Flash 10 on Linux: Better, not great, better

Let's get this out of the way first. Adobe Flash is still a proprietary program and I, and a lot of other open-source people, wish that it wasn't. That said, the latest Flash Player 10 on Linux is a lot faster than the last version and it opens up the doors to a lot of Web-based video content.

s is also, lest we forget, the first version of Flash to appear for Linux that showed up at the same time as the Windows and Mac OS versions appeared. It's always nice to see Linux being treated as a first class citizen by a major software vendor.

So, to welcome it, I installed it on two different Linux systems. The first was my openSUSE 11 running on my faithful old HP Pavilion a6040n PC. This system is powered by a 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6320 dual-core processor and has 2GBs of memory and uses an Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950 with 32MB of dedicated graphics memory for the display. On my second test-box, my Gateway 503GR, I was running Kubuntu 8.04. This system has a 3GHz Pentium IV CPU, 2GB of RAM, an ATI Radeon 250 graphics card, and a 300GB SATA hard drive. Neither PC is what you would call speedy.

Despite that, using the GUIMark, a Web-based benchmark test suite designed to compare 2D graphics rendering systems, I saw 17.5fps (Frames per second) on the openSUSE system and 14.9 on the Kubuntu box. These results are somewhat misleading though if you take them at face value. GUIMark is designed to "heavily saturate the rendering pipeline." Flash video over the Web tends to be designed to deliver the best possible video for the least amount of bandwidth and system requirements.

In practice, what this means is that I was able to watch 480i video at 24fps (frames per second), such as the well-known video of Stephen Colbert roasting George W. Bush on YouTube. I was also able to watch 480p EDTV Enhanced Definition Television) video at 17 to 20fps. That's watchable, but 24fps is what you really want. Still, with a newer, more powerful PC, that shouldn't be a problem.

That was the good news. The bad news is that if you open multiple Flash videos or animations, either by design or by accident, Flash 10 will crash. This will appear to make the Web browser freeze-up or crash, but it's actually just the Flash viewer, npviewer.bin. You can kill the npviewer.bin process and your Web browser will be back to normal.

I found this problem in both Kubuntu and openSUSE and a bit of research showed me that the problem is in many, if not all, Linux distributions. From where I sit this is really a Flash bug, rather than a Linux bug.

The Flash viewer is also very greedy of CPU time. You won't notice it with YouTube videos, Flash animations or games, but if you move up to say Hulu live-action television episodes, you'll find that everything on your PC starts to slow down. In short, Flash 10 works, but it could stand to work better, especially for Internet television or other demanding video presentations.

In my review, I also discovered that the only way to get Flash 10 to work properly on openSUSE, for now at least, is to first uninstall the Flash 9 player, and, if you already installed it, the Flash 10 beta plug-in. Then, install the Flash 10 final version of the plug-in. Next, install, via openSUSE's administration tool, YaST, the Flash 9 standalone player. If you try it any other way, it won't work. OpenSUSE will soon have Flash 10 available via YaST so you won't need to jump through these hoops.

Ubuntu users, however, have it easier. Adobe has made installing Flash on the Ubuntu family straightforward with this new release.

I should also mention that as for openness while Flash isn't an open standard, it is becoming more open. Adobe has 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. Adobe has also opened up the SWF and FLV/F4V (Flash Video) formats, and dumped the format's licensing fees, and the Mobile Content Delivery Protocol, formerly Flash Cast, specification. This is a communication protocol that allows data, usually multimedia, to be synchronized between mobile phones and servers.

Taken as a whole, I like Flash 10. It's a clear improvement on Flash 9 on Linux. Still, I hope that Adobe spends some more time polishing up Flash for Linux. As it is, it's good, but it could be great.

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