This is the summer of drones. DJI has its Phantom Series, Yuneec has Typhoon, and today GoPro released Karma. Earlier this summer I flew and reviewed the Yuneec Q500 Phantom drone – with mixed reactions. Over the past month, I’ve had the pleasure of flying the DJI Phantom 4 quadcopter drone – which is an absolute dream.
What It Is
The DJI Phantom 4 Drone is DJI’s flagship drone. It sits at the intersection between hardcore professional filming drones and more accessible consumer level drones, offering easy flying, lots of advanced features, and great image quality. The packaging, handling, and utility is made to be easily accessible to first time flyers, and continuously useful to experienced pilots.
Who It’s For
The Phantom 4 is aimed at semi-pro flyers who want to focus on getting the shot, every time. The drone comes almost completely assembled, and is a breeze to get all setup and into the air. Without reading any instructions, I got the drone setup in under 10 minutes, and was ready to fly in 20 for the first flight. The camera, with its fixed lens, is well suited for semi-pro photographers who want easily spectactular shots, but who don’t necessarily need to customize their choice of lens focal lengths. Finally, the Phantom4 is for enthusiast pilots who just want a drone that’s a kickass fun time to fly – high, fast, close quarters, etc – it’s just plain fun and easy to use.
Out of all of the consumer electronics I’ve reviewed lately, the packaging of the Phantom 4 is by far the most slick – it comes in a great foam box which doubles as a storage and transport case. There’s not too much extraneous accessories or packaging. The extra propellers come in a nice microfiber bag. The entire drone and controller are packaged nicely, and make an immediate impression.
The Phantom 4 certainly feels like a premium item. The white plastic is tough and solid, as are the rest of the accessories. Fit and finish of the entire package has been carefully considered, and it really comes together as a unified system. No piecemeal attachments here.
First flight was scary, but easy. Using the DJI GO app on my iPhone connected to the controller, I was able to get the Phantom 4 airborne with a quick swipe. On first flight, the software puts the pilot in “Beginner Mode”, restricting flight options until gaining more experience. Great idea! I flew my first flight for 20 minutes on a tour of the neighborhood, and used to “return to home” feature to make a smooth landing right in front of me.
The first round of footage looked great – I shot in 1080P, and it was certainly spectacular to look at. Smooth, stable, and with great exposure. The only issue I had with my first couple of shots is that the controls are so responsive, it’s easy to make jerky flight movements, which result in jerks in the footage. This is all tunable in the software – but it does take a bit of fiddling around.
Recharging the battery was easy, as was the controller. The only question I had about the controller was, why can’t we charge it with Micro USB? I know it charges slower, but it would be a nice fallback option for charging on the go.
The Phantom 4 is a rockstar in flight. It’s solid as a rock, super agile, and flies reliably in very sketchy conditions. The one time I ran it into a building, it actually bounced off the roof, and recovered to normal flight in seconds – amazing!
- Easy to get started flying. The automatic modes are robust and easy to use, as well as give good expandability as your skills get better. I love that there are programmed flight modes, allowing you to setup a shot and then have the drone reproduce it for multiple takes.
- Status lights on the craft are bright and easy to see, especially at dusk.
- After flying at 12000+ feet, I’m confident that this thing has the power and stability to fly in almost any situation. It takes off easily, and holds its position in the sky without any difficulty. Take your hands off the controller, and the P4 just hovers perfectly still.
- Range is great, and the video transmission quality is dynamically scaled back as the drone gets farther away.
- Return to home works great. Upon pressing the button, or loss of signal, the drone flies reliably back home. There were many many many instances where I was flying the drone well out of visual range, and pushed it as far as it would go. After it got so far away that the connection was completely lost (a few miles in rugged mountain terrain at 10000ft), the thing just made its own way back to takeoff point and landed smoothly. With battery to spare. Amazing!
- Sport mode is FAST! So much fun to fly like this.
- Battery life – 20 minutes or so, is pretty good! Of course I want to fly this thing for hours, but the 20 or so minutes you get per charge is perfectly acceptable. Be sure to pick up extra batteries.
- Turning the unit on and off is weird – it requires a “dot-dash” button press to turn it on and off – not super intuitive.
- A few times while auto landing, it got into a major vertical oscillation, forcing me to take over manual flight to get it to land without crashing.
- While it is fairly small, given how much fun it is to fly, I wanted to take it lots of places with me. I know there’s a backpack for it, but it’s still a bulky system. Would be cool if the legs folded and camera detached, to make the whole thing fit in a more flat profile (hint hint).
- I know you can get prop guards as an accessory, but I really think they should come standard. People fly these things around other people. Prop guards.
The 4K camera of the Phantom 4 is gorgeous. It’s a fixed focal length, gimballed and stabalized camera, with a rotating filter mount on the front. The camera takes up to 4k/24 video and raw quality photos, and offers a great versatile field of view.
- It’s certainly stable. Video footage looks smooth and nice, with good image quality, and good auto exposure.
- Photos are great too, and I love that it can capture in raw.
- Notably, the app also can record the lower quality video it receives over the air. So even in the case of a flight system loss, you’ll still have a little footage on the app. Great idea.
- The SD card for the camera is held on the side of the flight platform – meaning it’s fairly well protected against impact, and is also easy to take out. If it were mounted in the camera, it would be a pain in the ass dealing with a swiveling camera mount every time.
- The Phantom 4 is nimble. Super nimble. And with the stock control configuration, it’s easy to make quick, jerky flight moves. This translates into jerks on the camera too, which although stabilized and relatively vibration-free, still looks weird when the gimbal suddenly moves quickly. There are controls to add speed buffering to the controls to make each move slower or faster – but I was a bit confused by how to set that up.
- Only up to 4k/24? I’d love a slightly higher framerate, at least 4k/30.
- I know this is the way it is, but I’d love an interchangeable lens on the camera. Maybe not even the whole Micro 4/3 mount of the Inspire1, but perhaps some interchangeable lens kits – Wide, normal, tele?
- As far as flying while shooting.. What are those four “nav”cameras (two forward, two down) seeing when you’re flying? I know they’re looking for obstacles.. but why can’t I see what they’re seeing on my screen, as a bit of a nav/engineering cam view? This could help me keep situation awareness during the flight, while the main camera captures pretty footage.
The DJI controler is a tight package. It includes a white controller with rechargable battery, antenas, and a holder for your iOS or Android device.
- Pairing the controller with your iOS or Android device is a BRILLIANT move for DJI. This allows them to distribute the primary flight software as an easily updatable smartphone/tablet app, and lets you use your own device – where a tiny iPhone up to a huge iPad Pro.
- They have an SDK! This is an incredible feature which allows 3rd party developers to create their own flight control apps, opening up the doors for all sorts of creative use cases. This is a whole article in itself.
- The controller uses a wired connection to your smartphone or tablet – meaning the connection is solid and sure.
- If for some reason your app crashes, the drone is flyable only with the controller – no app required. This is great for emergencies.
- For some reason, the controller doesn’t charge your smartphone while connected. I know this has to do with battery life issues – but still, it would be a nice little feature.
- The antennas are not replaceable – so short of modding the whole thing, there’s no way to swap out more powerful antennas.
Should You Buy It?
If you want a super easy flying drone, with great image quality, and an almost infinite universe of features to explore, yes, go buy this thing immediately. It’s so so so much fun to fly. If you’re looking to shoot a big studio movie, then move on up to the Inspire 1 or Matrix. If you just want a toy to fly in your living room or backyard, then go to the toystore.
Flying the DJI Phantom 4 is a revolutionary experience. The company has absolutely nailed the fit and finish of the product, made a solidly performing piece of hardware, and has build a memorable experience. I’m certainly sad to be returning the Phantom 4 to DJI after this review.