Super-slim body with face detection
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)
The FE-280 is part of Olympus' Summer 2007 introduction of no fewer than nine consumer cameras. It is a super-slim design that offers a bit of everything to appeal to a wide variety of consumers. And an attractive 8-megapixel camera with a list price of US$199.99 is certainly welcome.
So what did Olympus come up with to make this camera so appealing? First, there is an all-metal body that is only 0.65 inches thick. Consumers seem to like those little slivers of cameras that fit absolutely everywhere, and that certainly applies to the FE-280. Olympus adds to the visual appeal by offering the FE-280 in four colors: silver, black, blue and red. We'd pick the red one, but everyone will have their own preference.
The FE-280 has a small footprint of just 3.6 x 2.4 inches -- barely larger than a credit card -- and it is only 0.65 inches thick. It also weighs less than four ounces without the battery and a bit more with it. You can take it anywhere and it'll never be in the way. 8-megapixel is plenty enough to crop to your heart's content and still end up with enough resolution for a nice print. Use the full 8-megapixel and you can get giant enlargements. The FE-280 has a standard 3X optical zoom that can be digitally multiplied to 12X. The specs all look quite good. The camera can shoot at very high 1600 ISO sensitivity, you can expose up to four seconds when you use the Night scene mode, and the Olympus TruePic III Image Processor chip makes for substantially improved clarity, color, and speediness.
The days when cameras close to the bottom end of a product lineup didn't offer much in terms of features are coming to an end. The FE-280 offers quite a bit, and some of its features were not available on digital cameras of any price just a few years ago.
One area that seems all the rage these days is face detection. This means that the camera has intelligence built in that can determine which area of a picture is a face. This comes in handy when you shoot portraits under less than ideal lighting conditions as the camera will make sure that the face is sharp and properly exposed. Amazingly, the camera even keeps track of faces when the subjects are moving. There is actually also a "Smile" scene mode where the camera rapidly takes three pictures, presumably not to miss precious and often fleeting smiles.
Everyone hates blurry pictures and image stabilization helps preventing them. The FE-280 has digital, but not optical/active, image stabilization, which means when that mode is selected, it uses higher ISO sensitivity and a faster shutter speed to decrease the likelihood of a blurry picture. The flipside is that under poor lighting conditions, that can result in grainy images. Interestingly, Olympus says the camera uses a built-in gyro sensor to track camera movement, something we've generally associated with "active" optical image stabilization.
Like most ultra-slims, the FE-280 doesn't have any manual modes. Instead, you can select from no fewer than 21 shooting modes. That's a lot, and Olympus uses a mode dial to let you pick some (auto, program, image stabilization, portrait and landscape). If you set the dial on Scene, you can select from 15 different modes: night+portrait, sport, indoor, candlelight, self portrait, sunset, fireworks, behind glass, cuisine, documents, auction, smile, under water wide and 2, underwater macro, and movie. Focus lock is available in the underwater modes, a very hel[ful feature. If you want to take advantage of the underwater modes, you need the optional PT-038 protective housing.
Another nice thing is the Shooting Guide. When you use it, you get a live, multi-frame window that shows four versions of the picture, with different settings or effects. You can then select the one that suits you best.
Movie and audio
The movie mode is becoming ever more useful in modern digital cameras as most can now record at a full (and lifelike) 30 frames per second at decent resolution. The FE-280 is no exception. It does 640 x 480 movies at 30 fps but there is a vexing limitation. You can either record with sound or with the ability to use the optical zoom, but not both. Boo. It's not necessarily a deal killer, but it can be annoying.
Another area where corners have been cut is audio recording. Audio clips are limited to a mere four seconds, and there is no voice recording mode. Granted, we rarely use a digital camera as a dictaphone, but there are times when the ability to record long audio streams comes in handy.
There was a time when digital cameras had dinky 1.5 inch displays that really didn't show much at all. Today, even inexpensive cameras like the FE-280 come with nice, large 2.5-inch displays. We're also big on resolution, and here the FE-280 delivers as well: 230,000 pixels. This means you can zoom in during playback and see detail and whether or not the picture is sharp. Olympus also added a backlight boost button so you can see the screen better in bright light.
Use and handling
The small size alone makes this camera ulra-handy (but don't drop it!). Of course, just as we got used to the zoom rockers always being at the back of the camera so it can be operated with your thumb while the index finger is on the shutter, the zoom moves back to being a ring around the shutter and there is a mode wheel where the zoom generally is. Oh well. The rest of the controls is very clear. A button with a red icon to record. A button with a green one for playback. A large four way navigation disc doubles up to let you toggle through focus modes, flash modes, self timer operation, and picture brightness.
Memory and Storage
Another pleasant surprise is that the FE-280 comes with 48MB of built-in storage. In this day and age of multi-gigabyte iPods that may not seem a lot, but it still adds a bit of extra memory if you run out of space on the storage card. As almost all Olympi, the FE-280 uses the xD-Picture card format, which -- alas -- remains harder to find and geenerally costs more than more common formats like SD Card.
The ultra-slim, ultra-light FE-280 is an impressive, economical 8-megapixel camera that has a lot going for it. We like the large, bright high resolution LCD, the full-speed VGA movie mode, the image stabilization, the face recognition mode and just about everything else about this neat little camera that comes in four colors. There are a few compromises, but if you can live with them, the FE-280 is a gem.
Not so much:
- Ultra-slim 8-megapixel camera in four cool colors
- Bright hi-res 2.5-inch LCD with backlight boost
- 640 x 480 movies at a full 30 fps
- Advanced face detection mode
- Digital image stabilization with gyro assist
- 48MB onboard memory
- PreSet Shooting Mode lets you select best setting
- Optional underwater case
- Can't have sound and optical zoom together in movie mode
- No voice recording mode
- xD-Picture card harder to fnd and more expensive
- We prefer zoom rocker to a zoom ring around the shutter