While most users, even today, think of the PSP as being a great portable games console, at the time of its launch Sony wanted to make the system unlike any other handheld that had come before it. With a built in music player and picture viewer it was heralded as being not only a powerful games console to rival the PS2 but also an all-in-one entertainment device on the go.
The key to this was through the PSP’s unique storage medium, the Universal Media Disc (UMD). While most people associated the discs with game storage, the discs were capable of storing full length movies for playback on the console and the PSP was able to handle playback at standard DVD quality. Although the PSP’s widescreen resolution was only 480×272 pixels, movies and television shows that were released on UMD were encoded to MPEG-4 DVD quality and were automatically scaled down to fit the PSP’s screen maintaining the best possible picture quality on the handhelds screen.
Initially a large number of movie studios and television companies came on board to support the format releasing their films and programmes on both DVD and UMD. The only difference between the two being the lack of extras on the UMD releases and a slightly higher price but for a truly portable version of the film many were happy paying that added premium. As with DVD, UMDs were region locked and split into six distinct global areas, with regions matching their DVD counterparts. This is of particular importance for many PSP owners who have consoles imported from Japan as it shares the same region coding as Europe so movie playback won’t be a problem.
On paper UMD should have been a runaway success – superb picture quality, support from all the major studios with backing from Sony Pictures especially, and a dedicated portable player on the market. What could go wrong?
It certainly wasn’t disc capacity, something that plagued VideoCD meaning that movies had to be split over two discs. With single and dual layer formats available even longer films with dual language support weren’t a problem on a single UMD.
Truthfully there were two long term factors. First, despite the incredible success of the PSP (selling over 80m units in its lifetime) it was the only decixd capable of playing UMDs. Not only did that narrow down the market but also meant that movie titles themselves were going to be more geared towards the PSP’s demographic rather than a general movie buying audience. Even the ability to play movies back through a television with the TV output of the 2000 and 3000 series PSPs couldn’t change that as the customer base was still relatively focused on their buying habits.
Then there was retail. Stores simply didn’t know where to put the discs. Some stores set up dedicated UMD sections alongside their DVDs where others felt that they belonged with the PSP and its games. Over time the dedicated retail spaces disappeared completely leaving UMDs to fend for themselves alongside games where they.lay hidden and forgotten.
Considering the size and resolution of the PSP’s LCD screen, it did a remarkable job when it came to playback. Movies as a whole looked great and battery life was more than capable of allowing owners to watch an entire movie on a single charge making it ideal for long journeys.
While it was certainly never going to be a rival for DVD, UMD delivered some great quality movie releases and extended the PSP’s functionality in a way that gamers couldn’t have imagined from a handheld device. Were the movies any good though? Keep checking the site as we take a look at as many of them as we can in the coming months…