HEIF – A New Image Format to Replace Them All [Technology Explained]

Have you ever wondered how the USB drive that you’ve just bought on Amazon could fit right into the USB slot on your computer? Or how the ticks of your second hand on your watch will be the same as the one on your friends’? Or how the document that you create on your tablet can be opened on your colleague’s computer? That and many other similar questions have one answer: standardization.

Almost every aspect of human creations are standardized to ensure compatibility. From language to time, from paper size to lamp bulb brightness, from shoe number to soap scent, and more. You can see the extreme example in the tech world where everything is standardized, including file format.

When we talk about the ultimate standard for the image file format, JPEG is one of the kings along with PNG and GIF, but all of them are about to get dethroned by an unknown newcomer called HEIF.

What is HEIF and what is so special about it?

JPEG is an old image file format that has been around since the 80s, more than a quarter of a century ago. That’s a very long time in the technology world. One of the reasons why it’s still widely used today is simply because there’s nothing better to replace it. Yet.

JPEG stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group, and it’s a commonly used method of lossy compression for digital images, particularly for those images produced by digital photography. The degree of compression can be adjusted, allowing a selectable tradeoff between storage size and image quality. JPEG typically achieves 10:1 compression with little perceptible loss in image quality.

heif-mte-jpeg

The format was created to utilize the processing power of the computer available back then. And even though it has evolved to keep up with the pace of technology growth, JPEG has shown its age and can’t fit the needs of today’s users and fully utilize the current technological advances available.

There are efforts to introduce a better image format to replace JPEG. One that made the news was the introduction of BPG (Better Portable Graphic), a format based on a single video frame of the new HEVC video codec. It was developed by Fabrice Bellard, a celebrity software engineer who also created FFmpeg, a popular platform for media processing.

BPG has all the ingredients to replace JPEG as the standard image compression format. It’s open source, developed by a respected software engineer known as a “super programmer,” based on HVEC that is twice as efficient as the previous video compression format and supported by all major browsers. And despite gaining a comprehensive media coverage, including articles in Forbes, The Register, and DPReview, the lack of apparent marketing campaign or industry backing caused the format to fail in getting the traction it needs.

It turns out that replacing something that everybody is using for so long is not that easy. But if there’s one company that always tries to bring better standards to the masses, it’s Apple. Its efforts are not always successful, but many of them can put new perspectives into users’ minds, even though they’re always met with resistance at the beginning.

Some of us still remember how computers were identical to dull, dark boxes until the introduction of candy-colored iMacs and iBooks. Or how physical keypads were an inseparable part of a handphone until iPhone. No one talked about using a tablet as part of their daily life before the iPad. And remember how the world mocked Apple for ditching the standard floppy disk and optical drives? There are many other examples, and there will be more to come.

heif-mte-ibook

On June 5th, 2017 at the WWDC keynote, Apple announced that it would adopt a new image standard called HEIF on iPhones and iPads running iOS 11. To the general masses, the announcement was lost among the noise of the new iPads, iMacs, HomePod, Augmented and Virtual Reality, and all the goodies that come with the soon-to-be-released iOS and macOS updates. But those who deal with images paid their attention. Given Apple’s track record in killing off old standards, this could mean the new era of image formats.

HEIF is short for High-Efficiency Image Format. It is an image “wrapper” just like a JPEG or a TIFF. This new “wrapper” comes with a new compression algorithm, or codec, known as HEVC, developed by MPEG. HEIF files can store a single HEVC video frame, and it is about 50% smaller than a JPEG file. HEIF can do that by using a more efficient compression codec.

Another advantage that HEIF has over JPEG is its ability to store images, video, image bursts, audio, and text, all synchronized together within its wrapping package. It gives both lossy and lossless compression options to users, and stores image editing features (like rotating, cropping, titles, and overlays) as separate parts of the files.

heif-mte-heif

In simpler human language, HEIF has all the ability of JPEG, GIF, PNG, and even MP4 format in a tiny file size package. Using the current standard image format, a 128GB iPhone can store around 50,000 photos. You get double the amount with HEIF. And as a bonus, the user will get non-destructive edits without having to store the original images like we do today.

Can HEIF replace all the other image formats or will it wither in obscurity? Being supported by Apple and millions of its loyal users gives HEIF an edge over other failed formats, but it doesn’t mean the road to glory is full of rainbows and unicorns either.

To start with, everything – and I really mean everything – has to be updated to support the new image format. We are talking about digital cameras, computers, email, phones, web browsers, televisions, storage, printing, and all the things that has used JPEG as its standard for the past twenty-five or more years.

There are also software applications that need to be updated. From the big names like Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Word, Google Chrome, to the photo sharing websites like Flickr, 500px, Facebook, Google Photos. The list is endless.

And let’s not forget that HEIF is not the only format that aims to take the throne. There’s also WebP image compression codec from Google. They’ve been using it quietly across the Android and Chrome platforms. We are still waiting to see where their roadmap will take them.

For a new format to get traction, it will need a large group of users before it can get the attention of software developers and persuade them to issue the updates to support the new format. This is the downfall of BPG, but luckily HEIF gets Apple on its back.

Given all the advantages HEIF has over other image formats, I personally think that everyday users will accept it with open arms.

And to help make the transition smoother, there’s already an open source HEIF file viewer implementation from JavaScript known as “libde265.” Since Java is one of the most-used codes on the Web, we can expect web browsers’ support for HEIF sooner rather than later. And when they do, the pace will pick itself up. And maybe, optimizing images for the Web will be a thing of the past.

What do you think about HEIF and its future? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.

8 comments

  1. Can you explain this a bit more: “non-destructive edits without having to store the original images like we do today.” Related: “stores image editing features (like rotating, cropping, titles, and overlays) as separate parts of the files.”

    If I send a HEIF attachment with password, username and other private stuff edited out using the *wrong* options (overlays vs cutting), can it be reconstructed? I know I must be reading this wrong.

    • @John – You can get your questions answered if you go to one of the dozen or so Github groups that are actively working on the project. I highly doubt you are going to get a reliable answer from a creative writer from Indonesia. You need to ask someone that eats, breathes and sleeps this stuff and I guarantee you are not going to find it here at Make Tech Easier!

      • @John – I’m afraid I have to agree with @Kevin. For the more technical questions, I don’t eat, breathe, and sleep this stuffs enough to qualify to answer those questions. :) So I advise you to seek a more professional help.

        But from what my limited knowledge understands, HEIF is a “wrapper” that stores the media data along with somekind of logs of the changes. If you modify the original media, the log will record all the changes while also keeping the original intact. It’s like giving the file the ability to perform multiple undos way back to the original one.

        But again, this is not my field of expertise. I might be wrong. Anyone who are more qualified that reads this, please feel free to chime in.

  2. Well… something needs to give on this front and has needed to give for a very long time. Since WebP was realized more than 7 years ago and is still nothing more than an obscure bystander in the image and video realm and given it is a creation of Google I fail to see how HEIF is going to be any different? I tried to search for some info on a comparison between the two formats with no luck and that has me wondering if there is a difference, at least enough of one that would make one better over the other?

    Regardless of the semantics, there has been a serious need for a better compression algorithm in images and video since mobile devices became popular, but here we set a decade later and still using the same old, should have been deprecated years ago jpg and png (not to mention video) file formats.

    You make claim of there being standards and I am here to argue that one because while there are agreed upon methods and ideas, the world of technology still resembles more in common with the wild west than the tech future we was promised coming back in the 70s and 80s. Standards, while they are there and we can see them it seems like all the tech giants have their own favorites and no one can agree on anything. Of course Microsoft has always had the my way or the highway attitude, closely followed by Apple but why are these other tech giants like Google not pushing forward with something we can all agree on? Given their power and influence I would say they have more going for them to get something better adopted than Apple does, and yet here we set with their WebP that is still just and obscure bystander waiting for its day to shine.

    We just want something better and something that works well and that we can all agree upon, is that to much to ask? At this point I dont care which one is better but lets do something about it while those of us that are reading this are still living!

    • @Kevin – In my opinion, at the end of the day, a standard is something that everybody accepts and uses. Even if it’s because they have to since there is nothing better available.

      As for those profit-oriented tech giants, history has shown us, again and again, that they (almost) always only give the boost to the things that will benefit them. Some of those things end up being our standards, some others don’t. Do these companies also push out a new standard to create a better world? Probably. But we couldn’t know that for sure.

      Maybe the reason why “WebP is still just an obscure bystander waiting for its day to shine” is because Google still couldn’t see how the format will benefit the company? Only Google knows why it does what it does (or doesn’t). Google loves to experiment, and many of those experiments never see the lights of the general public day. Google is also known to scrap out a number of its widely accepted side products.

      Will HEIF’s fate be any different from WebP? Who knows. But we can see that up to this point, Google is not doing anything significant to promote WebP as the new standard, while Apple is planning to go all out “forcing” HEIF on all of its devices. Given the number of Apple’s devices users, that much effort will make at least a little dent in the universe, don’t you think?

      Apple is doing something about the matter while those of us that are reading this are still living. Maybe HEIF can turn out to be something better and something that works well and that we can all agree upon. Just like what you – umm, we – ask.

  3. Well, If this new format means I have to ditch my Nikon D3200 and by a brand new digital camera, then I’ll just keep my RAW and JPEG. Unless there is some firmware that will upgrade my camera, I just can’t afford it. :-(

  4. Beeing adopted by apple and not only for iphone but for cloud storage this format makes a big difference. Then do not forget that hdr is rising fast and needs a new format as well.

  5. What can easily allow for HEIF to be exploited in the Web context is to provide server-side compatibility options. This could be facilitated through a Web server “inspecting” user-agent and similar properties to determine whether a client device provides native HEIF support and exports the file in an appropriate format if it doesn’t. In the case of image sequences intended to be run as a video, this could be handled in the form of an H.264 or similar widely-supported file.

    Here, this approach can support responsive images by showing the highest resolution available if a computer uses a high-DPI display but yield a standard resolution image for popular display resolutions like HD or Full HD.

    I see this more as a way that image libraries, social media sites and the like can support HEIF-based images in a best-case form rather than having users export the images before they upload them to these services.

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