Leica Announces Real Mini M, the T

(news & commentary)

T with lenses.jpg

Just before the X Vario was introduced, Leica’s attempt to hype the run-up to the announcement had a lot of the Internet hypothesizing a Mini M was coming. Alas, we got a fixed lens, large sensor compact. Today, however, Leica introduced the T type 701, which is much more decidedly like a Mini M. Only the T has autofocus. 

The T is a “different” camera. Inside sits a 16mp APS-sized sensor (same sensor as the X-Vario), a dedicated 16GB of memory (there’s also an SD slot for removable cards), and about the simplest, most direct control set we’ve seen yet in a sophisticated camera, mostly controlled via the 3.7” touchscreen and two control dials. Heck, even the strap is a bit different, as it works on a new snap-in accessory system. The camera has built-in WiFi and an iOS app (called Leica T) is already available to work with it. The app allows changing basic camera settings, triggering the camera, seeing the live view from the camera’s sensor, start/stop video recording, and to view, delete, download, and share images. The optional EVF also has a built-in GPS system.

One thing that isn’t immediately obvious in the photos is that the T is a rather compact camera. It really does feel Mini compared to the other Leica offerings. 

The T comes in an aluminum unibody, machined from a single block, a bit like an Apple laptop. This is a solid and substantive shell that houses the guts of the camera. No faux leather covering (unless you buy one), no plastic front, but a real, solid shell, into which everything else fits. Not a lot of cameras have been designed like this (the original Nikon 1’s come to mind as recent examples, but Nikon abandoned that approach for some reason), and when you do it out of aluminum, it takes time and is costly. 

Along with the camera we get two new lenses, the Vario-Elmar-T ASPH 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6, and the Summicron-T ASPH 23mm f/2, both available separately (there is no kit option). But we also get an optional lens mount adapter that has a sensor that can read the M lens codes for 20 Leica lenses; this is one of the traits that make this camera the real Mini M in my mind. The T can serve as a backup to an M system, but also function as that grab-and-go camera for when you want to go light and shoot fast. 

As with most Leica products, the T is not inexpensive. At US$1850 for a body this is probably the most expensive small grab-and-go camera you can find, especially when you discover that the two lenses are US$1750 and US$1950 each. The US$395 M-mount lens adapter and the US$595 EVF aren't cheap, either. But they also have Leica’s high quality and material to all these products. Those that have tried the lenses say “they’re really Leica quality.” So in essence, what Leica has produced with the T is the Leica experience at a lower cost than the M. Indeed, bundle up everything and you’re paying about what you pay for the current M body. 

The thing that intrigues me, though, is the secret sauce in the camera: this is not your Father’s Leica. Instead, we have a super simple camera UI. This is more like the camera my Mom wanted, something she didn’t have to spend forever learning what all the buttons are for. Coupled with the iOS app, the Leica T feels a lot like the camera for the Apple Snob, uh, I mean the person who waits at the Apple Store for every new release. Given Jony Ive’s recent design foray with Leica on a one-off auction product for charity, I’d have to guess that Ive had some influence over this design, too, if not directly, than in Leica trying to achieve Ive-ness. From first glance, it looks like they did get it mostly Ive-like, right down to the flat look screen UI. The camera body was actually designed by Audi, though. 

The T is a nice little Spring surprise. Well, okay, not much of a surprise; it’s been clear Leica’s been working on this for a long time, and the leaks along the way have been fairly constant and more revealing as time progressed. Still, for many of you reading this, it probably is an interestingly little option that you weren’t expecting. It’s all going to boil down to how good the new autofocus lenses are, how well the simple UI works, and whether you still have enough money in your bank account when those things become clear.  

Initial reaction from the Leica purist crowd seems mixed. Many are writing the T off as “the Leica for the Facebook crowd,” as if there’s something wrong with being on Facebook. And you thought I was snarky at times ;~). Me, I think this camera is going to be a hit and an instant sell-out, so pre-order yours quickly if you want one. 

Why do I say that it will sell out? First, there’s the fact that it’s hand made. Leica isn’t exactly a spit-em-out-every-second type of factory, after all, and it takes them 45 minutes just to create and polish the aluminum frame. But more importantly there are two factors that come into play here that are going to appeal to the serious shooter: (1) Leica lens quality in a compact form, coupled with M-mount support; there are a ton of great Leica lenses out there, and glass is becoming more a factor in excellent imaging than sensors; and (2) Leica has done what all of us asked for: stop adding features and buttons and nuance and producing cameras that require 800-page books to understand, and instead produce something that is simple, approachable, and does what we need with just a few, direct controls. #2 is the Apple solution: solve the user problem, not create features. 

Curiously, Leica’s T-specific Web site was up accidentally for almost 12 hours the day before the camera was actually announced, though a number of pages were not available right away. 

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