Technology

Polaroid's PoGo: Not Quite Good to Go


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Editor's Rating: star rating

Before the new PoGo instant camera can restore Polaroid's reputation, it needs a few improvements

Polaroid is counting on the PoGo instant camera to restore some luster to its tarnished brand. But the re-imagined digital version of the old print-it-yourself film models doesn't deliver photos with very much sheen.

I recently spent time toting Polaroid's latest product around San Francisco, shooting friends, street scenes, and a few ill-advised self portraits. The $200 camera, available online from Amazon.com (AMZN) and Walmart.com (WMT) in May, and due to arrive on store shelves in June, captures 5 megapixel digital photos and prints them on the spot on special sheets of 2 in. by 3 in. paper.

The immediate gratification of seeing what I'd shot on paper held appeal. But overall, the camera was too heavy to carry around for extended periods of time, its tiny prints yielded washed-out or uneven looking colors, and the tradeoff between novelty and value was too high at a time when a point-and-shoot digital camera at twice the resolution can be had for $40 to $70 less.

Bankrupt for the Second Time

Polaroid has hit on tough times. It filed for bankruptcy in December for the second time since 2005. The founder of its corporate parent, Petters Group Worldwide , is scheduled to stand trial for fraud and money laundering in June. On Apr. 6, a judge rejected a $59.1 million bid to buy the brand amid complaints that the auction of Polaroid was flawed.

The company, which made popular instant cameras for decades, stopped producing the film for those cameras, prized by some professionals and photo enthusiasts, last year. Now, Polaroid is betting on digital products that use technology called Zink, which stands for "zero ink" paper. In 2008, Polaroid launched a pocket-sized Zink printer that can be hooked to a digital camera. This year, it's built the Zink printer, which heats layers of dye crystals inside the paper, right into the camera.

But the resulting PoGo makes too many compromises for me to recommend it even to casual shooters. Setting up the camera was simple enough. An initial charge of the battery took two hours, and loading the Zink paper, which will cost $13 for 30 sheets, $20 for 50 sheets, or $30 for 80, wasn't hard. It involved opening the camera's back, placing a special bar-coded sheet at the bottom of the stack to clean the print head and calibrate the printer, then stacking the 10 remaining blank sheets in the paper pack on top.

PC Connection Possible

The PoGo includes 17 preset shooting modes to ease taking portraits, night photos, or shots taken by candlelight, for example. Users can also set the flash, sharpness, color saturation, and ISO (or film speed) value by hand, and those settings show up on the screen on the back of the camera, which doubles as the viewfinder. The standard photo resolution is 5 megapixels, but users can up that to seven, or take the quality down to conserve memory.

PoGo contains limited onboard memory; it stores seven shots taken at 5 megapixels. But the camera accepts standard Secure Digital memory cards that can hold many more. Extra features include the ability to connect the camera to a PC—photos look better on screen than they do on the Zink printouts—and built-in software for adding borders.

The main reason to buy a PoGo, however, is to make instant prints. On that count, the camera performs reasonably well. Printed photos emerge from a slot on the side of the PoGo in about 45 seconds. The quality is high enough to post on your fridge to show house guests.

Too Heavy to Carry Around

Still, even reasonably serious photo hobbyists will likely be disappointed. Snapshots I took of a neon restaurant sign and a cherry red motorcycle came out O.K. But the purple in a store's Easter window display looked faded and uneven, as did the grays on a bed of stones outside my office. And those self-portraits and photos of friends? Skin tones came out pasty and reddish on paper, though they looked close to correct on the camera's screen. And a purple sweater I was wearing in one was rendered an indeterminate shade of gray.

There are other shortcomings. The PoGo measures 5 in. wide, 3 in. high, and 1.5 in. deep. Yet at almost three-quarters of a pound when loaded with paper and rechargeable battery, it was too heavy to carry comfortably in my pocket. Polaroid says its weight makes it mainly suitable for events like parties and kids' sports games, vs. carrying around every day, or on a trip. The shutter also lagged when I pressed the capture button, so I needed to hold quite still to avoid blurriness. And I couldn't press the shutter release twice in a row to capture a couple shots of the same thing, since the software moves right into the display mode after a shot is taken.

Polaroid believes consumers will pay a premium for the camera and its paper to generate small-sized digital prints on the go. In part, it's an informed bet. Consumers haven't cottoned to making digital prints from their PCs since buying the right ink and paper and messing with software settings can be a hassle. The PoGo dispenses with all that. Yet I found its prints so wanting that for casual snapshots I'd rather do things the (new) old fashioned way: Save my pictures, burn a CD, and drop it off at the local drugstore.

Ricadela is a writer for BusinessWeek in Silicon Valley.

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