It's fair to say we've been highly critical of Canon's compact system camera EOS M line. For a simple reason, though: the Japanese company's mirrorless cameras just haven't been able to stand up against the competition.

But that could be about to change. The Canon EOS M5 - which sits above the entry-level M10 and middling M3 (yep, it's an odd numbering convention that makes no sense) - is, in many respects, like a “mini 80D” DSLR and, finally, offers a focus system that's actually usable.

So does Canon have what it takes to stand out in the bustling compact system camera market? We experienced the M5 in person, ahead of its official unveil, to get a sense of its potential.

The most critical aspect of the M5's specification is that it offers Dual Pixel CMOS AF - the same technology as found in the top-end Canon EOS 1D X Mark II pro DSLR - to deliver on-sensor phase detection autofocus, paired with contrast-detect autofocus.

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And it genuinely works well. It's quick, capable and doesn't need to hunt excessively to find focus. Finally, then, Canon has an M-series camera with acceptable autofocus, so we can pretend the rest of the range doesn't exist.

But is it the best autofocus system in any compact system camera? We don't think so. For the simple reason that it's far simpler than some of the other systems out there which offer a multitude of focus types. Take Panasonic's pinpoint autofocus option (which zooms in to 100 per cent at a cross-hair focus for absolute accuracy), for example, in any of its G-series cameras; or consider the Fujifilm X-T2's ultra-complex and customisable continuous autofocus abilities. Canon just offers medium and large AF box sizes, just as it does - and has for an age - on its compact cameras.

READ: Fujfiilm X-T2 preview

In its favour, however, the EOS M5 does come with a 24.2MP APS-C size sensor - that's larger than you'll find in Panasonic/Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras - which is reflective, again, of what you'll find in the EOS 80D (the two sensors are different, though).

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We can't comment on image quality at this stage, other than the M5 camera offers 14-bit raw files in addition to JPEG. But with Canon's expertise we've rarely been disappointed with any of its cameras' capabilities in this department. This ought to be its strong suit.

READ: Canon EOS 80D review

Add to that Digic 7 processing, which means super-fast processing that's never appeared in any EOS camera before, and the EOS M has ample throughput to handle a decent burst rate of 7fps in continuous autofocus, increasing to 9fps at a fixed focus point. The buffer is said to be significant too, to avoid clogging after taking just a handful of images - but, without a card in the camera, we've not been able to test this just yet. And, according to Canon's official spec, it maxes out at 26 JPEG images when shooting at 9fps.

That might not be the Fujifilm X-T2's 11fps capability (once paired with its optional battery grip, anyway), but the EOS M5 is a much smaller camera by compare. It's almost cutesy in its design - like an altogether more capable and mirrorless EOS 100D replacement, in a sense.

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As part of that size you'll want to use EF-M lenses, however, not the EF and EF-S lenses that are larger, more varied and, in some of their pro guises, more capable than what the M-series lineup can offer. Canon is playing on this point by offering an EOS-M adapter for pre-order and initial purchases (while stocks last, presumed to be until the end of 2016) to get the most out of the full breadth of the company's lens range.

There are some interesting points about the M5's design. Unlike previous models in the range it's aimed at users who want more control, who might otherwise contemplate a DSLR but seek something smaller. The M5, then, is exactly what we thought missed from the M-series lineup in its initial stages (well, that and the until-now poor autofocus).

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There are dual thumbdials for making those key adjustments, a lockable mode dial, programmable function buttons, even a rather nifty “dial func.” button atop the rear thumbdial to toggle between various settings, which are then attributed to that specific dial (ISO and white balance are default, but it can be switched off, or set to toggle through AF, metering and burst mode additions). It's similar to Olympus's 2x2 switch in some of its OM-D cameras, but as Canon positions it directly on the specific dial it's a bit simpler to navigate.

READ: Olympus OM-D E-M5 II review

The M5 also comes with a tilt-angle LCD touchscreen, which can be flipped all the way underneath the camera for selfies (again, a bit Olympus-like: hello E-PL7), or upward for waist-level work. The power of touch is a big point of note, to empower the autofocus potential, but also add on distinctive point of note: drag to focus.

Drag to focus is (again, Olympus-like) the ability to press-and-drag a finger on the rear screen to adjust the focus point whilst using the camera's built-in viewfinder. You can specify the whole screen, half screen, or any quarter of the screen to be active, with the point absolute or relative, for the best possible control - and it works really well. Olympus may have had the idea first, but Canon makes it all the more usable.

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Speaking of the viewfinder, the EOS M has a 2036k-dot OLED panel, which not only looks sharp but will keep action flowing beautifully thanks to its 120fps refresh rate (which can be halved in the settings to save battery, if you so wish).

It's a 4K world these days, with the likes of Panasonic, Fujifilm and, well, just about any maker pushing 4K movie capture. Not so with the Canon EOS M5, though, it's limited to 1080p60 instead. Which is fine, but given that the camera could handle 4K, it seems amiss to have it absent.

There's a 3.5mm microphone socket, too, but no headphones jack. So if you're looking for a miniature interchangeable lens camera for high-end video work, ultimately the EOS M5 isn't it. It's all about casual shooting, with touchscreen autofocus adjustment making that just fine and dandy.

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The M5 also supports Bluetooth LE (low energy), which bubbles away in the background (or not if you turn it off) for remote control of the camera via the associated smart app on a phone or tablet.

This is a pretty smart move, as the constant connection and re-connection of cameras when it comes to smart apps is overly fussy. By having BTLE it's possible to wake the camera from sleep to conserve energy, then dig into the remote control or sharing of images between devices - useful if this dinky mirrorless is poised somewhere in a fixed position to take a lucrative shot.

First Impressions

The Canon EOS M5 is the mirrorless camera we were hoping the company would launch years ago. If this is how its compact system camera line-up had kicked off then we think the company would have been in with a shout of making more of a mark with EOS M and EF-M.

As it stands the M5 is a capable “mini 80D” in many senses, like a condensed DSLR. It's got a capable autofocus system for the first time in an M-series camera, has decent touch control and a high-spec built-in OLED viewfinder too.

But, at £1,049 for the body only, it's punching in the same territory as Panasonic GH4R and Fujifilm X-T2 - without some of those cameras' standout features, such as 4K video capture and more comprehensive autofocus systems.

So as much as we're pleased to see Canon pushing forward in the compact system camera market, it still just seems almost shy to let loose and throw everything at the category to create a truly best-in-class model. We like the M5, but we'd rather save the £50 and buy the excellent 80D instead.