Polaroid’s Zip mobile printer channels instant photo heritage for new generation

As a consumer electronics company, the new Polaroid is plastering its name on everything from TVs to smartphones and tablets (Polaroid’s well-recognized name is owned by a company that licenses it out to others). But the firm still makes cameras and photography accessories, like the new Zip Instant Photoprinter ($130), a mobile printer that calls upon the company’s instant photo spirit. Polaroid unveiled the Zip earlier this year at CES. The final product hasn’t changed from when we first saw it, but we recently played with one for a few days and came away with some new impressions.

The portable printer is designed not for traditional cameras, but for mobile phones, which account for many of the casual photos now being taken. Like Polaroid’s instant cameras of the past, the Zip lets users make small prints (in the Zip’s case, 2×3), which they can physically share with friends, put in a scrapbook, or use as decorations. Polaroid is clearly positioning the Zip as a fun gadget for millennials, particularly those who have never experienced a Polaroid instant photo before.

The printing technology, from ZINK (Zero Ink), isn’t new. The thermal-based, inkless system uses specialty paper that contains color crystals which, when activated by heat, change their molecular structure to reveal the color image. Polaroid already uses it in some of its digital instant cameras, and it’s the same technology employed in LG’s Smart Mobile Printer. In fact, LG’s printer is nearly identical to the Zip in terms of form and function, but with different designs and companion apps (iOS and Android, via Bluetooth).

Related: Polaroid’s Cube action camera gets more mobile with Wi-Fi, smartphone app

The Zip measures just a little less than 3 x 5 inches (about the size of an iPhone 6), and weighs less than half a pound. Design-wise, it’s fairly minimal: It comes in four colors (black, turquoise, red, and white), and has a Micro USB port for charging, status LEDs, and a power button. The top cover lifts open for inserting paper (the printer comes with a starter pack, and a 50-pack costs $25 at Amazon; Polaroid also sells 3×4 ZINK paper, but those are incompatible), while the slot at one end is where the paper exits.

Operating the printer is easy. After it’s fully charged, you simply lift off the top cover to insert the paper. Unlike LG’s printer, we found the Zip’s cover difficult to open and close. Once you power it on, the printer enters a Bluetooth pairing mode. In your iOS or Android device’s Bluetooth settings, the printer will appear as a new device. The Zip also supports Android devices with NFC (near-field communication) for quick pairing.

To print, you need to launch the Zip App after the printer and phone have paired. You can make quick prints of photos in your camera roll, but the app offers a few other options: you can edit a photo (rotate, tint, draw, frame, customize, etc.) before printing; print a QR code that, when scanned, leads to secret, password-protected texts or audio messages (adults will roll their eyes, but kids will find this fun); print collages of photos; or print a custom name card. The app will only work with the Zip printer; it won’t recognize the LG Smart Mobile Printer, even though it uses the same printing tech.

Each print takes about a minute to pop out (the photo slowly feeds out of the opening), which isn’t exactly instant, although it’s about the same amount of time that old Polaroid photos took to develop. As for print quality, it’s fine, but don’t expect the same kind of accurate color reproduction you’d see from a home inkjet or dye-sub printer. ZINK prints aren’t known for vivid colors, but for what it is, they aren’t entirely bad. The prints are small, so they’re more for fun than for any other purpose, and they have a sticky back, which does give them another fun element. At 2×3, you will have to do some cropping if you want a full-bleed image that covers the entire print.

Photo printing is enjoying a bit of a renaissance lately, particularly with youngsters who think the technique is novel. Fujifilm has been successful in marketing its Instax brand to a new generation, while it’s also selling a Zip-like printer called the Instax Share SP-1. While the Zip doesn’t truly mimic old Polaroid instant cameras (the SP-1 actually does a better job at that), it’s a fun and alternative way to share, although paper can be costly to replace if you print a lot.

But it does bring us back to the days of old Polaroid cameras. Sure, the quality may not have been as strong as images taken with 35mm film cameras, but they were magical and fun to use. You can think of the Zip along the same lines.

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