The Canon EOS M - the brand's debut compact system camera - hits the T3 test slab. Can it live up to its fourth-gen competitors?
Canon is the best-established player in the photographic market. So it appears odd that it has taken until the dying days of 2012 to introduce a compact system camera (CSC) of its own, in the form of the Canon EOS M. Especially considering Panasonic launched the very first compact camera to promise the power of a digital SLR (DSLR) in the DMC-G1, way back in September 2008.
The charitable view would be that Canon took time because it wanted to make sure that when it finally entered the market it did so with a product so bang on the money that it swept away all comers.
A less kind take on the lengthy wait would be that Canon was simply wary of a small interchangeable lens camera cannibalising sales of its existing, bulkier DSLRs, such as the Canon EOS 650D.
But now that the Canon EOS M is here at long last, surprisingly debuting to less fanfare than rivals afforded its own CSC debuts, how does it shape up?
Headline specification looks good. The EOS M offers 18 megapixel photos from a large APS-C sized chip. This is a sensor of the same proportions as those found in consumer-level DSLRs, hence the inference of picture quality that if not an exact match for a DSLR will come pretty close.
In this respect the EOS M competes directly with CSCs from the likes of the Samsung NX1000 , the Sony NEX-5R range and the Fujifilm X-Pro1 series. By contrast Panasonic Lumix, Olympus Pen, Nikon 1 system and Pentax Q series CSCs all use slightly smaller sensors.
The other main advantage here is that Canon has the greatest volume of accessories and lenses (70+) on the market, although an optional £130 adapter is required to fit the (over-sized) optics onto the smaller EOS M's body.
This EOS comes with a manually operated metal construction 18-55mm zoom - twist the barrel to zoom in or out and adjust the focus ring at the front as you're doing so - which offers the focal range equivalent of 28-88mm in 35mm film camera terms, straight out of the box.
But can Canon justify a suggested price in the region of £750 in an already crowded market, when similarly specified alternatives cost £500? Read on to find out.
Canon EOS M: Controls
The first thing that strikes you on handling the Canon EOS M is that it is more compact than its Samsung and Sony APS-C sensor incorporating rivals, whilst in its black iteration at least, the solid construction feels built to last.
However the trade off is the omission of a built-in flash and lack of a proper-sized handgrip. Instead a small, plastic clip-on flash, also bundled in the kit box, slides into position atop the vacant hotshoe on its top plate.
The design and styling of the EOS M otherwise owes more to something from Canon's compact PowerShot range than a digital SLR, which isn't actually a bad thing.
That said, the on-board Digic 5 processor has been borrowed from its EOS DSLR range, ensuring operation zips along, though perhaps the auto focus could be a tad faster; it's no match for a DSLR. But then more experienced users can switch to manual focus if required.
Another welcome 'steal' from the DSLR world is that automatic sensor cleaning is built in, to avoid any particle that may intrude when swapping lenses showing up in final image. A best of both worlds approach, then.
As with the layout in general, Canon has kept the key shooting mode options simple and straightforward. There are just three settings on the top plate dial, whereas others squash in eight or 10.
For those who just want to point and shoot there's the reliable Scene Intelligent Auto option, which adjusts camera settings automatically depending on scene and subject.
Next up on the dial is Creative Auto, which provides access to digital filter effects such as fisheye and toy camera. The third option on the dial is for video, with the EOS M offering up respectable 1920x1080 pixel clips at 25fps.
From the above you'll notice that Canon hasn't gone overboard on flagging up the on-board manual control, though there is the chance to achieve a DSLR-apeing background defocus effect from among the creative filters.
In truth the EOS M comes across more as a mass-market device rather than one pitched at enthusiasts first and foremost, the latter segment of course having Canon's DSLRs to play with.
Canon EOS M: Screen
Unlike some CSC rivals, and an increasing number of DSLRs, the 3-inch, 4:3 aspect ratio backscreen on the Canon is fixed. So it cannot be tilted or swivelled, as on the Canon 660D or 650D models.
There is also no optical or electronic viewfinder as an alternative to composing your shot, as found on higher-end models such as the Nikon V2, Sony NEX-7, Olympus OM-D E-M5 and Fujifilm X-Pro1.
It's worth noting that the EOS M's LCD, which boasts a crystal clear resolution of over a million dots, is a touch screen, though that isn't immediately obvious from the outset as Canon has provided the usual physical controls we expect to find at the rear of any compact camera immediately to its right.
Nevertheless a flick of the forefinger and thumb will enlarge a section of an image, just as on your smartphone, with the screen being as ready to respond and intuitive to operate as expected. Touching the screen can also fire the camera's shutter, if you've first activated this feature.
Canon EOS M: Battery
A battery life of 230 shots from a full charge of the LP-E12, as the EOS M provides for its users, is OK for a compact camera but will hardly give the DSLRs of this world a run for their money.
By way of more direct comparison, a recent CSC like Sony's NEX-5R offers 300 shots from its battery, and the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G5 can generate up to 320. Not a deal breaker by any means but could do better.
Canon EOS M: Image quality
Couple a large sensor with a brand known for its optical excellence, like Canon is, and razor sharp colour-rich images are pretty much guaranteed from the off. Plus we have the likes of the perspective warping fisheye, toy camera and miniature mode digital effects to play with when conditions might otherwise make for a rather dull shot.
For those who might be looking at this as an alternative to a DSLR, there's the ability to get that background defocus look, meaning that your subject really jumps out of the frame.
There is a feeling, however, that this is really a very well built camera for those who might want to primarily point and shoot, despite the fact that the lens on the front can be swapped, and there are creative options on offer.
For shooting the mandatory Full HD video, a dedicated record button is provided top right of the backplate, along with stereo sound courtesy of left and right microphones positioned on the top plate, rather than at the front.
This means that some slight operational movement noises are picked up as you manually rotate the zoom barrel and adjust focus, but this wouldn't be picked up in a noisier environment.
Canon EOS M: Verdict
If we've an overriding sense that comes from using the 18 megapixel EOS M it is that Canon has delivered a well-built, competent product without it being one that is especially breakthrough or overtly exciting.
There's no built in Wi-Fi, nor is there news that Canon is developing its own range of 'apps' with which to customise the camera or its output, for example. Nevertheless the EOS M finally gets it into the compact system camera 'game', and in that respect the manufacturer probably feels it has done enough as an opening gambit. One surely feels however that there is more to come.
There are some pluses that help it stand out from the crowd, for now. Namely that the body is smaller and more rock solid than many competing system cameras - although some may still bemoan the lack of a decent handgrip, even if they can live with having to slot a flashgun into place when extra illumination is required.
We do love the fact that potentially there is the ability to expand the system via any of the 70+ EOS system lenses currently available, even if a £130 adapter is required to do so. At least to start with the 18-55mm zoom provided - there is also a compatible 22mm 'pancake' lens for shoot-from-the-hip street photography - is a good jack-of-all-trades option.
At the end of the day though, the consumers who will be the EOS M's ideal audience - and get the most out of it - may be put off by the enthusiast-level price tag, which would be a real shame.
Canon EOS M release date: Out now
Canon EOS M price: £769.99