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The Olympus FE-110 turned up in a job lot, and in all honesty that's the most likely way I was going to acquire one, since it's never been a model that's hugely appealed to me. Still, having now got one, I thought it would be only fair to give it a reasonable run-out and see whether or not I had been unfair in my previous prejudices. The results were somewhat mixed, but I think I can safely say that this is not an undiscovered gem. You don't *quite* need to cry to the heavens in frustration if you have one, but there are a lot of better alternatives around.
This five-megapixel camera is around five years old, and even when launched in late 2005 it was considered a budget model, together with its little brother, the four-megapixel FE-100. It's very much a simple point-and-shoot digicam, with few features beyond the basics - though its 28 MB internal memory is actually large enough to be useful, which is quite a rare thing to see - and Olympus's promotional material emphasises its ease of use. This is an aim which was reasonably well achieved, although there do remain just a couple of niggles in that department. It's a shame that there are rather more niggles elsewhere!
== Look and feel ==
The first thing you're likely to notice about the FE-110 is its slightly odd shape: rather squarer in form than most cameras, but with a few more curves than bargain-basement models generally possess. I wasn't sure at first how comfortable it would be to hold, but in fact it nestles against your hand quite well, and there's a useful grip on the right-hand side (as you hold the camera) which means that it feels reasonably secure. I suspect that it might be a little on the thick side for those with small hands, but otherwise it's fine.
This camera's lens is nothing to write home about in terms of specification. It was rather disappointing to discover just a 2.8x optical zoom rather than the more usual 3x; the difference doesn't sound very much, and it isn't, but this sort of corner-cutting seems unnecessary even on a cheap camera. The equivalent zoom range works out at 38 mm to 106 mm, which is all right at the long end but not very impressive at wide-angle; this really isn't a good camera for taking group photos or architectural shots unless you can get a good way back. It's not good for quiet snapping either, as the zoom motor makes a terrible racket.
Looking at the rear of the FE-110, the general impression is rather old-fashioned even for 2005, with am irritatingly small (1.5-inch) LCD - though it is acceptably clear and sharp - and a somewhat haphazard arrangement of buttons, including a fairly standard zoom rocker switch up at the top right. They're mostly acceptably comfortable, though I do find that the mode dial is slightly fiddly to operate while actually holding the camera for shooting. What is very disappointing, though, is that despite the small screen, there is no optical viewfinder at all; there would easily have been room for one, so I don't know why Olympus omitted it.
== Settings and controls ==
The aforementioned mode dial doesn't allow you all that many options, and none of them has any real excitement quotient; you'll probably keep it on Auto most of the time, though Landscape can be useful to force an infinity focus if the camera keeps trying to focus on something nearer to you but unwanted. You can't select macro mode from here, incidentally: for that you need to go through the on-screen menu system. The macro itself isn't too bad for a basic digicam, with an unexciting minimum distance of 20 cm in normal mode but a much more useful 2 cm minimum in "super" mode - though given its indifferent quality you won't win any close-up competitions with it.
It probably won't come as any shock to discover that there is little manual control on offer on the FE-110. To say the least: unusually even for a simple camera, there are no white balance settings at all. This is a tremendously annoying omission, as it means that achieving accurate colour in your photos is only really likely in bright daylight conditions. Unsurprisingly, you have no control over ISO either, although there is at least a pretty standard exposure compensation setting. The same pared-down feel applies to the flash: although you can select fill-in or red-eye reduction, there's no slow synchro option.
The movie mode on this camera is pathetic: 320 x 240 pixels at 15 fps, but *without* sound; it's silent films only here. Who thought that one up - Buster Keaton? I've often wondered why manufacturers bothered to include a movie mode at all when this was the best they could come up with. They'd say that consumers demanded it - to which I'd reply: sure, but didn't they also demand one that was actually some use? Its one even halfway interesting feature is that it uses QuickTime format, but as you're not very likely to be using it I'm not sure that's really all that relevant!
I've tended to find Olympus cameras' menu systems to be a bit clunky, and the same is true with this one. Admittedly once you have a large memory card in the compartment (shared with the batteries, as per usual) you can leave the quality setting on the highest setting (SHQ) pretty much all the time. However, if you need to go into the menus to do things like formatting cards or setting the self-timer - which is set for 12 seconds rather than the more usual 10 - then you may find yourself becoming irritated by all the CAPITAL LETTERS and slightly odd terminology. (Case in point: you don't "erase all" but instead "all erase". Why?) Weirdly, though, a few of the menus have far nicer-looking hint text telling you what they do; this is a good idea, and not very common.
== Consumables ==
This camera takes the small, fiddly (and gradually disappearing from the shops!) xD format memory cards. Almost all of these are branded Olympus or Fujifilm (there are a few very old Kodak ones still knocking around!) and for the most part it makes no difference which you choose. The only reason to buy Olympus cards specifically is if you want to make use of the "panorama assist" option, which is not supported by Fujifilm cards. You probably don't, though, as it's quite hard to get good results with. As always, a suitable memory card reader for your computer is a useful accessory - though at least the FE-110 supports USB 2.0, so direct cable transfer isn't *that* slow.
As far as batteries are concerned, there are no surprises: like most budget digital cameras of its era, this one takes a pair of standard AA cells. Battery life, I'm afraid, is not very good at all, and is well short of expectations for a basic model with a small screen. If you must use alkaline batteries, you should get the best you can - Duracells, for preference - but be warned: it will cost you a fortune. The only way you're going to avoid this is to invest in *at least* two pairs of high-capacity NiMH batteries; I normally recommend a minimum of 2000 mAh, but the Olympus runs out of puff so fast that I think top-of-the-range batteries of 2500 mAh or better would be a worthwhile investment.
== Performance and verdict ==
In the end, though, every camera lives or dies by its real-world performance, and on this score I'm afraid Olympus's effort is looking distinctly unwell. For a start, it's frustratingly slow. This applies in most departments, but the one which will have you tearing your hair out is that it takes *forever* to be ready again after taking a photo. We're talking five seconds or more, which even in 2005 was way, way below average. Shutter lag can be a factor, too, though this is merely poor and not ridiculous. Add to this that the thing isn't too zappy at starting up, and you can see that it's not much good for moving subjects like children or pets!
Finally, of course, there's the little matter of photo quality. Much the best results are obtained when taking photos of still landscapes in good light. In this, where its sluggishness is less important, the FE-110 isn't actually too bad, and it's possible to produce some attractive pictures. The colour saturation is turned up rather too much, but this can sometimes look quite good on a computer monitor. Push the camera any harder, though, and it all goes to pieces. It's no use for low-light or action shots thanks to the lack of ISO control, so you get blurry results, and indoors the auto white balance simply isn't good enough, giving a dreadful orange cast.
Overall, the Olympus FE-110 is not up to scratch, even for the class in which it lies. It's slow, it's noisy, it eats batteries, it lacks too many features and - at least outside its landscape comfort zone - it struggles to produce good photos. You might get some very nice results from this thing; the trouble is that you'd probably get rather more disappointing ones. This model seems to be going for about £15 on eBay at the moment, but I would suggest that you look elsewhere. This, I'm afraid, is a good example of the period when Olympus rather lost its way in the consumer digicam sector. Not recommended.