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** Introduction **
Fujifilm is a name that has been in the front rank of camera manufacturers for an awful long time, and unlike certain of their competitors the company made the transition to digital relatively painlessly. The FinePix A203 is a fairly representative example of a two-megapixel budget compact from 2002; Fujifilm themselves called it "midrange" in their publicity, but that should be taken with a pinch or two of salt; in those days, just about anyone could get away with using that term if their camera had some sort of optical zoom.
** Looks and handling **
By 2002 standards the Fujifilm is a pretty small camera, and even today it doesn't draw attention to itself in the same way that some of its bulkier contemporaries do. It's no longer the remarkable lightweight that it was claimed to be at its launch, but it will still slip into a small bag or larger pocket easily enough. The clever lens protector (covered in more detail below) combined with an sliding on/off switch that requires quite a firm push means that you shouldn't need to worry too much about switching the camera on accidentally.
Round the back, almost inevitably for the date, ergonomics seems to have become a dirty word. Buttons are scattered around like confetti, and the (frankly rather pointless) mode dial is nearly flush with the back plate and so irritatingly hard to twirl. To the top right is the zoom control, a rather uncomfortable affair which requires you to push a sticky-out switch up and down to zoom in and out. This also doubles as the up and down buttons; there are tiny (and also uncomfortable) left and right buttons on either side. The optical viewfinder is also disappointing; it's nearly as small as the one on my far newer Canon Ixus 82!
** Optics and screen **
One of the A203's few genuinely stylish touches is the way in which, when the camera is switched off, the lens retracts fully into the body and a matching cover slides across. It's something which is fun to play with, at least if you're a sad obsessive about digital cameras in the way that I am. Many old digicams had an old-fashioned clip-on lens cap, which was easy to leave on accidentally when powering up; if the cap was loose this made it fly off, while if it was snug it could cause damage as the lens tried to extend. The Fujifilm's solution is much better than this.
The lens itself is a pretty bog-standard Fujinon with a 3x optical zoom. It's averagely fast (f/2.8 to f/4.8) and has an average range of 38 to 114 mm (equivalent). It's also rather small, even for this class of camera, and doesn't feel entirely securely attached to the body when you wave the unit in the air. (The things I do for these reviews...) On the plus side, the sensor is of the CCD type, not the cheap-and-nasty CMOS variety. The screen is a 1.5-inch one, and once again this is straight down the middle for the era. It's rather low-resolution and grainy, and can look a bit dingy in certain lights.
** Features and settings **
Fujifilm tend to favour ease of use over a wide range of features when it comes to compact cameras, and the A203 demonstrates that this approach is by no means a new one. This is very definitely a model aimed at people who just want a "no fuss, no frills" camera for quick snapshots and don't mind too much about there being very few creative options. In particular, you can't set the ISO value; as this is fixed at 100, the A203 is therefore not a good choice for low-light photography. On the other hand, both exposure compensation and white balance settings are available in the slightly ambitiously titled "Manual" mode.
The A203's movie mode is, for want of a better word, pathetic. Its best setting gives you a maximum of 20 seconds at 320 by 240 pixels... and without sound, at that. The brochure for the thing trumpeted its ability to take 80-second videos (like, wow, man) but that's only possible at a risible 160 x 120 resolution, and again it's all done in the utmost silence. There's the usual self-timer (which gets its own spot on the mode dial!) and a webcam function I've not been able to try - and frankly I'm secretly grateful for that - called "PictureHello". Shudder.
** Photo quality **
This is a bit of a mixed bag, and therein lies the problem: most photographers can deal with a camera's little quirks once they get used to them, but what they need above all else is consistency, and the A203 fails to deliver. I've found that normal outdoor shots tend to come out a little bit overexposed, but activate the flash and all of a sudden they're somewhat underexposed - the flash is simply not powerful enough for even many everyday situations. On the plus side, sharpness is acceptable for a 2 mp compact, and there's less fuzziness in the corners than in some much more upmarket models. Colours? Not bad at all, but then I expect that from this manufacturer.
** Consumables **
Like almost all Fujifilm cameras up to a couple of years ago, the A203 takes the tiny xD-Picture Card format of memory cards. Being so small - about the size of a little fingernail - these can be a bit of a fiddle to use, but this camera's slot is pretty well designed and so it's less of a pain than it might be. The A203 is not rated to accept the more modern H or M type of xD card, so you'll have to find the original "no letter" type; the documentation states that 128 MB is the largest capacity officially supported, but I've tried a 256 MB chip and it seemed to work normally. As a guide, a top-resolution photo takes up around 700 KB.
Power is provided by two AA cells. This helped to keep the size of the camera down at a time when it was still fairly common for compacts to require four batteries, but perhaps as a consequence battery life is not all that good if you make heavy use of the LCD in the modern way. (It's much better with the screen off, but then so it should be!) I'd certainly recommend taking a spare pair with you if you're going to be using the A203 on any sort of extended shoot. I usually recommend NiMH rechargeables, but this camera is (or at least should be) so cheap that it might not be worth the outlay.
** Buying and verdict **
The Fujifilm FinePix A203 is not a camera I could recommend spending more than a pittance on. Not so long ago someone put one up on eBay for £40, which inevitably attracted much hilarity but no bids. In truth it's probably not one I'd recommend at all to anyone other than an interested collector. It has one or two interesting features, in particular the lens cover, but there are simply too many compromises when it comes to actually taking photos. I reserve one-star ratings for truly dire digicams, and the A203 is not one of those, but I struggle to see any reason to award it more than two. Even if you're on an ultra-tight budget, you can do better than this.