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Joining a recently announced Olympus trio of beginner compact cameras is the slender, mostly metal-build, 14-megapixel FE-5050. Slipping comfortably into a top pocket, it also boasts a 5x wide-angle optical zoom, offering a focal range of 26-130mm in 35mm terms. This range is wider than most, supported by digital image stabilisation to avoid blur at the telephoto end, and reduce noise in low-light conditions.
The FE-5050 goes up against the likes of the Nikon Coolpix S5100 and Pentax M900, though it's more compact than both with a depth of 18.8mm. Pricing for the Olympus FE-5050 is in the region of £120, falling between its two rivals.
The Olympus is available in the usual rainbow of colours. We had the subtle champagne gold version in for review, though starry silver, classic black and dusty pink are the options.
Although the buttons at the back are a tad plasticky and the layout is on the basic side, from the front, the FE-5050 is surprisingly elegant given its price point. It feels solid when gripped, despite -- like so many other models in its class -- lacking a handgrip.
Instead, your thumb comes to rest on the zoom rocker at the rear, with only the raised Olympus logo providing a place for your forefingers to park. While we anticipated camera shake to be problematic, its slim dimensions and compact size ensure that roughly a third of the camera is resting in your palm at any time, so it doesn't feel like it could easily fly from your grasp. The positioning of the built-in flash at the edge of the camera, however, means your fingertips can stray in front as you attempt to grip it.
With a press of the small lozenge-shaped on/off button, the FE-5050 powers up from cold in just over a second, which is fast for its class. Its retractable lens offers a focal range equivalent to 26-130mm in 35mm terms, so it's useful for landscapes as well as group shots. A half press of the shutter-release button determines focus and exposure in a second, sound-tracked by a quiet yet audible mechanical buzz. Fire the shutter and a full-resolution JPEG is written to memory in a further two seconds.
Pictures are composed via an adequately clear, 2.7-inch rear LCD, with a 230k-dot resolution and 4:3 aspect ratio -- there's no alternative optical viewfinder. Operation is pretty much point-and-shoot all the way, thanks to the camera's 'i-Auto' mode. In this mode, the camera compares the subject with five on-board parameters, biasing focus and exposure accordingly. These include common scenes, autofocus tracking, and advanced face-detection technology for recognising up to 16 human faces in the frame.
Navigating your way around the camera is reasonably intuitive thanks to its 'one button, one function' design principle. The picture-mode settings are summoned by pressing 'OK', which reveals a toolbar running down the side of the screen -- there's no dedicated 'mode' button. Here, you can tab between program auto, i-Auto, image-stabilised, scene, panorama and video-capture modes. You only get standard-definition 640x480-pixel clips, which is hardly surprising given the low outlay, although the frame rate is 30fps. A further disappointment is that the optical zoom is disabled in this mode, no doubt due to the mechanical buzz that accompanies its adjustment.
Being an Olympus, one of the camera's key talking points is its digital-effects filters, or 'magic filters' as the manufacturer likes to call them. This technology has trickled down from the 'art filters' of the digital hybrid Pen series. Some examples work better than others -- pinhole and pop art, for example, are particularly eye-catching.
With the FE-5050, Olympus has introduced a couple of new options in the self-explanatory soft focus and punk filters. While we bemoan the lack of a miniaturisation mode, as found on the Pen series, the punk filter is surely a first for digital cameras. It produces that crude photocopied look beloved of punk rock and riot grrrl fanzines, washing the image with a DayGlo pink-purple sheen for the Sid and Nancys among you. It's fun and effective, albeit for five minutes.
JPEGs are saved to a removable SD card, a slot for which is provided next to the battery, beneath a sliding cover at the base. This is also where you'll find an exposed output port next to an off-centre screw thread for attaching a tripod. A convenient USB charger is supplied, which means you can charge the camera without having to remove the lithium-ion battery.
The FE-5050's slender body means camera shake is a problem, and we got our fair share of soft shots even in broad daylight. Sunshine can easily result in burnt-out highlights and lens flare, with the camera's unsophisticated metering system otherwise silhouetting subjects when faced with a bright background. As is the case with most Olympus cameras, white balance is variable. On occasion, it gave otherwise white subjects a blue colour cast.
At around £120, the Olympus FE-5050 is a reasonably attractive, low-budget point-and-shoot option. It throws some fun effects filters into the mix, which manage to raise its game slightly, but there are still better digital cameras out there. If you're looking to spend this sort of money, and don't mind forfeiting the punk feature, the Nikon Coolpix S5100 is a better bet for picture quality and consistency.
Edited by Emma Bayly