Google has introduced what is probably one of the biggest picture quality upgrades to date for Android devices — and it’s coming to other devices, too.
Unveiled at this year’s Google I/O developer conference and dubbed “Ultra HDR,” the upgrade will allow all Android apps on compatible devices to display still images with a much wider range of brightness and color. The effect is similar to the quality improvement you can get by switching to a high-end HDR-equipped TV, but for the pictures. Most Android flagships already have the hardware required to capture and render Ultra HDR photos, so the technology will come as a free bonus to many existing users.
The technology will come into Android 14 with early support from major apps, chief among them Google Photos. It would be up to third-party apps and platforms, like Instagram, to make their own decisions about format support, but Adobe has made it as easy as possible (see below) to support the format, so chances are they will.
How does Ultra HDR work?
Ultra HDR takes the familiar jpeg file and adds an extra layer of information, called a “gain map,” that compatible devices can use to “upscale” a standard image into an HDR image. It takes advantage of a recent Adobe patent describing how these gain maps can be created and stored as an add-on within a standard jpeg file. The main advantage of this approach over other HDR formats is that the current software can render Ultra HDR jpeg images as normal by simply ignoring the gain map.
This means there is no need to create separate Standard and Ultra HDR versions of your photos. Just use the Ultra HDR format, and in theory, all devices will be able to display it in the best quality available.
However, it is currently possible that current imaging software and social media sites will remove the gain maps when any adjustments are saved, destroying the HDR component of the image. This is something that will need to be addressed by major developers if Ultra HDR is to catch on.
What about other devices? Can I try Ultra HDR now?
Ultra HDR will be rolling out to Android 14 beta testers soon, but there are other ways to view Ultra HDR photos for now.
Unlike proprietary technologies like Dolby Vision that require a license, Adobe Gain Maps is free to use and that should lead to widespread application beyond the Android ecosystem. There is nothing technically to prevent Apple from providing support for iOS, for example. While Google’s Ultra HDR ad only covers JPEG files, Adobe’s core technology also works with modern image formats like Apple’s HEIC files.
To that end, Adobe has made beta apps available for Windows and macOS that will let you view a selection of HDR photos. If you have an HDR monitor, you can download some samples and try them out for yourself. For the technically minded, you’ll be able to adjust the strength of the gain mapping and toggle the HDR function on and off for before and after viewing.
I watched a sample of Adobe’s HDR photos on a Windows 11 PC and the benefits were felt right away, with sunlit landscapes and nighttime light shows instantly popping up.
Why do we need Ultra HDR?
Most digital cameras, including smartphones, are capable of capturing more colors, brighter highlights, and deeper shadows than can “fit” into the standard jpeg format. Instead, this extra information must be squashed or “tone mapped” into a smaller brightness range for the jpeg file, resulting in a significant loss of quality. Viewing photos in HDR mode allows you to see all the colors and brightness levels as intended.
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