The Polaroid Cube is a delightful little camera that takes still shots and video. Like the name suggests, it's a tiny cube just 35mm on a side. It sticks to any and all magnetic surfaces—even your dinner fork. It can be tossed around and taken out on the town and record all of life's oh-so-precious moments. But so can your smartphone. Does being darling make a difference? Yes, but perhaps not enough to justify your $99.
Some gadgets feel like they need to be handled with care until you settle into a comfort zone and they become part of your life. The Cube isn't one of those. The moment it came out of the package, I was totally comfortable stuffing it in my pocket. I threw it in my bag; I let buddies futz around with it; I accidentally dropped it a few times. It's solidly built, but super friendly and maneuverable. It just screams: "I'm here for good times! Enjoy me!"
Polaroid commissioned San Francisco-based studio Ammunition to oversee the entire design, and it shows. Wrapped in what feels like a hard rubber eraser with a "retro" rainbow stripe that runs around the perimeter, the Cube is totally adorable. Ammunition's the company that created the ubiquitous Beats by Dre headphones, so that makes sense: the company is well-familiar with making distinctive products with mass-market appeal. They've proven they know how to make something that people not only want to use, but want to be seen using.
Is this thing on?
There's only one button on this baby, a nod to the One-Shot Polaroids of yore. A teensy—like, really small—adjacent light swaps from red to green, flashing or steady, to let you know the camera's current mode. As you switch between them, a series of corresponding beeps will give you an audible heads-up.
Here's how it works: Hold the button down for three seconds and the Cube turns on. Push it once and you'll snap a still pic, or press it twice and you'll start to record video and sound. One more touch will stop recording, and another three-second hold will turn it off again. That's it. It's super simple... but only once you know how it works! I (foolishly) opted to go rogue my first evening with the Cube, mugging like crazy while pressing the button with reckless abandon during an evening soiree, and all I have to show for it is four measly jpegs: One of the inside of my hand, one of my dumb face, and two of me and a pal on a dark street with dopey expressions.
The Cube comes in blue, red, and black, each water-resistant enough to be splashed or rained on, but you can opt for a waterproof case. There are also tripod, bike, and helmet mounts, a strap, a "bumper" that envelops the body so the whole thing becomes a kind of pendant; and a sweet little headless monkey. Unfortunately, none of the accessories or attachments were quite ready when I was trying it out, so I had to get creative when I wanted to film a bike ride from the Mission to Outer Richmond. But you know what? All it took was a plain old rubber band to affix this to my stem and I was good to go. The light weight and tiny size of the Cube makes it easy to attach to all kinds of everyday objects.
Which brings me to the best part: the super-strong dime size magnet on the flip-side from the on-off button. It's awesome. Armed with that little sucker, I stuck the Cube to a fork, a knife, the metal stand that holds your pizza at a restaurant, even a bobby pin in my friend's hair!
It's No GoPro
Just don't buy this thing thinking you'll replace a hardcore, exxxxtreme sports-friendly action camera. My colleague Brent Rose has reviewed a lot of those, and he says the Cube doesn't quite cut it. You pay a lot less for a lot less image quality, a narrower field of view, and no mounts out of the box. Plus, even if your bike has steel handlebars (most decent ones are aluminum these days) the magnet's not strong enough to keep it from wobbling. Video proof above.
Sunday afternoon at the coffee shop.
This thing is just plain fun. It's fun to look at, it's fun to toss around. It's super simple to operate. It's durable. When I'm not planning on doing something off the wall, daredevil crazy, I don't need a GoPro. This fits in way better with my more casual lifestyle.
I actually really appreciate the fact that the Cube is not Wi-Fi-enabled and has no viewscreen. When I took it out to dinner, we were flipping it around and making faces, and we all wanted to give it a go. If this had been a smartphone, everyone would have spent time hunched over it to see what kind of footage we got and how we all looked and oh-wait-let's-take-another-then-upload-it-to-Twitter-and-has-anyone-faved-it-yet?
There is something charmingly old-school—dare I say, nostalgic—about having to wait until later to see what you've captured. I mean, we snapped a bunch of clips throughout the course of the night—WAY more than we would have on any normal eve—but it didn't take us out of the moment, and no one was bothered about what the results were going to be. If anything, it freed us up and made for even sillier stuff. The delayed gratification reminded me of the joy and anticipation of developing a roll of actual film in high school. It felt fresh and engaging, as opposed to tedious and obnoxious. Granted, it was a total novelty, and I don't feel like I would bring this out with me all the time, but there's something to that.
Andy got creative. This is what a lot of the footage looked like.
The little light above the power button is tough to see in full daylight—aaand kind of when it's dark out, too. When I started my pre-dusky bike ride, I had to hold the thing right up to my eye to make sure it was flashing red and I was actually recording video. This wasn't a problem when I was just testing things for fun, but I imagine there might be some crunch-time mix-ups where someone thought they pressed the button just so, only to find it didn't take.
Ditto the corresponding beeps; they're faint enough that you might miss them in the hustle of fumbling to get this thing running. You can turn them off completely if you want, though.
This is less a no-like than a heads-up: If you're buying a Cube, don't forget to nab an SD card, too. The first time I used this thing was immediately after unboxing. I stuck it in my pocket—it literally fits in a pocket!—and ran out to meet some pals for a drink (or two). We had a total blast tossing it around, magnetizing it to everything from a fork at dinner to my pal's bobby pin, just generally being goofballs but really having a great, silly time. After a long night of beer and pizza I got home, plugged it in with the shortest little USB cable I've ever seen, and realized it did not come equipped with memory. Please note: That is absolutely, positively, me being an idiot, but I can't imagine I'm the only one out there.
And most importantly: The Cube is practically begging to be chucked around. But wow: That absolutely does not make for great footage. In fact, it makes for pretty shaky, stomach-churningly tough to watch stuff. I am still laughing at my friend Andy, who had it magnetized to a piece of metal and just spun it around and around and around. Seemed like a good idea at the time! Not so much when you realize the garbage you've recorded.
Should You Buy It?
Who the heck is the Cube made for? This is not going to replace anyone's ultra-high-end action cam. GoPro does not need to worry.
It's reliable for shooting stills and video—but so is your smartphone.
I feel like this is the kind of thing that would be a blast to have hanging around at a party, or the digital update to disposable cameras at a wedding if it didn't cost $99. It's something a kid could go nuts with, without a parent worrying that the delicate equipment might get busted. I honestly don't know if the fickle youths of today would buy into something that won't share their whereabouts and happenings with a quick click, but maybe they're ready for a gizmo that changes the frenetic pace.