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Conclusion - Pros

  • Excellent resolution and sharpness
  • Class-leading high ISO performance; superb results up to ISO 400
  • Surprisingly good ISO 800 performance
  • Very low shutter lag
  • Class-leading battery life
  • Clean, sharp results
  • Improved handling of bright outdoor scenes (over F30) and slightly more subtle processing
  • Superb build and handling
  • Good flash performance
  • Decent movie mode
  • Fast, reliable focus
  • AF illuminator
  • Large clear screen
  • Aperture and Shutter Priority and lots of Scene modes

Conclusion - Cons

  • Still some occasional mild exposure and highlight clipping in bright conditions (better than F30 though)
  • Purple fringing
  • Noisy focus, macro focus can be very slow (low light focus also slower)
  • High speed AF works well but comes at a cost; you can't focus as close without switching to macro mode
  • 3-shot limit in continuous mode
  • Slow card writing (xD-Picture Card issue)
  • Screen can be hard to see in very bright light and can get laggy in very low light
  • User interface lacks finesse and not well suited to extensive manual control
  • Auto mode defaults to ISO 800 when using flash when it doesn't need to
  • ISO 3200 is a 'stop too far' - not really that useful for anything
  • No optical viewfinder

Overall conclusion

Pretty much everything we said about the F30 applies equally to the F31fd (in fact you'll notice that sections of the conclusion below are lifted straight from that review); this is a very minor upgrade indeed, which is good news and bad news. The good news is that Fuji hasn't done anything to significantly affect the class-leading high ISO performance or astounding resolution, and it appears to have tweaked the processing to produce more natural, pleasing results in bright daylight too. The bad news is that the camera itself is starting to look a little long in the tooth and many of the niggles that have affected the range since the original F10 - purple fringing, slow macro focus, mediocre burst mode, slow card writing, boring 36-108mm zoom range and so on - have not been fixed. The interface has improved marginally, but it's still nowhere near as polished as you'd find on a Canon or Panasonic, for example. None of this is going to be a deal-breaker, but as the market moves on and features like image stabilization and wider zoom range become the norm there is only so long this range can effectively stand still, amazing high ISO performance or not.

But let's not forget, the FinePix F31fd offers a tantalizing glimpse of how very different compact cameras would be if all manufacturers put as much effort into developing sensor and processing technology as they do into designing and marketing pretty cameras with features no one ever asked for. Our tests show that the F31fd's sensor gives you at least a two-stop advantage over the best that conventional CCD technology can offer, and in many cases a three-stop advantage, with ISO 800 output that can rival some cameras at ISO 200.

Given that most 'average' casual snap shooters are likely to use their camera at (dimly lit) social occasions more than at any other time, this is a real, significant advantage; allowing flash-free photography without blur. More serious photographers will welcome a camera that brings the low light capabilities of a compact a step or two closer to those of most digital SLRs.

Of course the Super CCD chip isn't magic; it's a bit bigger than the average CCD, and the pixel arrangement is such that more of the surface area is used to gather light - so it is more sensitive, but there's a limit to what you can do with a chip this small. At ISO 800 you're beginning to lose low contrast detail to noise reduction, and ISO 1600 / 3200 - though better than any CCD camera by a long stretch - are hardly what a serious user would call 'photo quality'. These settings are fine for snapping your friends in the pub, where fine detail isn't too important, or for producing small prints, but they are really pushing the capabilities of the sensor a little too far. But let's not lose sight of the fact that the F31fd blows away all its competitors at anything over ISO 200, which is no mean feat.

And the battery life is superb, though this has in part been achieved by setting the default screen brightness too low for use in bright light (turning on the high speed focus mode also reduces the headline 580 shot per charge life).

There have been changes over the F30; the new processor's noise reduction has been tweaked slightly to preserve a little more detail, meaning that all ISO settings are slightly noisier than the F30; ISO 1600 and 3200 visibly so. The default contrast and sharpening also appear to have been turned down a notch (more like half a notch really). Whether any of this is good news or not is more a matter of taste than anything, but for the more serious user (especially those who like to post-process) even the slightest toning down of in-camera processing is welcome.

If you've noticed I've got this far without mentioning the face detection technology that Fuji considers so important it adds two letters to the end of the camera's name, there is a reason; I just don't think it's a major selling point. It works exactly as advertised, quickly spotting faces in the frame and focusing on the them, but it's far from infallible (often losing track of the face/faces for a second if they're moving) and - like all such systems - is limited to situations where it can see the full face, looking more or less directly at the camera. In all our tests of 'fd' cameras we've found good old multi AF to work just as well in 99% of situations (the other 1% being the ones these manufacturers choose to illustrate the advantages of these systems). I'm not saying it's useless, just that it will never be a make or break feature for anyone but the absolute novice.

And so, to sum up; the F31fd is everything the F30 was, with a couple of tweaks here and there that - on balance - can be considered to offer a slight improvement over what was already a uniquely capable camera. I suspect (though I hope I'm wrong) that this is the last time we'll see this sensor in a compact camera, as Fuji feels the pressure to keep up with the megapixel race ever more strongly. This would be a real tragedy; the F31fd hits the image quality 'sweet spot' by using a large sensor, relatively low pixel count and some very clever processing, and I can't see them repeating this with a more densely-packed sensor. It is the perfect illustration of the oft made point that more pixels do not mean better quality; we've compared the F31fd to a whole range of much more expensive compacts going right up to 10MP, and - aside from a little extra resolution at base ISO - it puts most of them to shame. Once you get to ISO 400 there simply isn't a compact on the market that can hold a flame to it.

Unlike so many manufacturers that produce amazing cameras with average sensors, Fuji has an amazing sensor and - to be brutally honest - an average camera. As with the F30 this is a camera that wins a Highly Recommended only if you regularly shoot in low light - if you only ever take pictures in blazing sunshine there are competitors with far more impressive feature lists or lower prices. But you just can't take away from Fuji the fact that - at this moment in time - this unassuming little 6MP camera still sets the benchmark for image quality in the entire compact sector. It's also a surprisingly reliable 'point and shoot' model with excellent color and accurate focus/metering in most circumstances.

Detail Rating (out of 10)
Build quality 9.0
Ergonomics & handling 7.5
Features 7.5
Image quality 9.0
Optics 8.0
Performance (speed) 8.5
Value 7.5

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