When you think of action cams, GoPro is the first name that comes to mind. I’m often surprised by the non-photographer types who see some action footage and guess that it was created with a GoPro. It hasn’t quite gotten to the point of “Photoshop” for everyday awareness, but it’s getting close.
But there are other brands in the game, even if you don’t hear as much about them. Some are knockoffs with branding you’ve never heard of. Others are from some of the long-time big players in photography and videography–names like Sony, Nikon, and Kodak.
Another is a name that’s more associated with retro nostalgia than with the latest cutting-edge technology: Polaroid.
Polaroid now has its second-generation camera on the market, the Polaroid Cube+. The original Polaroid Cube, which was released in 2014, has the small cube shape that the much newer GoPro HERO4 Session adopted. The new model looks basically the same as the original, but has had some major improvements in its features. And it’s priced a little higher as well, with are manufacturer’s list price of $149.
I’ve been putting it through its paces alongside the original Polaroid Cube, and here’s my hands-on review.
The Polaroid Cube+ is a small, lightweight action cam that’s designed to get footage from places that cameras traditionally can’t go. It records 1080p (and 1440p) video, 8MP still photos, and captures timelapse photos.
By itself, the camera is weatherproof. You can buy a separate dedicated housing that can make it waterproof, but that’s not included in the basic package. There are also other accessories available for mounting the camera, such as suction cup mounts and handlebar brackets.
Controls & Connections
It’s designed to be simple to use, and in practice it’s much simpler than a GoPro. But a lot of that comes down to a much more trimmed-down feature set, so there are fewer options to get confused by.
There’s a single large shutter button on top. Press it once to take a photo. Press it twice quickly to start recording video (and press once again to stop).
Next to that is a small wifi button that turns the wifi on and off. There aren’t any other settings or screens or controls on the camera. If you want to tweak the shooting modes you’ll need to connect to the camera from your phone using wifi and use the Cube+ app.
The Cube+ app gives you live view through the camera and lets you switch between the various video modes, photo modes, and timelapse.
On the back of the camera is partially removable, snap-on cover. It snaps out using a fingernail but, in an improvement over the original Polaroid Cube where the back door came off completely, the back door on the new model remains attached to the camera.
Behind the door is the microSD memory card slot and a micro-USB slot.
And on the bottom is an embedded magnet.
Focus and Exposure
The lens is a fixed focus, so there’s no need to fiddle with the focus (and no way to do so even if you want to). The EXIF data reports it as a 2.36mm focal length at f/2.0. As with other small action cams like the GoPros, the aperture remains constant with the autoexposure changing the exposure time and the ISO. But you don’t have any control over any of that–it’s all completely automatic, and there’s no way to manually set the exposure or apply exposure compensation.
The field of view is 124°, which is pretty wide. You do get that distinctive fish-eye distortion, but it’s not quite as strong as the wider field of view with GoPros. Things can get a bit blurry at the edges, which isn’t unusual in a lens this small and wide.
I’ve found the automatic exposure to be pretty good for well-lit daylight scenes. And that kind of lighting is really the bread and butter of a camera like this.
Once you start going down to low-light situations, like at night, things can get a bit more hit and miss. And it tends to get a bit of a magenta cast to the photos. The ISO starts at 100 and goes up to somewhere around 620 or so.
It takes a microSD up to 128GB, which means it will both microSDHC and microSDXC cards. Because its video is heavily compressed, it doesn’t have the same speed requirements of the microSD card as the GoPro HERO4 Black and Silver.
The card slot is in the back of the camera, under the protective cover and next to the cable ports.
Charging and Battery Life
The battery life is rated to up to 1 1/2 hours of use, but that’s going to depend on things like what kind of shooting you’re doing, whether you have wifi turned on, and even the outside temperature (very cold conditions can reduce the effective battery life of lithium batteries).
Charging the Polaroid Cube+ uses the USB standard, with a micro-USB connection (a cable is included, but not an AC charger). That means you can use pretty much any current standard AC-USB adapter, a computer, or a USB power pack.
The battery is internal, so there’s no way to remove it and swap it out. And while you can run the camera from an external USB power pack, which is a somewhat ungainly solution, there’s no way to snap on an external battery pack like you can with some models of GoPro.
There are three choices of video resolution: 1440p, 1080p, and 720p. With 1080p and 720p you can do framerates of 30fps or 60fps. With 1440p you can do 30fps. There’s also a slow motion function, available only at 720p, that shoots at 120fps.
The video modes have image stabilization, but frankly I’ve been pretty underwhelmed with its effectiveness. It works best with the kind of fluid forward motion of something like a car moving, bike riding, or snowboarding. It doesn’t work all that well for handheld shooting where there might be some rotation through the frame–you tend to end up with a jello look on the sides, which you can see pretty clearly in the handheld video below in the samples section of the footage walking over the bridge. But as you can see in the daytime car footage, it works much better there.
Overall, it’s probably better than not having it, but it can also introduce some funky effects for fast-moving footage. And there’s a long way for it to go to be anywhere near as effective as something like the built-in stabilization for an iPhone, for example. Doing it in post would be even better, but unfortunately there’s no way to turn the in-camera stabilization off.
But probably my biggest criticism of the video quality is that it’s so heavily compressed. The aggressive compression keeps the files small and means that the data flow rate to the memory card is modest, but it also introduces some pretty ugly compression effects in the footage.
This first clip is with the camera mounted directly on the hood of a car using the embedded magnet. It’s not recommended to replicate this because there is a risk the camera can come loose and fly off. I braced it from behind with other GoPro mounts.
Overall, the exposure is pretty good, although there’s still a magenta cast, and the highlights blow out very easily.
There’s obviously a lot of wind noise–I wasn’t using anything to counteract that, and the microphone on the front was directly exposed to the wind.
This is the same kind of thing, but at night-time. The exposure is okay, but the high contrast detracts.
This clip is designed to illustrate two things: the image stabilization at work while shooting handheld footage and trying to stay still, and the very contrasty and very saturated colors.
And, finally, this clip is handheld in motion. Because this was in my hand and not on something fixed laterally, the rotation creates a real jello look at both sides of the frame that I’m not much a fan of.
Resolution. You can choose between 8MP, 6MP, and 3MP resolutions. Here are the actual and relative dimensions for each size:
Filesizes vary because of the way that JPG compression works, but in general the 8MP files come to around 1.5 to 2 MB each.
Self-timer. It has a self-timer option at either 10 seconds or 3 seconds and takes a single photo.
Here are some still photo samples taken under various conditions to illustrate things like exposure, color rendition, and sharpness. You can click on each photo to get the full-resolution original image that came straight out of the camera without any processing.
Overall, the tendency is toward highly saturated colors. That can look dramatic, but they’ve pushed it too far for my tastes.
The timelapse mode shoots images with intervals of either 3 seconds or 1 second. It compiles the timelapse in camera to output an mp4 in 4:3 aspect ratio.
Polaroid does have some mounting options available as accessories. But the decision to use their own mounting connection that’s more like a traditional squeeze clip means that the range of accessories is tiny compared with the GoPro universe.
But one mounting option I’ve found surprisingly useful is that there is a magnet embedded in the bottom of the camera. I’ve used it on a car’s hood and various other metal surfaces without the hassle of other kinds of mounting.
Polaroid Cube+ vs Polaroid Cube
From the outside, the original Polaroid Cube and Polaroid Cube+ looks basically identical (in the photo above, the black one is the Cube+ and the red/orange one the Cube). But there are some important differences in capabilities.
WiFi. One of the biggest is the addition of wifi. The live view that the smartphone app offers makes it much easier to compose the shot. It also means that they can include more options to change settings without introducing cluttered controls to the camera itself.
Expanded Video and Photo Options. The addition of 1440p video probably isn’t a big issue for most users, but the addition of 60fps video, 120fps slow motion, higher resolution still photos, and timelapse are all very handy features.
Image Stabilization. This is new for this model and helps to counteract shakiness in video footage.
Better Weatherproofing.. The exterior of the camera looks basically the same between the two models, but a key difference comes in the back door that protects the USB and memory card ports. In the older model, the back door screwed on. The new version has a much more robust seal against the elements. It’s still not waterproof, and it’s not designed for submerging in water, but it’s a much improved seal against casual water exposure such as light rain or splashes.
Polaroid Cube+ vs GoPro HERO4 Session
Polaroid came out with the cube-shaped action cam first, but since then GoPro has come out with its own: the GoPro HERO4 Session. They look very similar and there’s some overlap in their core features, but they’re quite different in their capabilities and the quality of the images and video footage can get out of them.
GoPro originally priced the Session at $299, which I thought was overpriced. And while the Session is a much better camera in many ways, it was also double the price.
But GoPro has recently dropped the price of the Session to $199, a much more sensible price point. And at that price, it really goes head-to-head with the Cube+, which Polaroid has priced at $149.
I’m not sure that the Cube+ was ever making much of a dent in GoPro’s sales of the Session, but with the prices now so close, the Session is likely to squeeze Cube+ sales.
There’s not really much contest. Aside from a few relatively minor features that the Cube+ has, such as built-in stabilization, an embedded magnet, and the in-camera processing of timelapse videos, the Session is a much better camera. It has many more photo and video modes, better microphones, and many, many more compatible accessories available. And, most crucially for me, the image and video quality you get out of the Session wins hands down. In choosing between them, I find myself reaching for the Session every time.
But that’s not to say that there aren’t areas the Polaroid Cube+ might appeal. It’s simpler to operate, for one thing. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that it can be less confusing simply because there are fewer options. For anyone who doesn’t want to be wondering whether they’re using the right settings, the Cube+ takes away the worry. The automatic stabilization works okay and does reduce shakiness in some footage. And I’ve found the embedded magnet surprisingly useful, for attaching the camera very quickly to anything from a car to a playground swing set. And finally, it is $50 cheaper, which is not nothing.
What’s in the Box?
There’s the camera itself and the usual instruction manual. There’s a micro-USB cable and, in a nice touch, includes an 8GB Polaroid microSD memory card, so you can get shooting right away. There’s also a pendant case that wraps most of the way around the camera and allows you to attach a lanyard (also included). Being rubberized, I guess it offers a little more protection from bumps, but it doesn’t make the camera waterproof.
The Polaroid Cube+ is widely available from electronics and photography retailers. I bought mine at Amazon.