Polaroid Z340 Review
The Polaroid Instant Z340 is an instant camera for the digital age.
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Nothing is quite like a classic Polaroid instant camera. Yeah, the photos are murky and the film costs as much as some standalone cameras, but for decades, it was the most magical format in all of photography. Point, shoot, and shake—you’ve got an instant memory preserved in silver and celluloid.
Digital photography has reduced film to a niche artistic endeavor, and even the cheapest of the cheap pocket digicams are incredibly convenient compared to the old way of doing things. But instant prints are still charming, lending a sense of nostalgia that digicams—convenient as they are—just can't capture.
Enter the $299 Polaroid Instant Z340. It’s a Polaroid instant camera for the digital age. Like its ancestors, it’s a point-and-shoot camera crammed into a big, ugly, brick of a printer. Warts and all, it exists because it can spit out a real photo in short order, but it doesn’t give up any of the advantages of digital photography.
Design & Usability
The Z340 is a printer that happens to take pictures, and printers are not designed for comfort or style.
This is all fine and well, but we caution users who think that these pictures will be of much quality. We suspect that Polaroid may have added a filter of sorts to purposely degrade image quality for the sake of a nostalgic look. What does this mean for you? Well, it means 3×2 inch prints with exceptionally poor detail and color accuracy.
An ink-free design prevents any kind of smudging or cartridge-replacement problems down the line. It prints exclusively to ZINK paper, which has heat-activated color crystals under the surface. That paper is fairly expensive—30 sheets for $19.99—but that’s considerably cheaper than Polaroid instant film was, and that was still a popular format. Just stick to printing the “keepers” and it won’t be a problem. The printer quality is decent, considering that it comes from a portable unit without ink. Colors are a little flat and inconsistent from edge-to-edge, and sharpness could be better, but on the plus side, the lower resolution covers up some of the minor noise and aberration inconsistencies in the digital photos. Film is certainly more charming, but we’re fans of the Z340’s prints.
This camera looks and handles like a floppy-disk drive.
Even with the included pleather hand-strap, the Z340 doesn’t lend itself to one-handed operation at all. Trying to hold it like a modern camcorder or digital camera is physically difficult, and it makes the shutter nearly impossible to reach. Framing a photo is a test of geometry and endurance, even with the LCD flipped up. The only comfortable way to wrangle this thing is with two hands. The important shooting buttons are arranged in a column to the right of the LCD. The shutter is too mushy, and the rest of the buttons are too hollow and plasticky, but tactility is decent on the whole.
The menu system and the playback mode are pretty standard for a point-and-shoot, aside from the emphasis on printing. There’s a slideshow option, a playback zoom (up to 12x), a FUNC button that doubles as a delete key, and a multi-picture view with options like calendar mode. General photo info, including histogram and exposure settings, appear at will. Traditional albums (or any sorting ability at all) and face recognition are omitted—a shame, since this camera is used largely for portraits. A tiered menu divides options into shooting, playback, and setup-oriented categories, and a solid quick menu is available too, streamlining control over shooting modes, exposure compensation, white balance, ISO, and a few others.
Finally, like the Polaroid instant cameras of old, and like the vast majority of all mass-market cameras today, the Z340 is geared for mostly automatic usage. The default auto mode is as straightforward as they come, and likely to see the most action, ahead of program shift and the plethora of scene modes. Manual aperture or shutter priority modes are missing altogether.
Pictures look best when shot in bright light with vintage color options.
By ISO 800 and 1600, used in very low-light settings, details get smeared like a watercolor painting.Image quality has its ups and downs. As with most point-and-shoots built from low-cost components, shooting with the Z340 in dim lighting can be problematic. At ISO 800 and 1600, details get smeared like a watercolor painting, colors start to lose their saturation, and grainy noise creeps into the shot anyway. Since the Z340 is a fixed focal-length camera (no optical zoom), it has an inherent advantage in most of our resolution tests—with so few moving parts, not much can go wrong. Pictures are easily sharp enough for the printer’s 4×3″ maximum size, and in fact, this is one of the best sharpness scores we’ve seen out of any camera this year, period.
Like any other camera on the market, the Z340 also offers high-def (720p) video mode, but control is limited and performance is iffy. It’s a tossed-off, barely useful feature—but hey, it’s there for anyone who wants it, and totally forgettable for anyone who doesn’t.
We think that the Z340 is worth the cost, even though it's a novelty gadget.
The world is different than it was when classic Polaroids were the social cameras of choice. We’ve become accustomed to instantly sharing pictures in the digital age, especially since the advent of social networks and now smartphones. But there’s still something special about printed photos, and especially instantly printed photos, with or without a shake.
The Polaroid Z340 is the only camera right now that brings back the magic without giving up the advantages of a digital camera. That’s enough to earn a hearty thumbs-up from us, but more importantly, the Z340 actually does its job pretty well. Photo quality is clean and clear enough for the Z340's 4×3″ prints, and the ink-free printer works well for a small, portable unit. Sure, the Z340 is the weakest camera in its price range (around $299 at the moment) that we’ve tested, but it’s really a $100 camera attached to a $200 printer. It’s a stronger performer than almost any cheap point-and-shoot out there, and it's the only cheap point-and-shoot that makes its own prints.
Whether any camera is worth $300 (plus $19.99 for every 30 sheets of ZINK paper) is really a matter of personal preference. We think that the Z340 is worth the cost, even if it is really just a novelty gadget. It’s the ultimate companion for get-togethers with friends, spitting out instant party favors and putting a smile on everyone’s face. The rest of the time, it’s a serviceable digicam—slow and cumbersome, but not all that bad. Polaroid lives on.
The Polaroid Instant Z340 is not a powerhouse shooter. With an MSRP of $300, it's not exactly a budget point-and-shoot either, but most of what you're paying for is the (potentially nostalgic) ability to print the pictures you take. It's still a digital camera, though, and that puts performance specs like its color accuracy and resolution into more of a heavy-weight class than the Polaroids of yesteryear. Still, it's not perfect: the science page is here to explain why.
Mediocre color reproduction, especially for skin tones
We measured a minimum color error of 4.61, and we like to see 3.0 or lower. Saturation sits at about 109.6%, which is on the threshold of where an over-saturation penalty kicks in. Yellows and reds are particularly inaccurate, which could be troublesome in a camera designed for portraits. Blues are exaggerated as well.
Things get tricky when the lights go down.
Actual noise weighs in at an average of just 1.1% across all full-res ISO levels in multiple lighting conditions, which is a very respectable result for a camera like this. The full-size crops tell a different story, though. Lower ISO levels—100 and 200—are fine, so outdoor and well-lit indoor shots will look clean and clear.
Low light shots are noisier than bright light shots, even with the heavy noise reduction. At 60 lux, we measured an average of 1.2% and a maximum of 1.3% noise—the curve flattens out at the top, due to increasing noise reduction. At 3000 lux, we measured an average of about 1% and a maximum of 1.16% noise, with a similar curve.
High-def video capture, but with poor sharpness and inaccurate color
Video color is worse than still color, and pretty terrible overall. It’s really a crapshoot with point-and-shoots—some are pleasant surprises, others are just junk. We can’t say that the Z340 surprised us either way. Video sharpness is below average for a 720p-capable camera—closer to what we typically see from cameras that are stuck at standard definition. We measured 300 horizontal and 350 vertical lw/ph.