Instant Prints for the Digital Generation?

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Instant Prints for the Digital Generation?

If you're over 40, you probably remember a time when "instant prints" meant Polaroid pictures. Today, of course, digital photography is "instant" - but, unless you want to lug a compact printer around with you, instant sharing is limited to the LCD screen on your camera.

Until now. Japanese toy giant TOMY and a US company called ZINK have teamed up to produce the first digtal camera with a built-in printer. And, no, it's not a behemoth.

TOMY's Xiao(TM) TIP 521 is a simple 5 MP digital camera that uses ZINK's zero ink technology to incorporate a tiny inkless printer into the camera body - which measures just a bit under 6" x 3" x 1". That may be large by digital point-and-shoot standards, but not at all unmanageable.

The ZINK printer uses a special composite paper that's infused with dye crystals, Heat activates the crystals and brings out the image on the paper. In the Xiao TIP 521, that translates to 2" x 3" borderless color prints at a rate of about one every 90 seconds. At one fourth the size of a standard 4" x 6" print the Xiao's prints are tiny, but the novelty factor will probably push sales anyway.

The digital camera itself is very basic. It features a fixed-focal-length f/3.0 lens, four simple flash modes... and very little else. Although the Xiao's rechargable battery is rated for 250 shots, if you choose to print your photos, you'll be out of power after just 20.

Of course, this is a first-in-category product, so you'd expect some limitations. And the TIP 521 does have a couple of neat features. For example, the built-in IrDA receiver enables the TIP 521 to print images transmitted from any IrDA-enabled device.

The Xiao TIP 521 is slated for a late November release in Japan, priced at about $350 (US). A pack of 20 sheets of paper will cost around $9. TOMY hopes to have US distribution lined up by April or May of 2009, but US pricing hasn't been announced.

Considering how much camera $350 can by these days - and that 45 cents per 2" x 3" print is more than double the cost of full-size prints from most online printers - the Xiao will sell strictly on a novelty basis. But economies of scale and advances in the printing technology could eventually make "instant prints" a popular option once again.



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