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Apple's tricky iOS 11 photo tech gets a helping hand

What the heck is HEIC? It's a whiz at compressing iPhone photos, but it brings some complications. New tools can help.

Apple's new phone software means your photos take up half the space they used to, and that's great. But it also can bring some complications. 

Good news: New tools are emerging to help you avoid the hassles -- and to take better advantage of the change.

The new photo compression technology comes with the HEIC image format Apple built into iOS 11, the iPhone and iPad software that arrived in September. HEIC is a version of technology called HEIF -- High Efficiency Image Format -- that needs less storage space than the decades-old JPEG format. It throws other photography advancements into the bargain, too, to help with things like Apple's portrait mode.

The Half app lets you convert your iPhone's JPEGs into smaller HEIC files, then delete the JPEGs.

The Half app lets you convert your iPhone's JPEGs into smaller HEIC files, then delete the JPEGs.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Apple was careful to add safeguards that prevent HEIC compatibility problems and to warn app developers to take similar precautions. For the most part, HEIC images are in effect an internal format that gets converted into JPEG when it's time to post a photo to Facebook or email it to your cousin.

The trouble comes when HEIC images leak out of their protective Apple confines, as, for example, when you're experimenting with the format. You can't display an HEIC image on incompatible devices like Windows laptops, Android phones or Macs that don't run the latest MacOS software. It's tough moving beyond file formats as entrenched and useful as JPEG -- but that's where the new utilities come into play.

HEIF and HEIC exemplify the pitfalls of progress in the computing industry. You often can't benefit from shiny new tech until it's widely adopted  -- think of owning the first fax machine or a Mac with USB-C ports that don't work with old peripherals. But technology companies are scared to embrace a new technology until they're convinced wide adoption will happen.

That kind of chicken-and-egg problem has hurt other image standards, like Microsoft's JPEG XR and Google's WebP.

Smoothing the way

Happily, there are tools that make HEIC's arrival easier to manage, whether that's avoiding its pains or embracing its benefits.

Free online tools let you convert HEIC images into JPEG if you're stuck with one you can't handle. Vietnamese developer Tran Dang Khoa added an HEIC converter alongside many other conversion tools. And Beamr, maker of the JPEGmini software for optimizing photo and video file sizes, added its own online HEIC-to-JPEG converter that can handle up to 30 photos at a time. If you want to convert HEIC photos on your Windows or Mac PC, the iMazing's free app can help you there.

These cropped-in views of a larger image show how HEIF, left, offers richer colors and fewer speckly artifacts near high-contrast borders compared to a JPEG of about the same size.

Nokia

But what if you want to go the other way, shrinking your JPEGs into HEIC photos? For that, a $3 iOS app called Half for iOS devices can help. Half also sells a $5 version for Macs. The unrelated HEIF Utility gives Windows users a conversion option, too.

With Half, you tell the app which photos to shrink and it'll tell you how much smaller the HEIC version is and ask whether you want to delete the original JPEG. A batch mode to convert photos en masse is on the way, said developer Christina Statescu, as is a tool to shrink videos into HEIC's close relative, HEVC.

File-sync fixes

The obvious way HEIC photos could leak out is with file-sync apps like Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive and Google Drive. Fortunately, the companies behind those tools have you covered.

Dropbox can automatically ingest your photos, but on iOS by default it converts HEIC files to JPEG. If you want to keep the HEIC images, open the Dropbox app, tap the "recents" tab at the bottom left, tap the settings gear icon on the upper right, tap "camera uploads" and change "save HEIC photos" to HEIC.

iMazing's converter can help if you're stuck with an HEIC image you need to change to JPEG.

iMazing's converter can help if you're stuck with an HEIC image you need to change to JPEG.

iMazing

Microsoft OneDrive also converts to JPEG. "This puts a user's photos in the most compatible format and will allow them to view their photos on OneDrive mobile apps, OneDrive.com, and in Windows 10," Microsoft said in a statement. If you don't like it, you can disable automatic conversion by opening settings, tapping on "advanced," then turning off the "Upload Most Compatible" feature.

The PhotoSync app, which synchronizes photos across your devices and photo-sharing services like Flickr and 500px, also converts HEIC into JPEG.

Google Drive leaves HEIC files as HEIC, but the app now can view them on iOS and Android and through the drive.google.com website.

Apple settings

If you're running iOS 10 or earlier or have an older iPhone, you won't get an option to save HEIC images in the first place. But if you're using a newer phone, you can enable it through the iOS settings app. Scroll down to "Camera," tap "Formats" and pick "most compatible" for JPEG and "high efficiency" for HEIC.

Apple Photos also can be configured to convert HEIC into JPEGs. Tap "Photos" in the iOS settings app, find the "Transfer to Mac or PC" section, then choose "automatic."

Lightroom, the Adobe Systems software for cataloging and editing photos, now converts HEIC images into JPEGs when you import them. That's an important move since you can now run Lightroom on your phone and synchronize your library across phones, tablets, PCs and the web.

But what about supporting HEIC natively in Lightroom to benefit from the smaller files? Adobe isn't yet ready to say what it'll do. "We need to support workflows customers actually use. It's hard to say how this format will evolve," said Josh Haftel, who oversees Adobe's mobile Lightroom apps. "It's not a small feat to support it across a wide range of different platforms."

HEIF is in limbo right now. Apple's endorsement is a huge boost to its future, but it's not enough to guarantee success. Without built-in support from Windows, Android, and Adobe's widely used photo software, it looks like we'll have a healthy demand for HEIC conversion tools for years to come.

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