If you're in the market for a prosumer-level camera drone, DJI has set itself out ahead of the pack again with the new Phantom 4. It's faster, smarter and safer than the Phantom 3 Professional, 3DR Solo or Yuneec Q500, and features some nifty practical touches to make it an all-round better tool in the field.
We took one for a fly. Check out our video review below.
DJI's Phantom series has always been a step ahead of the game. These gimbal-stabilized compact camera drones are small enough to carry in a backpack, cheap enough for most anyone to get a hold of, incredibly easy to fly, and they put aerial camera capabilities well within most people's reach.
The Phantom 3 Professional only had one real competitor when it launched – and that was DJI's own Inspire One, a much bigger drone costing 2-3 times as much. But before too long, competitors started giving it a run for its money.
3D Robotics launched the Solo drone, which matched up well with the P3 in terms of specs, put the focus on smooth cinematography, and allowed you to use your own GoPro camera. Yuneec's Typhoon Q500 integrated its own detachable 4K camera, and featured a built-in video screen and a hand-held stabilizing handle.
DJI didn't mess about. It launched the Phantom 4 just 11 months after the 3, which became the first consumer camera drone with built-in obstacle avoidance.
Battery life is up by 3 minutes to around 28 minutes in the air, and there are redundant dual accelerometer and GPS modules to give the platform the closest thing on the market to an industrial level of reliability.
The camera hasn't changed much, just some lens refinements to remove a bit of chromatic aberration and barrel distortion – both of which were really only an issue for pixel peepers on the P3.
A new Sport mode gives the new beast some 12 km/h (7.5 mph) more top speed, as well as making it rise and descend much faster than ever before and giving it super-zippy high-rate turning abilities.
And a couple of extra shooting modes have been added – tap to fly, which gives you a controlled forward flying rate as you tap on your screen to decide which way to go, and ActiveTrack, which lets you select a target on your screen and optically tracks it while flying around to keep it in view.
Since there haven't been any earth-shattering upgrades to the camera, my initial expectation was that the P4 was going to be a bit of a gimmicky update. That wasn't the case at all.
Sport mode is a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation that turns the placid, gentle, smooth and reassuring flight of the Phantom into a frenzied, hectic mosquito of a thing that changes direction on a dime. Top speed is a little over 70 km/h, not massively up on the P3's 60 km/h (37.3 mph), but the thing just feels so much quicker and more agile that it's like flying a totally different machine. It's crazy enough that I reckon beginners need to steer way clear of it, but a ton of fun for more experienced pilots.
Obstacle avoidance is less useful. Mounted only on the front, it only tells you you're about to hit things you can see on your screen anyway. It'd be more helpful on all sides, given that the drone can move in any direction. But where it does shine is in helping out with return-to-home, tap to fly and ActiveTrack modes, keeping the P4 out of trouble when you're not working the controls. Notably though, the Phantom will fly backwards in ActiveTrack mode if you enable a "push" setting in the menu, and it's got no idea what's behind it. So take care.
On that note, ActiveTrack performs a lot better than the P3's Follow mode, or any other follow drone system we've tried for that matter. Rather than following a GPS signal, which turns out to be a pretty glitchy way of doing things, the P4's ActiveTrack mode tracks its subject visually. You drag out and mark the target, then confirm and sit back as it moves the drone and the camera to keep the target in view. It's not perfect, and it can lose the subject from time to time, but it's the closest thing we've seen to a proper hands-free follow cam to date.
One thing that really impressed us was the upgraded Vision Positioning System, which combines with the GPS unit to keep the Phantom still and stable in the air at low altitudes. Where the P3's VPS operated under 3 meters (10 ft) to keep it within about a 1.5-meter radius, the P4's dual downward-facing cameras and larger ultrasound units work up to 10 meters (33 ft) in the air and keep it rock solid within about a 30-centimeter radius. Back to back, the difference is just amazing.
Just as impressive was the effort DJI has made to make the Phantom as quick as possible to get airborne and packed away on location. Anyone who's done a lot of drone shooting knows that setup and teardown are a pain in the butt, particularly when people are waiting for you.
The P4's new twist and lock propellers go on and off in seconds, and lock more securely to the motors than the old ones that wound on to threads. Plus the Phantom now ships in a foam carrycase with a handle, sized to fit into a biggish backpack. The only thing holding it back from being in the air within a minute or so is the warmup routine, but that too happens quicker than it does on the P3. Even the gimbal lock is quicker and easier to use than the old one.
A good pilot will be able to get almost identical footage on a Phantom 3 Professional, and the US$1,400 P4 has already driven the retail price of the P3 Pro down below US$1,000. The P3, like the P4, uses the astounding Lightbridge video downlink, which delivers 720p footage back to the controller from up to 5 km (3 mi) away in amazing clarity.
But the Phantom 4 is a significant upgrade in terms of speed and power, intelligence, safety, smoothness, reliability and practicality. It flies for noticeably longer per charge than a P3. We're sold, it's an absolute winner and it shifts the goalposts yet again.
Product page: DJI Phantom 4