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

Adobe Flash: A Look At Browsers, Codecs, And System Performance
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After running hundreds of tests and watching hours of the same few videos over and over for the better part of a week, we've come to some interesting conclusions about version 10.1 of Adobe's Flash technology that you're going to want to read about.

For better or for worse, Adobe's Flash format is ubiquitous in today's Web surfing experience. In fact, it is estimated that roughly 75% of all online video is Flash-based (according to ComScore). Whether you are a prolific consumer of the missed TV show or just a business user surfing for news, there isn't a day that goes by that doesn't force you to bump into Flash content online. Now, there are competing solutions for content delivery, including Microsoft's Silverlight technology and HTML5 video. We will explore both of those at a later time. Today's agenda is purely Adobe Flash-related.

It is important to make the distinction between a codec and a file container. Adobe's Flash format is merely a video container, basically a storage wrapper. But three possible codecs can be used: Sorensen Spark, H.264, and On2 VP6. So, what is the exact difference between a codec and a container? Think about your most recent vacation. Your luggage is the file container, and the type of luggage you chose dictates where you put your clothes, bath products, computer, and so on. The codec (compression decompression) is the manner in which you squash everything (the data) down to fit into your luggage. This basically applies to any multimedia content. For example, Microsoft's AVI (Audio Video Interleave) format is a file container, but it it could have video encoded with H.264, Xvid, DivX, and so on.

Codecs: Where Are We Now?

In the earliest days of Flash (pre-version 8), the Sorensen Spark encoder was the only game in town. This was an incomplete derivative of the H.263 implementation that is still widely used. However, Adobe introduced another codec--On2's VP6 for Flash 8. At the same data rate, VP6 provides higher quality video compared to Sorensen Spark, but you lose some backward compatibility in the process. Once you move to H.264, the processing power requirement noticeably goes up, but so does the potential quality. 

For example, when Hulu first launched, the first round of videos were all VP6 (360p: 640x360 @ 700 Kb/s). However, they provided an option for H.264 (480p: 720x480 @ 1 Mb/s). According to Hulu's CTO Eric Feng, they chose VP6 because of backward compatibility. Now that almost everyone is at least running Flash 9, the company has discarded VP6 and made a full switch to H.264. So, if you get the feeling your laptop is running warmer watching Hulu today than it was a year ago (Ed.: would that be a feeling you get in your pants?), there is a good reason for that.

As consumers of multimedia content, we generally don't concern ourselves with matters of bit rates and codecs. However, when people talk about HD today, we spend so much time bickering about resolution that it seems foolish. For those of us that actually create 2D/3D content, it's the bit rate and codec efficiency that matter, not how many pixels run across the screen.

To that end, it is a pity that AMD seems to be falling into a quagmire of marketing terminology. Platforms based on the C-50 and C-30 APUs (Ontario) will be branded as "HD Internet" as part of its Vision campaign. The insinuation seems to be that these machines are more capable of playing back 1080p content than a Core 2, Atom/Broadcom Crystal HD, or Atom/Ion 2 combination, and that's not necessarily the case. Those C-series APUs won't even be going into configurations capable of 1920x1080. But as we mention, it's not an HD resolution that determines the quality of your content, but the bit rate and codec.

Never mind the fact that tiering a brand makes it all the more difficult to understand. Just imagine if Intel had tiered Centrino with Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Diamond levels. Instead, we're dealing with Vision Black, Vision Ultimate, Vision Premium, Vision, and HD Internet. Convoluted enough for you?

But we digress...

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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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