If you want a simple camera, look no further than Olympus's FE-series point-and-shoot models. These cameras have no manual settings but include low price tags and helpful features for photography newbies. For example, the Olympus FE-130 is a 5-megapixel digital camera with a 38mm-to-114mm (35mm equivalent) optical zoom lens, a 2-inch LCD screen, and few intimidating camera settings.
A little fatter than an iPod, the Olympus FE-130's solid, rectangular plastic body feels reasonably comfortable in the hand. Plus, its thickness allows enough room to use readily available AA batteries instead of a proprietary rechargeable battery. Its plain, matte-silver finish is pleasant enough to look at, but it won't win any fashion awards.
Atop the camera, you'll find the shutter-release button, the power button, the zoom rocker, and four controls: shooting mode, playback, trash, and print. The back panel holds the rest of the controls, next to a diminutive 2-inch LCD. After making a selection with the mode dial, you can change certain settings, such as flash, timer, and macro, through a four-way-plus-OK button cluster and a separate menu button. An additional display/help button cycles through the LCD's settings and brings up helpful tips when rummaging through the camera's menu system.
The Olympus FE-130 has a few handy features for camera newbies, but anyone expecting a lot of options will be seriously disappointed. The camera automatically handles image settings such as ISO sensitivity and white balance, giving users no say in the matter. Once the mode is set, only basic settings such as image resolution, flash, macro focus, timer, and EV compensation can be changed by the user. A decent handful of shooting modes and scene presets, from basic portrait and landscape modes to special museum and food settings, cover many common shooting situations and more. You can also select digital image stabilization, which boosts the camera's light sensitivity to ISO 800 for low-light shots and uses faster shutter speeds to help reduce blur in action-filled photos. But be warned--this approach is generally less effective than the optical image stabilization included in many higher-priced cameras these days. In this case, it led to pictures that were noisier than normal. Olympus includes a movie mode, but it can capture only 15fps QuickTime clips at 320x240 resolution. Sure, the camera's menus consider this QVGA video mode to be high quality, but nearly every other camera currently on the market offers full VGA (640x480), 30fps video.
The camera includes a special Guide mode that helps users set up their shots. A simple text menu lets users select choices such as "Shooting into backlight" or "Shooting subject in motion," then walks them through changing the settings for the situation.
To help prevent ugly dead pixels, the Olympus FE-130 has an automatic pixel-mapping feature that analyzes the camera's sensor and notes specific pixels that show up too light or too dark. Once the camera records this information, it can compensate for those bad pixels when it processes images. Olympus puts pixel mapping on all of its digital cameras, but it's otherwise a rare feature for low-end snapshot cameras.
We found the Olympus FE-130 to be sluggish, with an irritatingly slow shot-to-shot time dragging down a relatively quick shutter lag. The camera was able to capture its first shot 3 seconds after we pressed the power button, but every shot thereafter requires another 3.1 seconds. With the flash enabled, we managed only one shot every 3.7 seconds. The shutter was relatively responsive on a high-contrast subject, lagging only 0.6 second. Unfortunately, our low-contrast subject more than doubled that lag, for a painful 1.7 seconds.
Image quality was acceptable, though the Olympus FE-130's extremely limited settings meant we couldn't put it through the rigorous array of tests most cameras endure. It captured colors accurately, and to our pleasant surprise, the automatic white balance produced a relatively neutral picture under incandescent lights, without the yellow pall most cameras display. We noticed a small amount of fringing and noise in our images, but the pictures generally looked good. Since we couldn't manually select ISO, we were unable to run our usual lab tests. In our test images, well-lit shots came in clearly, with little noise and acceptable highlight and shadow detail. When we turned on the camera's digital image stabilization, the images exploded with artifacts. Unless you want your photos to have more speckles than a robin's egg, you'll shy away from low light and turn off image stabilization.
The Olympus FE-130 is a nice enough camera if you just want to press a button and take a picture. While its various shooting modes and presets offer a few options, the camera's complete lack of manual settings will stifle users who yearn for more control or want to get better pictures in out-of-the-ordinary situations.