With DVD dominating the market and finally putting the final nails in the coffin of VHS, it seems insane to introduce another format to consumers. With the release of the PSP, we are given the Universal Media Disc (UMD) format, which has grown in popularity with the system itself. Despite holding just 1.8 GB of information, how can the UMD format hold up against a dual layered DVD with over 4 times the amount of storage space? The launch title "Spider-Man 2" is the first step to answering many questions the public has about the movie watching capabilities of the PSP.
I grew up with Spider-Man on the top of my hero list. Peter Parker was the ultimate everyman who could relate to the masses whether dressed as a teen or in red and blue tights. I was blown away by a big screen adaptation of "Spider-Man" and could not wait for the inevitable sequel. Sam Raimi has done an excellent job casting the series and adding his unique flair to the storytelling process. Tobey Maguire and Alfred Molina give a depth to the characters that the comic book took years to achieve. Everyone involved with the film realizes that this is a comic book movie; the difference is that they don't treat it like one. Top to bottom, the series is quickly developing into a franchise that will please the older generation of fans while influencing a younger crowd to revisit comics for dynamic stories and deep rooted characters that are a positive influence in a world filled with negativity.
"Spider-Man 2" is a delight to watch with its vibrant picture and quality. While we are given a stunning 16:9 widescreen presentation, the aspect ratio has been changed. The OAR for "Spider-Man 2" is 2.35:1, a wide scope that is stunning on Superbit DVD. Sony's UMD crops the film slightly and presents it with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. There are certainly pros and cons to both sides of changing the OAR. With the reformatted picture, we are not wasting any of the 4.3" screen on black bars to maintain the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The presentation is still great though some of the film is sacrificed by minor cropping on the sides. In comparing scenes to the Superbit DVD, the amount of picture lost on the sides is a small price to pay when you factor in the portability of such a stunning picture. The UMD rivals the progressive scan Superbit DVD in every visual category.
As with watching anything, lighting is a huge factor. Watching the movie in a dark living room will showcase a variety of sharp colors and excellent attention to detail. Each coin has a life of its own when bank bags break during Doc Ock's bank heist. Spider-Man's webbing, though fairly thin and transparent, still has great detail of the 4.3" PSP screen. Normal room lighting will not affect the viewing experience much at all. The detail is still well-defined and Spidey's costume has a red and blue that jumps off the screen when placed in front of the tans and grays of New York buildings. If you are indoors, the viewing experience for "Spider Man 2" is flawless.
Since the second "P" in PSP stands for portable, how does the picture hold up in an uncontrolled setting? There wasn't a better place to test the screen than under the blazing Texas sun on a hot summer day. The results were pretty conclusive... bad idea. The glare of the sun, even under a nice shade tree will do a better job of casting your reflection off of the freshly cleaned PSP that showcasing any type of color or detail from the movie. It was almost like Spidey was wearing his old alien symbiotic suit that Venom now possesses. The costume quickly morphed into a dark image with hints of red and blue under the bright sun. The Hudson River finale between Spider-Man and Doc Ock cannot be seen at all when watching outdoors, as is the case with any night scene. Even the epic train fight was hard to decipher, leaving more of a frustration with knowing what is going on and not being able to see it clearly. Watching the UMD in a car wasn't quite as bad since the sunlight can be confined a bit more. As for the closing credits, regardless of where you are, you will need to be right up on the screen to read any type of credit info. The text is very small and, though it can be read, really should be left alone to save any strain on the eyes.
"Spider-Man 2" is a big budget movie made for today's listeners. One of my biggest reservations about movies on the PSP was that of sound. After going to surround sound with laserdisc and DVD, how easy would it be to go back to mono sound from the tiny PSP speakers? The sad truth is…it isn't. The English and French 2 channel audio feed is painfully restrained by the PSP's speakers. It is the audio equivalent of giving us a one-armed Doc Ock. The music, effects, background sounds, and dialogue are all muted by the limitations of the PSP's audio capabilities. It reminds me of the old drive-in movie days. For those who have listened to a drive-in movie from one of the speakers you hang in the car window, you understand exactly what I mean. If mono sound is something you have never really experienced, lose the digital output on your DVD player and hook up the red/white RCA plugs directly to your television. This should give you an idea of what auditory details are left out.
Despite my complaints about the initial PSP audio experience, there is a huge upside. The first, and most portable, is using the earphones packaged with the PSP. First off, they give you a remote control to skip forward and back, pause, and control volume. The second advantage becomes incredibly obvious when you get those little sound magnets in your ears. Danny Elfman's score will transport you straight into Peter Parker's world. The sound effects are more defined, simulating a surround sound experience that engulfs the listener. Dialogue becomes crisper and background noises that were silenced by the PSP speakers find a new life in the earphones. I also used the i.sound from Akai to test the "Spider Man 2" UMD soundtrack. While the i.sound requires an electrical outlet for power, it is ideal for watching a UMD with an audience. It is compact and provides a deep bass that the earphones cannot provide. The only drawback is it is not battery operated, making this very mobile sound system limited to where it can be set up. I certainly recommend listening to it with the enclosed earphones, which virtually place you in the movie, or saving up around $30 for the i.sound from Akai. Either option will give an audio experience that almost rivals the visual splendor of the PSP.
The main menu is similar to a DVD, giving options to play the movie, audio, subtitles, and previews. It is easy to navigate through and PSP users won't have to jump through hoops to get there. While minor when compared to the world of DVD, it is nice to see that Sony gave us the trailers to "Stealth" and "XXX: State Of The Union". They look and sound great and are both presented in their OAR, so get ready to see "Stealth" in letterboxed PSP. English subtitles are included in the UMD.
The beauty about the PSP is it pretty much gives everyone a level playing field when it comes to a UMD viewing experience. With DVD's there are many factors involved that can affect how good or bad a disc can appear. What type of television do you have? Do you have surround sound? Do you have a progressive scan DVD player? The list can branch off and go on for a while. People quickly realized that buying a DVD player was just the first of many steps to setting up a home theater system. I love how the PSP doesn't necessarily judge how you experience a movie on how much money you have. If you have $249.99, you will watch a UMD the same way as everyone else. The only difference would be outside factors like lighting or sound. Where is the movie being watched? How are you listening to it? Adding the minor upgrade of portable, amplified speakers is strongly recommended. The cost is about the same as a PSP game and it will make a world of difference when listening to games and movies in your home. It will be nice to see how the format develops with each release in terms of audio and special features. "Spider Man 2" was a superb launch title and future UMD releases should only get better.