Earlier this year, Polaroid unveiled its pocket-sized Zip (Zink Instant Photoprinter) designed for linking to a smartphone to crank out full-color images on demand. Gizmag recently had a chance to put one through its paces as Polaroid goes back to its instant pictures roots.
One less obvious effect of the digital revolution is how it's changed the public's attitudes towards photography. When taking pictures meant digging out "the" camera and loading it with expensive film, family photography was a special effort that was used to preserve the memory of special moments, such as birthdays and weddings.
The rise of the small digital camera has changed all that. Look around an average room and it isn't unusual to pick out at least half a dozen cameras set in computer monitors, mobile phones, and other devices. In addition, the lack of film means that these cameras are used more socially with people snapping pictures of their lunch, cats, and the ubiquitous selfie.
For the traditional camera companies, this change caught many of them wrong footed with disastrous results – Polaroid among them. However, being able to capture an image on a phone isn't universally satisfying. Some people, for example, want a hard copy to stick in their wallet or swap around at parties, and then there's grandma for who wants a "real" picture to keep.
It's to fulfill this niche that the Zip is apparently aimed by combining a compact build, ease of use and fast printing.
Polaroid certainly got the compact part right. Measuring 2.91 x 4.72 in (7.39 x 11.98 cm) and weighing 186 g (6.7 oz), the Zip isn't much thicker than a smartphone in a heavy case and doesn't weigh much more. It rests easily in the hand with a reassuring heft and fits neatly in a jacket pocket or purse. The only obvious drawback is that the lid for loading the photo paper comes off a bit too easily with a press of the thumb.
Polaroid also aimed to make the Zip easy to set up, and it is. Paradoxically, it's so easy that it almost made setting up seem more difficult because we were expecting more steps. Setting up consists of downloading and installing the associated Zip app on a smartphone, charging and switching the unit on, then linking to the phone using Bluetooth and NFC. The app is necessary: without it the printer can't be controlled. Loading the paper is also a cinch, with the main task being to remember to put the stack in the right way up, with the small bar code card on the bottom, so it can automatically complete the setup when the first image is printed.
It has a lithium-ion battery, and you charge the Zip with an included USB to microUSB cable. The only physical control is the power button set flush in the side. It's about as simple as a printer can be.
Another reason why Zip is so simple and compact is because it uses the Zero Ink Printing (ZINK) system. Instead of ink and toner, the paper uses heat-sensitive cyan, yellow and magenta dye crystals sealed with a protective polymer overcoat. The printer selectively heats the crystals to form the 2 x 3 in (5 x 7.6 cm) images in under a minute.
The paper is not the cheapest at US$14.99 for a pack of 30, but the images are clean and smudge-free, though of low resolution and prints a bit darker than expected. You don't buy the Zip for top-notch print quality; you buy it if you want a quick and smooth process.
In addition, the paper has a peel-off sticky back, so the images can be used as instant stickers.
The Zip app that controls the printer has an intuitive interface, but too many "helpful" pop-up screens that start to annoy the second time one shows up. The app allows printing of images captured by the phone's camera or any that are in its memory, so shared or downloaded images can be used. The app also can do basic editing, so it can compensate some for the darker printing, as well as things like rotating images, resizing and applying color filters.
Since it can print any image in the phone's memory, though, you could always edit and save in a preferred image editor.
The app can also produce collages of up to nine images, though on such small printouts, it isn't much use. It can also paint and add frames, stickers, emojis and the like, which could appeal to younger users. It can even add "secret" messages by embedding a QR code that can be scanned to release site links, audio messages, and others. For the more professionally minded, the app can also use templates to create instant personalized business cards. However, the latter doesn't allow for much control of font details for the text input.
Not so much a professional tool as a casual device for friends and family fun, the Polaroid Zip may lack size, but it does ably target a neglected niche for memorabilia images or just fast hard copies of reasonable quality.
The Polaroid Niche is available for US$129.99.