Flash Player Beta Adds H.264, But Is It High-Definition?

A forthcoming update for Adobe's Flash Player 9, the beta testing for which is set to begin today, will incorporate the ability to decode H.264 videos - the Advanced Video Codec portion of MPEG-4, and the same standard currently used by Apple's QuickTime. Adobe's move comes as users of Macs, iPhone, and AppleTV have been noticing YouTube's gradual shift away from Flash video and toward H.264, which some speculate may become a complete shift within months.

While the new Flash version is not getting a new number, it is getting a new code-name: "Moviestar." A check of Adobe's release notes reveals why: The playback module now enables the hardware acceleration mode of many graphics cards, when going to full-screen mode. Earlier versions relied on software acceleration.

But early reports based on Adobe's initial news release have jumped to conclusions today that Adobe itself has been unable to verify, in communication with BetaNews. Most important among these was what appeared to be Flash's newfound "high definition" capability. At the time of this writing, Adobe has not confirmed to BetaNews that the addition of H.264 enables high-definition playback.

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In fact, the H.264 encoding feature recently added to Adobe Media Encoder - which today's beta release of the Flash update was apparently designed to support - was never touted as enabling high-definition to begin with.

To quote Adobe's own online literature for Media Encoder, "Unlike the standard export commands, which generate files in editing formats, the Adobe Media Encoder exports files in distribution formats. These are more-compressed formats such as MPEG-1 used in CD-ROM authoring, MPEG-2 used in DVD authoring, H.264 MPEG-4 used for video iPods, 3GPP cell phones, PSP devices, and high-definition TVs, or web-friendly formats like Adobe Flash Video, QuickTime, RealMedia (Windows only), or Windows Media (Windows only)." [emphasis added]

Adobe's press release touts the new player as "enabling the delivery of HD television quality and premium audio content through the ubiquitous Adobe Flash Player." It also mentions the new player's support for "hardware accelerated, multi-core enhanced full screen video playback."

But release notes for developers posted this afternoon clearly reveal that, although both statements are technically correct, they are not simultaneously correct. In an FAQ, in response to the question, "What are the enhancements for video and interactive content?"

Adobe states, "First, we improved the performance and quality of full-screen mode through the use of hardware scaling. This lowers the system resource requirements when playing back content in full-screen, freeing up the CPU to allow for greater fidelity and additional post-processing of video. There is a new API to allow developers to specify a rectangular portion of the stage, or an offscreen region, to be scaled up to full screen resolution."

In other words, an embedded video can be scaled up to native resolution if and only if the player consumes a portion of the screen and not its entirety. If you go full-screen, you're still scaling down the active resolution of playback.

It's not an unimportant point. Microsoft has already demonstrated to 20th Century-Fox a feature of its competing Silverlight player that uses the embedded VC-1 codec to play back videos at 720p resolution. BetaNews has seen the product of that demo first-hand; while impressive, it did not improve the quality of the recent Fantastic Four sequel.

While 720p is not quite the native resolution of LCDs sold today, it is the resolution of first-generation HDTV. Whether the new Flash Player is capable of 720p playback if the player consumes no more than 75% of the average resolution of LCD monitors sold today, remains to be seen.

The new beta does represent the first version of Flash to enable full-screen mode for Linux. However, according to today's release notes, hardware acceleration for Linux full-screen viewers has yet to be added.

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