Think 'Polaroid', and you think of instant photos, not digital images, despite it being one of the world's first digital camera manufacturers.
Yet as the world swaps pixels for print, the company is making sure it stays relevant by giving us the best of best worlds: the printing cameras that are the bedrock of its long-term success, combined with regular digital features.
You can pick up the latest of its efforts, the Z2300W, for around £180 online.
The Z2300W is smaller than the traditional Land-style Polaroids of old, but it's by no means a compact camera. Building in a printer has bulked it up considerably.
The front is largely featureless, with only the flash and lens disturbing its flat face. The back is home to a 3-inch LCD, and a mysterious button marked 'open'. You might expect this to pop up the flash, but in actual fact it releases the screen lock so that the LCD can swing out on a hinge to reveal the paper tray behind it.
This is where you load your stocks of 3x2-inch Zink printing paper. The Zink name refers to the Zero Ink Printing Technology that underpins the whole process. Each sheet of paper is embedded with crystals of coloured dye underneath a polymer coating. By applying heat to the paper, the camera can activate the crystals, releasing the colour to produce an image that's dry the moment it slips out of the slot on the end of the camera. The results are smudge-proof, waterproof and ready for sticking to any surface you choose, as they have a peel-away sticky back.
That's certainly clever, but it isn't cheap. You get 10 sheets to start you off, after which you can buy supplies in packs of 30 or 50 sheets for £11.99 and £19.99 respectively. That works out at 40p per print, whichever pack you choose, and compares poorly with commercial photo printing services.
Order up to 199 regular prints and they'll cost 12p a pop at Photobox, and be more than twice the size at 6x4.5 inches. Bonusprint's 6x4-inch prints start out more expensive, at 50p for your first frame, but drop to 25p for two to nine prints, and 14p per photo for between 10 and 49, 10p for 50 to 99 and so on. So, 50 shots would cost £6 at Photobox, £5 at Bonusprint and £19.99 using this camera to print them right away.
Why then would you opt for the Zink system? Three reasons: you'll get your picture in about 45 seconds, they're stickers as well as photos, and it's fun.
Specs and features
Fortunately you're not committed to printing every shot as there's a conventional SD/SDHC card slot inside the battery compartment for saving the 10-megapixel shots. There's also 32MB of memory built in, of which 15MB is available for photo storage. That's enough for seven shots.
Options and settings are few and far between. There's a physical three-way mode switch that sets stills or video shooting, or image playback. There's no mode wheel to switch between automatic, aperture and shutter priority, no manual control, and only macro mode as an alternative shooting option. There's no halfway position on the shutter release for fixing the exposure and focus, and no optical zoom -- just the digital equivalent, which crops and enlarges the centre. As with most cameras, this has a detrimental effect on the quality of the image.
There is a scene mode however, with a choice of 21 different settings covering all the regular bases, including portraits, landscapes and fireworks, plus creative simulations like fish eye. There's also an album composition mode that combines three shots into an overlapping arrangement.
The sensitivity range is very narrow, stretching from ISO 100 to just ISO 400. Exposure compensation takes in +/-2.0EV in steps of 1/3EV, and to keep things novice-friendly Polaroid has illustrated the scale using a series of black to white blocks rather than simply numbers.
Minimum focusing distance is a distinctly stand-offish 1m in regular use and 19cm in macro mode.
There are several editing options available in the playback mode, including red eye correction and a dynamic lighting setting that brightens underexposed areas and tones down bleached out highlights. You can also attach voice memos to remind yourself where the shot was taken or what it was.
Shooting stills is a bit of a mixed bag. With no optical zoom to call on you're restricted to just the digital version, and I'd recommend steering clear of that as it significantly impacts the output, as you can see from the sample below. The pulled out section is zoomed to 100 per cent -- actual size -- and you can see how the window and branches have a lo-fi finish.
It reverts to wide angle every time you switch it off and on again, and if you keep it in that position the results are much clearer. The brickwork on the image below is well rendered, right into the corner, and its colours are accurate.
As you can see however, the sky has been bleached out, despite there being a fair amount of colour in it while I was performing my tests.
I found its handling of skies to be unpredictable during these tests, and they were more affected by the balance of foreground and background than other cameras I have used this year, with bright subjects, such as the house in the photo below, resulting in an overly dark sky as the camera dialled down the overall exposure to compensate.
In some situations, the Z2300W performs well, although with no half-press on the shutter button there is a certain amount of guesswork to be done when working with closer subjects. The holly below, for example, is particularly clear and sharp both at the centre and close corners of the frame, but it was the third shot I'd taken of the same subject to perfect the result.
There is evidence of colour fringing on sharp contrasts and against fine detail such as the twigs on the end of branches where they pass over brighter backgrounds, indicating that the lens hasn't quite focused each tone in sync at the point where it reaches the sensor.
Furthermore, there is some fudging of fine detail in areas with a limited palette. In the shot below, there is a lack of fidelity in both the bikes and the gravelly floor when zoomed to 100 per cent.
Still life test
As you might expect, the Z2300 performed best under studio lighting, where the colours and textures in the still life test were most accurately reproduced. The results still left a little to be desired where clarity was concerned though.
The exposure was fairly brief at 1/260 second, and sensitivity stayed down at ISO 100, but there was a fair amount of grain in the picture and fine details, such as small text, were difficult to make out.
When relying on ambient light it increased the sensitivity to ISO 256, and as a result there was considerably more grain, which meant that more obvious detail was starting to fall away, such as the texture on the clementines and the writing on the paint pots.
Employing the flash took the sensitivity back down to ISO 100, but introduced a halo effect around sharp contrasts, such as where the wooden box sat on the white backcloth.
At its best quality setting, the Z2300W shoots high definition video at 1280x720 pixels, 30fps. The digital zoom doesn't work when you're shooting video and there's no wind cut feature, so the microphone can pick up the sound of a passing breeze. Aside from that, though, the microphone has good sensitivity and records an accurate, detailed soundtrack.
The results are similar to those seen in the stills tests. Image quality is fair, but colours look washed out in some situations and filming while walking means it loses some detail along the way.
Changes in the level of incoming light were compensated for swiftly, although with some stepping, but overall you could achieve better results with many similarly priced standard cameras and smart phones.
Image quality could be better with the Z2300W, and you could get a far more accomplished camera for a similar price elsewhere. What you won't get though, is the novelty of being able to print your digital photos right away. That's always been Polaroid's unique selling point, and it remains just as much of a fun, appealing draw today.
If this was just a camera with no additional features, it would feel a little overpriced, but with a built-in printer there's a lot more tech under the hood, and in that respect it's largely justified.
It's difficult to argue in favour of buying this camera for everyday use, but kids will love it, and if you're throwing a child's birthday party then the novelty of printing sticky pictures instantly will make you the coolest parent in town. In that respect, the instant camera wow factor is still there; it's something that you just can't replicate by crowding around the back of the LCD on a regular digital snapper.