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System Limitations

Adobe Flash: A Look At Browsers, Codecs, And System Performance
By

Drivers

Adobe only provides the hooks into its API for graphic vendors to take advantage of H.264 decoding in Flash. Drivers are as important as the version of the software. They represent two sides of the same coin, which need to work together to get hardware acceleration to work.

Overall, we found no driver problems at any of the resolutions tested. Everyone is in the clear except for specific Intel- and Broadcom-based configurations. For whatever reason, unfortunately, the issues we originally reported in our Fall 10.1" Netbook Roundup still exist.

There are situations where we see the 3.5.0 driver break support, and at this time, we advise anyone using a Broadcom Crystal HD-powered netbook to fall back to the driver recommended by your notebook manufacturer. We have tangentially heard that there was a bug in version 3.5.0, but Broadcom has not responded to requests for confirmation.

Settings: Aero Enabled
Playback: IE8, YouTube 1080p, Windowed
CPU Usage:
Hardware Acceleration Disabled
CPU Usage:
Hardware Acceleration Enabled
Asus UL20A
Core 2 Duo
GMA 4500MHD
60%
35%
Dell Vostro 3300
Core i3-340M
HD Graphics
19%
17%
Asus eeePC 1215T
Athlon II Neo K125
Mobility Radeon 4225
91%
72%
Asus eeePC 1215N
Atom D525
Ion2
52%
15%
Lenovo ThinkPad T510
Core i5-540M
Quadro NVS 3100M
15%
8%


I feel I should clarify that Broadcom's Crystal HD solution is excellent for multimedia-hungry consumers that have video files on their hard drives. However, when you consider that a Broadcom Crystal HD-based netbook costs at least 50 bucks more than budget-oriented netbooks, and just falls short of the prices we see on premium options like the Asus 1215T (Nile) and 1215N (Ion 2), we expect that extra dough comes with a working driver set.

For those folks who just want to play video files on their computer, netbooks with Broadcom's Crystal HD are an excellent choice, giving you the battery life benefits of using integrated graphics with a bit more video horsepower. If you are expecting the hardware to help you with Hulu, YouTube, and other Flash-based sites, you are taking a bit of a gamble. And remember that Crystal HD is another piece of hardware that eats power. In our own internal tests, we get an extra 30 minutes out of the Dell Inspiron Mini 10 when we disable Crystal HD entirely.

Aero

If you aren't already familiar with Windows 7's Aero Glass, you might be missing out on some cool visual cues. For systems equipped with Crystal HD and Intel's GMA 500, Adobe recommends running Windows 7 with Aero enabled. Why? Because apparently, there are additional driver hooks that become available to the system. This has to do with the unique architecture associated with both decoders.

But why does this apply to only GMA 500 and not Intel's other integrated graphics products? This has to do with the fact that the GMA 500 is like no other Intel product. Instead of being developed in-house, the GMA 500 is designed around a PowerVR SGX 535 core licensed from Imagination Technologies.

Unfortuantely, it's somewhat ironic that systems that typically come with Crystal HD or GMA 500 (Atom Z5XX-series) also ship with Windows 7 Starter. Moreover, they usually come armed with just 1 GB of memory. This means you can't actually enable Aero in these systems. As a result, we have not been able to test out Adobe's recommendation. Regardless, if the benefit does exist, a vast majority of customers that have either of these two configurations cannot tap into this performance enhancement anyway.

Settings: Playback: IE8, YouTube 1080p,
Windowed, Hardware Acceleration Enabled
CPU Usage: Aero Enabled
CPU Usage: Aero Disabled
Asus UL20A
Core 2 Duo
GMA 4500MHD
35%30%
Dell Vostro 3300
Core i3-340M
HD Graphics
17%
11%
Asus eeePC 1215T
Athlon II Neo K125
Mobility Radeon 4225
72%
46%
Asus eeePC 1215N
Atom D525
Ion2
15%
14%
Lenovo ThinkPad T510
Core i5-540M
Quadro NVS 3100M
12%
8%


We're kind of puzzled as to why enabling Aero would actually benefit the system beyond some sort of exposure of additional driver hooks in WDDM or forcing the use of part of the graphics pipeline. If anything, one would think that enabling the more complex Aero interface would slow down the system. Our suspections are right for the most part. There are small variations across systems, depending resolution and enabling enabling full-screen Flash playback. However, for the most part, we do see an increase in CPU usage when you enable Aero.

Multi-Instance Decoding

There is another usage model we feel it's important to mention (since nobody else has discussed multi-instance decoding). Why? Consider your everyday browsing experience. Your desktop environment might look something like the image above. As you can see, this desktop has three windows open. In the background, IE8 is open to YouTube, CNN, Google News, Adobe, Weather.com, and Amazon. In the corner, I have a H.264 trailer open while typing in Word 2007. Any tab where you have a H.264 Flash-based video paused counts as a single processor thread of hardware decoding. Any video player playing H.264, MPEG-2, VC-1, or any other codec supported by your GPU's fixed-function hardware decoder counts as another thread.

We know for a fact that Broadcom's Crystal HD video processor is single-threaded. You can’t accelerate Flash and H.264 at the same time, which isn’t really a problem for most mainstream folks. The first content detected is able to open a thread on the Crystal HD processor. The second, third, and fourth are passed off to the CPU. Keep in mind this means you can't have a browser open on a Flash-based Web site and then open up a H.264 video and expect it to be accelerated by Crystal HD. We ruled out a bandwidth/processing load issue on the Crystal HD processor, because even if you pause the first content instance, the thread is still open. As a result, all subsequent content opened cannot utilize Broadcom’s multimedia processor. There are other problems with this specifically relating to Broadcom's latest public driver, which we went over in our Fall 10.1" Netbook Roundup.

Playback: H.264,
 1080p trailer, 13 Mb/s
Windowed
Aero Enabled
CPU Usage: VLC v.1.1.5
CPU Usage: WMP 12.0.7600.16667
Asus UL20A
Core 2 Duo
GMA 4500MHD
38%
3%
Dell Vostro 3300
Core i3-340M
HD Graphics
21%
17%
Asus eeePC 1215T
Athlon II Neo K125
Mobility Radeon 4225
99%
24%
Asus eeePC 1215N
Atom D525
Ion2
36%
8%
Lenovo ThinkPad T510
Core i5-540M
Quadro NVS 3100M
12%
3%


Based on our conversation with Adobe, we strongly suspect a similar situation with GMA 500. However, all the systems included in our case study do not suffer this problem. Keep in mind we only tested a H.264 Flash video (YouTube 1080p), along with a H.264-based video trailer. Why is this limited to Broadcom's Crystal HD (and possibly GMA 500)? Well, it goes back to the GPU architecture. The fixed-function decoders that Intel, AMD, and Nvidia have designed are capable of handling at least two threads and processes simultaneously (we hear Sandy Bridge can accelerate 12 or more HD streams concurrently).

We were unable to test out more than two H.264 streams because VLC v.1.1.5 doesn't seem to take full advantage of hardware decoding, as it "does decoding in GPU at the decoding stage only and then gets the data back to go to the other stages." Furthermore, while you can open multiple windows of VLC, you cannot with Windows Media Player, so we were restricted to testing two H.264 threads and processes.

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  • 2 Hide
    Scott2010au , January 11, 2011 3:13 AM
    Notify Mozilla - they care!
  • 6 Hide
    Tamz_msc , January 11, 2011 3:17 AM
    Detailed and interesting article.
  • 4 Hide
    Anonymous , January 11, 2011 3:48 AM
    Another interesting article they should do in regards of flash is games/applications in flash vs java and other methods. I know a majority of the flash games that are on facebook have a tendency to put netbooks into a crawl whereas other methods perform a lot better. Also, an article on how to possibly improve flash performance on netbooks would be a really useful article as well.
  • -4 Hide
    reprotected , January 11, 2011 5:32 AM
    This article should have not been released. Now Apple, Chrome and Opera is going to race against Firefox and IE for the best flash playing browser. MORE HYPE!
  • 3 Hide
    Anonymous , January 11, 2011 6:34 AM
    What about performance of flash in different operating systems. For example speed in Ubuntu and Windows?
  • 0 Hide
    acku , January 11, 2011 6:42 AM
    Quote:
    What about performance of flash in different operating systems. For example speed in Ubuntu and Windows?


    Installing Flash in Ubuntu isn't straight forward unless you are on the 32-bit version. I hear 64-bit is a nightmare. And I'm talking about the official version. That says nothing about the poor performance of Gnash and swfdec. Now there is nothing wrong with using Linux, but it wasn't intended for that type of usage. I code in Linux occasionally. That said, we might look into it down the road.

    Can you clarify what you mean by speed comparisons? I'm not sure I follow. Video is video. Regardless of operating system, the difference is going to be performance overhead.

    Andrew Ku
    TomsHardware
  • 1 Hide
    Anonymous , January 11, 2011 7:24 AM
    What baffles me is the frame rate drop in full screen mode on Chrome/Safari/Opera.

    And it would be very interesting to see results on a Mac.
  • 0 Hide
    acku , January 11, 2011 7:57 AM
    UmrathWhat baffles me is the frame rate drop in full screen mode on Chrome/Safari/Opera.And it would be very interesting to see results on a Mac.


    Yeah, we only can speculate as to why that is for those three. There defiantly is something going on. As for Macs, point taken I'll be sure to address that in the future.
  • 3 Hide
    randomizer , January 11, 2011 8:22 AM
    Quote:
    Installing Flash in Ubuntu isn't straight forward unless you are on the 32-bit version. I hear 64-bit is a nightmare. And I'm talking about the official version.

    The 32-bit version works fine on 64-bit Linux, you just need to install the 32-bit libs. Flash player 10.2 beta has a 64-bit version I believe, and it doesn't need to pull in all those extra dependencies. I've used it on Arch Linux without an issue. Hopefully 10.1 officially gets replaced soon :) 

    Quote:
    That says nothing about the poor performance of Gnash and swfdec.

    Gnash is an admirable project, but it's too far behind Adobe's Flash player to be relevant. I don't think it even works with some more recent videos.
  • 0 Hide
    acku , January 11, 2011 8:33 AM
    Quote:
    The 32-bit version works fine on 64-bit Linux, you just need to install the 32-bit libs. Flash player 10.2 beta has a 64-bit version I believe, and it doesn't need to pull in all those extra dependencies. I've used it on Arch Linux without an issue. Hopefully 10.1 officially gets replaced soon :) 

    Gnash is an admirable project, but it's too far behind Adobe's Flash player to be relevant. I don't think it even works with some more recent videos.


    https://help.ubuntu.com/community/RestrictedFormats/Flash#Flash%20for%2064-bit%20%28x86_64%29
    While 64-bit Flash for linux is still beta, Ubuntu mentions that it provides
    # Greater stability
    # Greater speed and performance
    # Fewer dependencies to install

    over using 32-bit Flash in 64-bit Ubuntu. I haven't tried it myself, so I can't say for sure. I'm trusting Ubuntu's internal tests on this one.

    We're of the same mind on gnash.

    Andrew Ku
    TomsHardware
  • 2 Hide
    scrumworks , January 11, 2011 9:51 AM
    Interesting article in theory but apples to oranges comparison makes no sense. AMD got the worst treatment again of course. Two generation old low end Radeon on a single core Neo mini-laptop system. That must be the crappiest AMD system available.
  • -2 Hide
    acku , January 11, 2011 10:09 AM
    scrumworksInteresting article in theory but apples to oranges comparison makes no sense. AMD got the worst treatment again of course. Two generation old low end Radeon on a single core Neo mini-laptop system. That must be the crappiest AMD system available.


    Actually this is very apples to apples. If you look at a k625 system, the numbers may not be 50% cpu but it still will be higher than 20%. UVD3 doesn't come into play unless you are using Cayman or a brand spanking new Brazos notebook. Remember that the Radeon HD 4200 series is still the most powerful of the integrated graphics solution that AMD is providing, at the moment. 4225 has a slower clock speed sure, but this has little to do with the performance of the fixed function decoder.

    Andrew Ku
    TomsHardware
  • 1 Hide
    knightmike , January 11, 2011 10:44 AM
    Adobe Flash disables the ability for my monitor to turn off after x amount of time even after I have closed my browser and returned to desktop. I hate that.
  • 2 Hide
    Corning , January 11, 2011 11:26 AM
    Thank you SOOO mutch for wrighting out the acronyms. I hear these terms all the time, its nice to see where they come from.
  • 1 Hide
    Yuka , January 11, 2011 11:49 AM
    Superb article Mr. Andrew.

    Keep up the good work and we all know you guys at Toms are HW wizards 8)

    Looking forward to that HTML5 vs Flash article!

    Cheers!
  • 0 Hide
    feeddagoat , January 11, 2011 11:57 AM
    How will video change with the release of HTML5? seems flash is horribly fragmented with different standards trying to cover so many possible hardware set ups. In which case who does responsibility for compatibility and improving performance fall to? Hardware vendors like Intel, Nvidia or AMD or software developers like Mozilla, Google, Microsoft or the actual content providers/web developers?
  • -1 Hide
    kevith , January 11, 2011 12:14 PM
    The installation on Ubuntu Amd-64 has become a breeze. I run 10.04 LTS, and was a bit worried when I saw the "does-not-support-64-bit"-warning.

    It's one -1!- commandline operation and you're happy. It's this:

    sudo add-apt-repository ppa:sevenmachines/flash && sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get install flashplugin64-installer

    After you restart Firefox it works with no flaws at all.
  • 1 Hide
    shadowmaster625 , January 11, 2011 12:55 PM
    What I want to know is why when I play an Adobe Air based game (League of Legends) my framerate drops to 5fps when I have Firefox running with a couple youtube videos in the background. Quad core with decent video card, all running very close to idle load and temperatures. It is beyond retarded that I am forced to run a 2nd pc if I want to have a video playing at the same time, especially since the game barely uses any cpu or gpu. I am starting to agree with Steve Jobs. Adobe is a big steaming pile of malware.
  • 1 Hide
    jnjkele , January 11, 2011 1:43 PM
    Very nice article! Great breakdown of respective flash video performance issues. The thing that keeps nagging at me is the validity of the various claims I've seen regarding the impace flash has on overall system performance and battery life when it comes to flash use on websites. This covers the web video questions - what about Stevie Job's assertion that there's no flash on their mobile devices because it kills battery life? I know from personal experience that flash can be really buggy, but what about performance impacts on mobile devices?
  • 1 Hide
    mariushm , January 11, 2011 2:07 PM
    Seriously, Tom's Hardware, do you really have something against making proper reviews and tests? It almost looks like you intentionally want to screw up tests.

    Let's see the hardware configurations you chose :

    1. Atom - Ion 2 : Low CPU - High video
    2. Core2 - Intel : Medium CPU - Low video
    3. i3 - Intel : High CPU - Low to medium video
    4. i5 - nVidia : High CPU - High video
    4. Neo - 4225 : Low CPU - Low video

    note: low and high video are in regard to 2D/3D performance in desktop, not games.

    We have 4 generations of Intel processors from low performance and power usage (Atom), to middle Core2 and i3 (office usage), to relatively high performance (i5).
    Yet we have only one AMD processor that's designed to compete against Atom, paired with the only AMD video card, one that's also designed for notebooks and has the lowest performance out of all the cards, by design.

    On the first platform, Flash is basically using Ion2 to decode the video in hardware.
    On the Core2 and i3, the intel video cards are not good enough and don't have drivers good enough - everything is decoded in software
    On the i5, both the processor and the video card can easily decode the video, and the video card is powerful enough to do the compositing in window mode
    On the Neo, you have both low performance processor and low performance video card - while the card can decode the video in hardware the processor is barely enough to do the compositing with various other Flash layers, while still handling the 3D Aero.

    Also, the lowest performance nVidia card used is a 600 Mhz part using the 4th generation of hardware decoding, VP4, introduced in 07/2010. In contrast, the AMD's only presence is an old chip running at 380 Mhz, using UVD2 and introduced in 01/2010. AMD is now at UVD4 with the 6xxx series. Hell, it's so slow the Firefox CPU usage was high because there was a flash or gif animation on the same page with the video making the video card sweat.

    Where the hell is a mid-high CPU coupled with a decent AMD video card, like 4670 or 5450? I'm currently using an Intel Q6600 coupled with an AMD 4850 - in window mode, 1080p content is barely using 20-25% cpu while in full screen it's barely going over 15%. It's obvious hardware acceleration is working perfectly fine in both cases.

    There are plenty of laptop video cards from AMD, parts labeled 6xxx part that are actually chips from the Radeon 5xxx series, which have UVD3 and have much better performance than the HD4225.

    Naturally, in Full Screen, Flash can use other hardware acceleration features that can't be used in 2D so the performance is much better.

    I also don't see any mention of Flash 10.2, currently in beta, which introduces a completely new rendering technique which allows in most cases complete hardware rendering of everything in Flash. I'll quote from the official beta page:

    http://labs.adobe.com/technologies/flashplayer10/

    Quote:

    Flash Player 10.2 introduces new features and enhancements, including a new video hardware acceleration model that enables dramatically enhanced video playback performance.

    Key new capabilities in the Flash Player 10.2 beta include:

    * Stage Video hardware acceleration — A new method for video playback in Flash Player will allow developers to leverage complete hardware acceleration of the video rendering pipeline, enabling best-in-class playback performance. Stage Video can dramatically decrease processor usage and enables higher frame rates, reduced memory usage, and greater pixel fidelity and quality.
    * Internet Explorer 9 hardware accelerated rendering support — Flash Player takes advantage of hardware accelerated graphics in Internet Explorer 9, utilizing hardware rendering surfaces to improve graphics performance and enable seamless composition.
    * Native custom mouse cursors — Developers can define custom native mouse cursors, enabling user experience enhancements and improving performance.
    * Support for full screen mode with multiple monitors — Full screen content will remain in full-screen on secondary monitors, allowing users to watch full-screen content while working on another display.



    I have this running on my system and the performance IS improved compared to the old one, but the most important reason I actually installed it is the possibility of watching a movie in full screen on the second monitor, which works as advertised.

    When was this article done, October- November 2010?

    PS. And by the way, Youtube also uses 960x540, mostly for their live streaming at events but also on some videos. Usually they cheat when people select 1080p and the video is too popular or the person has bandwidth issues, it falls down to 960x540.
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