Pixel count isn't everything. While a 12-megapixel picture can potentially hold more details than an 8- or 10-megapixel picture, that doesn't mean it always will. As you try to cram more and more pixels onto a small sensor, problems like noise tend to overtake the picture. Conversely, if you put fewer pixels on a large sensor, like the 6-megapixel Canon Rebel XT digital SLR, photos tend to come out looking much better even at the lower resolution. The Olympus FE-300 distinguishes itself as one of the lightest, least-expensive 12-megapixel cameras currently available. Unfortunately, its pictures pale in comparison to those from some higher-end, lower-resolution cameras.
Measuring about 0.9 inch thick and weighing just 4.9 ounces with battery and xD-Picture Card, the FE-300 fits easily into nearly any pants or shirt pocket. Despite its small design, the camera sports surprisingly accessible controls, with large, flat buttons that rest comfortably even under large thumbs. It lacks a viewfinder, but the camera's 2.5-inch LCD screen can be read clearly from nearly any angle. It includes a modest 35 to 105mm-equivalent f/2.8-4.7 3x optical zoom lens. A wider wide angle would be nice, but this zoom range is typical for a camera this size and price.
While the FE-300 lacks manual exposure controls, it offers an otherwise pleasant selection of features. Olympus' new Perfect Shot Preview mode stands out among these features as one of the most useful aspects of the camera. This mode lets you preview how your picture will look under four different EV compensation or white balance settings. If you shoot in awkward lighting, Perfect Shot Preview can really help you take a proper shot without a lot of trial-and-error or menu-hunting. You can even preview how movie clips will look at different quality settings and frame-rates, though the highest quality 30fps VGA movie mode will almost always be your best choice.
White balance and ISO sensitivity settings offer some control over your photos. In addition, the camera comes with 14 scene presets to complement its automatic, program auto, ISO-boosting/shutter-quickening digital stabilization, and movie modes. Finally, like most current digital cameras, the FE-300 includes a face-detection mode that can find your friends' faces and adjusts focus and exposure based on them when shooting portraits or group shots. The camera's menu lets you set sensitivity as high as ISO 6400, but lowers the pixel resolution to 3.1 megapixels when you shoot at ISO 3,200 or ISO 6,400.
The FE-300 performed slowly in our lab tests, pausing for several seconds between each shot. After a 2.2-second time from power-on to first shot, we could snap a new picture once every 3.6 seconds with the onboard flash disabled. With the flash turned on, that wait bumped slightly to 3.8 seconds. Shutter lag wasn't great, lagging 0.9 second with our high-contrast target and 1.6 seconds with our low-contrast target, which mimic bright and dim shooting conditions, respectively. Like many FE-series cameras, the FE-300 lacks a burst shot mode. While the 3.6-second wait between shots compares poorly with most other cameras, other 12-megapixel point-and-shoots also tend to be slower than average.
Despite solid color reproduction, the FE-300's pictures ultimately disappoint. At ISO 50 or ISO 100 sensitivity, pictures look reasonably sharp and crisp, though fine textures tend to look a touch smoothed down. At higher sensitivity levels, however, the camera's flaws really start to appear. Surprisingly high levels of noise appear at ISO 200, and at ISO 400, grain consumes nearly all fine details. At ISO 800, noise destroys details to the point where the camera's 12-megapixel pictures would look disappointing coming from an 8-megapixel camera. By the time you get up to ISO 1,600, all fine details disappear into blotchy smears.
For Web sites, e-mails, and smaller prints, the FE-300's photos should be fine in most cases. If you plan to blow up or crop down your pictures to any significant extent, though, you'll need to shoot in ISO 50 or ISO 100 to avoid a major drop in detail. For a 12-megapixel camera, the FE-300's pictures simply don't live up to what they could be. While they are more expensive, compact 8-megapixel shooters like the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T100 and Canon PowerShot SD870 IS produce pictures that can be made into larger, nicer-looking prints than the FE-300.
The Olympus FE-300 impressed us as one of the smallest, least expensive 12-megapixel digital cameras out there. Unfortunately, its slow performance and poor image quality makes us reach for our older 8-megapixel stand-bys. If you really want a 12-megapixel shooter, drop the extra hundred bucks for a better model like the Canon PowerShot SD950 IS or the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX100. If price, not resolution, is your hot button, consider instead a solid 8-megapixel camera like the Canon PowerShot SD850 IS or the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T20. Their comparable picture quality and significantly faster performance represent better values, even if with their lower resolutions.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
|Typical shot-to-shot time
|Time to first shot
|Shutter lag (typical)