Microsoft takes another shot at JPEG with HD Photo format

Redmond (WA) - Microsoft has been working on its own image format for some time: First information about the Windows Media Photo format became available a little over a year ago. Now Microsoft is ready to let users test the new format, renamed to "HD Photo," in Adobe Photoshop CS2 and CS3.

JPEG is one of those dinosaurs in the IT industry that just won't go away. Supported by virtually any software and device that has to deal with image files, JPEG has been the standard for color-rich images for many years. Despite the fact that JPEG comes with several disadvantages, such as ugly artifacts in compressed images, the format remains more popular than PNG or JPEG 2000.

Microsoft, however, believes it is the right time to once again try to replace JPEG with a more modern and more capable image format. Developed under the name "Windows Media Photo" the company released the specification for its "HD Photo" format in November of last year. Today, Microsoft published a plug-in that allows owners of a copy of Photoshop CS2 or CS3 to take the format for a spin.

Microsoft claims that "this new, next-generation digital image format offers the best solution for digital image editing and storage and unlocks the potential for digital photography on devices, applications and services." The company promises a compression with up to twice the efficiency of JPEG, with fewer damaging artifacts, resulting in higher-quality images that are one-half the file size. In addition, HD Photo is described to offer "increased image fidelity, preserving the entire original image content and enabling higher-quality exposure and color adjustments in the image." HD Photo files can be saved with a variety of options, both lossless and lossy image compression, and - according to Microsoft - can retain the full dynamic range and color gamut data from a camera's sensor. Changes made to a picture do not discard or truncate data and allow users to undo those changes at a later time, Microsoft claims.

Microsoft compares the image quality achievable with HD Photo to JPEG 2000, but says that the format requires only the computational performance typically needed for JPEG. Lossy compression will deliver a file that is only half the size of a JPEG image, while lossless images are said to be about 2.5x smaller than the original uncompressed data.

HD Photo, which carries the file extension .wdp or .hdp, offers image quality comparable to JPEG-2000 with computational and memory performance more closely comparable to JPEG. HD Photo delivers a lossy compressed image of better perceptive quality than JPEG at less than half the file size. The same compression algorithm can also deliver mathematically lossless compressed images that are typically 2.5 times smaller than the original uncompressed data, Microsoft claims.

In a brief test, we were not quite able to confirm Microsoft's claims. HD Photo showed a moody performance as it was able to beat the file size of a comparable JPEG file only in some cases. We were not able to produce a lossless image that required less space than a JPEG image (in highest quality) in the HD Photo format. When compared to other formats that offer lossless saving, such as TIFF, HD Photo showed file size advantages of about 40 to 70%.

HD Photo beta is offered as a free download and is compatible with Photoshop CS2 and CS3 as well as Windows Vista and XP. HD Photo is also included in Microsoft's .NET Framework 3.0.