Apple made a change to the way modern iPhones capture photos by default, switching to HEIF/HEVC or “High Efficiency”. This helps reduce file size, but retain the clarity of the photos.
Turns out that Apple’s decision to do that has actually led to what appears to be a loophole for Google Photos users. As was first reported by 9to5Mac from Reddit user “stephenvsawyer“, the switch to High Efficiency means that if Google wanted to compress the photos (as it typically does for photos not stored in original quality), the file size of each photos would actually get bigger, not smaller.
This means that, with this feature turned on, Google Photos will store original quality photos with free unlimited storage, a perk that was traditionally tied to the company’s Pixel smartphone lineup.
With all modern iPhones shooting photos in HEIC format, which is smaller than even Googles compressed JPG files, iPhones therefore get free unlimited ORIGINAL quality backups simply because it would cost Google both storage space (because if Google tried to compress iPhones HEIC photos they would actually become larger) and computing power (because Google doesn’t need to compress and process all of the billions of photos iPhones backup.)
So Apple is literally saving Google millions of dollars by shooting their photos in HEIC and it benefits iPhone users as well because we get free original quality backups.
(This loophole only applies to photos, and not videos.)
It is possible to switch your photo format to “Most Compatible”, which Apple says will “always use JPEG/H.264. But, as mentioned above, the format is automatically selected as HEIF/HEVC, and if you want the Most Compatible option you’ll need to actually activate it manually.
This is good news for iPhone owners, as long as the loophole exists. But it’s even more interesting when it appears that Google is not offering this particular perk to owners of the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL, two handsets it just announced. Google didn’t offer free unlimited storage at original quality for the Pixel 3a, either, but that was chalked up to the low cost of the phone (compared to the standard Pixel 3/Pixel 3 XL).
Google appears to have transitioned away from unlimited free storage at original quality for Pixel 4 owners, too, so the fact that it appears possible to achieve this with the iPhone is pretty comical.
If you want to use Google Photos and don’t already have it installed, you can get it for free from the App Store.