Canon is the last of the big camera firms to arrive on the interchangeable lens compact scene. Its first mirrorless model, the EOS M, therefore has everything to prove. This camera needs not only to maintain the brand's usual high-quality standards (electronics lifted from the EOS 650D should help on that front), but also needs to make room for itself in a now well-established market that's dominated by Sony and by micro four-thirds cameras. Plus, there's no room to fall back on technical distinctions like the smaller (1") sensor used in Nikon 1 lens-switchers.
On first contact, the Canon EOS M is a pretty nice camera to handle. It's a bit taller than the Sony NEX-5R—which is no doubt this camera's fiercest competitor, and also comes loaded with a touchscreen and an APS-C sensor. There's no sign of a built-in flash or a swivel screen here, but build quality is good and the EOS M is nice to handle, with effective grip pads for your middle finger and thumb. The interface is geared up for general, non-expert users and has been cleverly designed. In fact, you get similar basic controls and layout to the firm's PowerShot compacts, so beginners won't be put off by any intimidating or over-complex controls.
The inevitable downside is that the EOS M may seem too basic to some, with controls that are too sparse for expert-level users—or even for owners of Canon's S110 expert compact looking to take things up a level. The PSAM modes are hidden away in menus, and you switch from one to another by pressing the icon in the top left of the screen instead of using a classic dial as seen in other EOS and PowerShot cameras.
Like lots of things in the EOS M, the screen is lifted straight out of Canon's 650D. The display is therefore pleasant to use, with a nice definition and an extraordinarily accurate onscreen image. In fact, it beats many computer monitors on fidelity, boasting a perfectly balanced gamma, a neutral colour temperature and a Delta E of less than 2 (anything under 3 makes for accurate onscreen colours)!
The capacitive touchscreen works well too. You can do all the usual stuff like choose a subject to focus on by pressing it onscreen, but in playback mode you can also enlarge or shrink images by pinching your fingers, and move around within a zoomed image. All of that happens quite smoothly too. Plus, you can use the click-round wheel over the arrow keys to flick from one photo to the next maintaining the same level of zoom as you go, which is very handy when comparing a series of shots. The touchscreen controls can be used in the camera's menus too and, even if the text size is a little on the small side, the controls are generally accurate enough to ensure error-free navigation. In fact, it's not that far from the kind of touchscreen experience you get with a smartphone or a touchscreen tablet. On this front, Canon is one large step ahead of the competition.
Some of the controls are a little strange, however. There is, for example, a confirmation screen that shows up when you press OK or Cancel after entering any kind of text. The date and time settings are a bit of a pain too, as they have to be set with onscreen "buttons" or with the four-way arrows rather than the settings wheel. Canon could instead have used the kind of quick-to-change scrolling lists you often see in smartphones.
One other rather frustrating feature is that you have to physically switch to video mode before you can start filming. This makes the separate video record button seem rather pointless!
But in spite of these few minor glitches, the EOS M has a nice interface that's simple and very pleasant to use. Only regular users of M mode may feel slightly neglected, as there's no thumb wheel to go with the settings wheel around the arrow keys. You therefore have to switch from one setting to the next with the +/- controls.
The real downside of the EOS M is its battery life. When using this camera in real-life tests, we needed two batteries to shoot 300 photos. This perhaps explains why the Speedlight 90EX flash that's generally supplied with this camera (but not always—check before you buy!) has its own batteries, unlike the mini-flashes that come with Sony NEX, Samsung NX, Olympus Pen and other mirrorless cameras.
The EOS M is slow to start up. In fact, it's very slow indeed, taking over three seconds to take its first photo from the moment you press the "On" button!
This is one of the first interchangeable lens compacts (although the Nikon 1 series got in there first) to use on-sensor phase detection sites. In theory, that should speed up the autofocus, particularly with moving subjects. Sounds promising!
But unfortunately, the EOS M is the slowest mirrorless camera we've tested yet, even managing to constantly beat the Fujifilm X-Pro1 and the Pentax K-01 on sluggishness! At best—that's with the 18-55 mm lens at wide-angle and in good light—you generally wait around one and a half seconds for the camera to focus. In low light, things get slower, and the camera sometimes even refuses to lock on to a subject at all. Plus, the EOS M is strangely slower with the 22 mm lens!
To be perfectly honest, launching an interchangeable lens compact with an autofocus this slow in 2012 is just unacceptable. Because of that, the EOS M loses its fourth and third stars in our review, pushing it straight down to a two-star score. After all, our scoring criteria are quite clear that if "we've found at least one major problem with a product, either in our lab tests or using it in practice" then it's a two-star device.
The EOS M gets its electronics from the EOS 650D, so it shouldn't hold too many surprises. The lenses are new, however, and their good build quality points to promising performances.
The ISO test results are very similar to those of the EOS 650D (and to many of Canon's consumer-level EOS cameras, in fact). Pictures stay clean and clear up to 3200 ISO, and everyday print sizes will still come out OK with shots taken at 6400 ISO.
The lenses are good too. The 18-55 mm lens takes nice-quality shots at all focal lengths and from full aperture. It gets very good at f/5.6. However, like many lenses of the kind, it's prone to some distortion. The 22 mm lens does a more than decent job at f/2 and gets very good from f/4. We therefore wouldn't hesitate to recommend either lens. And that's good news for Canon—especially given just how much the quality of Sony's 18-55 mm lens comes down to luck of the draw (quality can vary quite a lot between different models of the same lens!). That could be enough to make some potential NEX buyers think twice.
The EOS M has the same video specs as the EOS 650D. It films Full HD video at 24 fps or 25 fps. Image quality is very good, and the result is flattering without being aggressive (although there are a few traces of moiré). There's also a handy manual mode that lets you change speed and aperture while filming. Sound is pretty good too and you can adjust the volume. What's more, you can hook up an external stereo mic if you don't want to be bothered by internal noises from the camera in your videos.
However, like in photo mode, the autofocus struggles to keep pace. It's also a bit of a shame to see that taking a photo while filming video cuts out your footage for a few moments.