Canon EOS M

The Canon EOS M heralds the biggest-selling camera manufacturer's entrance into the world of compact system cameras (CSC). With a large sensor just like a DSLR - in the case of the EOS M it's identical to that in the EOS 650D DSLR - but without the mirrorbox for a more trim design, the CSC formula has been tried, tested and adapted over the years by other manufacturers.

Canon is the last major to lift the lid on its product line, some four years after the initial smattering of products hit the market.

Does the EOS M encapsulate all that a CSC should; can it outshine the established competition or, largely on account of its late release date, is it a step too far behind?

EF-M: Canon's new lens mount

Compact system cameras come in all manner of sizes. But the emphasis, as the "compact" aspect of the camera type's name suggests, is on keeping things small.

Canon, like many of the later CSC adopters, has opted for an APS-C sized sensor. The very same 1.6x crop factor sensor as found in the majority of its DSLR cameras which, based on how well they've been selling and how good image quality is, ought to be a reason to all run about and shout from the rooftops.

Only it sort of isn't really. The EOS M's design is just a bit "vanilla". The black-finish model that landed in the Pocket-lint office does have some rounded edges and the weighty finish and build quality is reassuring enough, but the basic compact-camera-esque design just fails to get the blood pumping.

Although the EOS M uses the same DSLR sensor size, its design means the distance from the sensor to the rear of the lens isn't the same as in Canon's DSLR cameras. And that means there's a whole new lens system - known by its EF-M mount - which introduces new, slightly smaller lenses. But there aren't that many of them - only two so far - which certainly sits the Canon behind the likes of the joint Panasonic and Olympus' Micro Four Thirds venture, for example.

Canon has come up with a semi solution to that issue though - the release of an adaptor to facilitate EF-S lenses on the EOS M will open up a whole pool of extra Canon lenses. Sounds like a good idea, but it does largely negate the point of sizing down a model in the first place. It might fill the gaps for now, but otherwise we don't feel that the EOS M has the right optical backing to make a great deal of sense just yet. The adaptor also costs extra.

Design

Enthusiasts may also feel short changed by the EOS M's overall layout. There's not a proper mode dial as such, and while the intelligent auto, "still" and "movie" modes are accessed by a ring around the shutter button - arguably an "almost" mode dial - to dip into manual options requires digging through the touchscreen as these settings are hidden from the main menus. It's confusing and slow to access, though once a manual mode - such as aperture of shutter priority - has been selected it remains "in memory" when the camera is turned off and back on, or even after a battery pull.

We do relish a touchscreen and the control that it can open up, but feel that all options should be accessible via both the standard menus as well as the touchscreen itself. That's not the case with the Canon - the only way to adjust shooting modes' sub settings is via the touchscreen.

While the M's rear screen comes with a decent 1,040k-dot resolution, the camera lacks a viewfinder and the hotshoe, from what we understand, doesn't have the necessary connectors to be able to facilitate one either. This is Canon leaning on the point-and-shoot consumer angle.

The hotshoe can mount a flash of course, including the dinky Speedlite 90EX flash that's comes packed in the EOS M's box. Again, we're somewhat confused as to what the message is supposed to be - no built-in flash feels at odds with the whole viewfinder-less design and ease-of-use consumer message.

Once the camera is set to the mode that you want it in, using it feels like a halfway meet between a high-end compact and a DSLR camera. It's easy to point and shoot and the rear d-pad rotates to act like a solitary thumbwheel, which is efficient for adjusting settings such as aperture, ISO and exposure compensation. Again, however, these options need to be physically selected via the touchscreen, there aren't quick-access keys to do this for you.

It's this balance of consumer-meets-advanced that brings to question the EOS M's price tag. As we reported back in July 2012, the EOS M with the 18-55mm lens was to ship with a suggested retail price of £770. That has quickly dropped to a more affordable £650 with the same lens. But that's still about £80 more than a Panasonic G5 - which includes a built-in viewfinder - with a similar 14-42mm lens. Canon's gone in high on the price, but has little justification for it as even the EOS 650D is about £100 cheaper.

Performance

Autofocus. That's a hot topic subject, particularly in compact system cameras. The EOS M not only has the usual contrast-detection based autofocus system, but also includes on-sensor phase detection autofocus.

Sounds like a winning combination, but we found that the EOS M wasn't particularly fast to focus in practice. Well, it would have been a couple of years back, but the likes of Panasonic's G-series and Olympus's Pen series are considerably snappier to lock focus by comparison.

ISO 6400 image sample

We're yet to see a system with on-sensor phase detection autofocus that seems genuinely to improve results, and don't feel that the EOS M is that camera either.

The focus system is offered as either multi-area auto, single point with touchscreen-based position adjustment or, lastly, as a tracking with face detection option. The ability to position the point on the screen is definitely useful for more specific focus, but, again, the single-size point means that more precise focus isn't possible. Take a look at the Panasonic G5's pinpoint AF system as an example of what can be done.

READ: Panasonic Lumix G5 review

It's not as though focus is bad however, it's just outperformed by the competition. Canon DSLR users will find it comparably sluggish, as will existing compact system camera users from elsewhere. It works fine in terms of achieving focus, although low-light can prove difficult and the AF assist lamp is fairly easy to block with a stray finger or hand too.

ISO 100 image sample

Elsewhere the Canon can snap up to 4.3 frames per second in its burst mode, assuming a Class 10 SD card is loaded into the camera. When raw files write to the card there is a temporary blackout and "busy"  message on the screen, but it's brief and affordable.

Battery life is also problematic. The quoted 230 shots per charge it's approaching only half the life performance of the EOS 650D DSLR. It's also about 35 per cent worse off than the comparable Panasonic GX1.

Image Quality & Movie Mode

A big reason to buy a larger sensor camera is for the jump in image quality. Here's where the EOS M gets things right as its APS-C sensor size, which matches the one found in the Canon EOS 650D DSLR, produces the very same DSLR-quality images.

ISO 100 image sample

Of course the two cameras' lens mounts are different, and this may make some visible difference to shots depending on the glass attached, but otherwise there's no discernible way to tell between the DSLR and CSC models. That sure is testament to the desired badge but from a smaller body.

READ: Canon EOS 650D review

However, the inclusion of on-sensor pixels to assist with phase detection autofocus does have some limited impact to image quality. The older EOS 600D, for example, will outperform the more recent EOS M's sensor. Not by a huge margin, but it's a point worth raising.

But we are still impressed with the EOS M's shots. From ISO 100-800 there's plenty of detail, and even ISO 1600-3200 are usable.

ISO 1600 image sample

Beyond the top standard ISO 6400 setting there's an ISO 12,800 extended option which does push the boundaries of acceptable quality, but these high ISO settings are rarely used and needn't be made available to the auto ISO setting.

Exposures are always well considered, images have that colourful "pop" that's traditional of Canon cameras and white balance is also accurate. Whether shooting JPEG or capturing raw files for more post-production malleability, the shots straight from the EOS M are definitely its high point. Just take a look at the lovely bokeh effect produced by the APS-C sensor in combination with even the basic kit lens:

ISO 640 image sample

Movie mode, too, has plenty of pomp. Capture 1080p files at 30, 25 or 24 frames per second, use the touchscreen to adjust focus live during recording and even make the most of a manual controls that can also be adjusted during capture. However, the touchscreen has to be used to access settings as the rotational d-pad does not function during capture. Still, that's a small price to pay and it means no physical sounds will be picked up from dials during capture.

Verdict

The Canon EOS M delivers on the image quality front, but is otherwise ultimately a let down. It's late to the compact system camera game and fails to offer anything truly special. It's expensive, autofocus is a step behind its competitors, it's not possible to add an electronic viewfinder, there's no built-in flash and the new EF-M lens mount only offers two current lenses. No word of a future lenses map as yet either.

Both image quality and movie mode do go some way to saving the camera, while the detailed rear touchscreen LCD screen looks top notch and is useful for making focus adjustments via the power of touch.

This is no game-changer. Canon's got potential with the M-series, but it'll take more launches and extra lenses before it's fully ripe and can hold its own.