All cameras are not created equal -- not even all EOS Ms. Sure, each of the four compact flavors may carry the same 18-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor, 1,040,000-dot 3-inch touchscreen and arguably mediocre UI, but only one has a remotely premium shell. As you may have gathered from our walk-through video above, we're not talking about white. Or red, or even silver. Only the black model, which drops the glossy plastic housing in favor of a matte coat, offers the look and feel of an $800-plus mirrorless compact. As cheap and plasticky as its (relatively) colorful counterparts may be, the black version has a fantastic, slightly textured finish. That's not to say it'll necessarily be the SKU that flies off store shelves, but photographers who are at all serious about their work will likely steer clear of the other three.
Color aside, there's a bit more bad news to get out of the way. Perhaps you've seen the dedicated mode dial that's become the trademark of anything premium at Canon. Even the new PowerShot SX160 IS has the familiar controller, and that model tips the till at just $199. So, does $800 and up deliver direct access to shooting modes, advanced or otherwise? No, it does not. And, well, we can't express our disappointment enough here -- not only does a mode dial simplify the process of selecting your primary shooting preference, it also serves to provide confirmation of your current pick, letting you know that you're in manual before you fire off a half dozen now-useless frames. The EOS M does provide this feedback on-screen, but it's just not the same, and the requisite triple tap to bounce between modes is inconvenient, to say the least. Canon could have done a heck of a lot better than this.
Speaking of taps, you'll be using that touch-enabled display for far more than you may have assumed. The touch-to-focus (and expose/capture) option is nice, but it's easily outweighed by the need to touch the LCD to adjust ISO, for example. As a side note, the EOS M offers an image sensitivity range of 100 to 25,600 (up to 12,800 when capturing video) -- we'll get into that in further detail later on. There's also a 31-point AF system, continuous shooting modes of 4.3 frames-per-second with fixed focus on any lens or autofocus using an EF or EF-S lens, 1.7 fps with autofocus on the 18-55mm EF-M optic or 1.2 fps with autofocus on the 22mm EF-M lens, and 1080/30p and 24p, 720/60p and 50p and 640 x 480 shooting at 30 or 25 frames per second.
Now, back over to those rather horrid controls. The EOS M's rear is akin to that of most Canon point-and-shoots, but given that this isn't a low-cost model, that layout has no business making an appearance here. At the top of the camera, there's a power toggle, a dial to select from auto, standard and movie modes, and a shutter release. There's also a full-size hot shoe (huzzah!) and stereo mics (yes, they're on the top and not the front, making them perfectly fine for narration but less than ideal for interviews). You can counteract that mic placement by adding your own audio capture device thanks to the standard microphone input jack that joins HDMI and USB connectors on the left side. Plus, since there is in fact a standard hot shoe, you will have somewhere to mount an external mic.
Around back, just to the right of the LCD, is a thumb rest and adjacent video record button, followed by Canon's standard lineup of menu, playback, info and dial controls. There's also a five-way toggle that can be used to navigate menus, jump through images during review, and directly access shutter mode, exposure compensation and delete options. On the bottom, there's a standard tripod socket, an SD card slot and a battery compartment, complete with an 875mAh LP-E12 cell (replacements should run you about 75 bucks). You'll find the requisite shoulder strap in the box, this time with a nifty connector that simply slides onto the camera and locks into place with a thin coin or key, along with a USB cable, AC adapter and, in the case of our test model, a Japanese-language user manual. We mostly like the strap design, but because it's able to rotate when locked into position, it's very easy to end up with a bunch of tangles.
What you won't find is a built-in electronic viewfinder, or even an optional attachment (there's no connector present, so it won't be coming in the future, either). The 3-inch LCD is quite sharp, at just over 1 million dots, but it's fixed in place, so there's no way to get it to tilt or swivel. We use this feature on the NEX-C3 on a daily basis, so not having it here really is a significant drawback, especially considering Canon's implementation on models like the PowerShot G12 (sadly its G15 successor does indeed drop this feature). The display's viewing angles are decent, even in bright light, but looking from above or below is really no match for a straight-on view.
The EOS M surely isn't the first mirrorless camera to pack a touchscreen, and even though there are a handful of hardware controls, there's no way to completely eliminate the need to tap. While it's often inconvenient, you can get through most of the menus with a few clicks, but you'll likely find yourself tapping the LCD more frequently than you'd wish. There is a rather limited dial on the top -- options here are restricted to a full-automatic mode, an adjustable mode and video capture -- and while this switch will get plenty of use, we wish there were an option for accessing scene modes and manual, aperture and shutter priority in the same way.
The movie position is also an unnecessary addition -- we would have much rather seen Canon follow the lead of other manufacturers and let you launch a shoot simply by tapping the video record button, rather than requiring you to first flip to movie mode, then hit that little red dot. You can still shoot stills in movie mode, but they're captured with a 16:9 aspect ratio, so you'll need to keep this in mind and flip back to one of the two other settings before you start snapping away -- unless, of course, you don't mind super-wide shots.
The menu itself is a cross between Canon's point-and-shoot setup and its full-size DSLR offering -- settings are far more limited than what you'd find on the 5D, for example, though also more generous than what's available with most of the company's compact models. Options change depending on your current mode, which helps to reduce clutter, but adds confusion, since you can only tweak movie settings while in video mode, for example. There's also a fairly basic Custom Functions page, which is where you'll select such options as ISO expansion (to 25,600) and the AF-assist beam status. You can flip through the entire menu in the gallery above.
Performance and battery life
We've seen mirrorless cameras that pack absolutely fantastic focusing systems. Then, there are those that nearly drive us to tears, instantly tarnishing our opinion of otherwise capable models. We were devastated to see that the EOS M's focusing performance falls just shy of that latter grouping -- the cameras that just plain stink at bringing a subject into focus quickly. We feared as much during our hands-on this past summer, but Canon reps at the time reminded us that the flavor we were sampling was but a pre-production version. At that point, the M struggled with everything from the 22mm and 18-55mm EF-M kit lenses to a massive 400mm f/2.8 L.
This time around, with our store-bought final model, we weren't able to test it alongside any of the company's tried-and-true heavy hitters, but both EF-Ms indeed fell far short. It's not the most sluggish focusing we've seen, but it's darn close. We did notice a slight speed boost in FlexiZone - Multi mode, so you'll probably want to opt for that if you don't need to choose a single point. Granted, focusing is perfectly accurate, but if you're looking for speed, it's time to pack up your bags and hurry along. If this move was intentional, Canon's message has been received loud and clear -- serious photographers can ogle at the company's compact creation all they like, but once they dig deep, they'll come running back home to their tried-and-true form factors, leaving the svelte M to more casual types. Canon surely could have done better here, but it didn't, and we can't help but think that call was made far up the food chain, amid some decidedly heated engineering debates.
Battery life, meanwhile, is far from stellar. We were barely able to get through a full day on a charge, so you'll want to pick up spares before your next safari. Perhaps we've been spoiled by Canon's pro offerings, but this device won't suffice for more intense shoots unless you have backup nearby. The battery meter itself isn't terribly useful -- there are only three positions in the indicator with no remaining percentage, and we were completely dead shortly after the battery displayed two bars, after capturing just over 250 stills and 12 minutes of 720/60p video.
The shooting process itself may not be the EOS M's banner feature, but image quality is quite impressive, even in low light. As we mentioned, you can kick the ISO all the way up to 25,600, though we didn't find any need to venture beyond 6400 when using the camera's 18-55mm image-stabilized kit lens. Nighttime and day-lit shots alike looked fantastic, with sharp details even when viewing each 18-megapixel image at 100 percent zoom. You'll find all of our IQ samples at the more coverage link at the bottom of this page, and they're included in the gallery above as well, but let's take a peek at a select few right now.
The M's f/2.0 prime kit lens not only enables low-light captures with faster shutter speeds, but it also yields beautiful bokeh, as you can see in this frame below. We focused on the shopper's reflection in the mirror for a pleasing soft focus effect in the foreground. Color balance, exposure and sharpness are superb.
Don't let the muted colors fool you -- this scene was captured just as we saw it, with the t-shirt colors faded from many days under the bright Tokyo sun. The sharpness and exposure are excellent as well.
This scene, shot through an open hotel window, yielded spot-on color accuracy and exposure. The camera's 18-megapixel sensor even let us make out text on a highway sign hundreds of feet away (see inset below).
Night scenes are never easy, even for the most powerful DSLRs. The M tackled this Akihabara street with ease, in full-auto mode (we found this setting to be more accurate than aperture priority when shooting after dark or in low light).
Dark laptops aren't easy to photograph, especially when displayed against a backlit surface, but the EOS M did excellent work here, with great color balance to boot. Some of the other images from this shoot had a pink hue, as you can see in our hands-on post (note that the main photo there has been color corrected, though all of the images presented here are untouched).
This image of Toyota's Smart Insect prototype EV was shot at ISO 3200, and offered excellent color accuracy and limited noise, even when viewed at 100-percent. In fact, we spent a day shooting at CEATEC with the M fixed at ISO 3200, which came in handy in dimly lit booths, with great results overall.
You can't properly test a mirrorless camera these days without shooting plenty of video, so we hit the streets of Tokyo to grab some footage in Harajuku, the subway and an Akihabara arcade in order to evaluate image quality and audio in a variety of situations. In video mode, ISO tops out at 12,800, and there's a full manual option that enables you to set aperture, shutter speed and sensitivity. When set to auto, exposure compensation is the only adjustable setting. You can also choose from one-shot or continuous focus -- if you opt for the latter, simply tap on the bottom left corner of the display to jump back to continuous, or press the shutter halfway to adjust focus once. You can shoot stills during recording by pressing the shutter fully, but the video will freeze for about one second, so you'll probably want to avoid that feature.
We found the microphone to be excellent when used for narrations, even in noisy environments, but the top-mounted mics were less effective for interviews -- for these shoots, we'd recommend taking advantage of the M's audio input jack by adding an external mic. We also brought the camera along for a day of trade show hands-ons at CEATEC -- while focus was occasionally an issue, the STM kit lenses enabled silent focusing and smooth manual zoom. Catch our sample reel just below.
There's plenty of good news here, just not much for Canon. With dozens of mirrorless cameras coming onto the market each year, there is now a wide range of options available to consumers -- many models are priced well below Canon's $799 sticker. If fast focusing doesn't top your list of priorities, the $500 Sony NEX-F3 kit is a relative bargain, building upon the NEX-C3's strengths while adding features that have become key in 2012. The NEX-6 ($850, body only) is also worth your consideration, adding a built-in EVF and a mode dial that the EOS M so desperately needs.
If you do have a need for speed, the Olympus E-M5 ($999, body only) or the company's latest PEN kits, the E-PL5 ($700) and E-PM2 ($600), have certainly proven their worth on that front -- focusing performance is on par with top DSLR options, and you also get more advanced controls and a tilting LCD. For video buffs, Panasonic has made a huge push with its Lumix GH3, and while that option has yet to hit stores, you shouldn't have long to wait.
We like the Canon EOS M -- far more than we might have expected, given its mediocre performance during our hands-on -- but the company's first mirrorless ILC falls short on several fronts. Professional photographers can affix their pricey L lenses, which is nice, but the dismal focusing performance means SLRs will probably be far more appealing to these users. With the M, Canon is providing a digital camera bridge of sorts in the hopes of capturing the hearts (and wallets) of amateurs looking to step up from point-and-shoots. Indeed, this is far more versatile than what these beginners are used to, yet it's still built on a simple interface that isn't intimidating. Granted, this isn't what the pros had been hoping for, but Canon's DSLR series clearly isn't ready to free these users from their hefty housings, leaving the company's ever-strong professional lineup to live another day.