Lack of control isn't necessarily a bad thing in cameras. If the camera does its job well, the automatic mode should be all you need to take a good snapshot. Unfortunately, cameras tend not to do their jobs well without user tweaks. Thankfully, Olympus's 6-megapixel FE-180 is a rare example of a camera with a well-built automatic system.
Olympus has several 6-megapixel FE-series cameras, and they're all nearly identical. The FE-170 is almost the same as the FE-180, only it doesn't come with rechargeable batteries, and it doesn't have an autofocus lamp. The FE-190 is smaller and slightly more stylish than the FE-170 and FE-180 but includes the same lens, sensor and basic features as the other two. All three cameras are available for £150 or less.
The FE-180's small, curved plastic body is a microcosm of the camera itself -- comfortable and simple, but unimpressive and not intimidating.
The right half of the camera is fatter than the left half to make room for two included rechargeable AA batteries. The batteries come with a separate charger and even come precharged so that you can start shooting as soon as you take the camera out of the box.
The FE-180 has almost no manual controls. Besides macro, flash and EV compensation, the only way to change the camera's settings is through its various scene presets. It automatically controls aperture, shutter, focus and even ISO and white balance. Basically, the camera runs almost completely on autopilot.
The FE-180 automatically sets its sensitivity from ISO 64 to ISO 1,000. Unfortunately, you can't change ISO manually, and since the ISO isn't recorded in the EXIF data, there's no way of knowing what ISO setting the camera is using.
It features a digital image stabilisation mode to help reduce blur, but it still isn't very good for low-light shooting, especially if you can't use the flash. Unfortunately, tripod use is extremely awkward, with the camera's tripod mount on the very far left edge of the body.
Performance is far better than that of previous FE-series cameras. With only a 1.7-second wait between power-on and first shot and a 1.6-second wait between shots thereafter, you can snap photos at a relatively rapid clip. With the onboard flash enabled, the wait increases to a modest 3.8 seconds. The camera's shutter is nice and responsive, with just a 0.6-second lag between button press and shot.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
||Typical shot-to-shot time||
||Time to first shot||
||Shutter lag (typical)|
The FE-180's automatic white balance was generally very accurate. We noticed some slight yellowing in other lab tests, but our basic scene produced an impressively neutral image. Shots tended to be slightly warm under tungsten lights, but far more neutral and balanced than many cameras.
The camera's 38mm-to-114mm (35mm equivalent) zoom lens produced mild distortion at the far wide and telephoto positions but didn't really hurt the pictures. The camera's biggest weakness is a marked softening of details. While the FE-180 handles colour and exposure beautifully, it doesn't do a very good job of reproducing fine details such as text.
The Olympus FE-180 is a fine, inexpensive snapshot camera. It doesn't have any manual settings to play with, but it quickly and easily produces attractive images for a low price. With an included set of rechargeable batteries and a charger, this sub-£130 shooter is a great deal for anyone who wants pretty pictures without much trouble or cost.
Additional editing by Nick Hide