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Olympus FE-360
8.0MP | 36-108mm (3X) ZOOM | $114 US, £95 UK

When Olympus first introduced its budget 'FE' range a few years ago it consisted of a series of plastic cameras with simple, cut down features and rather bulbous styling, seemingly designed specifically not to tread on the toes of the slimline Stylus (Mju) or photographically advanced SP series. Since then the FE series has slimmed down, had a serious style makeover and picked up an impressive collection of features along the way, and it's only when you look closely at the spec that you start to see where Olympus has cut a corner here or there to keep the latest FE models in the budget arena.

The FE-360 (and its big brother, the even more highly specified FE-370, available for another $50 or so) are perfect examples of how far we've come in a short time; the idea that you'd be able to buy a stylish slimline metal-bodied 8 megapixel camera for not a lot more than $100 would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Let's find out if the FE-360 is the bargain it seems to be.

  • 8.0 effective Megapixels
  • 36-108mm equiv lens with 3x Optical zoom and up to 12x Digital Zoom
  • 2.5 inch LCD with 154,000 dots resolution
  • ISO sensitivity up to 1000
  • Face Detection and Perfect Shot Preview
  • Multi-point Autofocus
  • 19 scene modes
  • In-Camera Editing
  • 40.5MB internal memory
  • Available in Black, Silver, Pink and Blue
  • Optional Accessories available

Click here to view the original news story and full specification (opens in new window)

Overview

In a group of cameras dominated by large, AA-battery-powered plastic leviathans, the Olympus cuts quite a dash - its slim metal body and bright coloration set it apart from the silver plastic crowd. And it's only the slightly inexpensive-looking buttons that do anything to detract from the perception that the FE-360 should sit alongside more expensive peers. It's small and stylish (both of which usually come at a premium). Its small Lithium-Ion battery is rated at 2.7 Wh - less than half the capacity of two typical 2500mAh AA cells, so it's reasonable to expect the FE-360 to get fewer shots per charge than the larger cameras in this test.

The screen is a 2.5", 154,000 dot panel, which offers a higher resolution than some of the cameras we're testing here but is behind the best in the bunch. The user interface is a bit of a mixed bag - we like the simulation that the camera gives when you change exposure compensation but find the menu system, with its multiple icons to chose which menu or setting you wish to engage, slightly convoluted. Thankfully, the most important shooting settings that don't have their own buttons (ISO sensitivity and White Balance), are accessible on a pleasantly uncluttered FUNC menu.

Key Features

The FE-360 is, along with the Fujifilm, the slimmest camera in this test and arguably the best looking camera of the group. It fits in the hand well, though it's not the easiest camera to hold.
There are plenty of buttons on the FE-360, all of which are made of a soft, tactile plastic. We're not sure how many people will need the screen brightness button at the bottom right, but it's there if you want it.
The FE-360 has one button to engage playback mode and one that toggles between stills shooting and record mode. These sit above a 154,000 dot, 2.5" LCD, which is a middle-order offering for this class of camera.
The FE-360 has a function menu, giving access to white balance, ISO sensitivity and image size and quality. Which is ideal, as the main menu system (shows here), is slightly more complex than on competing cameras.
A nice touch is the FE-360's preview that gives a simulation of the effect of changing exposure compensation. The live preview also remains active when selecting a white balance setting: making the whole process much easier to understand.

Image quality and performance

If you were thinking that the idea of a stylish, compact, metal bodied 8 megapixel camera for under $120 seemed too good to be true then you'd perhaps have a point, as you'll soon discover if you look too closely at the FE-360's output. At base ISO, shooting in good light, the results usually aren't bad at all, and though they are pretty soft (with obvious noise reduction smearing even at base ISO) they're easily good enough to produce perfectly sharp 5x7 inch prints.

Exposure/metering rarely goes too far astray, but it isn't that reliable either, and the contrasty tone curve means that highlight clipping is hard to avoid whenever there's a hint of overexposure. Combined with the Disney-style colors this can result in the FE-360's images having a rather harsh, unnatural look. We were also disappointed by the auto white balance, which even in broad daylight often produced results with a mild, but noticeable color cast.

In less than perfect shooting conditions the FE-360 is even less impressive, with heavy smearing at anything over ISO 100 and lots of noise above ISO 400. By the time you hit ISO 1000 the output is so poor that it's hard to imagine anyone being satisfied with the results. On the plus side, flash exposures were very reliable, even if the red-eye reduction rarely works.

The other key area where the FE-360 disappoints is in the speed of operation; this is one of the slowest cameras in the group, with a noticeable shutter lag and slow card writing making for longer than average shot-to-shot times. Focus speed isn't that fast in good light and is almost painfully slow in low light (though it rarely actually fails), and the low resolution screen and low refresh rate make the entire process of taking pictures - especially in low light - frustratingly languorous.

Close up the FE-360's output shows noise and NR smearing even at ISO 64, limiting the potential for large prints or cropping, but there's enough sharpness for normal prints and when it gets everything right the results aren't bad at all. Exposure and white balance aren't what you'd call 100% reliable and the color tends to the slightly cartoonish (which may well suit the intended market), but generally you'll get a usable result, even if it's far from perfect.

Summary

With the FE-360 Olympus has managed to produce the perfect product for someone who wants a cool looking camera but isn't actually that bothered about taking pictures. Building a camera to a price is always going to involve compromises and Olympus chose (sensibly, from a commercial point of view I guess) to blow the entire budget on the casing, which certainly looks and feels more expensive than it is. Unfortunately that means that it appears some serious corner cutting has happened inside the camera, resulting in a performance and picture quality that struggles to be anything more than merely adequate.

Ultimately if you want a cool, slim, metal camera you need to pay a bit more than this; if you're on a tight budget and actually want something for taking pictures rather than to look nice on your desk, there are more capable alternatives out there.

  • We like: Build and styling, decent feature set for the price, flash performance
  • We don't like: Slow operation, poor low light performance, auto white balance and metering a bit flakey, proprietary xD card format
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