By Donnie Oliphant
At Dell, we are very proud of the XPS 13. Not only is it a laptop that embodies our continuous innovation, it is also a laptop that has garnered the admiration and accolades of the industry as a whole. Throughout the last few years, reviews have more or less deemed it a perfect laptop, except for one small thing – the placement of our camera. When we disrupted the industry in 2015 by introducing the first edge to edge InfinityEdge screen, it enabled us, for the first time, to fit a 13-inch display in an 11-inch frame. But we also found ourselves faced with a conflict. With our top bezel of the display too small to fit the camera, and technology and engineering not yet advanced enough to provide us with a smaller camera, how could we maintain the integrity of our new narrow bezel? For the time being, we compromised on building the camera into the bottom bezel but immediately set out on a mission to one day move it back to the top.
Four years later, we’ve come a long way. Here’s our journey of introducing quite possibly the smallest HD webcam ever built – placed modestly back on the top bezel – and officially perfecting the XPS 13.
Solidifying a new sensor
Early on in the development process, we were able to engineer down from a 6-7mm camera dimension to 4mm, but that was still far too big for the XPS 13, which was designed for extreme mobility. We found that the microscopic gold wires that connected the sensor to the camera’s circuit board were taking up critical space, and that we needed a new sensor design to further reduce the size. We worked with our partners to create a new generation sensor that was a smaller format and moved the wiring pads to the sides so it could be attached horizontally. That eliminated ¾ mm to 1 mm in additional camera height.
A new approach to lens design
Next, we moved on to tackle the lens. We once again worked closely with our supplier to heavily invest in the design and assembly of these ultra-small components. They even needed to redesign their manufacturing process to miniaturise everything, drastically reducing the package of the lens. They had to develop new capabilities to make all the elements thinner and smaller, while still maintaining incredibly tight tolerances that preserve the lens’ optical quality. Traditionally, the lens and plastic body of the camera are two separate pieces threaded together manually to adjust the focus - sometimes by hand. But as we took a closer look, we realised the threads were adding unnecessary thickness to the camera. We took a page from the smartphone industry and implemented active alignment technology, a first for PC webcams.
Our supplier built an assembly machine for laptop cameras specifically to support Dell’s products. These machines are unlike anything we’ve used before and comprise an ultra-precise robot. This highly automated assembly also lends to less variation from module to module, ensuring every customer can expect the same performance and quality.
Employing this all-new assembly process, however, meant we had to invest in more than a year of testing to ensure reliability. For example, during pilot runs, we discovered sometimes a small amount of glue could expand beyond the camera body, pushing the top bezel larger than acceptable. So we introduced a laser beam to trim any extra glue, ensuring each camera module is exactly the same size. Through this tested manufacturing process, we were able to shrink the height of the camera another ¾ mm, achieving a vanishingly small 2.25mm final height. Bingo.
Smaller without sacrifice
In reducing the camera size, we risked lowering the quality for video conferencing in low light conditions. When it is dark, it is more difficult for your camera to decipher the beginning and end of an object, so we implemented temporal noise reduction (the first PC maker to do so), that looks at multiple frames of data to decide what’s an edge and what is not, and preserves more of the fine details. We were able to see a 3-4x improvement in the noise levels, enabling us to preserve video quality while reducing the camera size.
We made it happen
Through this thorough process of tests, failures, redos and continued innovations over the last four years, we were able to reduce the camera from 7mm to 2.25mm and maintain exceptional high resolution video and picture quality. We disrupted the industry first introducing the narrow bezel trend, and now we are changing the game again with quite possibly the smallest HD webcam ever built. XPS 13 remains at the top of its class.