Night Vision: Digital vs Analog, which is best?

     Why is this even a topic? It's 2022, what technology hasn't been taken over by digital yet? We would be willing to bet that most people have no idea that night vision is still analog. In fact, there's really only one company currently pushing the digital night vision envelope, or even marketing themselves as digital night vision, which is SiOnyx

     That said, many people do modify the Sony A7II camera to film at night, but we doubt if any of them are actually attempting to use it as a night vision observation device for navigation and shooting. It would be like combining all the worst aspects of a PVS7, a PVS14, and digital night vision together. Wack. So for the purpose of this blog, we're going to be comparing modern analog night vision to Sionyx devices. In fact, they just released a digital night vision monocular at this year's SHOT show, which gives us an almost apples to apples comparison.

Digital vs Analog Night Vision: How do they each work?

     Well, other than the term "night vision" in their name, digital and analog night vision tech could not possibly be more different. They both have their own technologies and processes for amplifying light through image intensification, which is naturally going to give them each their own pro's and cons. We aren't going to go balls deep on this, we're going to give you a surface level overview. Mostly because we're not scientists or electrical engineers. We're shooters, not nerds. 

How Digital Night Vision Works

     When we say that digital night vision is just a camera in a fancy new housing, we mean exactly that. SiOnyx states on their own website that their digital night vision uses the same CMOS and CCD sensors found in digital cameras. 

     Now, this is to be completely expected. Of course they use modern imaging sensors, they would be fools if they didn't. Digital photography and imaging sensors for hobby, commercial, scientific, and military use is an industry hundreds of billions of dollars in size, and with R&D costs and advancements discovered by one competitor quickly benefiting everyone. The technological leap over the last 20 years in digital cameras is astounding both in resolution, and low light performance.

     So digital night vision is using high performance digital sensors with the ISO pumped way up to get the best low light performance possible. They've used large pixels and spaced them because that helps with low light performance also.  

How Analog Night Vision Works

     Traditional analog night vision has made leaps and bounds of progress as well, with tube performance skyrocketing over the same 20 year period. Average tube quality today was considered super-tubes just five years ago. We've got quad tubes and we see in white now. Give it another 5 years and we'll probably be seeing with 96 tubes like a Human Fly.

     Analog night vision tubes work through the amplification of light. Incoming light photons (what our eyes see), are converted into electrons, and then those electrons are multiplies over and over again, which is the actual intensification process. Once the electrons are multiplied, they run into a phosphor screen, which glows for our eyes to see. 

     This is fairly oversimplified, but that's the basic process. Of course, the actual process is much more technical than that, and if you want to read even more in depth about it, you can check out our How Night Vision Works blog. 

Digital vs Analog Night Vision: Cost

night vision cost

     This is one area where digital had previously won out. Digital night vision cameras like the Aurora Black could be had for $599, which was much much cheaper than any Gen III night vision, no matter how you slice it. And it was previously marketed as a budget alternative to the PVS-14. However, now SiOnyx has released the OPSIN digital night vision monocular, which is marketed as a direct competitor to the PVS-14, at a price point of $2,599. 

     So we're going to be very generous here and call it a tie. $2,599 is right in the middle of what you can get a real PVS-14 for. We won't get into the actual value of what you're getting for those dollars... yet.

Digital vs Analog Night Vision: Performance

     Here we go, now we're down to the meat and bones of it. This is what matters right? Which device will actually let you see at night, shoot at night, and navigate at night?

Digital Night Vision Performance

     The honest truth is that it's just not there yet. Image lag means it isn't useful for practical shooting, and tough to use for navigation. Very noisy images in all but the best light make object detection difficult. In our experience, these really do serve the market best as a video camera that has better-than-average low light performance. We will say though, if you didn't mind using a lot of supplemental IR and just look around at night, with no intention of shooting or hunting, this might get you by.

Analog Night Vision Performance

     The gold standard. Sure, you don't have color (other than green or white), but you are seeing in real-time, with a pretty crisp and resolute image. Don't get me wrong though, analog isn't perfect either. Color really would allow for better object detection, seeing in a 40-degree limitation does have it's drawbacks, and focus can be obnoxious when trying to deal with tasks up close.

What's best: Digital or Analog Night Vision?

     Just because we favor analog night vision, that doesn't mean we don't want to see digital night vision continue to advance and progress. It's entirely likely that in 10 years digital night vision may be the future, and the analog vs digital debate may be long dead. We're happy to advocate for anything that advances night vision technology. We think you know where we stand on the digital vs analog night vision topic, but just for fun, let's break down a pro's and con's list to really spell it out for you.

Digital Night Vision

Digital NVG Pros

  • Color Images: Not going to lie, this part is nice, and we look forward to the day when this is possible in real night vision.
  • Ability to Record: This is cool also. Night vision recording devices are... frustrating and obtrusive to say the least.
  • Cost: Only if you're buying the cheaper cameras. If you're shopping for a PVS-14 competitor, you're not saving any money

Digital NVG Cons

  • Performance: This is the big killer. No matter how you slice it, the performance of digital night vision just isn't there. Poor quality images with screen lag mean you're out of the realm of most practical (and definitely all tactical) use.
  • Battery Life: A PVS-14 will run for 40 hours off of a AA battery. Digital night vision needs a large battery pack just to get 8 hours. That means more logistics supporting it, and the possibility you won't make it through one full nights usage without it dying on you.
  • Durability: Not as talked about, but also a major setback. Most analog night vision units can be submerged to 60 feet for hours on end, are drop tested to military standards, and are battle proven. With all the electronics, digital just won't hold up to the same abuse.

Analog Night Vision

Analog NVG Pros

  • You can actually see at night: I mean that's what we're here for, right? If you want to actually see at night, analog is the way to go. People don't call it a super power for no reason.
  • Durability: It's pretty common for people to be worried about breaking their device, and that's normal. After all, you're spending a lot of money on it. But the truth is these things are given to 18-year old Rangers to jump out of airplanes with, and you're probably not treating it half that hard.

Analog NVG Cons

  • Cost: No way around it, if you're getting into night vision, you're spending thousands. In fact, there's units that sell for up to $43,000. The most common units are in the $2,000-$4,000 range, but that's still a good chunk of change for most people.
  • Monochrome: Our brains are wired to use color contrast to detect animals and objects, so we do really look forward to the day when night vision has color.   

So just give me the answer....

Sure, don't f*cking buy digital "night vision". Did you even read the article?

Enjoy Our Night Vision Blog?

     Hope you found something of value to yourself here! We write these to try and educate and share information that we had a hard time finding when we were new to NVGs. If you liked it, sign up for our newsletter to be notified of new articles or company news. Feel free to comment what you thought down below, and we always love when our articles get shared for others to read. 

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