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Flash Player: CPU Hog? It Depends.

In part, Steve Jobs stated that the iPad didn't support Flash because it was a "CPU Hog," so Apple used a technology called HTML5 instead. Since the comparative efficiency of Flash vs. HTML5 seemed easy enough to quantify, I endeavored to do so, using YouTube's new HTML5-based player as the test bed. Specifically, I played a YouTube video in the same browser twice, once via HTML5, once via Flash, and measured CPU utilization during playback.

By way of background, HTML5 is a new markup language that eliminates the need for a plug-in like Flash to play video. Instead, the browser supplies the decode capability directly. There is no standard HTML5 codec, however, with Apple Safari and Google Chrome supporting H.264 playback (which is required to play back video on YouTube's HTML5 pages), Mozilla Firefox, Opera's Opera and Chrome supporting Ogg Theora playback, and the 800-pound gorilla supporting neither codec (that would be Internet Explorer). All, of course, still support Flash.

Accordingly, the only browsers that could theoretically play both the HTML5 and Flash pages were Apple Safari and Google Chrome. I say theoretically, because in practice, the Windows version of Safari couldn't play the HTML5 YouTube page. To complete the picture, I also tested Firefox and Internet Explorer using the Flash plug-in. I tested on the Mac using a MacBook Pro (3.06 GHz Core 2 Duo, 8 GB RAM, OS 10.6.2) while testing on Windows using an Hewlett Packard 8710w mobile workstation (2.2 GHz Core 2 Duo system running 64-bit Windows 7 with 2 GB of RAM).

Whither Hardware Acceleration?

I spoke with Adobe during my testing to get their thoughts on the procedures outlined below. During our conversations, they let me know that Flash Player 10.1 should deliver substantial performance improvements over 10.0 because it can use the graphic processing unit (GPU) on some computers for decoding video, a capability generically known as hardware acceleration. According to the Adobe Web Site,

Hardware-accelerated H.264 decoding on Windows desktop, notebook, and netbook systems is supported on some video cards and drivers running on Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7. These include some recent NVIDIA, AMD/ATI, and Intel graphics cards. The player also supports hardware decoding with hardware such as some Broadcom video decoders.

Please read the Flash Player 10.1 public beta release notes (PDF, 105 KB) to learn about supported hardware and find links to download supported drivers. We recommend updating to install the latest drivers available.

In Flash Player 10.1, H.264 hardware acceleration is not supported under either Linux or Mac OS X. Linux currently lacks a developed standard API that supports H.264 hardware video decoding, and Mac OS X does not expose access to the required APIs. The Flash Player team will continue to evaluate adding hardware acceleration to Linux and Mac OS X in future releases.

To be clear, hardware acceleration was available in 10.0, but only when playing in full screen. With 10.1, it's available for all video playback, and in the tests detailed below, I played the YouTube video within the player interface, not full screen. As the Adobe page says, however, the expanded hardware acceleration will be available on the Windows platform, but not Mac and Linux. Mac users don't despair, however, since other Mac-related enhancements, like support for Core Animation, should boost Mac performance.

Long story short, Adobe claimed that there would be a substantial reduction in CPU utilization on both the Mac and Windows platforms with 10.1. So I ran two sets of tests; one with Flash Player 10, the other with 10.1.

Click here to read the rest of this article on Jan Ozer's Streaming Learning Center blog.

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