DJI Phantom 4 Review: The first drone for everyone
The drone takes off, hovering a few feet off the ground. I guide it up to about 12 feet with the throttle on the remote control. Then my three year old son takes over. He taps the screen on an iPad running our piloting app. The drone, a DJI Phantom 4, begins to ascend, heading towards an abandoned grainery. My son happily taps away at the screen, shifting the drone here and there. You wouldn’t notice how frantically he’s tapping from the footage he captured, which is buttery smooth.
Eventually he taps on tree. The Phantom 4 cruises towards it, adjusting slightly to avoid the obstacle. The end result is a dramatic shot, with the drone splitting the difference between two trees, sunset shining on their outstretched branches, passing far closer than I would have felt comfortable with if I was the one in control.
Before the Phantom 4, the best a camera drone could offer was the ability to follow your GPS signal. It works well enough, but has serious limitations. In practice it’s a bit like playing Marco Polo. The drone has a general sense of where you are, but can’t actually see you or the world around it. With just GPS to rely on, drones struggled to adjust for sudden changes in direction or speed, to keep subjects in frame when in close range — and of course, to avoid obstacles like trees, lampposts, and ski lifts.
TRYING TO CRASH MADE ME PHYSICALLY ILL
I spent the last few days putting the Phantom 4 through its paces, spending most of my time on the brand new fully autonomous features. It took me a while to get up the courage to fly it full throttle at a wall, and I felt physically sick with fear when I did, but the unit never failed to sense a crash and come to a halt. It picked out brick walls, trees, even chain link fences. Along with obstacle avoidance, the Phantom 4 can be flown simply by tapping on your screen, as my son did. And it can use its computer vision to identify a specific person and follow them, keeping the subject of your film perfectly in frame.
DJI’s Phantom has been our favorite model of drone for the last few years, but this latest version doesn’t merely hold onto the mantle as the best unit you can buy. By adding computer vision and fully autonomous capabilities, the Phantom 4 has dramatically raised the bar on what is possible with a consumer caliber camera drone, both for complete amateurs who want to start flying and for professionals who are crafting complex and dangerous shots.
dji phantom 4 belly angle
The basics of the Phantom hardware maintain the high quality of previous editions with some small tweaks and improvements. TL;DR, it is still the best overall drone in terms of reliable flight, beautiful footage, and overall build quality. If you want to dig into the nitty gritty, the rest of this section if for you.
WAY EASIER TO CARRY
For starters, the Phantom 4 comes with a new carrying case, a grey styrofoam suitcase which looks like it should be holding the key codes for a nuclear submarine. It’s far more compact and durable than what came with the Phantom 3, which just had a handle on its cardboard box.
In our testing, battery life averaged above 25 minutes, which is equal or better than comparably sized camera drones. It went from empty to fully charged in an hour. The remote control can be charged at the same time as the battery and in our testing lasted through three full flights without a problem.
The new Phantom has a glossy plastic frame and a thinner, more aerodynamic body. The colored bands are gone from the arms, which now end in shiny metal on the exposed motors. It’s belly is grey plastic, which is a nice break from the all white design. From a distance it’s impossible to tell apart from previous editions, but from up close it’s a slightly more aggressive and attractive design. The controller is identical to previous editions, except it traded out a matte plastic for a shiny coat to match its drone.
Assembly is basically the same, except now the rotors have a new locking mechanism. DJI says it needed a stronger connection to keep the rotors from flying off in “sport mode” (more on that later.) The end results is just as simple — and quite a bit faster — the the previous assembly method. The battery is a bit bigger but otherwise identical. It snaps into place snugly and detaches easily.
dji phantom 4 motor
The Phantom 4 now essentially operates at three speeds. When you have object avoidance turned on, it tops out at a little above 22 miles per hour. In normal flight mode it can reach 35 miles an hour, and in the new sport mode it can fly at an astonishing 45 miles per hour. For experienced pilots, sport mode is a real treat, adding a lot of horsepower and agility to the craft. For professional camera operators sport mode will enable a lot more dynamic chase shots while filming high speed stunts or races.
LIKE A TRIPOD IN THE SKY
DJI claims the Phantom 4 is five times more stable than its predecessor, and in our testing it delivered incredibly smooth footage. While hovering it never had an issue holding its exact position to within an inch or two, even in moderate winds. The extra stability come courtesy of an additional IMU, and double the number of downward facing cameras and sonar sensors, which the Phantom uses for its visual positioning system. When executing an automatic return to its home position the craft always landed within a few inches of its takeoff position.
MUCH NICER FOOTAGE
The Phantom 4 uses the same remote controller and Lightbridge video downlink technology as the Phantom 3. In our testing it never lost connection and the video stream was extremely clear and free of lag. I don’t have an expert eye for film, but according to our video team the footage from the Phantom 4 was a big improvement. It looked more “raw” — a higher dynamic range, less digital sharpening, and less saturation — all perks that give you more flexibility when editing and coloring the footage later on.
All the intelligent flight modes found on the Phantom 3 — waypoint navigation, orbit, follow, and track — are available here as well. They still rely on GPS and haven’t changed much, although I found them a little bit more accurate at close range. Given the new autonomous features available, however, you probably won’t rely on this mode for anything but waypoint navigation.
dji phantom 4 camera sensor
The Phantom 4’s forward facing optical sensor
All of those improvements are great, but it’s the autonomous features that are the huge change with the Phantom 4, so let’s dig in deep. It’s clear that there are still big limitations. The coolest new feature by far is TapFly. You have a live feed from the drone’s main camera on the screen of your mobile device. Tap anywhere on that image and the drone will fly in that direction. The drone will automatically ease into turns, avoiding the jerky motion that I often got in my footage while flying manually.
AUTONOMY ALLOWS SAFE, EASY, BUT LIMITED FLIGHT
The limitation here is that you are mostly moving in one direction — forward _ which is the only direction in which the obstacle avoidance works. The sensors have a 60 degree field of view, meaning you can only turn at a roughly 30 degree angle, all the while moving forward. If you want to execute a tight turn or head back the way you came from, you’ll need to get on the control sticks or use the automatic “return to home” function.
The obstacle avoidance is quite cautious. Sometimes when I asked it to navigate through a stand of trees with a few feet of clearance on either side, it refused. TapFly also declined to work when you were too low, for example right after an automatic takeoff. That meant I had to touch the sticks a little before switching over to rely totally on the screen of my mobile device.
The other big autonomous feature is AutoTrack. You select a subject — a person, a bike, a car — and the drone will lock on and keep them in the center of the frame. It does this using the same computer vision technology employed for obstacle avoidance, except this time it’s building a 3D model not just of the environment, but also of the target you want to track.
TRACKING AND ORBITING A SUBJECT IS AWESOME
Subject tracking was great when it worked, but typically took several tries before locking on. It would often say the subject was too small, or too far away. I found it worked best when you were ten or twelve feet from your target. It was very good at following a single person, but would lose them if they crossed paths with another person wearing similar colors, or if the person you chose wandered into a group.
While in Autotrack, you could also initiate an orbit simply by holding the stick to the left or right. This is a tricky maneuver, even for an experienced pilot, and it can lead to terrific footage. I found it worked really well when the subject was standing still. If the subject was moving, however, the orbit seemed a bit unpredictable. Since the Phantom 4 can only see in front of itself, you need to watch for obstacles while orbiting, and I could easily imagine a rookie pilot misjudging the width of a circling drone trying to track a moving target.
dji phantom 4 GIF
In the end, I think the somewhat limited autonomous flight features are probably a good thing. It forces you to learn some basic control on the sticks while preventing crashes and allowing beginners to more quickly and confidently create incredible shots. Being able to take over in full manual, in the event that the autonomous systems failed, is something every drone owner should learn how to do.
THE PACE OF INNOVATION BEING SET BY DJI IS BREATHTAKING
And while I’m pointing out the limits of the autonomous features, the pace of innovation being set by DJI is still pretty breathtaking. We saw drones that could follow people at CES in 2015, and hints of sense and avoid. A year later many of the follow me drones were just starting to ship to customers, and the sense and avoid technology was a little better, but far from commercially available. When the Yuneec Typhoon H was introduced at CES earlier this year, I said it was a very credible challenger for the Phantom’s throne, in large part because it was the first consumer drone that promised to have real obstacle avoidance thanks to onboard sonar. Unfortunately for Yuneec, DJI’s Phantom 4 has now beaten them to market with a far more robust system.
The Phantom 4 costs $1399, more than last year’s brand new model. But the addition of these autonomous features makes it the obvious choice for anyone looking to purchase their first drone. For professionals, the Phantom 4 now offers a more robust suite of technologies than the high end Inspire 1, and can even match it for speed.
WHAT COMES NEXT?
We’ve called the Phantom the iPhone of drones, both because it was our top recommendation, and because each new version got slightly better without dramatically changing the core feature set. The Phantom 4 shatters that comparison, making an evolutionary leap. Personally my only hesitation in buying this drone is that DJI has already shown off something even better than the Phantom 4 on its development drone, the Matrice. It has full 360 degree autonomy, which would allow the Phantom to safely follow a target from the side or in reverse. DJI has hinted in interviews that the Phantom 4 was just the first step in its plans for more autonomous units. This is an incredible drone sure, but, if I wait another 10-11 months, could I something even cooler instead?