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What The Heck Is A HEIC File, And How Do I Open It?

macOS High Sierra.
(Image credit: Apple)

Apple started using the High Efficiency Image Container (HEIC) in iOS 11 and macOS High Sierra in 2017. The new format promises much smaller file sizes compared to JPG or PNG, and it supports many other useful features. Microsoft and Google recently announced support for HEIC in the next versions of their respective operating systems.

HEIC And HEIF

HEIC is the container or file extension that holds HEIF images or sequences of images. HEIF borrows technology from the High Efficiency Video Compression (HEVC) codec, also known as h.265. Both HEVC and HEIF are proprietary technologies developed by the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG).

HEIF came into the mainstream when Apple made it the default format for its pictures on iOS11 devices and macOS High Sierra. However, other operating systems or websites don’t yet support HEIF and its HEIC file extension, so Apple’s operating systems will automatically convert the images to JPEG when users want to share them with friends who don’t use Apple products.

Benefits Of HEIC

The biggest benefit by far of HEIC, and why anyone would even consider yet another image format on the web, is that HEIC images promise to be half the size or smaller compared to JPEG images, but with even better quality. HEIC can also replace file extensions that support image sequences, such as GIF and GIFV.

Additionally, HEIC files can store not just multiple individual images, but also their image properties, HDR data, alpha and depth maps, and even their thumbnails.

Cons Of HEIC

Because HEIC and HEIF are developed by MPEG and are based on HEVC technology, that means that HEIC could have some patent issues. Multiple patent groups outside of MPEG claim to have patents on HEVC technology, so we may see similar claims against HEIC. This could (potentially) impact not just larger platform owners, such as Apple, but also small websites that publish images in the HEIC format.

Another con of HEIC is quite obvious: It doesn’t yet have widespread adoption beyond iOS 11 and macOS High Sierra. Without use on other platforms, HEIC could remain just another technology that can be used only among Apple users.

The good news is that Windows 10 Build 17123 should support HEIC in its Photos app, and Google also promised support for this file format in Android P. Both of these operating systems should be released later this year. However, it will take some time before most people are on Windows 10 Build 17123 or newer, or on Android P or newer. Therefore, HEIC adoption still won’t happen overnight, even if all the patent issues are resolved.

How To Open HEIC Files?

Because Apple supports HEIC on its iOS 11 and macOS High Sierra devices, its users shouldn’t have any issues opening HEIC files. They also don’t have to worry about converting them before sending them to friends, because they will convert automatically to JPEG when they're shared through Apple’s multi-purpose Share sheet.

If you’re on Windows, you can’t yet open HEIC files natively, but you can convert them using either one of the online HEIC to JPG converting services, or you can download software to convert them on your PC. You may also want to use one of these services if you want to view the images as JPG on an Android device or a Linux machine.

HEIC could enable users to take not just smaller photos, but also higher-quality photos of higher resolutions, with minimal impact on their device storage. However, HEIC will become truly useful only when most users can open HEIC images on any and all of the devices they use, without having to worry about first converting them.

  • matmat9v
    That is not exactly true. Apowersoft Photo Viewer can display HEIC files. There is also support from XNView.
    Reply
  • USAFRet
    20822355 said:
    That is not exactly true. Apowersoft Photo Viewer can display HEIC files. There is also support from XNView.

    For all 3 of us that use XNView. :lol:

    HEIC may gain popularity. It may not.
    Just have to see what happens.
    Reply
  • bit_user
    HEIC images promise to be half the size or smaller compared to JPEG images, but with even better quality.
    I think JPEG 2000 is probably in that ballpark, and it patents should've all expired by now.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JPEG_2000#Improvements_over_the_1992_JPEG_standard
    Reply
  • kryojenix
    I wanted Fabrice Bellard's BPG - Better Portable Graphics - format to win. It's free, but uses x264 derived compression so may be subject to the same patent claims as HEIF.
    Reply
  • bit_user
    20823569 said:
    I wanted Fabrice Bellard's BPG - Better Portable Graphics - format to win. It's free, but uses x264 derived compression so may be subject to the same patent claims as HEIF.
    You know this uses H.265-derived compression, right?

    There's no question H.265 was an improvement over H.264, so why use H.264?
    Reply
  • chicofehr
    Not a fan of this. Its another closes source patent ridden format. MPEG seems to get its way every time. How about an open source standard. I'm sure MPEG is giving kickbacks to the CEO's in Hollywood and tech companies to not use open source formats.
    Reply
  • Valantar
    Does the tech this has in common with HEVC mean that decoding can be done by the same hardware, or does this rely entirely on software decoding? Wouldn't that be a rather significant con, if so? And wouldn't that limit effective use to relatively new platforms?

    Also, in storing more data (including HDR info), does that mean that it can store more than 8-bit color? Wider color gamuts?
    Reply
  • randomizer
    Probably better to use something derived from a royalty-free codec like AV1.
    Reply
  • alextheblue
    20822412 said:
    HEIC images promise to be half the size or smaller compared to JPEG images, but with even better quality.
    I think JPEG 2000 is probably in that ballpark, and it patents should've all expired by now.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JPEG_2000#Improvements_over_the_1992_JPEG_standard
    What I have read about JPEG 2000 indicated that real gains over JPEG weren't typically that massive, and it was more computationally intensive. That won't be an issue for PCs but I doubt it is hardware-accelerated in current smartphone SoCs, which could be a minor issue if everything has to be done in software.

    Anyway JPEG 2000 has other advantages over JPEG, but so does HEIF. Plus practically everything supports (and accelerates) H.265 now, so I imagine HEIF would also benefit. At this point if all the major OS vendors are going to support it (and thus most phones), it will probably succeed - it's already got more traction than JPEG 2000 ever did. But time will tell.
    Reply
  • toadhammer
    HEIC has been a PITA. While my phone is running the new ios, my older mac doesn't have HEIC support. I don't care what format wins, but it will probably be the one that has support on older machines.
    Reply