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Olympus FE-190 Digital Camera Review
by Ben Stafford -  12/14/2006

The Olympus FE-190 is one of the latest digital cameras to be added to the FE line.  The entire line is dedicated to the purposes of being easy to use and easy to afford.  The 6 megapixel FE-190 looks like a much more expensive ultra-slim camera, at only 0.7 inches thick with a 2.5 inch LCD and 3x optical zoom.

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In the Box 

Packed along with the camera, you’ll find the lithium-ion battery with charger, AV cable, USB cable, wrist strap, CD-ROM with Olympus Master software, a CD-ROM with the advanced manual, and a printed basic manual.

Camera Design 

The camera is a standard silver color and has a slightly textured finish – sort of like a powder coat.  The FE-190 is very slim and attractive looking.  Despite an “entry level” status, the camera uses a lithium-ion rechargeable battery.  Typically, the beginners cameras use AA batteries to keep things simple by dispensing with the extra chargers and such. The FE-190 also feels pretty solid in your hand.  It’s not so heavy that it feels like a brick, but it’s just heavy enough that it feels like a real camera.

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FE-190 on left, FE-200 on right (view large image)

The front of the camera has the 3x optical zoom lens, which retracts completely into the body of the camera.  You’ll also see the flash, self-timer lamp, and microphone port.

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The back of the camera has the 2.5 inch LCD and most of the controls.  There are buttons to access capture and playback modes and the zoom rocker switch along the top.  There is also a mode dial and a circular, 5-way directional pad along with a menu button and delete button.

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The top of the camera hosts the power button, shutter release, and speaker (on left).

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The bottom of the camera has a tripod mount and a door to access the battery and memory card compartment.

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The right side of the camera has the USB/AV port to connect the camera to your computer or to another device to display your pictures and movies.

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Camera Features

To keep things simple, there are four settings for capture resolution/compression.  The SHQ and HQ modes capture 2816x2112 images – the only difference is that SHQ does less compression, resulting in larger files (and better quality).  Down from there, you can also capture images at 2048x1536 (SQ1) and 640x480 (SQ2).

The lens has a focal length of 6.3 – 18.9mm (38 – 114mm equivalent) for a 3x optical zoom range.  The lens has an aperture range of f3.1-f5.9.  In normal and macro focus modes, at wide angle, you can focus on subjects that are 4 inches to infinity.  If you zoom out to full telephoto, this range moves out to 23.6 inches.  In super macro mode, you can focus as close as 2 inches.

The 2.5 inch LCD on the back of the camera is your only means for framing the shot.  There isn’t an optical viewfinder.  The LCD has 110,000 pixels of resolution, which leaves it a bit grainy, but it does refresh fast enough to provide smooth viewing.  As the lighting changes, the LCD gains up and down, so you can still see the shot in dim conditions.  Viewing the LCD outdoors was actually decent.

The FE-190 can capture movies at two quality settings: 320x240 at 30 frames per second and 160x120 at 15 frames per second.  Movies are captured as Quicktime movies, with audio.  You can use the optical zoom during movie capture but only if you disable sound recording.

The camera has 22MB of internal memory, but your primary means of storage will be with an xD-Picture Card.  If you want to use the Panorama mode on the camera, you’ll have to use Olympus branded media.

The camera is powered by a proprietary lithium-ion rechargeable battery.  While it does have good life, the downside is that a replacement or spare battery is not cheap.  The included charger can charge the battery in about 5 hours.

Since this camera is meant for beginners, there are no manual exposure modes.  In fact, you can’t even change the sensitivity (ISO) of the sensor or white balance.  There are a few “shortcuts” on the mode dial to get to the most common modes: auto, movie capture, digital image stabilization mode, portrait, landscape, and night portrait.  When you set the dial to “scene” you can choose even more scene modes.  Choose from Portrait, Landscape, Night & Portrait, Indoor, Candle, Self-Portrait, Sunset, Sport, Fireworks, Cuisine, Documents, Behind Glass, and Auction.

A built in “Guide” system is pretty handy.  It’s an entry on the mode dial, so it’s very easy to get to.  When you turn on the guide, you can choose from several options.  For example, entry #1 is “Brightening subject”.  By following the arrow, you get other options.  In this case, you can increase the exposure compensation or turn on the fill-in flash.  By making your choice, the camera performs the setting change for you.

There is a 12 second self timer if you need it.  However, there are no continuous shooting modes that let you hold the shutter down and take several pictures in a row.

The built-in flash can be set to auto, red-eye reduction, fill flash, or off.  At wide angle, the flash has a range to 8.9 feet.  At telephoto, the range is reduced to 4.6 feet.

Camera Performance and Image Quality 

I was pretty impressed with the camera performance, especially since this is part of Olympus’ “entry level” line.  Start up time was not amazing, but shutter lag was not bad at all.  If you have to do a full press of the shutter (when you’re not able to do a partial press), then the shutter lag is around 0.4 seconds.  If you can do a partial press, shutter lag was right around 0.1 seconds.  Cycle time (time between shots) was also acceptable.  You will notice some slowness during image playback, where it can take a second or two to move through the shots that you’ve already taken.

The layout and comfort of the controls were just fine, for an ultra-slim camera.  My least favorite is the zoom rocker switch on the back, but you’ll find similar switches on a lot of the competition. However, the shutter button is where it should be and is big enough that it's easy to operate.

The claimed range of the flash is 9 feet. This would have to be under pretty ideal conditions as I found the flash to be fairly underpowered at that range.  My major complaint with the flash was that red-eye seemed to happen a lot more often than with other cameras.

Auto focus performance was average.  It was a little sluggish, but generally accurate.  The camera doesn’t have a focus assist light, like its sibling, the FE-200.

Overall, image quality was average.  I was pleased with the color reproduction with accurate reds and good skin tones (but under simple lighting).  Exposure was generally pretty good, with a slight tendency toward over-exposure.  Some of the sample images below were taken in fairly challenging conditions (with white artificial snow and dark model trains).  There was a fair amount of chromatic aberration (purple fringing) in some images.

Since the sensitivity (ISO) is not adjustable on this camera, I wasn’t able to compare noise in the images.

Sample Images

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olympus fe-190 sample image
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olympus fe-190 sample image
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olympus fe-190 sample image
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olympus fe-190 sample image
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olympus fe-190 sample image
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Specifications 

Conclusion

The Olympus FE-190 is an easy to use, good looking, affordable camera.  However, I don’t quite agree with all of the decisions that Olympus made to “strip down” the camera.  For instance, you can’t adjust the sensitivity (ISO) or white balance, and you can’t even disable the digital zoom.  Another area in which manufacturers like to cater to beginner users is to have features that allow you to do “fun” things with your images, like add frames, change colors, etc.  With the FE-190, you can playback the images in a slideshow, but the only editing/enhancing things that you can do is to resize or rotate your image.

The camera is stylish - the slim body and nice finish give the camera a look that is more expensive then it really is.  Build quality is also very good and the controls are fairly comfortable.

Image quality is only average, in my opinion.  Keeping in mind the audience of this camera – beginners and users who want “easy to use” – image quality will probably be sufficient.  In indoor mixed lighting, results may be mixed as the automatic white balance system can struggle to figure out its strategy.  However, outdoors and under the flash lighting, colors were good.

Bottom line, I think the Olympus FE-190 is a fine camera, especially if you’re looking for an ultra-compact camera under $200.  However, I think that if you’re willing to spend just a bit more ($20-50 more), you’ll find much better cameras (or ones with similar results but more features), like the Canon Powershot SD600 or Casio Exilim EX-Z70

Pros

Cons