The Olympus µ-mini Digital's sexy design is sure to attract the attention of photographers using more conventional digital compacts, but so-so image quality and middle-of-the-road performance hamper this study in style over substance. Lacking manual controls other than exposure compensation, the µ-mini Digital compensates with lots of interesting scene modes, along with post-shot editing that lets you add special effects such as fish-eye and soft-focus looks. If you can compose all your shots on an LCD without an optical viewfinder and your goals involve small prints and owning the trendiest camera in your crowd that doesn't also place phone calls, this might be what you're looking for.
The µ-mini Digital has a mostly metal body and is available in wardrobe-matching silver, red, orange, blue, and white. Although its rounded parallelogram shape resembles a well-used bar of soap, its design is more chic than ergonomically practical. The odd contours of this 115g camera make one-handed shooting awkward, especially if you want your index finger poised over the shutter release while resting a thumb on the zoom rocker. Worse, it's difficult to manipulate the four-way cursor pad without accidentally depressing the centre Menu/OK button and activating a setting. Similarly, when you're pressing the cursor pad up to change scene modes, to the right to adjust flash settings, to the left to change macro mode, or down to activate the self-timer, it's easy to find yourself viewing a menu instead.
On the plus side, the cylindrical mode control looks like it belongs on a micrometer and can be spun quickly to select shooting, movie, or playback mode in a flash. A gasketed full lens cover, which slides shut on power-down like the doors on the Starship Enterprise, and a gasket on the battery door make this camera moderately water-resistant. The only other controls to fuss with are a quick-review button to the left of the 46mm (1.8-inch) LCD, and the top-mounted power switch.
The 2X zoom range provides the equivalent of a 35-70mm lens on a 35mm camera. Olympus wisely sacrifices the telephoto end to provide a usable wide-angle view, recognising that it's easier to take a few steps closer to your subject than flatten yourself more tightly against an unmovable wall. The lens's autofocus takes you from 0.5m to infinity in normal mode and from 200mm to infinity at the macro position. A supermacro option operates between 80 and 200mm. The built-in flash is less versatile, however, reaching out to just 2.7m with the lens set to wide-angle and no more than 1.8m at the telephoto position.
Although the µ-mini Digital makes most of the decisions for you, there are scene modes to accommodate most common shooting situations. These include Portrait, Landscape, Landscape/Portrait, Night, Cuisine, Beach & Snow, Self-Portrait (with and without self-timer), and Display Window for shooting through glass. Add in Sunset and Fireworks modes, plus special indoors and candle settings that lock the camera at 1,280x960 or lower resolution, and you're ready for just about any shooting environment. Shutter speeds are set automatically between 1/2 and 1/1,000 second, although the night scene mode can extend exposures to as long as 4 seconds. After you've taken your best shot, you can apply several special effects, including soft focus, fish-eye, sepia, and black-and-white. The camera retains the original, unprocessed shot, too, in case you change your mind. Motion-picture capture is limited to 320x240 pixels at 15fps, with sound. You can also annotate stills with 4-second audio clips.
The µ-mini Digital screeched to a halt in the performance department. Time to first shot wasn't bad at roughly 3 seconds, but the 3-second pauses between shots -- nearly 5 seconds with flash -- were strictly middle-of-the-road. A mere 5 shots in 4.2 seconds in burst mode at full resolution wasn't anything to write home about, either, although the ability to shoot 104 consecutive shots at 640x480 resolution in about 81 seconds might be useful for some applications.
Shutter lag was acceptable at 0.8 second under high-contrast lighting conditions, but the non-light-assisted autofocus delayed shooting for 1.5 seconds under more demanding low-contrast lighting. We got 302 shots from a single charge of the lithium-ion LI-30B battery, half with flash. The LCD was generally easy to use for picture composition when we held the camera still, but it exhibited prodigious ghosting when we moved the camera. The view is bright and clear under normal lighting conditions and in dim light, where the brightness is boosted to compensate, but the screen easily washed out in bright daylight.
Image quality was acceptable, with detail a bit softer than you'd expect from a 4-megapixel camera and colours that tended to be muted. Flesh tones tended to be a little yellow, and blown-out highlights and moderate purple fringing plagued many images. The red-eye-reduction feature didn't work particularly well, and flash pictures beyond the rated 2.7m were usually badly underexposed. In these situations, the camera automatically boosted ISO to compensate, but this produced underexposed, noisy photos.
Edited by: Aimee Baldridge
Additional editing by: Mary Lojkine