The Polaroid Lab ($129.99) is a standalone device that prints instant photos from your smartphone’s screen. It’s the follow-up to the Impossible Lab Universal, and is decidedly similar in function, using a smartphone app and optical lens to expose instant film using your phone’s screen. If you’re looking for a way to make Polaroid prints from digital shots, the Lab isn’t your only option, though. We give slight preference to the Fujifilm Instax Share SP-3, which uses the slightly smaller Instax Square film format and prints via Wi-Fi.
The Polaroid Lab’s industrial design is a lot more fun than the previous-generation Impossible Lab. It eschews basic black and angled edges for a design that rounds out the sides and is mostly finished in white plastic. The rainbow Polaroid logo is prominent on the front. The pedestal, which houses the optics, is black to minimize internal reflections.
The Lab is powered by an internal battery—it charges via a micro USB port—so it’s certainly portable. It measures 5.9 by 4.6 by 5.9 inches (HWD) when the black pedestal is collapsed; the height increases to 7.0 inches when it’s extended and ready to print.
The film loads at the base. A door opens up, so you can slide a pack of Polaroid’s I-Type film in. You can use color or black-and-white film, and the Lab also works with 600 format film. I-Type is a little less expensive, though, as it doesn’t include a battery to power vintage cameras, something inside each pack of 600 film.
Print From Your Phone
The Lab doesn’t include Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to connect with your phone. Instead, it uses an optical lens to capture images from your phone’s screen. A black button raises the pedestal and powers on the Lab.
The Polaroid app, a free app for Android and iOS, is a required download. It loads images from your phone and prints either single images or collages of two, three, four, six, or nine at a time. Each collage option has multiple layouts from which to choose, and you can tap in to adjust the crop to prevent important details from being obscured from any template preview.
Printing from your phone’s screen is easy enough. The app can load any photo saved on your phone, assuming you give it permission, and also has its own camera function. There aren’t any editing tools aside from basic cropping—but there are better phone apps, like VSCO, if you want to edit and filter shots.
Once you have your print ready to go, you just need to place your phone face down on the top of the Lab. It will audibly beep when it’s ready to print, and you’ll just need to press the red button on the base to start the process. The print ejects quickly, but Polaroid Originals film takes about 15 minutes to fully develop, and it’s recommended that you block it from light during that time.
The optical printing process is unique to Polaroid. Other devices that make instant prints, like the Fujifilm SP-3, use Wi-Fi and internal optics to expose the film. But there are some downsides. For one, I had to remove my iPhone from its case in order for it to work. Second, if you are in the unfortunate situation of having to use a phone with a cracked front screen, your prints will show those same cracks. (Of course, some artists may see this as a selling point.)
There’s also an augmented reality (AR) option. The app can tie a short video clip or a photo to a print. A small code prints at the bottom, which you’ll read with the Polaroid app. You can set the linked video to be private, which means only your phone or app will be able to see it, or public, which allows anyone with the app to view the associated clip or photo. It’s likely to have very limited appeal as a feature, but doesn’t hurt anything by being there.
Film Quality and Cost
The Lab supports I-Type and 600 Polaroid Originals film. It’s a square format, available in color or black-and-white, with an image area that’s 3.1 inches on each side. The standard film has the classic white border, but Polaroid also offers special editions with different borders. It currently sells a Stranger Things stock, along with a similar version of its basic OneStep 2 camera, for example.
Each pack holds eight shots, and sells for about $16—just about $2 per image. Special edition film is typically priced around $17 per pack. You can save a few dollars by buying a three-pack for $45 or a five-pack for $65, the latter of which cuts costs to about $1.63 per print.
Out of the box, I noted a little underexposure in prints made from my iPhone 8 Plus, but it’s easy enough to dial in some extra exposure before printing. Polaroid also recommends you disable your phone’s True Tone color settings and automatic brightness adjustment to get the best results.
The competing Instax Square format isn’t as big—its image area is about 2.4 inches on each side. But it costs less, typically about a dollar per photo. It’s also shows better colors and develops more quickly than the Polaroid color film. You can’t get Instax film in black-and-white, but monochrome prints from the SP-3 look good.
The larger format certainly has some appeal, though, especially if you’re planning on displaying prints. And if you’re a black-and-white fan, you’ll be happy to know that Polaroid’s current monochrome film is excellent.
The Quirky Choice
You’ve got options when it comes to making instant prints from digital files. The Fujifilm Instax Share line, available for Mini and Square formats, offers a superior overall experience thanks to wireless printing, better materials, and lower operating costs. And if those are what you’re after, the Instax Share SP-3 is a fine product.
But for some, a Polaroid is a Polaroid, and nothing else will do. The Polaroid Lab is your only option if you want your instant prints to match the look and feel of instant snaps of years past. You’ll pay a bit more for the privilege, and deal with a more tactile, hands-on printing process. It may even lead to some unpredictable results, especially if you want to experiment with phones with cracked displays or other physical flaws. This is one for the artists.