See more: bigger LCD, wider angle, longer zoom
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)
The FE-290, part of Olympus' Summer 2007 introduction of nine new consumer cameras, presents an interesting proposition. You get a bit less resolution (though still plenty enough), but some other goodies that are more important to many hobby photographers: a longer zoom, a larger LCD display, and a wider angle lens. And all that is available for a modest list price of US$249.99.
On the surface, assessing the FE-290 should be simple. Just look at the specs of the FE-280, and then assume for the extra $50 you get the model that's next higher up in the lineup. But its not that simple. In some ways you do, in others you don't. This is one instance where you need to study the specs and features and then decide if this is the camera for you. On the surface, the longer zoom and much larger LCD are well worth the extra money, but there are compromises.
The FE-290 may look almost identical to the FE-280, but it is definitely a larger camera. The footprint is still small at 3.9 x 2.2 inches, but it's an inch thick, and that is making it an ultra-compact rather than an ultra-slim. It's still light at just over five ounces sans battery and a bit more with it. You can still take it anywhere but you'll know it's in your pocket. The larger size is likely due to one of the FE-290's primary attraction, its 4X optical zoom. 3X has been the norm for digital cameras for eons, and anytime you get more than that, it's worth noticing. So that is definitely a plus for this camera. Then there is the larger 3-inch LCD, and when it comes to LCDs, larger is always better. And then there's the matter of the FE-290's wide-angle lens. 28-112 mm equivalent is great for indoor shooting, to capture vast landscapes, and to do those family reunion mega-portraits. So that's all good and worth explaining in more detail.
When it comes to features, the sub-head of our preview describes the highlights: bigger LCD, wider angle, longer zoom. But there is more to this camera.
To prevent blurry pictures the FE-290 uses digital image stabilization. It is not the optical/active kind that actually shifts and the CCD. Instead, the system uses higher ISO sensitivity and a faster shutter speed to decrease the likelihood of a blurry picture. One potential problem here is that the FE-290's maximum ISO is only ISO 640 (or 800; there is conflicting data), and so it cannot compensate as much as the FE-280 that goes all the way to 1600. On the plus side, that probably also means no extremeely grainy pictures slip through. 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-compacts, FE-290 doesn't have any manual modes but lets you select from 16 shooting modes instead. You use the mode dial to pick some of them (auto, program, image stabilization, portrait and landscape). If you set the dial on Scene, you can select from an additional 11 different modes: night+portrait, sport, indoor, candlelight, self portrait, sunset, fireworks, behind glass, cuisine, documents, and auction. There is no underwater housing for this camera, and thus no underwater modes.
We like the Olympus Shooting Guide that gives you a live, multi-frame window with four versions of the picture, each showing the real-life impact of different settings or effects. You can then select the one that suits you best.
The 3-inch display is a definite plus. It is also high resolution (234k pixel), though not higher than that of the FE-280's 2.5-inch display. Still, larger is netter, no argument. And we like the backlight boost button.
Movie and audio
We like the fact that modern digicams can take ever better movies, but this is an area where the FE-290 didn't quite hop on the bandwagon. It can do 640 x 480 movies, but only at 15 fps -- no fun. And it suffers from the same limitation as the FE-280: You can either record with sound or with the ability to use the optical zoom, but not both. So between those two drawbacks, this is not one of the stronger areas of this camera.
Those interested in using their camera for audio recording also won't find much. Audio clips are limited to a mere four seconds, and there is no voice recording mode. So no lenghty descriptions attached to still images, and no dictating the great american novel.
No face detection and such
This may or may not be a big deal, but the nifty face detection feature of the FE-280 is missing from this camera. This again indicates where the real purpose of the FE-290 is: Get close. Shot wide. No underwater, no life-like movies, no face detection. Add to that the smaller 7.1 megapixel CCD, and you might get the feeling that Olympus cut perhaps a bit too much. The nifty TruePic III Image Processor we like for its ability to create vivid, vibrant colors and speed things up is also missing. And white balance adjustment or different settings? None. Just automatic.
Memory and Storage
While the lesser FE-280 surprises with a nice 48MB of built-in storage, the FE-290 has a mere 7MB. That is hardly worth it, and in this day and age of giant memoroy size in anything electronic, it seems odd that such an interesting camera has to do with almost none. As far as removable storage goes, the FE-290 uses the xD-Picture card format, which we just can't quite warm up to because the cards are harder to find and generally costs more than more common formats like SD Card.
The ultra-compact FE-290 is for those who value its 4X optical zoom, its terrific 3-inch LCD, and its wide angle lens above all else. If that is the sole focus, the FE-290 definitely hits the mark. In fact, we'd buy the FE-290 for the screen alone.
Not so much:
- Elegant ultra-compact with large and bright high-res LCD display
- 4X optical zoom gets you that much closer
- Wide angle lens comes in handy in many situations
- Digital image stabilization with gyro assist
- PreSet Shooting Mode lets you select best setting
- Can't have sound and optical zoom together in movie mode, and only 15 fps
- No voice recording mode
- xD-Picture card harder to fnd and more expensive
- No face detection mode, TruePic III processor, and only 7MB onboard memory
- We prefer zoom rocker to a zoom ring around the shutter