Sometimes you just don't want to agonise over whether you should choose the soup or the salad, the Coke or the Pepsi, the PC or the Mac. Olympus realises just how hard choices can be, which is why it makes the FE series of digital cameras. They're simple, direct, and require almost no choices, besides when to press the shutter button. The 7-megapixel FE-210 is one such camera.
The FE-210's small, chunky plastic body measures 30.5mm thick and weighs about 170 grams with battery and memory card, making it the largest member of the FE camera series. Despite the comparable bulk, the FE-210 still fits easily into most pockets, and is light enough to carry around without effort. The extra heft also gives the camera enough room to hold its two AA batteries. While the camera doesn't come with rechargeable batteries, AA batteries are cheaper and easier to swap and replace than the rechargeable lithium ion batteries the other FE cameras use.
Within the FE-210's cookie-cutter plastic shell is a fairly standard digital camera. Besides its 7-megapixel sensor, it has a typical 38mm to 114mm-equivalent lens, a 2.5-inch LCD with no viewfinder, and a small handful of scene presets. These are all typical digital camera features, with little if anything to set the FE-210 apart from other models.
Like all Olympus FE series cameras, the FE-210 almost completely lacks manual settings. Besides flash and macro shooting, preset scene modes, and exposure compensation, users can't adjust their shots at all. The camera automates nearly all settings, including white balance and ISO sensitivity, giving a very literal sense to the phrase "point and shoot." This isn't necessarily a bad thing; automation can be beneficial as long as the images look good in the end.
Unfortunately for Olympus, the images from the FE-210 don't look very good. Under incandescent lighting, images appeared very warm and yellowed. This wouldn't be a big problem in a camera with selectable white balances, but the FE-210's automation means that nearly all of your indoor shots will look yellow. Fine details appeared soft in our test shots, with text appearing fuzzy and barely readable. We also saw notable lens distortion at both the wide and telephoto ends of the zoom, causing prominent barreling and pincushioning in our test shots.
The FE-210 performed sluggishly in our tests, though it was still quite usable. After a 4.2-second start time, we could snap off a new shot every 2.7 seconds. With the onboard flash enabled, that wait increased to 4.1 seconds. The shutter lagged only 0.6 seconds with our high-contrast target, but that time more than tripled to 1.9 seconds with our low-contrast target. Like almost every other FE series camera, the FE-210 didn't have any burst mode to test.
The Olympus FE-210 is a compact, inexpensive little camera that tries to be foolproof. Unfortunately, its completely automated modes, disappointing white balance, and mediocre image quality mean all of your non-flash indoor shots will come out soft, blotchy, and yellow. Add to that some disappointing performance numbers and a wholly unimpressive feature set, and you get a very-cheap-seeming digital camera. To Olympus's credit, the FE-240 fared slightly better in our tests, so if you're willing to spend a little extra cash, but like the FE design, it might be a better choice.