Newcomers to digital photography probably won't mind this Olympus's skimpy feature set, which includes a 2.8X zoom lens and a tiny 1.5-inch LCD that washes out easily in direct sunlight. Its 28MB of internal memory actually provides enough space to capture nearly two dozen images at maximum resolution without the need for an xD-Picture Card, and its limited scene modes take care of the most common photo situations. Budget-minded novices looking for an easy-to-use starter camera can save a few dollars by buying this model rather than the more desirable FE-120. The Olympus FE-110's compact matte-silver plastic body doesn't look or feel as cheap as its price tag, and its easy-to-hold chunky shape and 7-ounce weight should reassure beginners just entering the digital realm. A two-handed grip is best if you want to rest one finger on the top shutter release while operating the zoom rocker with your thumb.
Aside from the shutter release, the only control on top of the Olympus FE-110 is the power switch. All the other buttons and knobs are arrayed underneath and to the right of the 130,000-pixel LCD (which has 50 percent more pixels than the 1.8-inch LCD on the FE-120). The viewfinder is adjacent to the recording and playback mode buttons, which have orange and green LEDs next to them to let you know which mode you're using. The mode dial has just six positions, for the Program Auto, Portrait, Landscape, Night Scene, Self Portrait, and Movie options. The four-way cursor control pad with central OK button offers double-duty functions, including self-timer (left), macro (right), exposure compensation (plus or minus 2EV in 1/3EV steps), and, in a daring move, reset (down).
As an aid for neophytes, an onscreen explanation accompanies each scene mode and cursor-button function when you select it. The explanations range from useful ("EV: Adjust image brightness"; "Self-Timer: Takes picture after 12 seconds") to painfully obvious ("Landscape: For shooting landscapes").
Menu settings are mercifully sparse--because there aren't too many options to choose from--and are limited to eight functions in recording mode: image quality, time/date/language setting, sleep time, image backup (to xD-Picture Card), video-out mode (NTSC or PAL), memory and card formatting, and pixel mapping to remove dead sensor photosites. Key setup parameters are also available from the playback menu, which adds PictBridge print-order options, protection from accidental photo erasure, and the option to specify either four or nine thumbnails per screen during picture review.
White balance, light sensitivity (ISO 64 to ISO 400), focus, and exposure are all set automatically and cannot be adjusted. The Olympus FE-110's feature set is even more basic than that of its pricier sibling, the FE-120. While both of their zoom lenses have the same not-very-expansive 38mm focal length at the wide-angle end, the FE-110's 2.8X range is limited to 106mm at the telephoto end (all 35mm-camera equivalents). This camera also lacks the FE-120's zippy burst mode, providing no sequence-shooting capabilities at all. It focuses no closer than about 2 inches in Super Macro mode, compared with 0.8 inch with the FE-120.
The FE-110 automatically sets exposure for you from 1/2,000 second to 1 second at f/3 to f/5, except in Night Scene exposures, which can run as long as 2 seconds. Like the other cameras in the FE series, this one runs on two AA batteries of various types, which give the flash enough power to produce even exposures out to 12.4 feet (ISO unspecified). Flash options include automatic, red-eye reduction, forced on, and forced off.
This is not the ideal camera for minimovie buffs; it records coarse 320x240-pixel clips at a jerky 15fps with no sound capture. The complete lack of a burst mode simplified our formal tests, which was just as well, because the Olympus FE-110 is not an outstanding performer. It took almost 8 seconds to power up and fire its first shot; thereafter, it could snap pictures only at leisurely 5.65-second intervals, slowing to 8.24 seconds with the flash activated. Autofocus performance was average, resulting in a 0.75-second shutter lag under high-contrast lighting and a 1.2-second lag under more challenging low-contrast illumination. There's no autofocus-assist lamp.
The tiny LCD was nothing to write home about, either. It washed out in bright daylight, exhibited a lot of ghosting, and didn't gain up enough to make composition easy under dim illumination. There is no optical viewfinder to supplement the LCD.
The Olympus FE-110's electronic flash provided even coverage all the way out to 12 feet, and red-eye reduction was admirably effective. The Olympus FE-110's image quality is not as good as its FE-120 sibling's, but it was still acceptable coming from an entry-level digital camera. We were pleased with the good exposures the camera produced, with lots of detail in the shadows and highlights, despite a tendency to blow out the brightest portions of the image.
However, JPEG artifacts became noticeable when we enlarged the images, and optical problems such as purple fringing were evident around backlit subjects. Colors were neutral and a little undersaturated, with a warm cast both indoors and out. Noise levels were OK at ISO 64 but got out of control in dimmer light as the camera automatically boosted sensitivity up to the maximum ISO 400.