[Updated, see below] Adobe has released the first beta of Flash Player 10.2, an update that focuses primarily on speed and performance improvements. New in Flash 10.2 is something Adobe calls “Stage Video hardware acceleration,” which the company claims will “decrease processor usage and enable higher frame rates, reduced memory usage, and greater pixel fidelity and quality.” And the hardware acceleration technology does do all of these things, though your mileage will vary depending on what kind of hardware and software you’re using.
To try out the new Flash Player 10.2 beta, head over the Adobe download page. Be aware that, while 10.2 appears to be relatively stable, it is a beta release and there may be bugs.
The Stage Video hardware acceleration means that Flash Player 10.2 can leverage your graphics card for not just H.264 hardware decoding (which works in Flash Player 10.1) but also color conversion, scaling, and blitting.
Adobe’s press release makes a rather bold claim: “using Stage Video, we’ve seen laptops play smooth 1080p HD video with just over 0% CPU usage.”
Sadly, we have not seen such results. While we won’t argue with the smoothness of the playback in this new release, Flash is still going to use quite a bit of your PC’s CPU. Based on my testing (done on a Macbook Pro laptop using both Firefox 4b7 and Safari 5, and a Mac Pro tower using the same browsers — Wired is an all-Mac office), while CPU usage is down in Flash 10.2, it’s still a long way from zero.
Update: Since this article was published, we’ve been hearing from you, our awesome readers, in the comments and over e-mail. Some things to note: The new beta performs much better on Windows computers than it does under Mac OS X. Also, full hardware acceleration on Mac OS X requires Snow Leopard or later, otherwise it falls back to using software rendering in the CPU. Thanks for the comments, and keep them coming!
On our Macs, we tested several 1080p videos on YouTube in Flash Player 10.1 and found that on average the 10.1 plugin used between 44-48 percent CPU. Watching the same movie in Flash 10.2 did drop the CPU usage down to the 18-22 percent range, but definitely not zero.
Worse, running the same tests on Adobe’s Stage Video optimized demos, Flash 10.2 actually performed worse than than it did on normal 1080p movies with the cpu usage varying widely between 5 and 60 percent (the 18-20 percent range appears to be the norm).
The short story is that, while Flash 10.2 does offer decreased processor usage, it doesn’t quite live up to Adobe’s claims. While Flash Player 10.2’s performance falls short of the hype, there’s no question that it’s a huge leap forward in terms of performance. The smaller CPU footprint alone is well worth the upgrade, provided you don’t mind running beta software. So far Adobe has not set a final release data for Flash 10.2.
One other thing to keep in mind: to take advantage of the new Stage Video tools, sites like YouTube and Vimeo will need to alter their video players. So, it may be some time before the full benefit of Stage Video’s improvements makes it to your day-to-day web browsing.
As for other new features in this release, there’s Internet Explorer 9 GPU support and support for fullscreen mode with dual monitors — meaning that you can have a movie on one screen and keep working on another.
Custom cursors get some love in this release, too, with Flash Player 10.2 handing off the job to the operating system rather than using resources to manually draw custom cursors. The beta also improves text rendering, adding sub-pixel rendering enhancements that should make your typography look a bit nicer and more readable.
It’s worth noting that the Flash Player 10.2 beta does not replace the Flash Player “Square” preview release — in other words, Flash Player 10.2 still isn’t 64-bit native. If 64-bit support is important to you, stick with the Flash Player “Square” preview.