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Olympus FE-370: Keep It or Toss It?

Thanks to their price, sleek, compact package, and usefulness, digital cameras are perennial holiday crowd-pleasers for gifters and giftees alike. And yet, there's a huge chance your recipient will be disappointed.

For one, there's a reason the camera market is so crowded: there are different types of cameras and, within that, different bundles of specs, catering to everyone from serious photogs to the type of person who just likes to post hazy Facebook albums. Most likely, you're somewhere in between.

Then there's the aesthetic component. People express brand loyalty with cameras as much as they do with notebooks. Finally, people have this habit of requesting things for the holidays when they actually have done some research already and have an idea what model they want. With digital cameras, a consumer product most people understand, that's pretty easy to do.

That seems to be what happened to one reader, who received an Olympus FE-370 ($179), but is considering trading up for a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS5 ($199). Welcome to today's edition of "Keep It or Toss It?"

Disclaimer: we haven't reviewed either of these cameras. And we've given both middling and glowing reviews to various Olympus and Panasonic cameras, so you won't hear a peep of brand loyalty from us.

Let's start with the specs, then: the FE-370 has 8.0 megapixels, dual image stabilization (IS), 5X optical zoom, face detection, Intelligent Auto mode, smile shot, 19 scene modes, and a 2.7-inch LCD. Like all Olympus cameras, it takes xD cards, the company's proprietary format.

The FS5 has 10.1 megapixels, optical image stabilization, 4X optical zoom, face detection, Intelligent Auto mode, 23 scene modes, and a 2.5-inch LCD. It can take either MultiMedia (MMC) or SD cards.

On most counts, the two cameras are well-matched: 8.0 and 10.1 megapixel formats are both sufficient to produce crisp 4 x 6 and even 8 x 10 prints. A 5X lens is more versatile than a 4X lens, of course, but even 4X is more than enough for indoor or close-range shooting.

As for the difference in LCD size, that shouldn't be a deal-breaker here. (In the case of the Canon Powershot SD880 IS, however, which has a 3-inch screen and an accelerometer-- not to mention touchscreen models-- the display is a bigger selling point.)

That leaves two critical factors. First of all, there's image stabilization. It's one of the most important specs to look at when buying a camera, but camera companies don't play it up as much as resolution and gimmicks like face detection.

Well, I'm here to tell you that optical image stabilization is, hands down, more effective than digital or dual stabilization at producing sharp, blur-free pictures. It doesn't matter how many scene modes a camera has, or even if it can intelligently choose the right one for you; if the IS turns out blurry pictures, they'll look bad regardless.

Finally, that memory card slot might be a deal-breaker for some people. The xD format only works with Olympus cameras, and not all notebooks' memory card slots read it. SD, meanwhile, is the prevailing format. If you wanted to you could buy one card and use it in both your camera and camcorder. And since your laptop probably has an SD card slot (sorry, Mac fanboys) you can upload and process your photos faster.

The bottom line: I'd say you should toss the FE-370 and get the FS5 instead. Not just because it's what I'd prefer for myself. But because it seems, my friend, that you did your homework, and wanted this camera from the beginning. So go treat yourself.