New iOS 11 Images: Smaller but Better

Apple Debuts Support for New Image File Format

The most common images on the web are JPEG, PNG, and GIF. These were developed specifically to provide relatively good image quality in a small file size. With the release of iOS 11, a new image file format is on its way to consumers. Called the High-Efficiency Image Codec (HEIC), the format is compatible with other phones and devices. It comes bundled with the High-Efficiency Video Codec (HEVC) which can contain a video at only half the file size. The resulting image file is also expected to have a better quality than comparable JPEG images.

The introduction of the HEIC format was part of the WWDC as new details of the iOS 11 was discussed. For smartphone users, the HEVC and HEIC formats are big deals. These formats allow for a better viewing experience, better quality and the same time smaller file sizes. The HEIC compression results in images which are at least 1.15, and up to 3.23 times smaller than some comparable JPEG files at the same quality of compression.

For users, this means that they can store more videos and images in their smartphones. Alternatively, users can download images faster because they are smaller. It also means that users do not need to have larger memory cards to store their videos. On the Apple page, it says that iOS 11 will be coming this fall.

HEVC and HEIC were first defined in 2013, after which the specifications were released in the summer of 2015. In comparison, JPEG development started in 1986, with the first standards released in 1992. The GIF file format was developed in CompuServe in 1987, and owned by Unisys. Discussions which led to PNG was started in 1995, with the specifications first released in 1996. These are the three most popular image file types currently in use online. They each have their advantages and disadvantage. Due to the constraints and requirements, GIF images have a small palette of 256 colors which is comes from a color space of millions. The hardware of the time was only able to use that many colors. However, among the three image files, only GIF images can be animated. Variants of PNG can be animated. However, these are seldom used.

The advantages of the HEIC format fills the needs which are not addressed by the above formats. HEIC can store single and multiple images, including their thumbnails. Burst photos are also supported. Burst mode is a feature of cameras where it continues shooting pictures as long as the shutter button is pressed. Frames per second are called the “burst rate” or the number of pictures that a camera can take per second. The burst rate usually slows down when the camera memory buffer is full, or when the memory card is full, or when the battery runs out. The burst rate is usually a feature of DSLR and mirrorless cameras. However, there are several phones which support burst mode, including the Samsung Galaxy SIII, Samsung Galaxy Note 3, the iPhone 5s and the ASUS Padfone Mini. Burst mode has several drawbacks including the need for a larger smartphone secondary memory like a microSD card, as well as using up the phone’s battery faster.

HEVC is also able to capture still and video images at the same time. The video and images are stored in the same file. HEIC also supports animations. HEIC supports non-destructive image editing operations and also stores pre-computed images inside the same file. It is easy to rotate, crop or resize an image without the need to re-compute during saving. There is also support for audio and timed text within the image file.

The features blur the distinction between a still image, an animated file, and a video. At the same time, the image still retains a better compression and quality than current standard formats. HEIC and HEVC are meant to offer more features for the web user. This extends the capability of online images. Whereas before image animation was limited to GIF, HEIC affords users more options.

Currently there are no widely distributed HEIC image editors. However, Apple’s Live Photos will be able to use HEIC. This will allow users to crop, trim, resize and rotate images, as well as choose a “key photo.” With the capabilities of HEIC, it is possible to create a long exposure effect without using a tripod. It is expected that support for HEIC will boom with the release of iOS 11 to developers and users.

The specifications for HEIC are available online. Other resources are available at the HEIC GitHub page. Developers can go to the resources page for a better understanding of how to use the HEIC in coding. The HEIC and HEVC code repository are also located at the Nokia GitHub page. It also includes a sample C++ file. It is expected that iOS and Android developers would be taking note of the new format for creating new and innovative apps for smartphones. Since HEIC can be modified without any loss of resolution, this also means that images can retain their quality even after many edits. This characteristic alone is worth the upgrade for instances when an image is meant to be edited an innumerable number of times.

The iOS 11 announcement was part of the Apple WWDC 2017. Other WWDC highlights included the Homeport speaker, new iMac Pro specs, iPad Pro, ARKit development kit, and other hardware and software releases. The developments would be used by developers and lead to software and hardware releases down the line. The announced products are also expected to be released to the public before the end of the year.