Katherine Boehret

Printer Makes a New Kind of Polaroid Magic

When I was a child, trips to my grandmother’s house meant playing with a magical toy: her Polaroid camera. Grammy was confined to a wheelchair at a time when most people drove to the drugstore to get film developed, so this instant camera worked as her portable darkroom. She lined her “Polaroids” up on the kitchen table for us to see, and encouraged us to snap photos to add to the collection. I was fascinated by the white sheets churned out by each press of the camera’s shutter button and the images that slowly appeared on these prints moments later.

Polaroid’s $150 PoGo is an inkless printer that churns out 2×3-inch photos sent to it via Bluetooth-enabled devices or from plugged-in digital cameras.

Just this year, Polaroid Corp. said it would cease production of its “magical” cameras. But this week, I had the chance to test the company’s latest attempt at relevance in our digital world: the $150 Polaroid PoGo (thenewinstant.com). The PoGo, which stands for Polaroid-on-the-Go, is an inkless printer that churns out 2×3-inch photos sent to it via Bluetooth devices like cellphones or from plugged-in digital cameras. It uses technology created by ZINK (Zero Ink) Imaging Inc. to activate paper-embedded dye crystals, creating a new kind of photo magic. The PoGo will be in stores on July 6.

Cool Factor

This device’s ZINK Technology gives it a cool factor that will leave friends scratching their heads over how such a small device can print without ink (technical details about the 100 billion heat-activated dye crystals on each sheet of paper can be found at zink.com/technology). Photos that I printed from a 10-megapixel digital camera looked sharp and colorful. And some people may use this Polaroid gadget as a solution for freeing images that would otherwise likely remain stuck in a mobile device’s memory.

But four major problems with the PoGo make it a no-go: It isn’t quite small and light enough to be truly portable; its battery life is poor; its prints are half the size of normal photos; and image quality when printing from mobile devices is unimpressive — though this can be attributed to the low-resolution images taken with and stored on these devices rather than the printer itself. For roughly the same price, you could buy a photo printer that produces better quality 4×6-inch or larger prints.

The PoGo works only with ZINK Photo Paper, which costs between 30 cents and 40 cents a page, depending on whether you buy a 10-sheet pack for $3.99 or a 30-sheet pack for $9.99. (Later this year, a 100-sheet pack of ZINK photo paper will be available for $29.99.) The PoGo comes with 10 pieces of this paper, which is coated with a waterproof, tear-proof, smudge-proof, semi-gloss finish. You can peel the backs of these 2×3 prints to stick them to things, though not in the same way Post-its can be stuck and removed (they leave a gooey film — I learned the hard way).

A Device With Weight

Surprisingly, Polaroid is touting the PoGo’s portability; it arrived in a custom-made jeans pocket to demonstrate the device’s pocket-sized shape. But at over 8 ounces, this thing was heavier and measured larger than Apple’s (AAPL) biggest 160-gigabyte iPod Classic. It even weighed more than a bulky point-and-shoot Kodak (EK) camera I recently tested, discouraging me from bringing it along when I went out.

A chart on polaroid.com/pogo/us/comp.html tells whether or not your mobile device is Bluetooth-compatible with the PoGo. Two out of the three devices that I tried worked: A new Motorola (MOT) Z6C and Research in Motion’s (RIMM) BlackBerry Curve were compatible, though an almost-two-year-old Motorola Razr V3 wasn’t.

Each mobile device needed only one initial “pairing,” or setup, with the PoGo before it sent photos. The device used a simple method of sending photos via Bluetooth that generally involved selecting a photo and telling the mobile device to send it to the PoGo. It usually took a few seconds for the send to go through.

The PoGo doesn’t have a display to tell users when images are received, when to load more paper or if the battery is running low. Instead, it uses two indicator lights that glow or pulse in green, orange or red colors. Each light means something different, such as whether or not the PoGo is ready to print or if it has a paper jam, but I usually had to refer to the user’s manual to figure out what each light meant.

Quiet Printer

The PoGo is rather quiet while printing, making a soft whirring sound as its thermal print head turns on and zaps dye crystals, which are embedded in the ZINK photo paper. These small pieces of paper are stored in and printed from a holding space inside the device, which saves users from opening a tray and loading paper before each print-out. However, the PoGo can hold a maximum of only 10 sheets at once. Some images printed in 45 seconds and a few took about twice that long, but most were done in about one minute — counting from when I pressed Send on a mobile device to when the print finished.

I hooked a Sony (SNE) Cyber-shot DSC-W170 to the PoGo via a USB cord and used the camera’s built-in PictBridge technology to print from the camera, following directions on the camera’s display screen. I even printed four of the same photo at once after adjusting the quantity category in a menu, though this seemed to slow the printing process a bit.

While prints from my grandmother’s Polaroid camera couldn’t be touched until about a minute after printing, the small PoGo prints come out dry to the touch. I held one under the kitchen faucet to test its waterproof claim, and the colors held up without running. These prints are borderless, which looks good but seems like the only sensible option with such small paper. Images from the digital camera looked dramatically better than those taken by mobile devices’ 1.3-megapixel or two-megapixel cameras.

Short Battery Life

The PoGo’s battery life wore out quickly, especially for a device that is advertised as portable. In one test, after I unplugged my fully charged PoGo and used it for about 40 minutes to print 16 photos — half from a Bluetooth-connected cellphone and the other half from a USB-connected digital camera — its battery indicator glowed a steady orange, meaning the PoGo was running low on power. This is about right, considering Polaroid claims that a fully charged battery will last for 15 prints. (It takes about 2.5 hours to fully charge the PoGo.)

I really liked the quality of the photos that PoGo printed from my digital camera — in fact, I’m planning to enclose a few small PoGo photos in cards that I send to friends and family members. But the PoGo’s awkward size, bad battery life and small prints make it a tough sell. I’m afraid the PoGo falls short in too many categories to be a practical gadget. Teens might like this device for printing photos from their cellphones that they can stick on lockers or books. And who knows — maybe a grandmother somewhere will buy one of these gadgets to create a little Polaroid magic for her grandchild.

Edited By Walter S. Mossberg

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