It’s okay to flash your stuff

February 4, 2008

Vista busy cursor There is nothing wrong with Flash as a format for Internet video. It is not, or should not be, synonymous with poor video quality.

It is though no great surprise that purists turn their nose up at it. Flash video is still the only show in town when it comes to on-line video because of the ubiquitousness of the Flash client for displaying in-browser embedded video. It has been popularised by the biggest video sharing websites such as YouTube and Google Video, and taken up by just about every other video website. But those websites are mainly targeting teenagers or otherwise purposes where immediacy and convenience take precedence over quality. Their key objective is that videos should start immediately and then play through without interruption for most users, including those with modest broadband connection speeds. That requires a low bitrate (ie less data to stream per unit of time), which is why quality is almost invariably shocking.

No wonder, then, that Flash video is associated with poor quality. But the real villain of the piece is the low bitrate used by YouTube et al, not the Flash technology itself.

You might argue that the compression technology available for use with Flash video is not up with the best and that is true. The codecs used in practice are Sorenson Spark H.263 or On2’s VP6, neither of which compare favourably with say H.264, but that does not mean they can’t produce perfectly good quality video. It all comes down to the bitrate. In general, with any codec you can vary the quality all the way up or all the way down by choice of bitrate. What marks out one codec as better than another, in the main, is that it can deliver the same or similar quality at significantly lower bitrate. The “poorer” codec can still achieve a target video quality provided it is given enough bitrate to play with.

Give Flash video enough bitrate and you will think you are watching a DVD via your browser. Clearly there are constraints. You would need a reasonably new computer with up to the minute processor, and a well above average broadband connection or the maximum streaming rate will not keep up with the bitrate required for playback and the video will keep stopping and starting.

The latest version of Flash can support H.264 video files natively but that technology has yet to penetrate the mass market. Combined with a trend of improving broadband connection speeds this will eventually do away with the ropey video which is so characteristic of YouTube today.

In the meantime, decent quality embedded video is perfectly possible by rolling your own Flash video files and hosting on a website such as blip.tv which accepts video files for upload in Flash format and does not place any restrictions on the file sizes, bitrate or indeed anything else.

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One comment

  1. […] Good reasons for using flash for online video […]

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