The US government predicts one million drones will be sold over the coming holiday season. That's a whole a lot of thumbs jerking around unfamiliar joysticks, trying valiantly to prevent a meeting between shiny new toys and trees or local ferris wheels. But experienced pilots too will be looking to take their wizardry to new levels with the latest in high-flying hardware. With most consumer models carrying top-notch camera gear and a pretty friendly learning curve, drones made for rookies and experts aren't as different as they once were, though they do still have their own strengths and weaknesses. Let's put four of the big players side-by-side to see how they stack up.
We'll start by saying that the four drones compared in this guide are among the better known, but they are really only a taste of what is out there. We've seen drones that can be controlled with VR goggles and drones that you simply hurl into the air to start filming, all amazing ideas. But they are not ideas you can yet get your hands on just yet. So, here we'll focus on drones that you can unbox just in time to fly on Christmas Day.
This includes two recent additions to DJI's lineup, the Phantom 3 Professional and the Phantom 3 Standard. As the names suggest, one is geared very much toward the experienced user, carrying high-grade camera equipment, while the other is aimed at beginners wanting to learn the ins and outs of drone photography. The Parrot Bepop 2 and the 3DR Solo are very much billed as easy to use drones, though the Solo does also offer a suite of advanced, automated flight modes, too.
The Solo is also a little different to the other models in that it doesn't ship with a built-in camera, rather it carries a gimbal for a GoPro. So for the purpose of this exercise, the Solo's specs outlined below are assuming there's a top-of-the-line GoPro Hero4 Black attached to the aircraft.
It's also worth mentioning that the intricacies of drone technology bring with them an almost endless list of finer details, from maximum operating temperatures to hovering accuracy to video transmission systems. Here we've tried to keep our focus on the main points.
There's not a lot of variation on this front. Most high-end consumer drones these days will shoot crisp stills, though the Parrot does offer a slightly higher resolution.
Maximum video resolution
The clear winner here is the Phantom 3 Professional, though the GoPro Hero4 Black of our example Solo setup is also capable of shooting sharp 4K video. The Hero4 can record 1080p at 120 fps, too, which may prove useful if you're looking to produce slow-mo footage, while the Phantom's camera cannot.
Lens Field of View
DJI narrowed its focus with the launch of its Phantom 3 series, with the hugely popular Phantom 2 Vision+ offering a 140-degree field of view. The new models shoot at 94-degrees, which should help in avoiding landing gear and propellers wandering into frame. The Bepop 2 is claimed to offer a 180-degree field of vision, but this isn't entirely accurate, as the camera does need to be panned manually with the controller to do so. With a GoPro Hero4, the Solo would seem to have an edge here. Though the shot can be as wide as 170 degrees, it can also be adjusted to medium or narrow, which equate to 127 or 90 degrees respectively.
Parrot was seriously lagging behind its competitors with the original Bepop that flew for only 11 minutes at a time. It has since stepped up its game and is ready to hang in the air with the big boys.
Flying a drone beyond the line of sight is an unnerving experience, at least initially. These models all offer auto-return home functions, but even then, when the aircraft fades away into the distance it's hard to know for sure that all's well, until the comforting whirr of the propellers enter earshot again.
With that said, there'll be times when more experienced pilots feel the need to let their drone off the leash, in which case the Phantom 3 Professional offers unparalleled freedom to do so. Keep in mind that range will vary depending on electronic interference and other obstructions.
Unless you're filming motorbikes, cars or other fast-moving objects, the top speed of your drone shouldn't be a deal breaker, but it is something to consider nonetheless. Any of these models should be zippy enough to capture tracking shots of skiers, snowboarders, surfers and other extreme sporting exploits.
The lightweight Bepop 2 seriously undercuts its competitors here. This shouldn't matter a whole lot with the thing up in the air, but will make for some peace of mind should it come crashing to the ground. If you plan on traveling with your drone, this may also be an appealing attribute.
Smart Flight Modes
Over the last year we've seen drone manufacturers place a huge emphasis on autonomous flight modes that make capturing stunning video easier than ever. Follow Me, where a drone can be made to automatically track a subject, was the first of these to really enter mainstream thinking, but then 3DR changed the game with the launch of what it billed as the first "smart drone" in April.
In addition to Follow Me, the Solo can orbit around any subject at a user-defined radius, perform like a cable cam by sliding between two user-defined points in the air, remain focused on the operator while flying up and away for impressive pullout shots and fly autonomously across pre-determined waypoints (though this last one requires a separate app and a little more technical know-how).
DJI then came to the party in September, when it added a set of intelligent flight modes to its Phantom 3 family. This enabled waypoints, orbit (or, as DJI calls it, "Point of Interest") and follow me on its newest drones, but still leaves the Solo out ahead in terms of autonomous functionality.
So as we can see, there's a lot of things to consider when shopping for drones, and which one is right for you will depend on what it is you intend filming. In Gizmag's experience, the Phantom series have never been anything but easy to fly right out of the box, and the latest models carry camera gear right off the top-shelf, meaning they really do offer something for pilots of all levels of expertise.
The Solo has an edge in the number of smart flight modes and also speed, but when you factor in the cost of a GoPro, it is the most expensive model by some margin. The Parrot Bepop 2's strength is most certainly its light weight, though it is lacking in both smart flight modes and video resolution.
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