Practical Technology

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Adobe Flash 10 on Linux: Looking Good


Adobe Flash Player 10 for Linux may only be a beta, but it’s one heck of a beta.

I didn’t care for Adobe Flash video at first. It was just another proprietary audio/video format in a world already over-flowing with them.

Three things have happened to change my mind. First, Adobe made it possible to use the open H.264 video and HE-AAC (High Efficiency Advanced Audio Coding) audio standards in Flash SWF (Shockwave Flash) files. Then, they made the Adobe Flash player available on Linux, and, this May, Adobe announced that it was opening up the SWF and FLV/F4V (Flash Video) formats and dumping the format’s licensing fees. At about the same time, Adobe also released the Flash 10 beta for Linux, as well as some other desktop operating systems you may have of heard of: Mac OS X and Windows.

On July 2, Adobe released the second beta of Flash 10 on all three major desktop operating systems, and I think we may just have something special here. First, while Adobe is not an open-source company, it’s certainly is becoming much more open-standard and Linux friendly. Since Flash has become perhaps the single most important online media format, this is good news for Linux desktop users. Flash powers YouTube, Google Video and Photobucket to name three of the biggest video content providers on the Web.

What’s even better news is that the Flash 10 player works quite well for a beta. The last time I took a hard look at the program, it was in December 2007, and Flash Player was at version 9 Update 3. The good news was that the Linux version has the same feature set as its Windows and Mac OS brothers. The bad news was that its performance was poor.

This time around, Adobe has continued to keep the Linux version feature level with the other major desktop operating systems, but its performance was downright snappy on my HP Pavilion a6040n desktop PC. This system 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. On this system, I’m running openSUSE 11.

I was also pleased to find that, at long last, getting Adobe Flash Player to work on Ubuntu, or Kubuntu, Ubuntu with a KDE face, to be precise, was much easier. In the past, I’ve seen ill-tempered cats and dogs get along better than Ubuntu and Flash Player 9.x. If you’re running Ubuntu, and don’t want to try the beta Adobe Flash Player 10, you can get Flash 9 to co-operate with Ubuntu by following these instructions from Psychocat’s excellent collection of Ubuntu tutorials.

Installing Flash 10 on Ubuntu is still on the crude side. You’ll need to download a tar.gz file and go through all the usual shell installation program steps. That’s not a problem for an experienced Linux user, but new desktop Linux users will find it an unwelcome visit to Linux’s character-based interface past. On the other hand, it will just work when you’re done without jumping through any other hoops and that’s a big improvement.

Once installed, I found that Flash 10 on my current Kubuntu 8.04.1 system was also a pleasure to view. My Kubuntu PC is 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.

Neither of my test systems could be described as fast. Good, solid PCs, yes. Speedy, no. Despite that I had no trouble watching 480p video at 24fps (frames per second). I was also able to successfully watch 720p HD (High Definition) video. The last time around, these same two PCs, then both running openSUSE 10.3, had fits showing any Flash rendered action scenes. This time, while I saw frame rates drop to 20 or 21 FPS—24 FPS is what you want—the videos were still perfectly watchable. I was impressed.

That said, I should also point out that while I’ve been seeing remarkably good performance. Other Linux users have been having a downright awful experience. In particular, looking over reports from the Adobe forums and elsewhere, some Linux and Mac users are seeing their CPUs doing nothing but burn every cycle they have and still not produce watchable video.

Oh, 1080p? Get real. You’re not going to see that level of HD coming off anything except Blu-Ray players any time this decade. We’re still a CPU and I/O generation away from being able to pull that trick off in our computers and LANs. I’m not going to even talk about how impossible it will be for us to see 1080p OTA (over the air), cable (yes, even FiOS) and satellite broadcasts anytime soon.

Getting back to Flash and Linux today, I was, well not pleased since you usually only see it in ads, but Flash Player for Linux now supports transparent and opaque WMODE (windowless mode). With Windowless mode, and Firefox 3, Web designers can create Web content that blends Flash and HTML into what appears to be a seamless Web page.

You can also use Flash now with the Video4Linux v2 camera API (application program interface). While we’re used to thinking of Flash purely as a format for us to watch, I can see how developers might be able to use this to make open-source Flash-based videoconferencing systems. If you’re a programmer or engineer interested in videoconferencing, Linux-based or not, I’d keep an eye out for developments in this area.

Last, but certainly not least, this beta seems to have real trouble with live audio streams. I rarely use Flash for audio—the older version of Banshee or any audio player that uses GStreamer as its streaming engine works for me—but boy, Flash really can’t seem to deal with audio only streams. Oddly enough, Flash 10 doesn’t show this problem on my XP SP3 or my Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger computers.

Taken as a whole I can’t recommend that you run out and install Adobe Flash Player 10. It’s done incredibly well by me, but there’s just too many other reports out there from other users having a terrible time with it for me to recommend it. With that out of the way, I can say that when Adobe finally stomps out the bugs, this is going to be one program every desktop Linux user is going to want.

Gnash‘s, which is perhaps the most important of the open-source Flash player projects, developers have a big challenge ahead of them, Adobe is setting up a high mark for Linux-based Flash players, here’s hoping you can meet and surpass this new level of performance.