PC MAGAZINE- Z340 Instant Digital Camera Review
The Polaroid Z340 Instant Digital Camera ($299.99 direct), isn’t Polaroid’s first digital iteration of the Polaroid film camera, but it’s the first one to let you go beyond wallet-size photos, upping the picture size to 3 by 4 inches. Basically a fully integrated combination of a 14-megapixel camera with a second-generation ZINK printer, it delivers on ease of use, reasonably good quality for the printed photos, and, most of all, the traditional Polaroid promise of letting you snap a picture and have the finished photo in hand in less than minute.
The Z340 is a lot closer in physical design to the consumer-level Polaroid film cameras we remember than the first version was. The Polaroid PoGo Instant Digital Camera ($200 street, 4 stars) that we reviewed a little more than two years ago was basically a 1.4-inch-thick rectangular box, with a slot on the side for the photos to exit through. The photos were only wallet size, at 2 by 3 inches.
The Z340’s wedge shape is reminiscent of some of the old film models. The dimensions, not counting the hand strap on the side or the tiltable LCD in its fully up position, are 4.8 inches deep by 5.8 inches wide, with a height of about 2.3 inches in front tapering off to about 1.3 inches in back. If you went back to, say, the 1980s with it, and handed it to someone to take your picture, they’d probably be impressed by the 2.7-inch color LCD for framing the image, but they’d probably not notice anything else special about it. Just snap the picture, and a reasonably good-quality print comes out the front slot.
The camera side of the Z340 offers lots of control of features like ISO settings and white balance. Casual photographers will want to ignore these in favor of the Auto setting, but more serious photographers will appreciate having them. It also offers about 30 different scene modes, including Portrait, Sunset, and Backlight.
As with Polaroid’s first-generation digital camera, the Z340’s fixed focus lens is arguably its defining feature. Polaroid says it left out an optical zoom to help keep the camera size down. However, that puts the Z340 in a category that hardly exists any more except with camera phones.
The Z340 does offer a digital zoom, which for most cameras would be best ignored. In context of an instant camera, however, where you’ll be printing the photo immediately, the feature can be useful, since it will effectively let you crop the picture when you take it.
Keep in mind too that although you can treat the Z340 like any digital camera, saving photos as files and then sending them by email, posting them to an online site, or printing them on any printer you like, that isn’t how you’re most likely to use it. The whole point of the camera is that it lets you print your photos on the spot using the built-in printer. If you plan to use it primarily as a standard camera without a printer, you’re better off getting a model that fits that description.
The Z340 is one of the slower cameras we’ve tested. It requires a full 4.4 seconds to start up and grab a shot, averages 0.7 second between hitting the shutter button and capturing a photo, and makes you wait 2.8 seconds between photos in continuous drive mode. This won’t be a major issue if you’re printing photos as you shoot, but if you’re selectively printing the best snapshots, the delay can cause you to miss some candid moments.
On the plus side, the image quality for capturing photos, as distinct from the image quality for the final printed photo, is surprisingly good. The 14-megapixel camera recorded 1,948 lines per picture height of resolution according to Imatest. This exceeds the 1,800-line mark that denotes a sharp image. The camera also scored well in low-light performance, keeping its images well under the 1.5 percent noise threshold through its top standard ISO setting of 1600. There’s some evidence of in-camera noise reduction, so you can expect to lose some detail as you increase the ISO, but not so much that the small prints that the camera produces will suffer. There are also two extended ISO modes, 3200 and 6400, for extreme low-light shooting. You’ll want to use these sparingly, since they limit image resolution to 3 megapixels.
The Z340 uses the same print engine as the Polaroid Grey Label GL10 Instant Mobile Printer ($169.99 direct, 4 stars) that we reviewed about a year ago. The printer uses ZINK technology, which means it doesn’t need separate ink and paper. The ink—or, more precisely, what serves as ink—is embedded in the paper as clear dye crystals. The printer uses heat to activate the color and create images.
Not having to load ink and paper separately makes printer setup simple. Open the input door, slide in the paper, and close the door. We ran into a little trouble getting the paper fully inserted, but solved it by using a pen point to push the paper in fully. People with small hands might not have the same problem. Note that the camera comes with one 10-sheet pack of photo paper, which is the maximum it can hold at once. Additional paper is $19.99 for three packs of 10 sheets, which works out to 66.6 cents per photo.
You can set the printer to print immediately after taking a picture, but the feature is off by default. The other choice is to navigate to a picture to preview it on the LCD, hit the Print button, optionally crop the image, add a white border or graphic border, or correct red-eye, and then hit the print button again to print. We timed the printer at a reasonably consistent 44 to 48 seconds per photo.
Output quality isn’t a match for a typical inkjet. We saw a slight soft focus effect in most photos, and colors in some cases were a bit off. A blue sky in one photo, for example, came out as bluish gray, and the red autumn leaves on one tree came out as purple. There was also a slight loss of subtle shading, so one photo of a landscape, for example, looked more like a photo of a painting that a photo of a real landscape. Even so, the quality was generally suitable for snapshots, and most casual photographers will probably be satisfied with the results.
Battery life was a pleasant surprise. Polaroid claims that a fully charged battery is good for 25 prints plus 75 snapshots with flash. In our tests of printing only, it outlasted the paper we had available for testing, still going strong on a single charge after 40 prints.
As anyone who has ever used a Polaroid film camera knows, bringing along a camera that prints is qualitatively different from bringing along a camera plus a printer. It’s simply a lot easier, and a lot less cumbersome, to take a picture and print it on the same fully integrated gadget than to carry two gadgets so you can take the picture on one and print it on the other.
On that score alone, the Polaroid Z340 Instant Digital Camera succeeds quite nicely. We’d like it a lot better if the final result—namely, the printed photos—were of a higher quality or the initial price and running cost were lower. But if you don’t mind the level of output quality for the price, it’s otherwise highly attractive as a fun toy, or, in some cases, a useful tool for work, when you want the convenience of taking pictures and then printing them with minimal effort.