Thursday, 28 September 2017

Apple HEIF iOS 11 image file format or open source?

With the release of a new operating system from Apple, a totally different image and video capturing format has been included for newer iPhones. The format is called as HEIF (High Efficiency Image Format) and HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) respectively. HEVC is also known as H265 which is a successor of well known H264 MPEG-4 AVC.
Coming to the topic of photography, there are 2 minimum requirements to take pictures in HEIF format:
1) Hardware: iPhone 7 or later and newer iPad models. Technically speaking, it needs at least A10 processor for encoding-decoding process. 
2) OS Version: iOS 11 and higher.
This means iPhone 5s, 6s, SE, 6 running iOS 11 will not be able to capture images in this format. Neither For iPhone 7 and later, the camera by default captures photographs in this format.
Background: Both HEIF and HVEC are not open source. They have been known since summer 2015, but there adoption on web has been low so far because of the huge licensing fees involved. License can be obtained from individual patent holders who participated in JCT-VC or from licensing companies such as MPEG LA, HEVC advance and Velos media. HEIF and HVEC are not owned by Apple.
JPEG Support for photographers:
When moving images to PC, iPhone converts them to jpeg images on the fly. This might be good for photographers who want to just copy files as fast as they can, but not so good for photographers who care about lossy compression. An iPhone user can actually prevent the camera from shooting in HEIF by going to camera option in settings and selecting "Most compatible" option. Every time a new cool technique or technology is adopted, there are always good sides and bad sides. Let's talk about them one by one.
Less storage space consumed for equivalent quality jpeg image.
1) Not many softwares or apps are able to handle HEIF format files as of today. So this might create some problems for photography folks.
2) If a smartphone photographer wants to shoot in Jpeg format, they lose 4k 60 fps and 1080p 240 fps video capability as well. This is a big turn off, at least for me. Apple doesn't want a user to take pictures in jpeg and shoot videos in high quality at same time.

Apple or Open source fformat for photographers
Equivalent open source solution for HEIF and HEVC

Is open source the solution?
With the adoption of HEIF by Apple, looks like there is a rift being created between Apple and open source world. Few years ago, Google developed alternative image compression codec called WEbP which is completely open source. It can be considered as a competitor to HEIF format, and who knows Google might add something fancy to it in coming months. Technology giants such as NVIDIA, AMD, Amazon, Cisco, Google, Netflix and Intel are a part of Alliance for open media. AV1 is their upcoming open source video format to compete with HVEC. It is to be released by the end of 2017. In the end, it would be interesting to see how AV1 performs in comparison with HEVC when it is released. 

Do you think HVEC/HEIF is the future of image quality standards or do we need a better file format?

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