Which Is Better: Flash or Animated GIFs?

A comparison of Flash and GIF technology and future availability

Asking if Flash is better than an animated GIF is rather like asking if a USB thumb drive is better than a floppy disk. Both have their purposes, and both can be useful—even if one is a bit limited and outdated, and the other will be discontinued in 2020.

The Rise and Fall of Flash

Adobe introduced Flash in 1996 to advance interactivity, deliver high-quality animations and enhance desktop and, eventually, mobile applications. Several industries have been built around Flash technology in the fields of video, gaming, and education. However, newer open standards such as HTML5 and WebGL now provide many of the same capabilities that plugins once supplied, and browsers integrate functionalities introduced by Flash. 

As a result, Adobe has announced that it is deprecating Flash at the end of 2020. This gives content creators time to move their existing Flash content to the new open formats.

GIF's Unlikely Longevity 

GIFs are the short, animated videos you see everywhere on the web. GIFs show their age—they support only 256 colors—but that hasn't stopped animated GIFs from taking over the internet. Although they were invented in the late '80s, and many formats provide higher quality, these silent, ever-looping graphics catch the eye and spur the imaginations of web surfers. 

Flash vs. GIF

  • Flash files are usually smaller than animated GIFs, because they don't store every single frame of an animation and because they use vector art that requires only mathematical data defining parameters, rather than raster art that requires information for every last pixel. Raster images, sound, and video added to Flash increase file size well over that of animated GIFs, though.
  • Flash can contain sound and video. GIFs can't.
  • GIFs don't require an added browser plugin or player. Flash does.
  • Flash is more likely to create a security vulnerability than a GIF.
  • Flash offers interactivity, with the ability to incorporate multiple user actions into a single file. The only way to do more than just click once on a GIF is with an image map.
  • Animated GIFs are simple enough that when you need a small, simple cycling animation, they're often the less complicated choice.
  • Transparency is easier to achieve in GIFs, without needing to update the embedding code.
  • Flash offers more color options. Animated GIFs are limited by their palette, while Flash isn't limited by much of anything.
  • Image quality in Flash is usually better than in animated GIFs, which often lose data due to the limited color palette and compression options.
  • Flash is incompatible with some older devices and is blocked on some portable devices or by browser plugins. GIFs usually aren't.

That's just a basic overview, but it demonstrates why each has had its uses. Is Flash better than an animated GIF? Not necessarily, but it is more advanced and has more features. However, Flash is entering its end-of-life cycle. How much time do you want to invest in technology that won't be around much longer? It looks like GIFs will be around for a while longer. Despite the format's limitations, sometimes less is more.