Review: DJI Phantom 4 drone offers pro features with beginner simplicity

This drone protects itself from bad pilots

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Drones have come a long way in the past few years and the DJI Phantom 4 remains one of the most sophisticated that your consumer dollars can buy.

In 2016, its possible to buy a drone for less than a hundred dollars, so why would you spend $2,000 on one? The answer is actually very simple. Drones typically have 2 functions, the first is simply the flying mechanics making it fun for the pilot, but the second is recording footage from on-board cameras.

When it comes to image quality, the video and images that come out of the Phantom 4 are some of the best I’ve seen from any camera and for the size of it, that’s seriously impressive. Now we just need that NBN for its faster upload speeds to publish all the 4K footage from the drone.

DJI include the necessary hardware sensors to monitor the environment around it and engages self-preservation should an inexperienced pilot try and fly it into a tree, wall or other object that would leave other drones in pieces.

When you start flying drones from DJI, you’ll start in beginner mode, which limits the speed and altitude you can reach, this keeps things simple while you’re learning. This isn’t my first time at the controls of a drone after spending around 20 minutes, I was ready for the next challenge. This is where you turn off beginner mode and can switch into sport mode.

In Sport mode you get a true sense of the capabilities of the Phantom 4. When full unleashed, this thing moves at a break neck speed and you definitely wouldn’t want to be hit by it. This is why its always important to adhere to the CASA rules which are provided with every drone that ships in Australia.

The rules for flying drones are pretty simply really. Don’t fly within 5km of an airport, don’t fly higher than 120m, don’t fly over people and built-up areas. Thankfully Albury Wodonga has some perfect spots for the avid drone operator. New subdevelopments mean there’s large volumes of land that are wide open and nothing hit. There’s also plenty of sports ovals.

The hardware of a drone is only half of the equation, the other half is the software. Initially I dropped my Samsung Galaxy S7 into the controller and fired up the app, mid-way through its first flight, the app crashed. Thankfully the drone is connected directly to the controller, so the app crashing had no bearing on the flight or local recording of video.

It seems DJI currently don’t officially support the S7, which is weird given its been on the market for more than 6 months. After switching to the HTC10, the app ran flawlessly and hasn’t crashed once.

The mobile app for phones or tablets (7″ or less) works by sending macro commands to the drone and once transmitted, the drone executes the commands which is a really solid design. Many cheaper drones simply fall out of the sky when they lose connection to the controller. The Phantom 4 simply hovers in place.

If you get in to trouble or lose sight of your drone, you can press the return home button on the controller and the drone will raise to the pre-defined return home height to avoid trees etc (30m by default), then using GPS assistance, lands itself where you took off. This is the level of smarts you only find at the top-end of the market.

On the spec sheet, the battery life says you’ll get around 25 minutes of flight time. In testing, I got between 20 and 25 so that number is fairly accurate. You can burn through the battery faster if there’s strong winds, you fly at higher speeds in Sport mode and you record video all at once.

Something I discovered in sport mode is that to achieve the speed, the drone angles itself down significantly, to the point where the rotors can consume more than 50% of the image from the camera. That I wasn’t expecting and this definitely limits some filming opportunities. In normal operation, you never see the props, instead you just get silky smooth video from the gimbal stabalised video.

The DJI Phantom 4 also features numerous flight modes. The first I want to talk about is tracking. This allows you to tap and drag over an object to track. This can be a human, a car, really anything of substance that the software can track the pixels of. Note, you will have to be at around 10m for this to work. After you lock on to an object, your right stick is simply an orbit control around the object. With this, you can create some of the best action shots and it makes it seriously easy to follow a subject, doing this manually would require an expert.

Another mode is waypoints. This allows you to fly the drone to a number of positions, tap on the app to register the location and importantly orientation of the drone at the waypoint. Once you’re finished setting things up, you can hit record, then go and the Phantom 4 will move sequentially through waypoints. As it does the transition of location, height and orientation of the X,Y,Z axis the drone moves are silky smooth, much better than your manual controller inputs could be. The big bonus here is the replayability of this. Imagine you’re capturing a number of BMX riders, you could have the same angles, same timing and same footage with different riders, allowing side-by-side comparisons to be created.

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Price & Availability

Theres a lot of places you can get a DJI Phantom 4 from and the price varies wildly depending on your choice. Given I don’t think anyone should buy it with just a single battery, the following prices include an additional battery.

Official DJI site – A$$2,199.

Apple – A$2,099.95 for Phantom 4 + A$289.95 extra battery = A$2,389.90

Camera Sky – A$1,479 with DJI shipping special – A$1,443.00

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Overall

The best thing I can say about using the drone is that it enables you to reach perspectives that are otherwise not possible. Until recently the CASA regulations essentially put drones into the fun category, but now you can sell the footage you capture from the drone, this can absolutely be a commercial en-devour and if you tap into the right market, you could easily pay for the drone cost in no time.

If you do decide to buy the DJI Phantom 4, I definitely suggest you grab at least 1 and probably 2 additional batteries, along with a bigger Micro-SD card (comes with a 16GB card). These few extras are relatively small in additional cost, but will infinitely make your drone more useful. Going home early because you’re out of battery is not fun and if its a happens-once event, you’re in a world of hurt. Making a pit stop and switching batteries takes just seconds and you’ll be back in the air.

8.8
DJI Phantom 4
The Good
  • Multiple flight modes
  • Collision avoidance
  • Flight time
  • Easy to control
The Bad
  • Props in frame can ruin shots
  • Loud
  • Design
    8
  • Features
    9.5
  • Value
    9
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