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

Adobe Flash Player: A Brief History

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...