Video Hands-On with Flash for Android: What We Like, What We Don’t
After we posted my latest Geek’s Geek Column, in which I was critical of Flash Player 10.1 for Android, we received a lot of comments from readers with strong opinions about Adobe’s platform. We also got some questions about the experiences I described. So we picked up a camera and filmed some hands-on videos with different Flash-enabled sites to show as objectively as possible both the power of the platform and its challenges.
We’ll start with a few of our most positive experiences, and then share some of our less satisfying ones. Once you’ve seen it all, tell us what you think of the technology and its potential.
WHAT WE LIKE
Sony Pictures Mobile Site
Sony Pictures trailer site was one of many mobile Flash optimized sites we visited. Over both Wi-Fi and 3G, full screen videos played flawlessly and, even more importantly, we were able to interact with the player’s controls and the Web page around the player without any lag. Here’s a video of the trailer site running on the Droid 2 over Wi-Fi, though it was equally good on 3G.
Episode of CSI on CBS.com
It’s clear just from visiting CBS.com that the site and its Flash player are not optimized for mobile devices, but the good news is that, like many other sites, it just works. Who knows if the network big wigs have even realized that their videos even play on Android devices, but who cares, because full episodes of popular shows like CSI play well.
We noticed some slight and occasional jerkiness over 3G, but overall we were excited to be able to watch so many shows on the go, without using a separate app or pay service. Here’s a video of CSI playing over 3G on the HTC Evo 4G.
Mobile Gaming With a Touch Optimized Game
One advantage of Flash has always been its ability to provide interactive experiences that go beyond video, including games. Unfortunately, not many of these games were designed to work with touchscreen phones . However, when a Flash game is built for touch interaction, it works great. Here’s a video of the zombie shooter Blood Red, playing on the Droid 2 over 3G:
South Park Avatar Creator
One of the most entertaining things we found through Adobe’s Flash for Mobile Showcase was the South Park Avatar Creator, an app that lets you create your own South Park character. This app looks like it was optimized for mobile and it was a ton of fun. Here it is running over 3G on our Evo 4G:
WHAT WE DON’T LIKE
Fox.com Episode Playback
Unfortunately, not all Flash videos will play well on mobile, and some of the most popular entertainment sites simply don’t work well on smart phones. Worse still, you may have trouble using video player controls like the pause button as one of these videos chews up system resources, causing considerable lag. According to Adobe, these problems are caused by videos that were encoded at too high of a bit-rate for mobile devices to stream efficiently.
Adobe publishes these mobile video recommendations for developers, but the company can’t force sites to follow them. Considering that content providers have known that mobile Flash has been coming for months, it’s a bit surprising that some very large sites are unprepared for Android 2.2 visitors.
Fox.com is one of the best examples of a site that, right now, works poorly with Flash Player 10.1. The site provides full streaming episodes of all its popular shows, including Fringe, Bones, and Hell’s Kitchen. On a PC or Mac, episodes of these popular shows look fantastic, because Fox offers them in high definition, but on a mobile phone, the same videos are a disaster.
Over Wi-Fi or 3G, video playback was jerky in a window or full screen. When Fox.com video is playing in a window, sometimes you can’t even scroll around on the page, because the entire browser is lagging so badly. The player responds either a few seconds later or not at all.
Below is a video of Fox.com streaming over Wi-Fi on the Evo 4G. We also have a shot of it playing over Wi-Fi on a Droid 2. You’ll notice that, after the video starts playing, a notification pops up saying that the video is not optimized for mobile, but you have to wait through the buffering and start experiencing the jerkiness and lag before you get that notification.
ABC.com Video Playback
Like Fox, ABC offers full streaming episodes of its shows online. So, if you missed an episode of General Hospital, you need to catch up with the aliens on V, or you’re just dying to know what Whoopi said on The View today, you can do all that on ABC.com for free, but not if you’re using Flash Player 10.1 on your phone.
We visited ABC.com several times on our HTC Evo, Droid 2, and original Droid with Froyo update. Though the short clips that appear on the channel pages for shows (ex: abc.go.com/shows/general-hospital ) play on mobile, the full episodes won’t even begin to play.
When we went to the show channel pages and clicked to launch an episode, we were greeted with a player that said “Loading…” with an animation showing movement. After a minute or two of attempting to load, the player presented us with a red error message telling us that the player wasn’t working at this time and to try again later.
You can see an example of the ABC player failing to play in the video below. It happened on every phone we tried, over both Wi-Fi and 3G, over a period of several days. The worst part is that the “Loading…” animation keeps going even after the error message appears above it. On one occasion, we had scrolled down the screen to show more of the player box and we kept waiting for over five minutes, because we couldn’t see the error message that was above the box and assumed our video was still buffering.
Occasional Trailer Issues
In addition to ABC and Fox, we encountered some other popular sites with Flash that didn’t playback on mobile. We set out to find and play a Flash trailer for the Expendables. On Comingsoon.net, a popular trailer site, we found a player with a giant Play button that wouldn’t respond to our touches (see video). We then found a trailer of the Expendables on MySpace and we experienced the same kind of jerky play we saw on Fox.com, both over Wi-Fi and 3G. There’s a sample of that below:
VERDICT (FOR NOW)
As our experience illustrates, Flash Player 10.1 for Android works really well on a fair number of sites. In these cases, you feel like you’re getting the full desktop experience on your phone, whether you’re watching video or playing games. And it all happens right in the browser window–no dedicated apps required.
Unfortunately, there are some popular Flash videos and games that just didn’t work well on our Android devices and there was no programmatic way to predict that, until we were already in the middle of those experiences. In order for sites like Fox.com to satisfy users, they’ll need to optimize their content for mobile playback. Whether or not these content providers choose to accommodate mobile Flash users or choose another solution altogether remains to be seen. For some, these experiences pose a critical challenge to the platform and for others (Phandroid, PR News, and more) they’re just a tiny bump in the road.
We’ll continue testing Adobe Flash Player 10.1 for Android on different sites and handsets, and look forward to evaluating the player as it rolls out to webOS, BlackBerry, MeeGo, and other platforms. In the meantime, check out the Adobe Flash Showcase for Mobile and some of the sites we’ve viewed and let us know what you think.