On paper, the Olympus FE-170 is almost identical to its brother, the FE-180. Both have the same 6-megapixel sensor, the same 38mm-to-114mm (35mm equivalent) zoom lens, and the same emphasis on simplified, automated photography. In actual use, however, the FE-170 is far inferior to its bigger brother. The approximate $30 difference between the two cameras represent some heavily cut corners in this cheaper model.
Both cameras share the FE series' emphasis on simplicity over control. Besides macro, flash, and EV compensation, the only way you can change the cameras' settings is through its various scene presets. They automatically control aperture, shutter, focus, and even ISO sensitivity and white balance. Basically, the camera runs almost completely on autopilot. Casual shooters may find this convenient, but more advanced photographers will miss tweaking their shots.
Automated shooting isn't necessarily a bad thing if the automated aspects work well. Unfortunately, this is where the FE-170 parts ways with the FE-180. While both are automated, the FE-180 uses Olympus's TruePic Turbo image processor. The FE-170's unbranded image processor is the main cause of its performance woes. The camera takes 5.7 seconds from power-on to first shot, and every shot thereafter suffers a wait of 4.8 seconds without flash. With the onboard flash enabled, that wait becomes an even-longer 5.5 seconds. Shutter lag was almost as painful, taking a full 1.3 seconds from shutter release to shot. These numbers are more than double what we saw with the FE-180, which offered a 1.6-second shot-to-shot time and a shutter lag of just 0.6 second.
Image quality was similarly disappointing. While the FE-180 displayed very good white balance with tungsten lights, the FE-170's tungsten shots looked almost like old-timey sepia prints. Beyond the severe yellowing, processing artifacts obscured and softened fine details. Noise wasn't very noticeable, but we couldn't run our full gamut of noise tests because of the camera's total lack of ISO control. Also, the FE-170 has a sensitivity range of ISO 64 to ISO 400, though since the ISO isn't recorded in EXIF data, there's no way of actually telling what sensitivity setting the camera chooses for a given shot.