Olympus FE-230 Zoom Review
By Movable Type Admin
Building on the success of past "FE" series cameras, Olympus continues to add new models to their ranks, like the new FE-230 and FE-240. These models are almost identical, sharing the same 7-megapixel imager, 2.5-inch LCD, high-quality AVI Motion JPEG 640x480 Movie mode, Digital Image Stabilization (Blur Reduction mode), built-in Help Guide as well as an all-metal body design. The FE-230 includes a 3x optical zoom lens (the FE-240 has a 5x zoom), 19 easy to use fully automatic exposure modes, and ISO settings from 50 - 1250. These cameras are designed for the beginner to novice user who wants a compact model that can be tucked away easily, and captures nice photos, without having to deal with many camera settings.
The FE-230 is even smaller than the FE-240, measuring just 0.65-inches thick! This will allow you to hide it away in almost any size pocket or purse. The body is also very durable, thanks to its all-metal construction. The various controls are well positioned across the body, and I especially like the zoom controls mounted around the shutter release, which makes for effortless zooming. The onscreen menu system has a new look, however menu operation is still true to past models, so if you've owned an Olympus before, you'll feel right at home. The FE-230 includes the same size LCD found on its predecessor the FE-200 we reviewed earlier this year, at 2.5-inches (150K pixels). This is a good-quality display that worked well in almost every lighting environment. The surface is "Non-reflective", making it a pleasure to use outdoors in the bright sunlight. In lower lighting, the LCD gains up well to help you frame the subject. Because this display occupies nearly 2/3 of the back of the camera, there is no optical viewfinder present.
The shooting performance of the FE-230 was better than the FE-240, but still not up to par with other cameras in this class. Power up to first image captured measured about 2.4 seconds. Shutter lag, the delay between depressing the shutter button and capturing the image, measured 1/10 of a second when pre-focused and 6/10 of a second including autofocus. When capturing a sequence of images, the shot to shot delay averaged 1.3 - 1.5 seconds without the flash and between 2.8 and 4 seconds with flash, depending on subject distance and battery strength. While being faster than its brother, I was disappointed that it only take 2 SHQ images to fill the buffer. You then have to wait about 4 - 4.5 seconds for it to clear and capture another image. One factor that slows these times down is that you can't turn of the image preview option. Our tests were done using an Olympus H (High speed) 512MB xD card, SHQ quality, Program Auto mode, flash off, and all other settings at default (unless otherwise noted.) Times may vary depending on lighting conditions, camera settings, photographer response, media, etc.
The FE-230 features a 3x optical zoom lens, which offers a typical range for a compact consumer model, with plenty of positions to help you compose a shot. Covering a 35mm equivalent range of 38 - 114mm, it favors the telephoto end. However, the 38mm wide angle extreme will afford nice landscape and group photos, while the telephoto end is great for close-up portraits or macro photography as well as helping bring your distant subjects a bit closer. I noticed moderate barrel distortion and slight pincushioning at the wide angle and telephoto extremes, respectively. On the other hand, Chromatic Aberrations (also know as purple fringing around objects with high contrast) were very well controlled.
Like the FE-240, when looking at the images captured on the camera's LCD, the image quality looks very promising. However, after viewing them on a PC at 100%, it's a different story. While the exposure was good (especially sky details) and color saturation was nice, I was sad to see that there was moderate edge softness that in some instances looks blurry. The center of the frame is sharp, and when viewed at the typical 23-25% to fill your PC's monitor, the images do look great. So, it's unlikely that you will see any of these negative findings in your typical 4x6-inch prints. Like past Olympus models, the FE-230 features their DIS (Digital Image Stabilization) exposure mode. Using it helps reduce blur in your photos, caused by camera shake or subject movement. It does this by boosting the sensitivity to as high as ISO 1250, thus allowing for faster than normal shutter speeds. While it is effective at reducing these negative effects, there is a down side. These high ISO settings also show a significant increase in image noise. You can see for yourself on our samples , where we took an available light portrait without the flash. The camera selected an ISO speed of 400, which is not even the highest setting available, and the image looks horrible. Not even worth of being used for a 4x6-inch print. Because ISO is fully automatic, we can not show you a sequence of images at each ISO setting like we normally do.
While we experienced the problems discussed above, I was very pleased with our close-up people shots, using the dedicated Portrait Scene mode. Outdoors image are nice and sharp, and the tiny flash did well when using the fill-in mode. Indoors, flash exposure and skin tones were pleasing as long as you are with in its limits (approx. 12.8 feet at wide angle). I achieved the best results using the mid telephoto capabilities of the zoom, shooting from about 5 - 6 feet away. Do not expect this tiny flash unit to illuminate open rooms.
Both the FE-240 and FE-230 record AVI Motion JEPG (.AVI) movies, instead of the Quicktime (.MOV) format used on most of Olympus' cameras. Overall, I found movie quality was much better than on past models in the "FE" series. You can capture video at either 640x480 or 320x240 at a frame rate of 30fps, with audio. I was also glad to see that Olympus finally brought these models up to date with a VGA sized movie mode (past models only recorded up to 320x240). Our clips were sharp, with the AF system doing well with moving subjects. Compression noise was average, and the exposure system seemed to do well, even indoors. That said, the AVI format movie mode is a welcomed addition to these two models.
The FE-230 is powered by a tiny LI-42B 3.7v 740mAh Lithium Ion battery pack that is charged in the included rapid charger. Olympus does not specify the battery runtime, however, I found battery life was good, allowing me to capture about 70 pictures, several short movie clips as well as conclude many other tests with power to spare. Because you can use one battery while charging another, we suggest you add at least one extra pack to your purchase and keep it charged and ready at all times. There's nothing more aggravating than missing that spontaneous photo opt, due to a dead battery!
Bottom line - While the FE-230 features a less powerful zoom range than the FE-240, it offers a better value with more exposure modes (19 over 16), a broader flash range (12.8 ft. over 11.8) as well as higher ISO capabilities (up to ISO 1250 over 1000). With this in mind along with better performance and a slightly slimmer body, I actually prefer this model over the other. Performance still isn't as robust as other models on the market, however like we said with the FE-240, Olympus has taken a step in the positive direction. We still feel that the performance would be much better if Olympus switched to the faster SD/SDHC type of memory cards; we'll continue to keep our fingers crossed. That said, with a street price of US$199 or less, I feel the FE-230 offers a good "bang for your buck" in the 7-megapixel ultra-compact category. If you like this model but want a more versatile zoom range, be sure to check out our review of the FE-240, which can be had for about $50 more.
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