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It is an accepted fact that technological gadgets such as computers, music players and of course cameras get smaller, cheaper and more feature-packed as time goes by. This year's cameras will have more powerful sensors, better lenses, faster performance and more features, while costing less to buy than last year's models. So why then when I look at the the Olympus FE-290 do I get the impression that it's somehow slipped through a time warp from about three years ago? Actually, that's a bit unfair. There were plenty of cameras around in 2005 that were far better than this.
At least numerically, the FE-290 is second from top of Olympus' FE range of consumer compact cameras. In terms of specification and performance however it is far closer to the dismal FE-230, and a long way below the really quite good FE-250. The FE-290 is a 7.1-megapixel compact camera featuring a 4x zoom lens with a focal length range equivalent to 28-112mm. It also has a large 3-inch LCD monitor with 234k resolution, and is currently available for around £130, although some places have it listed for as much as £150. When looking for other cameras featuring wide-angle 4x zoom lenses with which to compare it there are a few obvious choices, such as the excellent Panasonic FX-33 (£160), or the even nicer Canon IXUS 860IS (£203), however both of those cameras have 8-megapixel sensors and optical image stabilisation. A better comparison would be with discontinued models such as the FX-30 and IXUS 850 IS.
It has to be said that on initial impressions alone the FE-290 scores well. It is an attractively designed camera, available in black or silver, with plenty of shiny chrome trim. It has an all-metal body and the build quality is up to Olympus' usual high standard. It's not a particularly small camera though, measuring 97.7 x 55.7 x 26.5 mm, and not too light either at 142g minus battery or memory card. The size of the monitor on the back panel doesn't leave a lot of room for the controls, and the D-pad and two buttons are crammed into the bottom right corner, with another two even smaller buttons on the top right. I'm not impressed by the design and feel of these controls, especially the two lower buttons. They feel mushy and unresponsive, and the whole layout is fiddly for anyone with larger fingers. Main shooting mode selection is via a thumb wheel dial with eight positions, and the zoom control is via a rotary bezel around the shutter button.