When I was a teenager, I got a job at Kmart to fund my photography habit. It bought me my first SLR—but also a later model Polaroid, arguably one of the greatest cameras ever. Tomorrow, Polaroid will ship a device that attempts to recapture some of that old magic: The Zip.
In some ways, I think that cheap plastic money receptacle I bought as a teenager had a way bigger impact on me than any nice camera. Why? For one thing, it only gave me one shot—and if I fucked it up, it was my hard-earned Kmart dollars on the line. It made me think about framing way harder than an SLR ever had, where clicks are nearly endless and editing certainly is. And because I had no control over focus or color, only one thing mattered: Composition. Polaroid’s limits made me consider geometry and structure in a totally new way, and ultimately got me interested in architecture and design. When Polaroid stopped making film for it, I was sincerely sad.
Meanwhile, Polaroid has struggled to find its footing (see: Lady Gaga’s smart glasses). Polaroid’s new business model has it licensing its brand to smaller companies for use in their products, an approach that has churned out a huge number of gadgets, including plenty of instant printers, none of which have struck a lasting chord with consumers. Can the Zip finally bring Polaroid back from the grave?
It’s a small instant printer—no camera—that pairs with your phone over Bluetooth and lets you edit and print tiny 2 x 3 inch photos in a few seconds.
It is less than half the price of the $300 Polaroid-banded Socialmatic and other camera-and-printer options. It’s also significantly less than other Polaroid printer-only devices and competitors. It is also simpler, without the camera functionality that drove the price of some of its predecessors up and without the option to change paper sizes. It’s truly instant, spitting out tiny photos in less than 10 seconds, and only requires you to keep buying one thing: Zink (“zero-ink”) paper.
2000 versus 2015.
In other words, it does something very similar to what Polaroid’s flagship product did—minus the camera. And it’s doing it for less. The SX-70 sold for $180 when it debuted in 1972. Adjusted for inflation, it would cost more than $1,000 today. A single film square cost $3.87 in today’s dollars. The Zip, meanwhile, sells for $130 and a photo cost about 50 cents.
The price cut is largely thanks to the fact that this is not particularly new technology. And the fact that there’s no camera involved.
Though it’s a descendent of several other Polaroid-licensed printers that came before it, Zip is cleaner and simpler than its predecessors. That’s thanks to Ammunition, the San Francisco design studio headed up by Robert Brunner.
If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Brunner is the mastermind behind a whole haul of gadgets you already know: He was the mastermind behind Beats and only left the company after it was sold to Apple this year. He’s worked with a huge number of other major technology companies, as well. For Polaroid, Brunner and his team are simplifying and downsizing, starting last year with a tiny cube that records video, and continuing with Zip. Both products are utterly spare, but bear the faint fingerprint of Apple—where Brunner worked until 1997—thanks to their beveled edges and spare faces.
Zip is shiny white plastic, with a single button, and the rainbow stripe of Polaroid’s heydey on each end. It looks like a hard drive, and it about the same size. But it has a pleasingly grabby shape and weight. It’s the kind of thing you want to throw in your bag on the way out the door, and that’s the whole point.
If you’ve ever paired a wireless device with your phone, this will be very easy. If you haven’t, it will also be easy.
Open the box, take out the printer, and charge it up with its micro-USB cord—which is the only other thing in the box besides the printer and paper. Press the power button. Go into your Bluetooth setting and connect. Download Polaroid’s app. Then you’re ready to print.
The most complex part of the whole operation is loading the paper, but even that is stupidly simple. Take it out of the wrapper, pop open the top of the printer, put it in with the blue side down, then close the printer. Done. I was printing within three minutes of starting the process—and the printer itself is also very fast, churning out a print in about 10 seconds.
As far as user experience goes, the app is simple and easy to use, if a bit dated-looking, with plenty of shadows and details that make it feel like it was developed a few years ago. One qualm: The editing tools within the app aren’t fantastic.
Someone didn’t get the memo about iOS 7.
But then again, the photos I wanted to print had already been edited on my phone in Instagram or right in the iOS Photos app. As far as usability, the app couldn’t be easier.
Zip does exactly what it promises. It works like a charm, is stupidly easy to use, not horribly expensive, and fast as hell. I’d be excited to go on a daytrip with it, or take it to a wedding. I could even see using it to replace a photobooth at a wedding. It’s very, very fun to play with, and it’s flawless as far as design goes.
Make no mistake: These pictures are tiny. Beyond putting one in your wallet or printing out a zillion and framing them for effect, as I did, it’s a tough format to work with.
What is this, a museum for ants?
The size wouldn’t be such a big deal if the aspect ratio wasn’t so extreme. You’ve got two choices: Severe portrait or severe landscape. In an era where the square dominates, it kind of ruins the effect. You’re slicing off half of whatever Instagram photo you want to print.
Ignoring the format of Instagram seems short-sighted—especially when that format echoes Polaroid’s original square photos so perfectly. Millions of Instagram users are trying to make their digital photos look more like Polaroids. So why isn’t Polaroid helping them by making a printer that completes the process?
Who knows—but my guess is that the 2 x 3-inch format is simply cheaper to utilize because it’s been used by Zip’s predecessors and the supply chain already exists.
Should You Buy It?
Which brings me back to the whole reason I was so excited to try Zip: My beat-up old Polaroid. Zip doesn’t subject you to the same rigid requirements those old cameras did. You can edit your shots, you can zoom, you can adjust. You take the photo long before it’s jammed into the printer’s super-thin format.
Goodbye, old friend.
That’s going to be a major boon for most users. Zip is extraordinarily easy to use, and fun, too. It’s inexpensive, fast, and flexible. Nonetheless, I miss the stomach-flip sensation of spotting a shot and carefully framing it, holding my breath while I pressed the spring-loaded button. Corny as it sounds, the pure disappointment or pure elation that emerged from that white chemical haze is really hard to come by these days.
The images Zip prints are a known quantity—what pops out won’t surprise you. For most people, that’s a good thing. For me, it was bittersweet.
Contact the author at kelsey@Gizmodo.com.