If there's a faster way to boost sales of average cameras than to give them a gleaming metal housing and shave a few millimetres from their waistlines, we haven't heard about it. So it's with a certain degree of trepidation that we approach yet another slim, shiny snapper at an apparently reasonable price-point.
From its headline specifications, the F31fd has little to write home about. A 3x optical zoom, 2.5-inch LCD and 6.3MP sensor are more middle of the road than a broken white line. But turn this camera on and it's clear that Fujifilm is aiming higher than most. All the metal controls feel engineered rather than merely built, from the swift, precise zoom to the neatly ridged four-way pad.
The top-mounted mode dial is somewhat cryptic, so it's worth exploring its acronyms. The Movie mode (giving gloriously saturated 30fps VGA clips) is pretty obvious, but the wobbly man icon less so. This isn't a genuine optical image stabiliser, but one of the much less useful, high-sensitivity modes that have becoming irritatingly common. The red camera icon indicates a reliable auto-everything mode, while A/S accesses aperture/shutter priority. Another disappointment: M isn't true manual exposure; just a slightly more advanced mode where you can tweak metering, white balance, focus and so on.
Scene modes are found on the N/SP setting. These include Fujifilm's useful Natural & Flash mode that shoots with and without the flash in quick succession for low-light portraits - remember to warn your subjects first! You might also want to activate the Face Detecting AF. It has its own button and can efficiently identify and track a number of faces for pin- sharp group shots.
Shooting with the F31fd is a pleasant, if not professional, experience. The LCD is sharp, very colourful and works well enough in low light. You can alter its refresh rate to optimise either responsiveness or battery life, and boost brightness with a single button push.
The FinePix's autofocus leaves something to be desired, making a little electronic chirrup when locking on - and occasionally burbling to itself for several seconds as if it's making its mind up.
The 3x Fujinon zoom is above average on definition and sharpness but sadly below par when it comes to chromatic aberration. Wide-angle shots can show unpleasant levels of purple fringing, a failing that's accentuated by the typical Fujifilm habit of pumping up colours to retina-searing levels. This might suit the English weather, but you'll have to get used to subjects looking rosy, flush or lip-sticked.
Sharpness and detail are nicely managed, with the 6.3 megapixels on offer never feeling less than adequate - and giving a bonus in terms of modest (3MB) file sizes. Processing times aren't as quick as you might expect, but stick to the three-frame Burst mode and the F31fd feels quick off the mark. Flash shooting is simply superb.
The other handy Fujifilm innovation is usable, high-sensitivity shooting. The F31fd maintains colour and detail stability until at least ISO 800. Turn it up to ISO 1600 and noise pops up in the shadows, but even 3200 is acceptable. It's also worth mentioning the Fujifilm's exceptional battery life. Its 500-plus shot capacity between recharges means you can take a fully-charged F31fd on holiday without bothering with the charger.
Other manufacturers may have recently jumped on the high ISO, face-detecting bandwagon, but Fujifilm continues to deliver well-rounded cameras that combine such innovations with the basics of good images, solid build quality and first-class ease of use. A very safe choice, promising longevity as well as style, and only a modest 3x lens to count against it.