A strange little ritual used to go along with Polaroid cameras. The shooter would grab the print as it came out of the camera and wave it in the air, as if that would stimulate the chemicals and make the picture appear faster. It didn't. Yet it felt dumb to just stand there, waiting for the picture to develop.
Polaroid stopped making film packs last year, so this little piece of tech culture will soon be just a memory. But just as the film-based Polaroid camera is fading away, along comes its digital replacement.
That's right: Polaroid was set to announce Thursday at the International Consumer Electronics Show that it is introducing a digital camera that produces prints right on the spot. You can even call them "instant" prints, but they take nearly a minute to appear, so they're only as "instant" as the old film prints.
Essentially, the $200 PoGo is a camera that contains a built-in color printer. It produces 2-by-3 inch photos by selectively heating spots on specially treated paper. It has nothing to do with the old chemical Polaroid process, but the prints convey some of the same Pop Art charm: They're grainy and the colors are slightly off, with faces tending toward a deathly blue-green.
The camera is a successor to a standalone printer Polaroid put out last summer, designed to connect to camera phones and digital cameras. When I reviewed it, I noted that if Polaroid combined the printer with an image sensor and an LCD screen, it would be a resurrection of the instant camera. It turns out that's exactly what Polaroid was working on.
Unfortunately, you'll have to wait to get your hands on the camera: Polaroid says it will go on sale in late March or early April.
The camera is a fun product, and people who have been lamenting the death of the Polaroid will find solace in it. Its prints can be peeled apart to reveal a sticky back, which makes them easy to paste on fridges, doors, books, computers, cell phones and other surfaces you want to personalize. For a colleague's going-away party, I took a photo of him, printed out a couple of copies and pasted them on soda cans for an instant "commemorative edition."
The PoGo also has crucial advantages over the old film cameras. You can look at what you shot on the LCD screen, then choose whether you want to print it. You can produce multiple prints of an image, or print something you shot some time ago.
The standalone printer and the new camera use the same paper, which costs $5 for a 10-pack, or $13 for a 30-pack. It's expensive compared to inkjet paper, but about a third of the price of Polaroid film (there are still stocks in stores). No ink or toner is needed.
Despite its high points, The PoGo has the feel of a first-generation product, with noteworthy shortcomings.
As a camera, it's primitive. It doesn't have auto-focus, just a switch for infinity or close-up shots. The resolution is five megapixels, far below that of cheaper compact cameras. Neither of these things matter much for the quality of the prints, which are small and of low resolution anyway, but they do matter if you want to use the digital captures for other purposes.
Like some other cheap digital cameras, there's a substantial lag from the time you press the shutter to when the picture actually is taken, making it nearly impossible to capture action or fleeting expressions.
The prints are narrower than the image captured by the sensor, so you can't print the exact image you see on the screen. Substantial slices are trimmed from the top and bottom of the image to produce the print. In the default shooting mode, the camera doesn't warn you about this effect. You can crop images you've shot, zooming in on parts of them, but there is no way to reduce the size of the image to fit it all on the print.
The life of the rechargeable battery is limited, because of the energy needed to heat up the prints. You can get a bit more than 20 prints on one charge if you do them in one sitting. If you make a print only now and then, you'll get fewer on a charge, because the camera will need to heat up the print head every time. (The old Polaroid cameras didn't have battery problems, because most of them had batteries built into the film packs — a brilliant design. But enough nostalgia.)
None of these flaws are fatal. If you don't like the way the PoGo works as a camera, you can shoot pictures with another camera that uses an SD memory card, then move the card over to the PoGo and print the pictures. But if that's what you plan to use the camera for, you might as well buy the $100 PoGo Instant Mobile Printer, which is slightly smaller. It doesn't take memory cards, but will connect to other cameras with a USB cable.
The camera is much simpler to use than the printer, and it fits the bill for those who want to recapture the simple, spontaneous spirit of Polaroid shooting. Sadly, Polaroid declared bankruptcy in December because of troubles at its parent company. That puts the future supply of PoGo printer paper in question, but Polaroid is still operating, and it appears it will continue for the foreseeable future. In any case, it's likely the portable printing technology will live on, because what it does is unique.