Olympus FE-5020 digital camera review

3.5 out of 5
£169

For

Small and portable, barely larger than a credit card, more stylish design than usually found at this price point, user-friendly intuitive operation, quick and responsive for the most part, fun "Magic Filters"

Against

Flat and washed out looking images (unless shooting with "Magic Filter" deployed) require a degree of post processing to bring out their best – not ideally something you’d want from a supposedly beginner friendly, entry-level compact

A 12-megapixel resolution plus a wider than average 5x optical zoom range equivalent to 24-120mm on a 35mm film camera, and all for a UK asking price of £169, doesn’t sound a bad deal on the face of it.

Or perhaps that should be "fascia", as the entry level FE-5020 comes with a choice of four fashion-conscious faceplates: blue, brown, grey or white. With the camera covered in a see-through plastic layer that seems to hover above the bodywork. Budget, it seems, doesn’t have to equal boring.

Constructed from the standard mix of plastic and metal, when held in the palm the camera feels solid and of very similar dimensions to its bigger brother the Mju 7010. It boasts a depth of a mere 24.7mm married to a weight (without battery or media card) of 107g. Thus this is a camera that slips very easily into breast pocket or handbag. Could it therefore be an ideal tool for those wanting to upgrade from a camera phone, but still maintain a small form factor?

The other key feature worth flagging up on the FE-5020 include its quartet of "magic filters", accessed with a press of the "menu" button on the back plate. Again these are the offspring of the "art" filters introduced on Olympus’ more grown up E-series cameras, and allow the user to apply a range of visual effects at the point of photo capture. The options here are Pop Art, Pin Hole, Fish Eye and Sketch, the latter processing the image to resemble a B&W negative that also recalls early-1980s music videos.

In terms of operational speed, however, the FE-5020 is bang up-to-date. The camera powers up – screen blinking into life and lens extending to that impressively wide angle setting to a brief musical accompaniment – in just over a second, via a press of the tiny on/off button that barely breaks the surface of the camera’s minimalist top plate.

With no optical viewfinder, the user is provided with a 2.7-inch LCD monitor for shot composition and review, delivering adequate visibility indoors and out courtesy of an industry standard 230k-dot resolution, even if it does quickly become covered in thumbprints as you try to find something on this compact to actually grip.

With a half press of the shutter release button this little Olympus is commendably speedy to determine focus and exposure, the AF point illuminating in green on the LCD, accompanied by a loud beep of confirmation. Though shutter lag is negligible, the FE-5020 is slightly slower to write a highest resolution JPEG to memory, a process lasting 3 to 4 seconds. Its LCD pauses on the captured image while an orange indicator above blinks like it’s having a seizure. The zoom lens also is responsive, travelling through its full range to the accompaniment of a fairy unobtrusive mechanical buzz in just 2 seconds.

Also present and correct amongst the spec list are Advanced Face Detection for up to 16 people in the frame, an AF tracking function to help with kids who won’t stay put, plus 14 user selectable scene modes. In the absence of any dedicated mode dial (as found on the 7010) one merely keeps pressing the red camera icon on the FE-5020’s back to move through the available options, which takes a bit of getting used to. Pause for a second and you’re deemed to have "selected" whatever icon you’ve stopped on.

Along the horizontal strip presented we get the inclusion of VGA quality video (though the optical zoom is sadly disabled in this mode), and an auto-everything iA (intelligent auto) mode that recognises common scenes and subjects and adjusts settings accordingly, with just five options to select from.

Its inclusion makes sense for the beginner market the FE-5020’s aimed at who will most likely be happy to purely point and shoot, as does the provided plastic adapter to enable use of the microSD card commonly used among camera phones rather than the xD-Picture Card for which a slot stubbornly provided (Fujifilm and Olympus having co-developed the widely unloved format). An internal 48MB capacity is provided to get users started out of the box.

Pleasingly the camera’s on-screen menu options are likewise beginner friendly, the appearance re-vamped from previous generations of Olympus compact to now resemble something from a child’s Disney DVD. As an aid to composition, with a press of the "display" button at the back owners can summon up a nine zone compositional grid, while if pressing the same button whilst tabbing through menu options, a concise text explanation of each is provided. For those who don’t want to be taxed whilst taking snaps, the FE-5020 suggests a perfect fit.

Verdict

So, can an inexpensive pocket snapper really be that much cop when it comes to delivering images? Actually no. Although the FE-5020’s light sensitivity range is broader than you’d expect from this class of camera, in stretching from ISO64 (instead of the usual ISO100) to the more predictable ISO1600, noise intrudes visibly upwards of ISO400, plus, with this model, image stabilisation is electronic rather than the more desirable mechanic.

Since the surface of the slender camera is slippery and shutter speed seemingly sluggish, we managed to get the occasional instance of camera shake even under what should have been a perfectly adequate amount of daylight.

Tricky exposures commonly lead to blown highlight detail, while instances of pixel fringing are readily apparent when zooming in on detail. In truth, this is the sort of performance we’d expect to get from a budget model, and perhaps it seems extra disappointing because the camera’s polished exterior suggests it might have been capable of more.

Despite our nit-picking reservations about picture quality, the camera’s beginner target market will be less fussy, so the FE-5020 remains a decent investment for those within the region of £150 to spend. Alternatives from Panasonic, Sony et al are however looking a better bet for those with slightly more cash-in-hand.