This morning, Leica, the famed maker of iconic compact rangefinder cameras and lenses, introduced its newest flagship, the M11 ($8,995). Truthfully, you'd be hard-pressed to tell it from the outgoing M10, or even the original M3 which was introduced 68 years ago in 1954. Of course, this is kind of the whole point of the M series.
It's best to think of the M as one of those luxury products that was beautifully over-engineered for a very specific group of nerds and that has since found life as a phenomenal example of attention-to-detail, craftsmanship and devotion to a central mission. In the case of a Rolex Submariner, it's keeping time very well underwater. For the Porsche 911, it's going around a track very quickly without being too complicated. With Leica M rangefinders, it's shooting the highest quality photos in the absolute smallest possible package.
At the core of the M11 is what was excellent about the M10: classic film-camera proportions, a slew of physical controls (including an ISO-setting wheel near the viewfinder), that same fantastic rangefinder focusing system, compatibility with basically every Leica rangefinder lens made in the last 60 years and a simple, refined user interface. For such an analog experience, you'd be surprised to learn that where the M11 builds on the formula is almost entirely in the digital bits.
The biggest selling point of the M11 is its brand new sensor. It's a full-frame backside-illuminated unit that tops out at 60 megapixels. However, through the magic of a technology called pixel binning (common on some smartphones) it can also produce a 36- or 18-megapixel image, with improved dynamic range and noise performance (along with a substantially reduced file size). In addition to this wizardry, they've lowered the sensor's base sensitivity to an ISO of 64 (down from ISO 100). Nikon users will recognize this as a fantastic little treat that not only allows shooting with wider apertures in daylight, but also brings the sensor's dynamic range up to a whopping 15 stops. All this adds up to the highest performing sensor ever fitted to a Leica M camera.
Additionally, Leica's rethought how the camera stores images and connects to the world around it. They've added 64 gigabytes of onboard storage (in addition to the standard SD card slot) and added a USB-C port that allows for a host of new features. For one thing, you'll be able to charge the camera through it, but more exciting is the revamped Leica FOTOS app that will allow you to run a physical connection from the camera to an iPhone or iPad and quickly transfer those gigantic 60-megapixel raw files (about 62 megabytes each) instead of relying on Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.
And the wild part? That's kind of it. Leica made the battery bigger and changed the inscription on the top of the camera from "M10" to "M11" but 99 percent of the people who see it will think it's a film camera and nearly all of the one percent that know it's a digital M won't be able to tell if it's an M10 or an M11.
The only person that will know you've got the best compact digital camera ever made is you.