Monday, July 29, 2019

Slow to develop...

In the early Eighties, with Detroit reeling from the second fuel crisis, Pontiac decided to redirect a stalled design for a mid-engine two-seat sports car (frivolous things like sports cars not selling well in recessions when gas is at record high prices) and re-focus it as a little two-seater commuter runabout. It would be cheap & fuel efficient, a good second car for families or an only car for singles.

To maximize the "cheap" part, the bulk of the car was built by raiding existing GM parts bins. The front suspension was from the Chevette, the rear was a Chevy Citation front clip flipped wrong-way 'round, and the motor was a wheezy pushrod 4-cyl making less than ninety horsepower.

After initial success, people realized it was a dog and buyers stayed away. Pontiac applied numerous upgrades: a port fuel-injected V6, new front and rear suspension, and a slick Getrag-designed 5-speed gearbox. By the final model year, 1988, the Fiero GT was a slick little car, but it was too late to overcome the initial impressions, and GM held it under until the bubbles stopped.

If the Pontiac Fiero were a camera...

Hey, let's look at Canon's first effort at a mirrorless camera, the EOS M!

Despite being about the same size as Nikon's J1 offering, the M had a DSLR-sized APS-C sensor. With its 18MP APS-C sensor and DIGIC 5 processor, it was basically a Canon EOS Rebel T4i, minus the mirror box and pentamirror. Effectively, you were just using Live View all the time.

Initial excitement about a pocket-size DSLR equivalent that would be able to use all EF and EF-S lenses with native functionality (via an adaptor) quickly cooled when the implications of "using Live View all the time" were realized. Focusing was sluggish, and "pocket DSLR" dreams died quickly.

On top of that was the weird control setup...

Much like Nikon's 1 series, the target market seemed to be people who wanted to move up from smartphones or pocket cameras, but found the knobs and dials of DSLRs too intimidating. (This demographic has proven to be largely illusory, or at least much tinier than hoped.)

Accordingly, the controls were super simplified. There was a three-position selector on top for selecting between fully automatic operation, a position that allowed you to select between what Canon calls "Basic Zone" and "Creative Zone" modes, and a dedicated video-shooting position.

The problem was that to select between any of those Basic and Creative modes, and make adjustments once you were in one, you had to fiddle around on the touchscreen. And if you were one of those unicorns moving up from smatphones/pocket cams, and did decide that this whole interchangeable lens thing was cool and wanted to move on to a Rebel or a prosumer-tier Canon, none of these controls translated over to the standard Canon layout.

Canon's issued steady upgrades to the M line and the current standard model, the 24MP EOS M6, features a standard mode dial and a pair of control wheels so you can move back and forth pretty seamlessly between it and Canon's regular DSLRs. The screen will at least flip up for vlogging or work as a waist-level finder now, and a built-in flash has been added. Most importantly, the camera now has Canon's fast dual-pixel autofocus.

Whether any of this is enough to save the M line is up for debate. Canon introduced a pair of new M-mount lenses in early 2016, and then one more early last year...which is a polite way of saying that only one new lens has been added to the smallish M-mount library in the last three years. The M6 is a sweet little camera, especially with the 22mm f/2 pancake mounted, and being able to serve as an emergency backup body to a real DSLR on a photo shoot is neat, but the reputation earned by the early version of the M might just make it Canon's Fiero.