It seems as if just yesterday we were raving about DJI's latest quadcopter changing the way we think about drones and aerial photography. Today we're excited to be able to review the brand new DJI Phantom 4 quadcopter which features:However, that's not the biggest story. Not even close!
In fact, it isn't a single feature but rather the combination of all the technology (GPS, obstacle avoidance, stabilization software, fly-by-touch, return to home and automatic lift-off) that makes it, by far, the easiest drone to fly in the world.
The result is a drone that is ideal for both beginners and advanced users.
As it stands, the DJI Phantom 4 is in a class of its own with the rest of the drone community trying to catch up. For the sake of comparison, here's how it differs from its predecessor, the Phantom 3.
The new killer features that make the DJI Phantom 4 special are the obstacle avoidance, the active track and the tap-to-fly.
Obstacle avoidance, as the name states, uses 4 individual sensors in the front of the quadcopter to map out the environment and avoid obstacles that might be in the flight path of the drone.
If it senses that it will run into an object, the drone will automatically slow down and come to a complete stop (or rather, hover) instead of crashing into the obstacle. I cannot overstate how useful this will be for beginners learning how to fly.
The Phantom 4 is the first commercially available drone to receive this technology so if you want to stay safe, this is a big plus. Not only will it avoid walls, trees and buildings (saving you from potentially costly damages), it will ALSO avoid people which means it can save you from a potentially catastrophic situation. You can be more creative when recording with the Phantom 4 drone.
That's what I call a small feature with big payoffs!
In our testing, we noticed that we could still make it crash if we tried hard so it's not perfect. Due to the sensors being present only on the front of the drone, if you force it to move sideways at rapid speeds or reverse it into something, the sensors won't be able to pick up the obstacle.
However, when using tap-to-fly, the second major feature on the DJI Phantom 4, it worked flawlessly.
The second important feature which makes this drone accessible to anyone is the "TapFly" feature which, as the name suggests, allows you to tap on the display attached to the radio controller to tell where the drone to fly.
The way it works is that the DJI controller allows you to attach a smart device (Ipad, Iphone and Android phones) to the radio controller. In addition to providing you with a real-time video feed of what the drone sees (FPV), it also allows you to tap in any direction, and the drone will fly towards it until it reaches the target (or reaches the maximum distance).
It will automatically account for wind, obstacles and fly itself towards your target.
There are two major benefits to this:
1. If you're trying to capture aerial shots, you can concentrate on the camera while the drone does the flying. You'll capture beautiful video without having a second operator (something that is common in professional aerial photography).
2. It means that anyone, even a 4-year-old, can fly a drone, even if you've never flown anything before.
Of course, you aren't limited to using Tap To Fly and during our sessions with the DJI Phantom 4, we certainly didn't use the feature to its maximum extent.
If you want to enjoy the experience of flying, you'll want to switch the drone to the manual acrobat mode which provides you with maximum flexibility. When in the acro mode, you can race around relatively quickly and even capture some pretty cool videos of yourself dodging obstacles "star wars" style.
When you're tired, you can use the smart "return to home" function which will return the drone back to you. (This is great because that means the drone won't run away.) The smart part of this feature is that it will gain altitude and avoid obstacles on the way back. (In other words, the drone won't crash into a tree if you activate it in a park)
One of the refinements with the new DJI Phantom 4 is that the improved motors allow you to fly faster (20m/s) than ever before. That's almost 45 mph which is very fast for a drone.
Another refinement is that they raised the motors ever-so-slightly from the frame so that you don't see them when you're capturing footage looking straight ahead. Although this is a huge improvement over the previous generation, if you're going at maximum speed, you'll still notice them a little. (As soon as you slow down a little or aim the camera down, you don't see them at all.)
At those speeds, you can quickly capture any sporting activity, and you'll even keep up with cars (for the car shots, you'll want to gain altitude as the car speeds off into the distance for a neat effect).
Speaking of capturing cool action shots, the new feature using smart image recognition technology is called "Active Track". This allows you to select a target on the radio's display to track and follow.
Once activated, the drone will fly on its own, following the target (all while avoiding obstacles) and it will do it's best to keep the camera centered.
In other words, you can set the drone to follow you through a field and then let it record you as you navigate through your adventure.
That said, in practice, we found that it wasn't perfect at tracking rapid movements in spite of doing quite well with slower targets.
With software updates, I suspect that the image tracking will improve to the point where the drone can follow you down a narrow path. I would love to be able to go skiing with this thing! Perhaps with a few software updates.
For now, I use the tracking for slow moving targets and capture the video manually so I can compose the perfect shot.
The camera receives minor improvements (it was already quite good) in image quality thanks to slightly modified optics (f/2.8) and a faster processor. I'll let the images speak for themselves but suffice to say that you'll have to pay quite a lot more if you want any additional quality.
In fact, when it comes to all-in-one solutions, this is just about as good as you can get barring the DJI Inspire one (which is twice the price). The only thing we're not crazy about is the audio for our productions.
My favorite feature of the new camera is the ability to record at 120 frames per second in 1080p. This opens up a whole new world in terms of action and sports videos.
At 120 fps, you can now slow down footage by a factor of 4x which seems to be the perfect speed for capturing fast human movement (jumping, hitting a baseball, mountain biking, skiing).
Even though recording at 120fps will fill up your memory card rather quickly, it provides much more flexibility when you're doing any post-editing work. (I typically include at least one short burst of slow motion in nearly every short video I produce.)
In other words, if I'm not shooting slow motion video, I default back to 4k as my standard recording mode. I don't know how they did it, but the image stabilization is incredible. Even in strong winds, you get perfectly smooth video worthy of a Hollywood movie.
One of my favorite recording techniques is to use the "point of interest" feature which locks onto a point and then circles it in a perfectly smooth motion.
Regarding battery life, the DJI Phantom 4 pushes the boundaries even further with improved motor efficiency which allows it to fly for an impressive 28 minutes on a single charge. (At least, that's the official statistic from DJI)
In my tests, I found that it depends on how you fly the drone. If you're flying aggressively at high speeds, then the battery life might be reduced to as little as 20 minutes. That being said, it's considerably better than the competition, and I usually averaged around 25 minutes of flight time which is excellent.
To give you an idea of how much you can do with the DJI Phantom 4... just image how far you can drive in 25 minutes. Considering it flies at 45mph (71kph), you can quickly max out the range and come back without even breaking a sweat. Just make sure you don't land in water.
I picked up an extra battery for long day trips and even though I don't usually use it, I like being able to charge a battery while I use the other one. DJI once again changed the format of the battery (meaning that the older batteries aren't compatible) which is a shame but understandable. Concerning charge time, the charge takes slightly longer with a time of approximately 45 minutes.
Speaking of the charger, it's almost as if they copied the Apple product line with the glossy white finish. I'll admit, it is a beautiful finish, and you would almost confuse it for an Apple product.
Even though you can use nearly any smartphone, I would recommend having a nice sized tablet such as an IPad to get the absolute best experience.
Inside the box, you'll find:
- The drone
- The radio controller
- 8 propellers (4 spares)
- 16 gig SD card
- Carrying case
Surprisingly, they even throw in a 16 GB SD card which is a nice little touch. I would still recommend getting additional storage space because 16GB will go quite quickly when you're recording in 4k resolutions.
My favorite surprise is that they now include a very practical, cool carrying case for the Phantom. In the past, we used to have to buy an additional carrying bag to travel around with it... but that has been replaced with a very nice case specially designed for the drone.
When you compare homebrew solutions, you're getting an incredible amount of value that just cannot be matched.
The software that comes with the Phantom reminds me more of a video game than anything else. You get a ton of features with the DJI app which allows you to control all aspects of the flight and recording. You can even go as far as defining way points for the quad to fly before you even take off the ground. Of course, it is compatible with nearly all systems.
The remote control feels solid and smooth. You can tell you're holding a premium tech product along the lines of an Apple product. Not much has changed from the previous model which is a good thing.
DJI Phantom 4. It is light years ahead of the competition with regards to flight control, stability, features and value. That's why it tops our list of the best drones on the market for 2016-2017.
DJI is spoiling us with things we didn't even know we wanted (such as the point-of-interest feature) and giving us exactly what we did want: An amazing flight experience and ultra-smooth 4k video. From a consumer's perspective, we're getting professional features at a fraction of the price.
The DJI Phantom 4 was released in March 2016.
This review was updated on September 2nd 2016.