The Pros & Cons of Flash Video
At MediaCollege.com we generally recommend Flash video as the best way to deliver video on websites, and this page reflects our preference. However, like all major formats, there are both advantages and disadvantages of using Flash. Flash isn't the best option for everyone so make sure you understand the issues before you make any format decisions.
If you would like to ask questions or add anything to this discussion please use our video forum.
Browser Penetration: The Flash player is installed on a higher percentage of end user computers than any other video format. Although not all end users have the latest version installed (so they may not support the latest Flash video codec), Flash still enjoys the best overall support.
Consistency & Compatibility: Flash files look the same and work equally well on PCs, Macs, Linux, etc. Flash files are completely consistent, so once you test and implement your Flash video, you can be confident that it will function the same way for all end users (apart from obvious variables such as connection speed). It's hard to overstate the importance of this for web designers.
Advanced Features: Flash provides unparalleled options when it comes to interactive content and other advanced features. Even Quicktime pales in comparison.
Less Maturity: Flash video does not have the same depth of history as the other major formats and it has experienced some "growing pains" in the last few years. Between versions 5 and 8, Flash video went through two major changes which required a lot of upgrade work for producers.
We do feel that Flash has now settled down and there should not be any more big changes on the horizon, but Adobe/Macromedia has yet to prove that the format can go for years at a time without requiring producers to play catch-up.
Initial Difficulty: Although it's possible to publish your first Flash video in less than an hour with no previous experience, you can do the same with other formats even faster. For example, you can embed a Windows Media file in a few minutes by copying and pasting some HTML. Even the simplest Flash installation is a little more complex.
If your only concern is to get video up and running immediately, and you already have your clips ready in another common format, then you might want to stick with your existing format.
Working with FLV Files: FLV is the Flash video file format. There's nothing wrong with the format itself but because it's not a common distribution format like Windows Media or Quicktime, you may find that you often have to convert files from other formats to FLV. This takes time and any extra conversions between compressed formats will reduce quality.
Another minor annoyance is that FLV files aren't as easy to preview. If you double-click a Flash FLV file on your local hard drive, there's a good chance that your operating system won't know what to do with it until you assign a player application.
Encoding Performance: It is sometimes claimed that Flash videos require a larger bitrate/file size for the same quality. In the past this was certainly true, but we believe it is not a cause for concern since Flash 8 (with the On2 VP6 codec). When making comparisons, ensure that you are comparing the latest version of Flash, as well as using a decent encoder (not the built-in Flash Media Encoder).
It is fair to say that there are better video codecs in the world than VP6. If quality vs bitrate is your only concern then you might like to consider other options. In this case it's important to do your own testing as codecs often perform differently with different types of video content.
In our experience the quality of Flash video is roughly equal to the other major web formats. The differences seem to be mostly subjective; for example, Flash tends to have better definition and more vibrant colours than Windows Media but at the expense of artifacts such as aliasing.
In any case, for most users the differences are so minor that they are not worth worrying about. Other issues are likely to be much more important.
FLV files require an SWF player file: Unlike other major formats which rely on the end user's player to view the file (e.g. Windows Media Player), Flash files must also supply a video player in the form of an SWF file.
- On the down side, this increases initial setup complexity and download time for the end user (although the extra download can be quite small).
- On the plus side, this gives the webmaster complete control over video delivery and reduces further technical complications.
Simplicity: Whether Flash video is simpler or more complicated than other formats is a matter of debate. This is how we see it...
- If you have never used Flash video before, the most difficult part is likely to be converting video files to FLV. You may have to research and find an encoder (there are free, shareware and commercial options).
- If you are happy to use a pre-made Flash video player (such as our free MC Media Player), Flash will be only slightly more difficult than other formats to get up and running.The difference is small enough that it shouldn't be a factor in your decision.
- If you want to make your own Flash video player it gets much harder. Flash provides built-in components such as video screens and playback controls but you still need at least basic Flash authoring skills.
- Once you know how to implement Flash it becomes easier to use than other formats. Because Flash is so consistent there are far fewer issues with browser compatibility, etc.
- If you want advanced features such as playlists or custom controls, other formats can get very complex indeed. As the complexity increases, so do the issues with compatibility and robustness. There are no such problems with Flash.
Expense: If you want the full Flash authoring program, it is expensive. However you don't have to own the program to use Flash video so this doesn't need to be an issue.
There is a parallel between the Internet video format wars and the Betamax vs VHS war. Betamax supporters felt that the format's superior technical performance made it the "better format", but in the real world technical performance was inconsequential compared to practical issues such as tape length.
So it is with Internet video — while purists argue over benchmark encoding tests, the real deciding factors are how well the formats perform in the real world. With the image and sound quality of all major formats being close enough that it doesn't matter, webmasters are becoming more concerned with things such as compatibility, ease of use and flexibility.
At MediaCollege.com we have been putting video on websites since 1998 and we can say that Flash video has served us much better than any other format. Since converting to Flash, technical issues have virtually disappeared and we are able to deliver Flash in a far more simple, consistent manner. At the same time the creative opportunities have increased dramatically. Going back to Windows Media or Quicktime would be like going back to tape-to-tape editing.
But don't just take our word for it — Flash video has been chosen by heavyweights such as Google Video and Amazon.com as their video platforms. There must be something good about it.