What is the HEIF (or HEIC) Image Format?

The High Efficiency Image Format (HEIF) is used by Apple’s iPhone and is also coming to Google’s Android P. It’s a modern replacement for JPEG, and often has the .HEIC file extension.

What is HEIF?

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The HEIF format produces images with a smaller file size and higher image quality than the older JPEG standard. In other words, HEIF is just better than JPEG.

HEIF achieves this through use of more advanced compression methods. This new image format is based on the High Efficiency Video Compression format, also known as HEVC or H.265.

While this format made its consumer debut on Apple’s iPhones with iOS 11, it isn’t an Apple technology. It’s based on the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) standards, and will arrive on Android P as well. According to the MPEG and Apple, HEIF images should be half the size of a JPEG image file, but with the same—or better—picture quality.

But HEIF isn’t just about file sizes. HEIF images offer a variety of features that aren’t available in JPEG, like transparency and 16-bit color. The iPhone’s camera can capture photos in 10-bit color, so HEIF’s 16-bit color is a worthwhile upgrade over JPEG’s 8-bit color.

You can apply edits like rotation, cropping, titles, and overlays to HEIF images. Such edits are stored without altering the underlying image. This means you can undo those edit later on, should you want to.

What is an HEIC File?

If you take a photo with Apple’s iPhone or iPad, that photo is saved in an image file with the .HEIC file extension. HEIC is a container format that can store sounds and images encoded with the HEVC format.

For example, if you take a photo with Live Photos enabled on an iPhone, you’ll get a .HEIC file that contains multiple photos and a recorded sound file—everything that makes up the live photo. On older versions of Apple’s iOS, or if you select the “Most Compatible” option, those live photos are stored as a .JPG still image file and a three-second .MOV video file.

HEIF is Just Better Than JPEG

The High Efficiency Image Format is an improvement over JPEG in every way. By using more modern compression schemes, it can store the same amount of data in a JPEG image file in half the size.

As phones get upgraded to use cameras with more megapixels, photos are increasing in detail. By storing photos in HEIF instead of JPEG, the file size is cut in half, so you can store twice as many photos on your phone. The resulting photos should be faster to upload to online services and use less storage space if those services support HEIF files, too. On an iPhone, this means your photos should upload to the iCloud Photo Library twice as fast.

The JPEG standard dates back to 1992, and the latest version of the JPEG standard was finalized in 1994. JPEG served us well for a long time, but it’s no surprise that a modern standard has surpassed it.

The One Downside: Compatibility

The only downside to using HEIF or HEIC photos is compatibility. If a piece of software can view images, it can definitely read JPEG images. But, if you take photos and end up with HEIF or HEIC files, those won’t work everywhere.

That’s why the iPhone and iPad automatically convert your photos to JPEG images when you attach them to an email or share them with a service that doesn’t support HEIF files. It also automatically converts them to JPEG when you import these photos onto a Windows PC. Apple’s iOS is designed to automatically make things as compatible as possible.

While Macs can read .HEIF and .HEIC files starting with macOS High Sierra, Windows 10 doesn’t offer built-in support for these files. You’ll need a third-party image viewer or conversion software to view the original .HEIF or .HEIC files on a Windows PC. Hopefully, Microsoft will add support for this format in the future. It’s becoming more widespread, since Google is adding support to Android, too.

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If you don’t want to deal with any potential compatibility problems, you can always disable use of the HEIF format on your iPhone and force the camera to take photos as old-fashioned JPEGs. Android P will likely offer a similar option, too.

What About HEIF on the Web?

The HEIF format has arrived on Apple’s iPhones and will appear on phones running Google’s Android, but it hasn’t taken over the web. While Apple offers HEIF format support on macOS, not even the Safari browser on Macs can view HEIF images.

Other browsers like Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Microsoft Edge also don’t support HEIF, so don’t expect to see HEIF on the web any time soon. Google, for example, is pushing its own WebP format.

Image Credit: Bon Appetit/Shutterstock.com

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Twitter.