Let’s face it. Flash is a huge part of the Internet. Many Websites use Flash content to display animations, videos, and the like. Performance-wise, however, it used to be quite a hog, slowing down your PC and sapping your battery life. Now, Adobe, the maker of Flash has promised a massive boost in speed for users thanks to hardware acceleration in version 10.1 of its Flash Player. In this article, you’ll find out what that means, if and how Flash has been improved, and what PC users can do now to take advantage of this new technology.
Flash performance: before and after 10.1
On a two to three-year old PC, Flash performance is really bad. Let’s check out the impact of different Flash videos on a Core 2 Duo with 2 GHz, 2 GByte RAM and a GeForce graphic card in terms of speed—a fairly common system! Here’s what we found:
Watching the live stream of the recent E3 cost us an unusual amount of CPU usage. Take a look yourself:
Here’s a closer look at the above image:
To play the video, the Google Chrome browser needed two processes, 140 MBytes of memory and 5,336 handles (check out our TechEd 2010 coverage to learn more about handles). It didn’t start like that— CPU usage went up gradually, and we could hear the fans of the machine getting louder and louder (for a low-resolution Web video, that couldn’t be right?!).
We then moved on to a couple of synthetic Flash benchmarks from Craftymind.com:
A frame rate of an animated object (or a video) that is below 25–30 frames per second appears as a noticeable stutter to the human eye. Performance was a disaster. I also noticed a significant slowdown in Windows and all of the open programs, including:
- a two-to-three-second delay when opening a picture folder,
- a four-second delay when trying to play a song in iTunes,
- stuttering audio in other programs, and
- dropped frames in video when I clicked on anything else besides the Flash content.
Overall, responsiveness went down the drain. Even on our faster machines (Core 2 Duo with 3 GHz or a Core i7 rig), we noticed that Flash had an effect on the system.
Improvements to Flash 10.1
According to Adobe, Flash 10.1 includes a handful of new features like multi-touch, gesture support, and higher reliability. To us, the most important update was the video performance optimization of 10.1.
Here’s a quote from the Adobe Labs’ Website on H.264 video hardware decoding: Flash Player 10.1 introduces hardware-based H.264 video decoding to deliver smooth, high-quality video with minimal overhead across supported mobile devices and PCs. It uses available hardware to decode video offloads tasks from the CPU, improves video playback performance, reduces system resource utilization, and preserves battery life. H.264 video hardware acceleration is not supported on the Nexus One at this time.
The importance of this message is clear. A whole lot of Web video (for example, those on YouTube or Hulu) is in H.264 format. Why? Great quality at a relatively small size! However, the decompression (or decoding) of this video is a tough job for processors. That’s why graphics chip makers (like Intel, NVIDIA, and AMD) decided to integrate a component into graphic cards that decodes H.264 without using much of the processor. So, while the graphics hardware of your computer is busy decoding the video, your PC will still perform well.
Jumping on the 10.1 bandwagon
Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’ve already upgraded to Flash 10.1. The Adobe update program, which gets installed by a number of Adobe products, might have already popped up. If that hasn’t happened yet or if you’ve disabled the Adobe Updater, here’s an easy way to upgrade:
Windows, Firefox, Safari, and Opera users, simply click here to download and install Adobe Flash Player 10.1.
Google Chrome users, Google started integrating the latest version of Flash right into its Web browsers. So, just make sure you have the latest official release, the stable beta version or one of the latest developer releases of Google Chrome.
To see if you’re on the latest version, just open up the About Flash Website:
The version number should say “10,1,xx,xx” like the below example:
To support hardware acceleration, make sure that you have the latest drivers for your graphics card installed. NVIDIA recently added Flash 10.1 hardware acceleration to its drivers for the mobile-dedicated graphics platforms (such as the GeForce 330M) and its desktop equivalents (such as the GeForce GTX 480); even the ION platform, which is used in many modern netbooks, has gotten Flash 10.1 support. Head over to NVIDIA’s driver homepage, and select the latest drivers for your model!
Yes! Having installed both Flash 10.1 and the very latest NVIDIA drivers (257.21—at the time of writing), we performed the benchmarks again. The results speak for themselves*:
* Note: The hardware acceleration did not work right from the start. I had to reboot the system two times after I installed both the drivers and Flash.
G4′s coverage of E3 in HD didn’t improve with the new Flash version, but both YouTube, TWIT TV and the SD clip on G4.com worked like a charm. It was much smoother, there were less dropped frames, and the computer was actually usable during playback.
The synthetic benchmarks, which are purely animated 2D objects and not video, also showed improvement.
Yes, this really did happen: Performance went from 0.39 frames to 13.98 frames per second.
From what we hear, this is only the beginning. The next versions of Flash will feature even more optimization in performance for both video and Flash-based Websites. For now, upgrading to the latest Flash version (don’t forget the drivers!) is a complete no-brainer.
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