Video Streaming on Android: Adobe Flash vs Plex vs PlayOn

By Ryan Whitwam

Streaming video on Android examined.

That little computer in your pocket can be a bastion of digital entertainment, and video is a big part of that. Android's video chops have been decidedly lacking until recently. The addition of Adobe Flash has helped to bridge the gap to some degree, but there are performance and battery life tradeoffs involved. Now that we have official apps from both PlayOn and Plex, the time has come to take stock of your streaming video options on Android. One of these methods might be just want you need for a certain use. 



For our testing, we'll be using TED Talks, Comedy Central, and a few others. All tests are over Wi-Fi, unless otherwise noted, and we're using a Nexus S. Once the Flash player loads, you can double-tap to fit the video to screen. This works sometimes, and other times not so much. If you long-press on the video, you can press the popup at the top to go to full screen. This is the best way to watch Flash Video on Android. In this mode, you can easily tap and drag the seek bar or volume controls.  

When watching a TED video like this, we found the controls reasonably accessible, but this is not so on many players. Video playback was mostly smooth, but there were occasional frame drops. We did notice more graininess on the phone than we see on a computer. That said, the video was definitely watchable.  

We had a look at Trailer Addicts Flash video next. Here, the video is of higher quality, and performance was impacted. Smoothness was variable, sometimes it was fine, but a few seconds later some serious frames would drop. It was passable, but not great. The real benefit of Flash is that you can just pop open your browser at any time and stream Flash video. Plex and PlayOn need some setup. Can they compete?


When we started our video, the buffering time was a bit longer than the Flash video in the browser. Obviously, this is because the PC is acting as an intermediary. The delay is a bit annoying, but not overly so. When playback starts, the difference is immediately clear. Plex produces very clear video. The frame rate is also very good with virtually no dropped frames.  

We checked out Trailer Addicts content as well. It was as smooth as the TED videos we watched. The controls are still great, and buffering was not as bad as before. Plex has a fair number of plug-ins you can use. You have options like Apple Trailers, Revision3, and Vimeo right now. Many Plex plug-ins like Netflix, The Daily Show, and Hulu, aren't compatible with mobile devices yet. You can force the plug-in to download, but it won't work right now. Users just get URL errors when trying to stream from these plug-ins. Hopefully they will be functional at a later date. Plex is available for $4.99 in the Android Market. 


 A Netflix movie playing on our device

You will have to go through the media server software and add in your login information for services that require it. Make sure you hit Ok when you're done, or the channel won't load on the device. The server pops right up in the app, no tweaking needed. Naturally, we headed right for Netflix to try it out. We were hoping for some good media controls, but they're actually rather poor. Unlike Plex, PlayOn is actually showing you Flash video on its own special page. It is just using the PC server to scrape the video from the web. It does obfuscate it  by loading the player in full-screen mode, but the controls are still hard to use. 

The PlayOn app still has an iOS vibe 
some Netflix videos, we are getting audio lag. Most of them were fine, though. TV shows with multiple episodes are also not displayed correctly. You only see the first episode. Seeking through any video is problematic as well. It doesn't work at all for us. If even this one problem were fixed, we'd be much more enthusiastic about PlayOn. Hulu works about as well as Netflix, but again we cannot skip through the video at all.

Comedy Central content with PlayOn
does work. 

So what can we take from this? Plex has the best playback control, and lets you stream local content as well as internet video. PlayOn has a good selection of content (much better than Plex), but the poor playback controls and Flash requirement are a drawback. We also don't like the yearly subscription price. At least Plex is a one-time $5 fee despite the lacking content right now. Good old Adobe Flash works on many sites to varying degrees. Often, it will get the job done no problem, but one of these new streaming apps could be of use occasionally. Neither PlayOn or Plex will solve your streaming woes completely, but they do help as long as you're willing to pony up some cash.