Mention Polaroid and most people will either think of the iconic white-framed instant prints from family holidays or fashion shoots, or of the Outkast song “Hey ya”, with its exhortations to “shake it like a Polaroid picture”. Which memory leaps to mind for you probably depends on how close to this century you were born. Either way, the connotations amount to the same thing: Polaroid is synonymous with instant photography. With the Snap Touch, Polaroid is trying to marry nostalgia for the instant gratification that made it famous, with the flexibility afforded by contemporary digital photography. Does it succeed? Not really, no.
But let’s start with the good. The Snap Touch looks great. The rainbow stripe across the face, the bright colour options for the body, the rounded corners and the pop-up flash/power button all make for a wonderfully retro-looking package. Aside from rubbery, red shutter release and the power button, all other interactions take place on the 3.5in touch display, which feels thoroughly contemporary. So far, so not bad.
Menus are relatively intuitive and easy to navigate and, on the whole, the Snap Touch is a cinch to use, albeit pretty sluggish. But it’s that sluggishness that sets the tone for everything else about the Snap Touch. Whether you’re powering it up, trying to take more than one shot in succession with it, navigating menus or previewing captured images, the Snap Touch is surprisingly… infuriatingly… staggeringly… slow. Which means you’re not going to get any action shots with it, but then, that’s not really it’s intended use case.
Old meets new
The question is, what is it’s intended use case? It’s easy to imagine the design meeting. Instant photography is undoubtedly a resurgent trend (thanks more to Fujifilm’s Instax range than Polaroid’s efforts, we suspect) but instant film is expensive so the novelty of shoot-and-hope cameras can wear thin fast. How to get around that? By adding a digital sensor, a microSD card slot and a touch display for previewing and editing so that prints can be more considered while still retaining the inconsistencies that are part of instant photography’s charm.
Except adding a digital sensor removes a bit of the magic and chance that happens when you go straight from lens to paper. That intermediary step means more control, sure, but fundamentally changes the camera from an instant one to a digital one with a printer — which is decidedly less romantic. Plus, the market is awash with digital cameras, so why not just buy one of those and a standalone photo printer? The Polaroid Zap is precisely that: the printer part of the Snap Touch without the camera (the snap) or the screen (the touch).
So, is the Snap Touch a decent digital camera? On paper (sorry, but not really sorry at all), it is. The 13MP 1/3.2″ CMOS sensor in combination with the 3.4mm f/2.8 lens (equivalent to a 25.8mm lens on a full-frame or 35mm camera) produce crisp, accurate images in good light. Heck, it’ll even shoot 1080p video if you’re so inclined. But the images and video are only good if you get them off the microSD card and onto something with a good display. On that note, there’s some internal memory, but it’s only good for about a dozen shots, so you’re going to need a microSD card.
Nightmares on screen
Sadly, the 3.5in touch screen is dismal. It’s low res, dull even at the brightest setting, and occasionally ignores touch input for no apparent reason. Figuring out whether a shot is sharp or properly exposed using the display is a guessing game. For extra black marks it’s got a surprising amount of give, resulting in a squidgy feel under the finger that’s unnerving in a touch display. The screen also serves as the cover for the paper tray that can hold up to 10 sheets of the Zink (Zero Ink) paper used for prints.The Snap Touch will spit out a print in around 35 seconds. Unless you add a border the prints are edge to edge, and here again you’re in for a letdown. What you see on the display doesn’t always correspond with the resultant print — vivid, saturated on-screen images come out flat and muted. On-screen detail becomes a muddy print. And pictures with large sections of solid cover inevitably show banding.
Most likely the banding is a result of the ink-less technique Zink printers and paper rely on. The paper has layers of magenta, yellow and cyan that are activated at different temperatures, with the printer doing passes back and forth like a dot-matrix printer of old applying varying degrees of heat as it goes.
That Zink paper works at all is remarkable, but the results are decidedly less appealing than those the Instax (and other cameras that use the same, border-bearing paper) produce. The 2x3in (5×7.5cm) prints feel very small, their gloss makes them fingerprint magnets and the subdued colours don’t inspire confidence about longevity. Instead of the analogue charm of Instax paper, Zink prints feel like budget, digital knockoffs. And at around R12/print, that’s just not good enough, especially when you’ve already had to spend R3,700 on the camera.
Another poor design decision comes in the form of the power button/pop-up flash. It’s far too easy to inadvertently press, which meant we twice came to use the camera only to we’d accidentally turned it on in our bag and run it flat.
Essentially, the Snap Touch is a cute but middling digital camera with a Zink printer tacked on. Which leads us to think that, if you really want a Zink printer, you’d be better off buying the cameraless Polaroid Zap printer (or HP’s recently release equivalent, the Sprocket) and using your phone, a compact digital camera or even a compact system camera, to actually capture the images. Of course, if you’re going to do that, why go for the inferior Zink format when you could buy an Instax printer instead?
Zink technology will doubtless improve in years to come, and hopefully Polaroid’s hardware design will do likewise, but for now we can’t recommend the SnapTouch in good conscience. It’s a novel idea in a cute package, but the results are disappointing and costly.