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Stunning Android 14 Feature Will Bring A Massive Google Photos Upgrade


Google has introduced what is likely to be one of the biggest photo quality upgrades yet 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 boost you can get by switching to a high-end HDR-enabled TV, but for photos. Most Android flagships already have the hardware required to capture and display Ultra HDR images, so the technology will come as a free bonus to many existing users.

The technology will come baked into Android 14 with early support from key apps, the most important of which is Google Photos. It’ll be up to third-party apps and platforms, such as Instagram, to make their own decisions about whether to support the format, but Adobe has made it as easy as possible (see below) to support the format, so it’s likely that they will.

How Ultra HDR Works

Ultra HDR takes the familiar jpeg file and adds an extra layer of information, called a ‘gain map,’ that compatible devices can use to ‘upgrade’ the standard image into an HDR photo. It makes use of a recent Adobe patent that describes how these gain maps can be created and stored as an add-on within a standard jpeg file. The key advantage of this approach over other HDR formats is that current software can display Ultra HDR jpegs as normal by simply ignoring the gain map.

This means there’s no need to create separate standard and Ultra HDR versions of your images. Just use the Ultra HDR format and, in theory, all devices will be able to display them in the best available quality.

However, current imaging software and social media sites are currently likely to strip out the gain maps when saving any edits, destroying the HDR component of the picture. This is something that will need to be addressed by major software 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 images right now.

Unlike proprietary technologies such as Dolby Vision that require a license, Adobe’s gain maps are free to use and this should lead to widespread implementation beyond the Android ecosystem. There’s technically nothing to stop Apple bringing support to iOS, for example. While Google’s Ultra HDR announcement covers only jpegs, Adobe’s underlying technology works just as well with modern image formats such as Apple’s HEIC files.

To that end, Adobe has made demo apps available for Windows and macOS that will allow you to view a selection of HDR images. If you have an HDR display, you can download and try out some samples for yourself. For the technically minded, you’ll be able to adjust the strength of the gain maps and toggle the HDR function on and off to see before and after.

I viewed Adobe’s sample HDR images on a PC running Windows 11 and the benefits were immediately apparent, with sunlit landscapes and nighttime light shows immediately coming to life.

Why is Ultra HDR Needed?

Most digital cameras, including smartphones, are capable of capturing more colors, brighter highlights and deeper shadows than can ‘fit’ into a standard jpeg. Instead, that extra information has to be squashed or ‘tone mapped’ into the smaller brightness range of a jpeg file, resulting in a dramatic loss of quality. Viewing the images in ‘HDR mode’ allows you to see all the colors and brightness levels as intended.

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