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Android P's killer photo feature won't work on lower-end phones

A photo format called HEIC means images take half the storage space as with JPEG. But you'll need a smartphone processor that can handle it.

Google's Android P

Google's next phone software, called Android P for now, is available for testing.

Google

The good news is that the next version of Google's Android smartphone software, Android P, has a feature to shrink your photos to half the size of an ordinary JPEG. The bad news is there's no guarantee that every phone will actually be able to use it.

That's because of hardware and patent licensing limits on the technology used, called High Efficiency Image Format (HEIF). To get full benefits, phone makers will have to pay for high-end hardware and license patents to use it.

You may have heard the term last year, when Apple was championing the technology in iOS 11 and its latest iPhones. Now Google's coming around to it. 

Halving the amount of storage space that photo files consume -- and the amount of data they siphon off your monthly network plan when you're sharing or syncing -- is a great benefit. But it's still not clear how well HEIF will deliver that benefit for Android users. 

On iPhones, Apple made sure its chips can handle HEIF and resolved the patent hassles. But all bets are off in the world of Android, where there are thousands of different phone models from hundreds of manufacturers.

HEIC caveats

Before we get into more details, have a little sip of some alphabet soup regarding file formats. HEIF grew out of a video compression technology called High Efficiency Video Coding, or HEVC, developed by a broad swath of tech powers like Samsung, Dolby Laboratories, Qualcomm and Technicolor. HEVC can compress still images, too, and when it's used for that, you'll see photo filenames that end in HEIC, not HEIF.

Support for both HEIF and HEIC will show up in Google's Android P. The operating system will come with several features, including the ability to take HEIC photos in camera apps, to convert photos in the JPEG format to HEIC and to show HEIC images in apps.

But taking HEIC photos comes with a big caveat: You'll need HEVC-capable hardware, according to a person familiar with Google's Android plans. Viewing HEIC photos, which is less taxing on processors, won't require the hardware acceleration.

Qualcomm's new flagship processor, the Snapdragon 845, can encode HEVC video and thus HEIC photos on Android P.

Qualcomm's new flagship processor, the Snapdragon 845, can encode HEVC video and thus HEIC photos on Android P.

Qualcomm

HEVC support is spreading, but the ability to compress imagery with HEVC technology isn't a given. Qualcomm's Snapdragon 810, 820, 835, and new 845 all can record HEVC video, for example. Most of MediaTek's high-end Helio X series of smartphone processors can play and record HEVC video, but the X10 and the lower-end Helio P models can only play HEVC video. Samsung's Exynos 7 and Exynos 9 processors can record HEVC video. For Spreadtrum, whose chips power many budget phones, only its high-end models offer any HEVC support.

But even if a chip supports HEVC encoding, the need to pay a license to use the technology is another hurdle.

The companies behind HEVC (also called H.265) couldn't agree on how to charge for patent licensing, so they split up into three separate groups, and anyone using HEVC has to pay each of them. Oh, and probably pay a lot of lawyers to read all the fine print.

Several companies have licensed HEVC so they can use it in software and hardware. But don't expect every Android phone maker to have the resources to jump through all the hoops.

HEIC benefits

Choosing to support the new photo format isn't a no-brainer. But it offers significant benefits besides smaller file sizes.

HEIF and HEIC also can handle jobs that JPEG can't. For example, Apple uses it to store 3D scene data that newer iPhone cameras collect, which lets software apply effects like illuminating a nearby face in a portrait but blacking out the background for its portrait lighting mode.

HEIF and HEIC also can accommodate a group of photos taken in a single burst or a collection taken at different exposures, something that's useful for generating HDR images with a better range of shadow and highlight details. It can also handle short videos, similar to Apple's Live Photos. 

Google's embrace of HEIC will be more limited, according to the person familiar with Google's plans. HEIC will be an optional file format just used for ordinary still images, at least to start. But the support in Android will include photo bursts and live photos, so there's room for growth.

Another complication comes when developers decide whether to expose us all to the complexities of HEIC images. Most software can't display an HEIC image, so there are risks to using the format when people want to post to Facebook or send by email. As iPhone developers often do, though, Android developers will be able to convert HEIC images to JPEG to sidestep some of those difficulties.

JPEG, now 25 years old, has shown remarkable staying power. It's useful, fast, universally supported and free of patent barriers. But HEIC shows that it's vulnerable. You may not have it in your next Android phone, and other challengers might carry the day. But sooner or later, we'll have a format that can handle live photos and 3D scenes. Because photography is moving beyond the JPEG age.

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