Review: The camera-packin' Hubsan X4 FPV mini quadcopter
It was just a few months ago that we showed you what is probably the world's smallest consumer quadcopter, the tiny Estes Proto X. Although it's a marvel of modern engineering, Gizmag writer Jonathan Fincher noted that it lacks any particularly interesting features, such as a camera. Well, late last year, Hubsan released its X4 H107D FPV. It's not much bigger than the Proto X, and it has a camera that transmits a real-time video signal to the user. When I heard about it, I knew I had to try it out.
The eye in the sky
Hubsan's other X4 quadcopters have already proven quite popular with hobbyists. The previously-released H107C model also has a camera, although it doesn't provide a live feed. Instead, users have to watch the recorded footage after the fact.With the FPV, however, they can see what the camera's seeing as it sees it, via a 4.3-inch color LCD screen in the control unit. This makes it possible to fly by first-person-view (hence the FPV in its name), although a wider lens would make doing so considerably easier. It's also possible to start and stop recording via a single button on the controller.
The camera itself is nothing special, with its 0.3-megapixel sensor and 640 x 480 resolution. Although the picture is displayed on the monitor at 720 x 480, it's rather bizarrely recorded at a squat 720 x 240. This means that if you plan on using the recorded footage for anything, you'll have to run it through a converter to stretch it from 240 to 480. While Hubsan does provide links to a couple of free Windows-based converters, I couldn't find any aspect ratio-altering freeware that would work on my Mac. Eventually, I gave in and purchased AnyVideo Converter HD for six bucks, although I really shouldn't have had to.
Additionally, depending on where you're flying it, the video can get quite glitchy by the time it reaches the monitor. This might not matter if it were recorded onboard the quadcopter, but it's not. Instead, it's recorded on a Micro SD card in the controller, meaning that all the glitches are present in the video by the time it's recorded. That said, most users will probably be more interested in using the camera just to fly the thing.
The quadcopter itself
The FPV measures about 4.5 inches (114 mm) diagonally, looks beautiful, and feels nice and solid in hand. One charge of its 3.7-volt 380-mAh lithium polymer battery takes about 30 minutes via an included USB cable (which can be difficult to disconnect), and is good for around seven minutes of flight time. This means that learning to fly the thing has to be done in numerous short installments.
Once the battery is juiced up, its charging receptacle wire has to be sort of twisted around, folded over, and stuffed into a little compartment in the back of the aircraft. It's hard getting it to stay in there, however, plus my copter has developed a short in that wire from all the manipulation. It would be far better if there were simply a clip or something similar to hold the wire in place, without placing so much stress on it.
Taking it up
As for actually flying the sucker ... well, a search on YouTube will show you that there are plenty of experienced RC aircraft hobbyists out there who are quite adept at piloting the FPV. My only previous quadcopter experience has been with the DJI Phantom and Phantom 2 Vision, and while they're certainly more intimidating to fly (because they're so big and expensive), they're also a lot easier. This is mainly due to the fact that they both use GPS to hold their position in mid-air.
The GPS-less FPV, on the other hand, tends to drift around quite a bit. Although it's certainly possible to get it to go more or less where I want, I find that a lot of the time, flying it is almost like a game – it routinely tries to head off in one random direction or another, and it's my job to keep it from doing so. Keeping it hovering in one place is pretty much out of the question.
This is doubtless doing wonders for my hand-eye coordination, but it can be a little frustrating at times. I've only had it a few weeks so far, though, so hopefully my skills will improve. In the meantime, it's a good thing that the FPV is so tough. I've crashed it more times than I could possibly remember, and the only visible damage has been some bashed-up propellers (I'm currently on my second set). That did prompt me to install its prop guard, although that itself has already snapped in one spot.
The claimed maximum control and video range is 100 meters (328 ft), although I've yet to put that to the test. I have tried taking the quadcopter outside, but it's pretty easily pushed around by even moderate winds.
The X4 FPV sells for around US$200. Is it worth it? I would say yes, provided that:
- You don't plan on using the video for anything other than FPV flying
Speaking of fancier quadcopters, a Hubsan rep has informed me that the company is developing a "better, larger" X4 that will supposedly offer more functions than the DJI Phantom 2 Vision. It might be coming our way in March, so we look forward to getting our hands on it.
For now, though, you can check out the short-but-sweet video below, in which my friend Kevin and I give the FPV a whirl in a warehouse ... and despite the way it's edited, I must admit that it was actually me who was flying it in the final shot.
Product page: Hubsan X4 H107D FPV