The 2-megapixel FinePix A201 sticks with a formula that has long characterized Fujifilm's entry-level digicams: It's highly compact, the feature set is downright minimalist, and it can take surprisingly good pictures. But the camera does have some significant limitations--there's no optical zoom, and low-light performance is, frankly, shabby. Still, if you're a casual shutterbug, you will love its portability and easy automatic operation. The 2-megapixel FinePix A201 sticks with a formula that has long characterized Fujifilm's entry-level digicams: It's highly compact, the feature set is downright minimalist, and it can take surprisingly good pictures. But the camera does have some significant limitations--there's no optical zoom, and low-light performance is, frankly, shabby. Still, if you're a casual shutterbug, you will love its portability and easy automatic operation.
Simple and compact
Even a low-priced camera is no bargain if it's so bulky that you tend to leave it sitting at home, so we appreciated that the A201 is small and lightweight enough (6.9 ounces with batteries and SmartMedia card installed) to slip into a pocket. Adding to the portability is a built-in sliding lens cover that opens when you switch on the camera and protects the lens from scratches when the camera is bouncing around in a backpack or a purse. We were dismayed to see that Fujifilm combined the SmartMedia and battery compartments without adding a latch to hold in the two AA batteries when you open the compartment door. However, our most serious complaint about the camera's design is the lack of physical controls for many of the camera's functions. To select a flash mode, activate the self-timer, and even to change picture-quality settings, you have to navigate menus on the battery-draining LCD. Fortunately, those menus are logical and easy to read.
Easy on auto
This camera is made for people who prefer shooting in full Auto mode, but it does allow you to manually select white-balance presets and exposure-compensation settings. These are useful features for dealing with difficult lighting situations, and it's unfortunate that it takes several steps to get to them through the LCD menu. On the other hand, it's easy to flip the camera into Video mode to capture silent clips by just turning the mode dial. The A201 can function as a Webcam in Video mode as well when it's connected to a PC (but not a Mac). On the software side, we liked the fact that the USB driver enables your computer to treat the camera as an external hard drive; this makes it fast and easy to upload photos by clicking and dragging in your file directory.
The A201's performance turned out to be fairly typical of that of entry-level digital cameras. Both the power-on and shot-to-shot times are relatively long--indicating that there's not a huge amount of buffer memory inside--but the shutter delay is short enough to be unobtrusive. The LCD is bright and has a good refresh rate (which means no psychedelic trails when you pan quickly), although its large pixels make it hard to discern fine details. Battery life from the included AA alkalines was decent, but you'll get more mileage out of rechargeable nickel-metal-hydride batteries.
A deal for the daylight photographer
As we said, this low-priced camera can surprise you with its image quality, but there's a caveat: the A201 simply isn't a good choice when ambient light levels are very low. Fujifilm's claim of a 9.8-foot flash range also seems overly optimistic--we'd say more like half that distance. The good news with flash photography is that we didn't see the bluish cast that plagues some digital camera images, giving a horrid zombielike quality to human flesh tones.
In natural daylight or under bright fluorescent fixtures, the A201 produces well-exposed photos with pleasingly saturated colors. Better still, novices should be able to rely on the auto white-balance and exposure most of the time. The only major problem we encountered outdoors was that the camera's metering system made it hard to compensate effectively for backlighting; subjects tended to come out in silhouette.