Instant photo cameras phased out a long while ago. The popularity of digital photography was one of the reasons responsible for pushing the older expensive technology out. Photo printers then took on the job of mass printing, which was highly economical and made it much easier to edit the image before printing. Later, printers came in smaller packages. And finally, the battery-operated portable printer was born. We did see a few of these babies with Epson, Canon and a few other manufacturers marketing them a while ago. With technology further making them even smaller and maintenance-free, today we have the pocket-sized photo printer to serve us. We have with us the LG Pocket Printer that can deliver 2x3 size photo prints in a span of just 45 seconds. Let’s check out the printer, its performance and feasibility.
The printer is the size of a soap dish, weighs around 212 g
Design and build
The LG Pocket Photo is a miniature photo printer almost the size of a soap tray. If you have seen the pocket projector or the Western Digital WDTV Live media player, you will get an idea of the size. It might not seem completely pocketable as the name suggests, but it is highly portable and convenient to tag around in your bag. It weighs around 212 grams and the dimensions are 120.9 x 24 x 72.4 mm. The entire chassis is built with plastic and is available in three colour variants—Orange, Silver and pink. All are dual-toned with a white top and bottom and the sides with the respective colours. The entire chassis is matte-finish with a designed texture to prevent scratches. There are absolutely no function buttons or a control panel on the device except for a power button on the left side, which is backlit to indicate charge, operation and standby. On the right is a small port-flap that hides the micro USB port. This port is meant for charging the internal battery only. The front has the paper output slot from where the photos exit after the imaging is done. The rear has a door which feeds in ten 2 x 3-inch photo papers—no cartridge or paper tray whatsoever.
Backlit power button and micro USB charging port on the sides
The top panel is removable and can be only removed after the paper feed door has been opened. This panel needs to be removed only in case of a paper jam or to clean or service the rollers. Apart from this, there are no other user serviceable parts or places in the entire printer. Bundled along with the printer is a USB charger, a micro USB to USB type A cable (for charging), a pack of 10 photo sheets for printing and a single smart sheet that is to be used to calibrate and clean the print head.
Paper feed bay and output slot on the rear and back respectively
The Pocket Photo is unique—unlike other photo printers that use ink to create or print an image on standard or photo paper, this one does not feature any ink at all and hence, also known as inkless printer. The ink is inside each paper itself. The paper is specially made for the printer and is called ZINK (Zero Ink) paper. Basically, the printer is no different from a conventional fax machine that uses thermal printing technology. The only difference is the size and function of the thermal printing head, which does the job of creating the image on the ZINK paper by applying variations of heat on the paper that passes over it via the rollers. The resolution of the printed image is 313 dpi.
The top opens up for paper jams
So what is this “ZINK” paper and how does it work. Let us explain this technology in short. Zink paper is actually a thermal photo paper similar to a fax paper that does only black and white images. Each ZINK paper or photo sheet is made of five different layers. These include three layers of each colour—Cyan, Magenta and Yellow. These layers are colour-dyed crystals that are colourless when in room temperature, but react with heat to change/activate the actual colour. Each dye crystal changes colour when a particular amount of heat is applied for a certain amount of time. These colour layers are placed on a base layer that is basic normal template or paper or plastic. The topmost final layer is a transparent overcoat layer made of a clear polymer to seal the other layers and protect it from light, regular temperature/water and provide a traditional glossy or matte finish.
Note: The photo can get damaged if it comes in contact with excess heat. The print head consists of microscopic heating elements connected to electrodes and activated via a microcontroller on the main logic board. The print head can reach temperatures ranging from 100 to 200 degrees Celsius. Each 2x3-inch ZINK paper has around 100 billion dye crystals and is activated by around 200 million heat pulses when passing over the thermal print head. The crystals then change colour and are mixed with the three layers to form the millions of colours needed for the image. For more information about the technology, you can refer to the website www.zink.com.
2 x 3 inch LG ZINK photo paper, 30 sheets in a pack for Rs 1,099
Moving on, the LG Pocket Photo does not have any physical interface to communicate with any device or PC to print from. Instead, it only makes use of Bluetooth technology to send and receive information. LG has incorporated a small NFC chip (located on the underside of the top panel) for basic communication with a smartphone or NFC-enabled handheld. This chip simply helps cut down the need of starting the printing application and pairing the device with the handheld with the Bluetooth interface. The rest is done via Bluetooth. A simple tap with an NFC compliant smartphone (Android or Iphone) helps download/start the LG app and automatically pairs the device with the handset (first time only). The NFC is just for pairing the device and you don’t need to tap the phone every time you want to print—simply start the application and print the next time you want to use the printer. The Pocket printer runs off an Internal non-removable 500 mAh 7.4V Li-Polymer battery that charges within 1.5 hours. Sadly, the battery is just enough for a maximum of 25 prints on a full charge. For a longer run, you can work it off any USB port of a PC or with the bundled charger.
The printing process from the Pocket Photo App on the smartphone
Using the printer is as easy as sharing a photo from your smartphone. For first time use, simply tap your NFC-enabled smartphone on the top panel of the printer and your phone will be paired with the printer automatically. It will also guide your phone to download the LG Pocket Photo App from the Play Store. Once downloaded, your phone is ready for printing. The app then pulls up the photos in your device from which you can choose the photo to print. Optionally, you can make a few changes to the photo before printing (directly on the phone) too. You can resize the photo, flip, rotate, add text, dates and QR codes and apply filters (choose from Clear, Sharpen, Faded, B/W, Cool, Warm, Opacity and Dimness). Your photos can also be printed in different sizes for passports, IDs or business cards. Once set what you want to print, simply hit the "Print" icon and the image is transferred to the printer via Bluetooth, and within a minute your photo is printed. The paper is pulled from within the printer and exits from the front after passing through the thermal print head. Presently, the printer is compatible with Android (V2.2 and above) and IOS (v5.1 and above). If your handset does not feature an NFC function, you can still pair the phone using the Bluetooth option—no pass code required. The app also features basic settings and the information about the device’s status. Here you can see the battery level, number of pages printed, MAC address and firmware version. You can also set the sleep time. Print mode and exposure for the prints.
Printing possibilities and designs from the app
The Pocket Photo is very versatile—the prints are only possible with 2x3-inch ZINK photo papers, which make the prints very limited to be put to use. However, you can use them for printing instant photos on IDs, passports, business cards, invitation cards, quick giveaways, tags, gifts, product information leafs (with QR codes), occasions and much more. To test the performance of the printer, we did try out some tests. The device passed the pairing/ease of use and printing test with flying colours. From pairing to printing was very simple and was done within a few minutes. We then pulled up a photo taken on the phone and printed it as-is—no editing or makeovers. The print was already out in 47 seconds from the time we hit the print button on the phone (we used a Samsung Galaxy S4 for the test with photos shot at 13MP). On an average, the data is transferred to the printer from the handheld via Bluetooth in around 15 seconds and the photo prints in around 30 seconds from the time it is picked up from the sheet bay.
Basic and minimal settings for the printer via the app
The print quality we received was not up to the mark. On a test basis, we took a few photos ranging from regular shots to colour corrected photos. Images printed were pale—colours lacked vibrancy and brightness. Skin textures were darker than normal. Black and white photos had a tinge of violet colour, which makes black shades appear a bit wierd. On the other hand, the sharpness and details are decent. To sum up the performance, though the printer prints in good speed, the quality of the photos is not up to the mark. The photos can be used basically for general occasions such as making instant birthday invitation cards or to be pasted on presents and gifts. Other uses we can possibly think of are urgent passport photos and quick information cards.
Sample photos from the printer (Actual prints compared to the original file) (Click to enlarge)
The Pocket Photo is simply too expensive and almost impractical. Considering the tiny size, inkless printing technology, wireless operation and being battery powered, the device seems interesting. But the price of the printer and the price per print are just not practical. The printer is available for a whopping price of Rs 14,990. Each pack of ZINK paper containing 30 sheets (3 packs of 10 each) costs Rs 1,099, which speaks of the cost per print at Rs 37. So, would you really want to spend on a 2x3 inch photo at Rs 37 each when you can obtain 4x6 inch lab photos for less than Rs 15 at the photo studio? Even if you print the 4x6 photo at home on a regular inkjet printer, you wouldn’t spend more than Rs 20 per photo. So, boiling the whole experience down, having a portable, battery-operated and wireless printer for an exorbitant price will have almost no takers. The Pocket Photo is simply a vanity device and cannot be put into daily use. For the technology innovation part, the device is simply great, but still not practical in everyday life. A far as the price is concerned, the device is simply not worth it. If the device was to cost somewhere around Rs 5,000 to Rs 7,000 with a cost per print of Rs 10 or below, the printer might seem worth. On the other hand, 4x6-inch photo printers are available from Canon (Selphy series), Epson (PictureMate series) and HP (Photosmart series) with the cost of the printer well below the Rs 7,000 bracket and cost per print of Rs 10–15 each. Though they are not highly portable, they do sport great features such as high resolutions, speedy prints, SD card slots and USB host, LCD display and a few others.