Like fellow luxury brand Porsche, Leica keeps the design of its products almost painfully uniform across generations. The all-new Leica M, successor to the M9, maintains that tradition faithfully, sticking to a bulky brass and magnesium construction that's as heavy as it is reassuring in the hand. The few external changes you might notice are an enlarged 3-inch 920k-dot LCD on the back, an anonymous button on the front to let you activate Live View Peaking, and a dedicated movie-recording button. Yes, this Leica rangefinder has a Live View mode and 1080p video recording!
Unlike its ascetically restrained external tweaks, Leica has really overhauled the innards of its new M series camera. Gone is the beloved CCD sensor of the M9, to be replaced by a new 24-megapixel, full-frame Max CMOS sensor — produced by Belgian supplier CMOSIS, but designed specifically for Leica — which works together with the so-called Maestro processor to support the new HD video mode while maintaining the famous Leica image quality. Or so the company tells us. As usual with pre-release camera hardware, we weren't allowed to take away any sample images or video, but the responsiveness of the camera as a whole was easy to see and appreciate.
Everything about the Leica M feels refined and obsessively thought-out. Even the sound of the shutter is subtle and unobtrusive, while the control scheme is quite idiosyncratic, but sensibly laid out. The new Peaking option in Live View highlights your in-focus area with a red outline, and is additionally enhanced with a Live View Zoom, which lets you zoom in up to 10x on the rear display to get a really granular look at how sharp your focus is. Both are immediately useful additions to what feels like a well-implemented Live View mode. Turning video recording on and off, capturing photos, and browsing through your recorded media were tasks that the Leica M handled quickly and adroitly.
As usual with Leica, we can find little cause to complain about its latest product — other than the price, of course. A $6,950 price in the US for just the body places this rangefinder far outside most people's budgets. For that price, you can purchase a trio of Nikon D600s or Canon 6Ds, the latest full-frame DSLRs from the famed Japanese brands. Neither will give you the same sense of handling a sumptuous piece of exclusive hardware that the Leica will — nor access to the same set of exquisite lenses — but both seem like far saner options for the photographer with a budget. For those who won't bother to ask about the price, the Leica M looks like it'll be a damn fine option when it goes on sale in early 2013.