The EOS M is Canon's first mirrorless system camera, coming four years after the first mirrorless system camera was introduced to the market by Panasonic's G1. Canon's four year lag has given everybody else a head-start. Olympus and Panasonic have established the Micro Four Thirds system with a comprehensive selection of native lenses. Sony rolled out the NEX series in 2010, and Canon's long-time competitor Nikon released their 1 series mirrorless cameras in late 2011.
Needless to say, the four-year long wait has raised expectations. Mirrorless cameras are eating into DSLR cameras' market share, and Canon needs to hit a home-run with its mirrorless system. How high are the stakes? By the end of 2011, mirrorless cameras took over 50% of the DSLR retail market in Japan (in Singapore, it's already an estimated 30 to 40%). Olympus, Panasonic and Sony took the lion's share out of that 50%. The EOS M is a critical product; it needs to be a good camera, it needs to appeal to the market and it needs to come in at a good price, or Canon risks losing even more of the interchangeable lens market.
As a physical object alone, the EOS M is a thing of beauty. The body is made of solid magnesium and stainless steel; the paint is deep and rich. Our red review model looks gorgeous, like the paint on a car, the paint on the EOS M is textured and layered, adding an impressive sheen to its fit and finish. In the hands, the EOS M feels solid, while remaining light enough to hold single-handedly.
It's telling how the EOS M more closely resembles Canon's compact cameras than its DSLR cameras, because it works more like a bigger compact than a smaller DSLR. Full PASM manual controls are there, but hidden under the surface in the EOS M's menus. What looks like a zoom toggle on top, surrounding the shutter release, is in fact the EOS M's limited Mode dial, which only lets you select from Scene Intelligent Auto, Creative Auto (and other modes, activated via the on-screen menu) and Video.
Where there's a lack of manual controls on the body, the EOS M makes up for it with one of the best touch-screen UIs we've seen on a camera. Every setting you want is a few taps away, and the capacitive screen is responsive to the touch. The screen itself is gorgeous to look at, with a rich 1.04 million dots. The central Q button brings up a Quick menu overlay, and by cycling through the Info button, you gain access to a Quick Control menu where you can tap and change common settings. Even the standard Menu is touch-enabled; the touch targets there are a little small, but it works surprisingly well.
As we mentioned before, full manual controls are there, and can be activated via the on-screen menus. In aperture and shutter priority modes, the back wheel dial handles aperture and shutter speed respectively. In Manual mode, the wheel does double-duty, since there is no separate control dial. Instead, the exposure compensation button to the right switches the wheel dial between aperture and shutter speed control.
The minimal front and back grips offer just enough surface area to hold the camera, but not too much, so the strap is a must. The strap lugs are unique and innovative; they hinge around and offer more flexibility of movement.
The EOS M lacks a built-in flash and the optional Speedlite flash attachment does not come with every kit, only the most expensive one (the S$1,349 kit with the Speedlite and two EF-M lenses, see here for all kit prices). That's a crime when other flash-less mirrorless system cameras come standard with flash attachments. When attached, the Speedlite adds substantial height to the camera. The lack of a built-in flash, and the bulk of its flash attachment, not to mention the fact that you have to pay extra for one, is a serious minus against the appeal of the EOS M.
Last but not least, battery life is woefully short at 230 images per charge. We ran it out easily in one weekend of shooting, and battery life is rated for an even shorter 200 images in cold weather. That's two serious strikes against the EOS M.