UMD held back the PSP from greatness
Sony has, say, mixed experience in developing own media formats. It succeeded in establishing Blu-ray as a widely adopted standard, but there were also some high-profile failures. In the 1970s there was the infamous Betamax, which boldly took JVC’s VHS and failed. MiniDisc fared better in the 90s, but was eclipsed by the cheaper and lighter compact disc. Then there was the Universal Media Disc, or UMD. Chosen as the format for Sony’s first portable console, the PlayStation Portable, this optical disc had potential, but ultimately fell victim to its own limitations.
The PSP entered our realm at the same time as the DS. Nintendo’s dual-screen handheld, which moved 154 million units in its lifetime, was taking the world by storm and enjoying unprecedented mainstream success through games like Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training and Nintendogs. For years, Nintendo cornered the handheld gaming market, and Sony, having happily beaten the N64 to the original PlayStation, was eager to make its mark on the scene. Much of this strategy relied on both the impressive power of the PSP’s graphics hardware and the storage capacity of the aforementioned UMD.
The average DS flash cartridge held about 500MB of data, while the developers had a vastly superior 1.8GB to play with a single UMD. This, combined with a CPU and RAM combo that rivaled a PS2, allowed development studios for the PSP to create home console-quality games with high-fidelity sound, cutscenes, and other luxuries that simply wouldn’t fit. not on a DS cartridge. Sony was understandably proud of it and put it at the forefront of its marketing. The PSP isn’t that toy your little sister plays casual games on: it’s a correct bracket for real players. Sounds like a recipe for success, right? Well, it would have been if UMDs were any good.
Besides looking pretty cool and storing more data than Nintendo could ever dream of, the Universal Media Disc didn’t have much to do. While the player was in use, which was most of the time, your PSP would use 10% more battery power. It took a lot of juice to get the motor running and the disc spinning. It was noisy, with the disc whirring audibly in the drive while playing. The transfer speed was also horrible, leading to edge cases where games would take minutes load. Sony got into the UMD and designed the console around it, which also made the PSP bigger than it needed to be, which negatively impacted its portability.
For Sony, the PSP was not just a game console: it was a multimedia device. With that in mind, it struck a deal with studios like Paramount, Universal, and Columbia to release movies and TV shows on UMD. But trouble quickly arose when people realized that a new movie would cost the same on UMD as it did on DVD, despite the 1.8GB size limit, meaning most or all of the bonus features have been deleted. You were paying the same for less and eventually, when sales naturally dropped, Hollywood dropped the format. Sony couldn’t take a break, and by 2009 it had even dropped the UMD.
The PSP Go (a very underrated console, by the way) was a version of the console without a UMD player. To play games on it, you had to either buy them from the PlayStation Store or transfer them from a PC or PS3. Another disc based PSP was released, the budget PSP Street, but the Universal Media Disc was essentially dead and ceased production for good in 2016. The PSP was a great console, but was undoubtedly held back by the limitations of these small noisy discs. . The Universal Media Disc won’t become a shortcut to failure like Sony’s ill-fated Betamax tapes, but it’s far from a success.