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New Flash player for Linux adds great features, slows playback

It’s good news, bad news situation when it comes to Adobe’s new Flash player for Linux.

On the plus side, Adobe Flash Player 9 Update 3, version identifier 9.0.115.0 was made available for Linux at the same time as Mac and Windows versions. It’s nice to see Linux not being treated as the little brother who only gets the older, hand-me down programs by a major software vendor. An even bigger win for Flash Player users, regardless of their operating system, is that its supports H.264.

H.264 is one of the two major HD (high definition) codices used on Internet multimedia broadcasts.
The other significant HD standard is Microsoft’s implementation of VC-1 in Windows Media Player. Microsoft will also be making VC-1 available in Silverlight, its cross-browser, cross-platform multimedia plug-in. Novell is working with Microsoft to bring Silverlight’s functionality to Linux in a Mono-based project called Moonlight.

Still, H.264 seems to be pulling ahead in overall popularity. H.264 is used in Apple’s QuickTime Movie file format and in HDTV in the MP4 format. It supports such less common formats as M4V, M4A, Mp4v, 3gp, and 3g2. In other words, there is going to be no shortage of HD movies, shorts and so-on for your newly augmented Adobe Flash Player.

It will, however, take a while for much of that content to appear in a format that you can get at. For example, while in theory you can play Apple QuickTime Movie films in the new Flash, getting a stream to feed into say a Firefox-based Flash player is almost impossible.

For audio, Flash now includes support for AAC (Advanced Audio Coding). This includes: AAC Main, AAC LC and SBR (aka HE-AAC). While often thought of as “Apple’s format,” it’s actually part of the MPEG-4 audio compression standard. What Flash doesn’t support is Apple’s FairPlay DRM (Digital Rights Management), so you can forget about legally playing your iTunes Store DRM-protected tunes.

Another problem is that the new Flash really demands a lot from your system. I found it to be slower than the last version in dealing with Adobe’s native Flash format, SWF. It wasn’t that big a deal, but you could tell it was there.

Where things really began to slow down was when I used it with HDTV content that I’d created myself into MP4 using the latest version of Nero 8 Ultra Edition. The official system requirements for playing 24 fps (frames per second) 480p (progressive) video is an Intel Pentium 4 2.33GHz processor, 128MBs of RAM and 64 MB of VRAM (video RAM). For 24 fps 720p, you’ll need a Pentium 4 3GHz. 128MB of RAM and 64MB of VRAM. If you want to really push the limits with 1080p, you’ll need an Intel Core Duo 1.8GHz processor, or equivalent), 128MB of RAM and a graphics card with 64MBs of VRAM.

For my tests, I used two different PCs running openSUSE 10.3. My first system was a HP Pavilion a6040n desktop PC. This is powered by a 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6320 dual-core processor. It also has 2GBs of 533MHz RAM and a 320GB SATA (Serial ATA) hard drive running at 7,200 rpm. For the display, this PC uses an Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950 with 32MB of dedicated graphics memory. The graphic chip uses main memory for the rest of its requirements.

My second test box was a Gateway GT5622. This PC uses a 1.80GHz Intel Pentium Dual-Core E2160 processor. It has 3GB of DDR2 SDRAM (double-data-rate two synchronous dynamic random access memory), a 400GB SATA II hard drive and a DVD R/W drive. For graphics, it uses the inexpensive Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950, which was set to pull 224MB of RAM from main memory to use as shared video memory.

On both systems, I was able to playback 480p at 24fps. At 720p, however, I began to see an unacceptably slow frame-rate. While some scenes with little action were still displaying at 24 fps, if there was any fast motion on the video, things dropped down to about 16 to 18 fps. As for 1080p, forget about it. The last time I saw video like this was back in the early days of video over the Internet, when just the fact that you could see any video over the Net was amazing.

One of the things I like about the Gateway GT5622’s E2160 processor, however, is that it’s both very easy to overclock and that you can really push its speed. So, after a bit of work, I cranked this PC up to a processor speed of 3GHz. Now, 720p became watchable and 1080p was not quite as good as 720p had been at the default speed of 1.8GHz.

With a good graphics card, say an NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GT 256MB with the official NVIDIA 2D “nv” drivers, a high-performance Linux PC will do very well with Flash. However, most of us aren’t going to be replacing our HDTV sets with HDTV Flash-enabled computers any time soon. However, once Adobe Flash Media Streaming Server 3, which will support H.264 streaming appears sometime in the first quarter of 2008, you can expect to see a lot more, easy to access HDTV Flash content.

Come that day, you’ll also need your Linux system to be using ALSA (Advanced Linux Sound Architecture). If you’re using OSS (Open Sound System) or GNOME’s ESD (Enlightened Sound Daemon), you won’t get an error message, but you won’t be hearing anything. .
The new Flash is only available for x86/32-bit Linuxes. You can download it as an archived, compressed file, .tar.gz; or as an RPM or YUM package. Ubuntu users should add the multiverse repository to their systems and then download and install flashplugin-nonfree for the updated Flash.

There are also two purely open-source Flash players. These are Gnash and Swfdec. Neither, however, incorporates H.264 support.

Adobe clearly means to claim HDTV for its Flash line of products. At the same time, Adobe has also committed itself to support Linux on the same level as Windows and Mac OS. Slow performance and all, it appears to me that Adobe Flash Player is going to become for Linux multimedia, what OpenOffice is for office software and Firefox is for Web-browsing: the application of choice for Linux users everywhere.

A version of this story first appeared in DesktopLinux.

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