5 Reasons Sony's UMD Format Never Flourished

Why the Universal Media Disc Was Doomed to Failure

Obviously, the folks at Sony thought a tiny optical disc was the perfect format for their portable PlayStation. Gamers and critics weren't so enthusiastic, and perhaps Sony should have remembered the fate of the similar music format the MiniDisc (essentially a teeny tiny CD). Ultimately there are probably as many reasons the UMD never won over the fans as there are fans, but here are five of the main ones.

The UMD is an Optical Format

UMD / Universal Media Disc

In some ways, an optical disc is actually an ideal storage medium for videogames, and it was no doubt these properties that were on the minds of the PSP designers when they came up with the UMD. Optical discs have (or at least had at the time) a much bigger capacity that comparably-sized cartridges. The bigger capacity meant PSP games could have better graphics in comparison to the competition. There is good reason, after all, that every full-sized hook-it-up-to-your-TV console uses some form of disc.

For a handheld, though, there are also many reasons an optical disc is far from ideal. Remember how CD players used to skip if you took them jogging and hit the pavement too hard? Gamers wondered if the same thing might happen mid-game as their bus jolted over a speed bump or stopped suddenly in traffic (for the record, I don't recall ever hearing of this actually happening). The biggest issue, though is load times. PSP games are notoriously slow-loading, and much if it has to do with reading the disc. On the big consoles, load times can be reduced considerably but installing parts of the game onto the console's onboard memory, but the PSP doesn't have that option.

Critics of the UMD are no doubt delighted that the PSP's successor, the PS Vita, will use cartridges instead of optical discs. It'll also have onboard memory.

UMDs are Not Burnable

Once upon a time when the PSP was new, I envisioned being able to burn my portfolio onto a UMD--or maybe different portfolios for different purposes on separate UMDs--and showing them to editors and professors and art people on my PSP, which I would of course always have in my pocket. It is possible to do something like this with a memory stick, but the higher capacity of the UMD would allow for much higher-resolution images. So I dreamed of the day Sony would release a UMD burner.

Of course that never happened. The PSP has always been a major target for piracy, and Sony got more and more sensitive about game piracy the longer the system was out. A UMD burner, they probably reasoned, would open the floodgates. Sadly, I don't think it would really have made that much of a difference. Anyone with good web search skills and a basic understanding of programming can find pirated games to download and figure out how to run them on a hacked PSP. I used to think the ability for users to burn their own UMDs could rescue the format. I don't think so any more, but it sure would have been cool.

UMDs are Delicate

While the discs themselves are pretty tough, just like their larger CD cousins, they are prone to scratching, and to prevent such scratching, to keep fingerprints to a minimum, and to make them easier to insert into a PSP the right way up, Sony encased UMDs in a plastic shell. Early on, a lot of gamers found the plastic shells had a tendency to split open and let the disc fall out. They're easy enough to put back together and secure with a little glue, but it wasn't confidence-inspiring. And I haven't heard of that happening any time in recent memory, so something must have been worked out at the manufacturing level. Some gamers also got confused by the shell and thought it was another layer that had to be taken off before you put the disc in the PSP (to be fair, I only heard of this happening once, but the fact that it happened at all is not a good indication of ease of use).

And not only did the UMDs themselves feel fragile, but so did the door to the UMD compartment on the PSP, especially on the original model--for a long time, a broken UMD door seemed to be the most common damage on PSPs being sold on online auctions.

UMDs are an Awkward Size

Though a UMD is much, much smaller than a CD or a DVD, it's also much bigger than, say, a Nintendo DS cartridge. So DS gamers could carry around a lot more games than PSP gamers in the same amount of space. A related issue, though, is that because it's an optical format, the apparatus for reading the UMD takes up quite a bit of space inside the PSP. It needs both the mechanism for spinning the disc and the laser for reading it. And if the designers want to keep the handheld within a particular size, any space taken up by the media-reading bits is space that can't be used for something else. Consider how many more sensors and inputs the PS Vita has compared to the PSP, at a size only a little larger. How much bigger would it have had to have been if it also used a UMD?

UMDs are Not Cartridges

The simple psychological factors in the acceptance of UMDs can't be overlooked. Everyone was used to cartridges in handhelds. Pretty much every handheld since handheld first had interchangeable games has used a cartridge, from the Atari Lynx to the Game Boy. Sony was trying to be too radical, maybe, in using a disc instead of a cart. Of course we got used to it, but I wonder how many Game Boy gamers passed on the PSP simply because it didn't use a familiar media format.

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