The first thing you need to know about the Impossible Project Instant Lab Universal is that it produces Polaroid-style photos from your smartphone snaps. The second thing you need to know is that it's a camera, not a printer.
Unlike the rather disappointing Polaroid-branded Zink printers, the Instant Lab produces actual Polaroid-esque photographs. That's because Impossible Project cleverly bought Polaroid's remaining factory a few years ago in order to manufacture its own film, which is designed to work with vintage Polaroid cameras and, of course, the Instant Lab Universal.
The original Instant Lab was launched in 2013, but only worked with the iPhone 4, 5, 5S and iPod touch. The new Universal model, however, is designed to work with more devices thanks to new "touch location technology". This means it supports phones from Samsung, HTC and Google (Nexus), as well as the iPad. Screens need to be high-res (approximately 300ppi) and run on Android 4.0.3 (Ice Cream Sandwich) or above.
We've unleashed our inner hipster and have been testing the Lab using an iPhone 6, iPad Air 2 and the HTC One M8. It's a lot of fun, like a big kid's toy.
Design and build
The Lab Universal sports a simple yet functional design, with a sturdy metal base along with a plastic bellows-style extendable turret with a phone cradle on top. The only controls you'll find are the latch for opening the film bay door at the bottom - where the film cartridges can be easily slipped in - along with an eject button to pop out the exposed photo.
To the top are three sensors on the cradle - representing the touch location technology part of things - used to detect when a phone is placed there. For larger devices, such as an iPad, these act as essential points to communicate with the app and let it know which portion of the screen is in play, then re-adjust the photo's placement on screen so the Lab can make a duplicate exposure of it.
A removable adaptor can be used with iPhones 4/4S/5/5S/5C, but for Android devices not everything is compatible just yet. The brand new HTC One M9 is one such unsupported example (we did try it out, but it was a no go). Check with Impossible Project for compatibility prior to purchase if you're concerned.
Taking a picture
The dedicated Impossible Project app has been redesigned and includes a useful, if slightly sinister, audio commentary to guide you through the picture-taking process.
Using the app, you can take a picture or select one from your camera roll or Instagram account. You'll be given to the option to crop it, adjust contrast, gamma and hue, and then select the film stock that you're using.
Once the app instructs you, put your mobile device face down on the cradle (it's best to take your device out of its case), wait for the phone's flash to come on then pull out the shutter slide at the base of the Lab. This is pushed back in once the light has gone off and the shutter sound of a photo being taken is heard.
Next, you simply press the eject button and the photo pops out under a protective, roll-up sheet. Impossible film is extremely sensitive to light - far more so than vintage Polaroid film - so it's essential to shield it by immediately turning it over and letting it develop face down. The old trick of shaking it around in the air? That doesn't work with this film, and you're likely to ruin your picture if you try it.
The protective sheet is a tad delicate too, but it's an effective solution to the problem of light ruining the print. If you're using Impossible's film in a retro Polaroid camera instead, then there's no such protection, so you have to shield the photo with your hand as it comes out.
Film and picture quality
Impossible produces a selection of 600 and SX-70 film for use with the Lab, including prints with the conventional square white frame, along with the choice of black, multicoloured, metallic or even circular frames.
Picture results vary (restricted, in part, to the smart device's screen resolution), but the clearer your original picture, the better the result from the Instant Lab.
Photos without additional filters applied to them tend to work best, as the Lab itself provides its own, genuine, Polaroid-esque filter. Having said that, some already filtered pictures can work well, especially ones that provide extra colour saturation and contrast.
Resulting images tend to get more washed-out, with nostalgically softened edges, so any particularly bleached-out or soft pictures will lose a lot of quality once printed.
In a world of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, sometimes it makes a nice change to have a photo that you can actually hold in your hand or stick on the fridge.
The Instant Lab Universal isn't the cheapest way to get hard copies of your snaps (film cartridges cost around £17 for eight prints), but it certainly is fun - which is half the point of this product. The expanded compatibility since the previous model is great news for Android users too (and there's yet more to come).
We've embraced the Instant Lab Universal and produced some fun results that'll live on when that smartphone battery depletes. Polaroid fans and retro camera nuts will find a lot to like here. And hipsters, too, obviously.
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