Design & Usability
Here's the horror movie tagline: "The sensor is coming from INSIDE the lens!"
On the hardware front, the big news is that the camera's 18.1-megapixel sensor isn't in the camera at all. Each lens has a sensor inside, making it a complete imaging module; the body simply houses the electronics. That means that some of the sleuthing work we did prior to the hands-on was useless, since the sensor we thought we saw in the press photos wasn't a sensor at all. However, we still think our guesses as to the sensor size in this particular lens were correct. (Polaroid's PR reps hadn't gotten any more detailed info from Sakar as to the sensor's dimensions, so guesswork is still all we have.)
We've seen both Nikon and Samsung take stabs at putting Android in a compact camera, with varying degrees of success. Nikon's S800c slapped Android 2.3 on a low-end compact and achieved... well, not much; Samsung's Galaxy Camera fused a Galaxy S III and Jelly Bean with a mid-tier point-and-shoot and did a bit better. Polaroid's effort here definitely falls toward the Nikon end of the spectrum, but hey, they have the distinction of producing the first interchangeable lens camera running Android.
The iM1863 runs Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, and representatives from Polaroid promised us it would be upgraded to 4.2 soon. The user interface, aside from the shutter button and mode dial, is exclusively touch-driven. This means that pretty much all of your work will be done in what looks like a pretty untouched Android interface.
They've added a few non-standard capacitive hardware buttons—one to bring up the app list and another to access the default camera app—but otherwise Polaroid claims it's all about openness. You can either use the company's own camera apps or download alternatives (yes, Instagram!) from the Google Play market. (We assume, since we couldn't get any official word on this point.)
Corner-cutting is evident in the iM1836's exterior design, but it's no more than you'd expect from a $399 camera—or Polaroid.
The physical design of the iM1836 is on the bulky side for a mirrorless body, but when you pick it up, the first thing you notice is of how surprisingly lightweight it is. The body's curvy edges certainly do resemble the Nikon J1's, as many observed after the initial leak, but the iM1836 doesn't exude the same feeling of industrial refinement. On the whole, it's not a prize winner by any stretch, but we've certainly handled worse.
The articulating touchscreen feels a little flimsy and doesn't have a whole lot of resistance when you're moving it around, but it's simply impressive that it actually has a 3.5-inch capacitive panel, given the price. Laggy general operation makes us think Polaroid may have skimped on the processor, but it's hard to tell at this early stage. And once we actually snapped a shot, low screen resolution and washed out colors made it hard to gauge the quality of shots we got in the brightly lit convention hall.
The iM1836's buttons and dials felt pretty average for a camera in this price range. That is, they weren't as nice as what you'd find on most mirrorless cameras, but perfectly acceptable for any $399 point-and-shoot. With some things, you really do get what you pay for.
It may not be a great camera, or even a good one—only time and testing will tell—but we love the innovative spirit with which Polaroid and Sakar have approached the iM1836.
It's hard to fairly judge a camera as incomplete and mysterious as the iM1836 with first impressions. There's just so much new and so much we still don't know about this weirdo addition to the mirrorless genre, especially relating to its sensor design and lens ecosystem. But from what we've seen so far, we're very much looking forward to getting it into our labs and seeing what it can really do.
The PR guys at Polaroid's booth made a big deal of saying that the company's mirrorless models aren't aimed at enthusiasts, but rather at former basic point-and-shoot users who want a new, more advanced gadget to play with—a small stepping stone toward more serious photographic goals. From our brief time with the iM1836, we have to say it seems like a fair assessment. We think it's unlikely that it produces substantially worse image quality than your average $300-400 compact camera, and the option to mount Micro Four Thirds lenses gives it the potential for added credibility when it comes to optical performance.
We're not sure where Polaroid got the idea, or what possessed them to go ahead with it, but we're glad to see this kind of innovation all the same. Maybe it just takes the perspective of an outsider to the industry to create something this strange and risky. In contrast to the Big Two, who have entered the mirrorless market with extreme reluctance and conservative design, it's certainly a breath of fresh air.
One thing is for sure, Polaroid's Android-powered iM1836 is a camera like no other. The flagship of Polaroid's new mirrorless system (though designed and manufactured by Sakar), it runs Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and features a unique sensor-in-lens design reminiscent of but distinctly different from Ricoh's modular GXR. The features are intriguing, the concept makes sense, and the price is incredibly low. All that's left to be seen is the image quality.