Pixel Packing

Pixel packing is not so much a method of data compression as it is an efficient way to store data in contiguous bytes of memory. Most bitmap formats use pixel packing to conserve the amount of memory or disk space required to store a bitmap. If you are working with image data that contains four bits per pixel, you might find it convenient to store each pixel in a byte of memory, because a byte is typically the smallest addressable area of memory on most computer systems. You would quickly notice, however, that by using this arrangement, half of each byte is not being used by the pixel data (shown in Figure 9-1, a). Image data containing 4096 4-bit pixels will require 4096 bytes of memory for storage, half of which is wasted.

To save memory, you could resort to pixel packing; instead of storing one 4-bit pixel per byte, you could store two 4-bit pixels per byte (shown in Figure 9-1, b). The size of memory required to hold the 4-bit, 4096-pixel image drops from 4096 bytes to 2048 bytes, only half the memory that was required before.

Figure 9-1: Pixel packing

[Graphic: Figure 9-1]

Pixel packing may seem like common sense, but it is not without cost. Memory-based display hardware usually organizes image data as an array of bytes, each storing one pixel or less. If this is the case, it will actually be faster to store only one 4-bit pixel per byte and read this data directly into memory in the proper format rather than to store two 4-bit pixels per byte, which requires masking and shifting each byte of data to extract and write the proper pixel values. The tradeoff is faster read and write times versus reduced size of the image file. This is a good example of one of the costs of data compression.

Compression always has a cost. In this case, the cost is in the time it takes to unpack each byte into two 4-bit pixels. Other factors may come into play when decompressing image data: buffers need to be allocated and managed; CPU-intensive operations must be executed and serviced; scan-line bookkeeping must be kept current. If you are writing a file reader, you usually have no choice; you must support all compression schemes defined in the format specification. If you are writing a file writer, however, you always need to identify the costs and tradeoffs involved in writing compressed files.

At one time in the history of computing, no decision was necessary; disk space was scarce and expensive, so image files needed to be compressed. Now, however, things are different. Hard disks are relatively inexpensive, and alternate distribution and storage media (CD-ROM for instance) are even more so. More and more applications now write image files uncompressed by default. You need to carefully examine the target market of your application before deciding whether to compress or not.

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