when you change camera modes or make a photograph. It actually worked in one of my four cameras. The spring at the top is a battery contact. The small dark rectangle in the left center of the board is the sensor. The lens assembly plugs directly into the board on top of the sensor. On the right is the USB connector.

This last picture shows the backside (I flipped the board left to right). The big black blob is a dab of epoxy protecting the CPU that takes the signal from the sensor and converts it to still photographs or a video stream. The silver can is an oscillator. The big rectangle on the left is the memory—a whopping 16 megabits of SDRAM. This is actually a quality multi-layer circuit board, and now I'm not being sarcastic. Well laid-out, good masking, and clean wave soldering and bump mounting. An electronics powerhouse packed into a few square inches and a few bucks.

So what kind of photos does it make?! I'm gonna save that for another day (he said sadistically).

Posted by: CTEIN

Featured Comment by Sovind: Yeah, I was going to one for my 3-year-old daughter.

Figured it would be cheaper than her either:

a. her breaking my Sony-Ericsson P series phone (her preferred camera), or

b. the inevitable long distance calls she keeps dialing when using the above phone as a digi-cam.

Her composition is getting too good as one of her pics clearly shows me sitting in the toilet!


Sovind said...


Appears you've bought it all - it's sold out!


9:38 AM  
gs363 said...

Let me guess!. It's made in China, a totalitarian state, which employs prisoners, and has an abominable environmental record. And all for $10. What a bargain.

9:53 AM  
Player said...

I can see it coming: the digital version of the Holga. :)

1:19 PM  
Bob said...

Yes, indeed, Walgreen's site says, "Made in China."

Walgreens also carries Innovage's flashlights, telephones, and "Jumbo Universal Remote."

Innovage appears to be a middleman, not a design or manufacturing operation.


3:27 PM  
Cicero said...

I bought one of those a few months/about a year ago at Wally World for $14 in the hopes that it could be used in some sort of remote photography application. However the picture quality leaves something to be desired.

4:21 PM  
Rich said...

I bought three of these, one for me and two for stocking stuffers, before I discovered I have no way to load the pictures onto any of our four Macs. Doh!

5:35 PM  
adamazing said...

For anyone who's interested:
A couple of Christmasses ago I got a very similar looking mini-digital cam as a present, a "l'espion mini", on sale in the UK, and have never really used it, it's keyring thing broke after about 2 seconds in my pocket as I recall...

I took it apart on a whim about a month ago, it looks similar on the outside to the one you have, but with some internal differences (maybe a variation on the same design?).

- Similar external packaging.
- Mini-usb socket,ccd, in same place<

- different branding
- no visible "oscillator" as you describe
- no epoxy covering processor on rear
- mode button in different place.
- plastic speaker package

5:41 PM  
Marc said...

Won't, as near as I can tell, work with a Mac at all under OS X: Doesn't connect as a mass storage device, included drivers are Windows only, and they don't work under Virtual PC.

Haven't seen images yet, as I'm traveling on business and don't have a Windows machine handy.

--Marc Rochkind

5:49 PM  
The Samurai said...

Unless you're going to use it as a webcam in some sort of remote-viewing application, don't bother with the $10 on this camera. Even under the non-compression mode, the photos are horrible (even worse than my 3-year old camera phone [LG-VX6000]).

I was going to just use this as a webcam, but since there are no 64-bit drivers available and I don't know enough programming to write my own, this thing is sitting in my sock drawer.

6:27 PM  
m. said...

I've actually just decided against the toy camera approach. It seems like it would be more fun to build my own camera. Although some of these toy cameras might be good for parts...

On another note, I wouldn't call China totalitarian any more. Don't get me wrong--it's still a repressive, authoritarian dictatorship, and its treatment of prisoners is particularly nasty. But the Party has loosened up the reins quite a bit--as long as you don't try opposing it.

Frankly, I personally don't expect the Party to be able to maintain power much longer. You can see some rumblings in the news out of China if you look. Watch out when the Chinese economy starts to slow down. I just hope the transition is relatively peaceful.

6:34 PM  
Dave Trayers said...

Is this the same camera Michael Reichmann calls the "FunkyCam"?

9:15 PM  
Ken S. said...

I picked one up (in pink, like the one pictured here) for my 4 year old daughter. It's GREAT for her. Takes as good (or bad) of pictures as you'd expect for a $10 camera, but OK ones in good light.

My only disappointment - you need to load their software/drivers (sericable, but lacking - as expected) to get the images off of it - I was hoping my computer would recognize it as a camera or thumb-drive or something.


10:28 PM  
John said...

I do believe this is similar if not identical to Michael Reichmann's funkycam. And, if i'm not mistaken I saw the same item in a different package going for $30 in the Sharper Image in the Las Vegas airport. In any case the $10 price to have ensured its success locally. Stops at several Walgreens turned up only one unit, the pink version. Good thing I'm not proud. Don't know if its the digital holga or not but cheap plastic crap doesn't get much better than this. The software is actually pretty slick if you're not planning on post-processing. My only complaing is that I can't figure out how close to get to the "rangefinder" in order to properly frame the image...

2:50 AM  
vbsoto said...

Depending on the version (I had suspected different circuit boards) there are third party software that make some of these work with MAC OSX on PPC. I have the "X-Games" branded version and it works strait into iPhoto. I've got both of my kids set up with one.

I could not get the Philips branded to be recognized.

I got one for me too, but since I primarily use my macbook, it is too inconvenient. In addition I'd have to call the local Tech Police to install the driver on my work PC. Not worth the hassel.

11:10 AM  
Matthew Miller said...

I suspect that they don't work as USB storage devices because they use their own wacky format internally and only make jpegs in the software on Windows -- ironically like RAW in high-end digital cameras and dSLRs.

Does anyone know of a similarly-priced (I'd settle for under $50) toy camera that *does* work as USB-storage?

11:17 AM  
robert e said...

These last few posts reminded me of my struggles to transfer pics from the old Gameboy Camera to the PC. First I unsuccessfully tried building my own cable from schematics on the web. It finally took a cartridge programming unit I had to order from Hong Kong, a 25-connector cable I hunted down locally, and two separate freeware programs. All this to save approx 150x150 pixel monochrome images to my hard drive.

If anyone's had any success with connecting this camera to OSX, it's very likely to have been noted on

1:16 PM  
Jan Faul said...

It's the first $10 digital not in a cell phone

5:30 PM  
dyathink said...

oh, i really enjoyed this was fascinating to see the innards..thanks for an entertaining read!

11:17 PM  
Micah said...

Sounds like the RCA CDS1005. I still have a couple of these sitting around, one inherited from my sister and another bought off of eBay for $15 when I lost the cable for the first one. No LCD, 1 lonely megapixel of resolution, 16 MB of RAM, a strange PS2-USB cable, but worked with gphoto for linux and could be jammed into a tight jeans pocket with no damage to either camera or jeans.

1:42 AM