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A little fatter than an iPod, the Olympus FE-140's solid, rectangular plastic body feels reasonably comfortable in the hand. Plus, its thickness gives the camera enough room to use readily available AA batteries instead of a proprietary rechargeable cell. Its matte gunmetal finish is pleasant enough to look at but won't win any fashion awards.
Atop the camera, you'll find the shutter-release button, the power button, the zoom rocker, and four controls: shooting mode, playback, trash, and print. The back panel holds the rest of the controls next to its 2.5-inch LCD. After making your selection on the mode dial, you can change certain settings, such as flash, timer, and macro, through a four-way-plus-OK button cluster and a separate menu button. An additional display/help button cycles through the LCD's settings and brings up tips when you rummage through the camera's menus.
The Olympus FE-140 has a few handy features for camera newbies, but anyone expecting a lot of options will be seriously disappointed. Settings such as ISO sensitivity and white balance are strictly automatic. Once the mode is set, only basic settings, including image resolution, flash, macro focus, timer, and EV compensation, can be changed by the user. A nice handful of shooting modes and scene presets, from basic portrait and landscape modes to special museum and food settings, cover many common shooting situations. You can also select digital image stabilization, which boosts the camera's light sensitivity to ISO 800 and uses faster shutter speeds to help reduce blur in action-filled photos. But be warned--this approach is generally less effective than the optical image stabilization included in many higher-priced cameras these days; in this case, it resulted in pictures that were noisier than normal. Olympus includes a movie mode, but it can capture only 15fps QuickTime clips at 320x240 resolution. The FE-140's menus classify this QVGA video mode to be high quality, but it's inferior to the full VGA (640x480), 30fps video offered by nearly every other camera currently on the market.
The camera includes Guide mode, which steps users through setting up their shots. A simple text menu lets users select choices such as "Shooting into backlight" or "Shooting subject in motion," then walks them through changing the correct settings for that situation.
To help prevent ugly dead pixels, the Olympus FE-140 has an automatic pixel-mapping feature that analyzes the camera's sensor and notes specific pixels that show up as too light or too dark. Once recorded, the camera can compensate for those bad pixels when it processes images. Olympus puts pixel mapping on all of its digital cameras, but it's otherwise a rare feature for low-end snapshot cameras.
It won't win any speed contests, but the FE-140's performance will satisfy most casual shooters. After 3 seconds from power-on to the first shot, the FE-140 could snap one shot every 2.4 seconds. Even with the onboard flash enabled, the camera experienced just a 2.8-second shot-to-shot time. Shutter lag was good, lagging only 0.7 second with our high-contrast target and 1.3 seconds with our low-contrast subject.
The photos we took with the FE-140 were mediocre at best. It captured colors well, and its automatic white balance pleasantly surprised us by accurately reproducing indoor, incandescent lighting without the yellow pall typical of most cameras. Despite this nice touch, the images generally came out soft with fine details and noise, even in bright shots. Noise grew exponentially with the ISO-enhancing image-stabilization mode. If you don't want extremely grainy, speckled photos, you'll stick to well-lit subjects and keep image stabilization turned off.
The Olympus FE-140 is an extremely simple camera that will do almost everything for you. Unfortunately, this automation comes at the cost of any sort of manual control. It performs well enough, but the camera's mediocre pictures and near-total lack of manual control make it unsuitable for all but absolute beginners.