The AF system is also quite slow, taking over a second to lock on even in good light and even longer when light levels drop. In low light conditions it copes reasonably well up to a point, and will generally focus in any light you could comfortably read by, but it has no AF illuminator so focusing in the dark is not an option, which will limit it’s usefulness as a social snapshot camera. Flash performance is good though, providing total frame coverage with an effective range of 3.8m at wide angle, which is slightly above average for a camera of this type.
In terms of picture quality the FE-230 has its good points and its bad points. On the positive side exposure and colour reproduction are excellent, coping well with a range of lighting conditions including strong backlighting, and the level of fine detail is very good for a 7.1MP camera, at least in the centre of the frame. The 3.6MB average size of the SHQ files shows very low compression, and indeed there are no visible compression artefacts. Image noise is also reasonably well controlled. The automatic ISO seems to favour a setting of 50 for well-lit outdoor shots, which produces nice noise-free pictures. At lower light levels the ISO number rises, and although it has a stated maximum of 1250 it seems to not go higher than 500 ISO for flash-free indoor shots, and at this speed the image quality is reasonably good, although there is some noise visible. However the automatic white balance doesn’t cope at all well with artificial light sources, producing nasty colour casts on any shots lit with tungsten or fluorescent light, so you’ll want to keep the flash on auto in these situations.
The camera’s real Achilles’ heel is its lens, which produces significant barrel distortion and corner blurring at wide angle, and at medium focal lengths produces very noticeable pincushion distortion, which is where the picture appears pinched in towards the middle of the frame. This is baffling, because Olympus can make very good lenses, such as the outstanding Zuiko lenses for its DSLRs, and it’s not like 3x compact zoom lenses are a new frontier of technology. It’s just that the one on the FE-230 isn’t very good. This is a shame, because with a better lens – and about £20 off the asking price – the FE-230 would be an ideal starter camera.
Although a big improvement on some earlier FE models, the Olympus FE-230 is still far from perfect. Build quality, design and handling are very good, and the all-automatic operation is extremely easy to use for the novice or technophobe. Image quality is also reasonably good under most conditions, but the poor quality lens, sluggish performance and limited low light ability mean that there are other cameras with similar specifications that are a better choice.