When worlds collide: Hands on with Polaroid’s instant-print digital camera

z340In case you haven’t heard, the photography industry is caught in technology’s crosshairs at the moment. While camera specifications continue to improve (more megapixels! More AF points! Faster, faster, faster!), manufacturers have some new competition to consider.

Not only have smartphones infiltrated the point and shoot market, their easy to navigate, touch interfaces have also wooed and won consumers. But the technical, somewhat clunky firmware that camera users have learned and relearned over the years won’t hold our attention much longer: we’re becoming more and more used to visuals, icons, apps, and everything else that goes along with “mastering” a mobile OS.

Go ahead and throw social integration and Wi-Fi accessibility onto the list of digital camera challenges.  Sure, some new releases take a stab at auto-share or cloud storage, but they’ve yet to be perfected by any brand.

You’d think that one of the company’s hardest hit by all this rapid change would be Polaroid. The manufacturer made the analog to digital switch rather late, given its unique position as an instant-print option. But digital photo-sharing has been a thorn in photo printing’s side, and it’s not as if Polaroid point and shoots are known for their high quality.

But the brand has managed to persist thanks to its creativity and willingness to adapt. At CES this year, Polaroid showed off two very forward-thinking products: The SC1630, a hybrid Android smartphone-meets-camera, and the Z340, a digital camera complete with printer.

Now the SC1630 is inarguably the more interesting of the two, but the Z340 has a few features worth mentioning.

Shape, size, and feel

The Z340 is a modern take on the classic Polaroid camera. It’s a little sleeker and more minimalist than the big, hulking things you might still lug around for nostalgic value. It has a pop up screen for viewing your photos and adding elements, like borders or color tint.

Off to the side, the camera also has a strap to make handheld use more convenient. It should go without saying that this thing is bigger than your average digital camera, but it’s for obvious reasons. On the side you have an SD card slot, as well as a USB port and charger connection. Like the camera, the charger is rather unwieldy and large — it looks like a laptop charger. 

Its build is incredibly reminiscent of Polaroid’s concept camera, the GL-30, that it showed off at CES two years ago – just far less sleek. The GL-30 had aluminum detailing and altogether less plastic than the Z340. It was more futuristic, less toy. But that’s why it was a prototype and this model is on shelves.

Still, it doesn’t feel quality. Sure, it’s not supposed to be a high-end, all-purpose camera – this is a niche gadget if you’ve ever seen one. But the buttons feel cheap and there isn’t any tangible satisfaction in maneuvering the camera.

Features

For what it is, the Z340 actually has a pretty surprising amount of features. The camera has an impressive number of preset modes, including options for everything from shooting fireworks, running water, to a manual program mode that allows you to set ISO. These are things we’ve come to expect in point and shoots, but not so much in instant-print cameras.

There are also app-happy options like Sepia, Vintage, and Lomo filters.

z340The Z340 has a digital zoom – which is noisy, yet accurate – as well as a decent AF mechanism. However, while the camera’s AF performed fairly well, it was fairly susceptible to hand shake.

To fight that, as well as poorly lit conditions (in which the device’s lacking 14-megapixel sensor), the camera features a flash. You have control over turning it off, however, if you so choose. 

Photos and printing

for examplePhoto quality is hugely dependent on the setting with this camera. Outside, without backlighting, not in macro mode, you’ll get some decent shots. Inside, without zooming in too far and using flash, same idea. Nothing you’d want to print very large – even a 4×6 is probably going to be overly grainy – but incredibly average shots.

There’s a dedicated print button, so after you’ve added any borders or filters to your image, you press and go. Give it a second – you might think the camera isn’t working, but I promise, it is… just a little slowly. And while you’re welcome to shake these prints all you want, there is no need. For the record, it comes with 10 sheets of Zink printing paper.

The printing is fun, if not high quality. Most of the images came out a little fuzzier than traditional Polaroids, in fact.

Impressions

The Z340 is a fun gadget – emphasis on gadget: it’s got the retro lure of instant-print with some of the fun of Instagram.

Of course, there always has to be a catch; this one comes in the form of a $300 price tag. That’s a lot to ask for a novelty item, which essentially is what the Z340 is. There are a number of impressive, high-end point and shoots on the market for approximately $300, and the Z340 only does one thing they don’t – print – and fails to live up to everything else they offer. For $300, you should be getting something that is useful in a myriad of image capturing conditions, and this thing’s limited specs and size mean it won’t fill your every camera need.

Again, it’s not supposed to. And it’s undeniably fun to play around and print with. Quick-print and Polaroid are always going to be able to corner a section of consumers, and the Z340 is worth a look… but only after a price cut. All that said, kudos to Polaroid for reimagining its core product for today’s fans. It’s encouraging to see a brand persist through this imaging evolution. 

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