Note - we have much more information on the DJI Phantom Quadcopters and Drones in our forum area. To see the forum threads related to the Phantom, simply CLICK THIS LINK.
Note - we have much more information on the DJI Phantom Quadcopters and Drones in our forum area. To see the forum threads related to the Phantom, simply CLICK THIS LINK.
Which are the best drones and quadcopters to buy as of the end of 2017?
UPDATED Fall, 2017 – We update this best drones listing regularly as new products are released and reviewed. Note – we cover the consumer and lower-end Pro market, so you won’t find expensive (over $2,000 base) Drones in the listing below.
Our recommendations are based on 100’s of hours of testing and research as well as our personal experience and that of the experts in the field. ALL DRONES ARE NOT EQUAL, so don’t be fooled by marketing or other claims. With over 50 years experience in model rocketry, ham radio, computers and other technologies, we KNOW DRONES.
The current list is broken down into three (3) categories in descending order of price/features as follows:
1. Consumer Camera Drones – stabilized camera and GPS – we suggest numerous models but all are well below $2,000 for a complete working package. Other models are in the realm of commercial and expert users who don’t need advice from us as to what to purchase.
2. FPV and Selfie Drones, Brushless – are models which can be used for learning, racing and/or taking simple pics and video. Most will not have GPS so can easily get lost if flying in wind or far away. A price range of $100 – $400 is typical for these models.
3. “Toy Grade” models, most of which used “brushed” motors. These are for learning and gifting and, in general, will need parts replacement after a couple hours of use (motors, gears). Typical prices are $15 – $90
Consumer Camera Drones – GPS Based – w/stabilzed cameras.
These models are built for taking aerial video and still photos. Taking smooth aerial video requires either a mechanical or electronic “gimbal” (article explaining gimbals) which steadies the camera and removes shake and vibrations. These models all feature GPS so they know their position in space – and can automatically return to the launch point if something goes wrong. Most have a long feature list including multiple sensors and even obstacle avoidance (article – How Modern Camera Drones Work).
Best Overall Camera Drone
If we had to suggest only a single unit it would be the DJI Mavic Pro. Actually, now it is two units since DJI recently introduced an slightly upgraded model called the Mavic Pro Platinum. This is a foldable model which is packed with technology and features and yet is easily transported most anywhere. All drones make compromises between size, weight, cost, flight time and other factors – the Mavic Pro is the rare bird that hits most of the right buttons for most users.
Mavic Pro at DJI
Mavic Pro Platinum at DJI
Mavic Pro at Amazon
*The Mavic Pro, in general, has the longest range of any consumer camera drone – a nice feature if this is on your wish list!
Best Imaging (pics and video) Drones [Read more…]
The DJI Phantom 3 series, first released in April of 2015, set a new standard for what was expected of a consumer-level Camera drone. Even at the original price of $1259, the Phantom 3 Pro was head and shoulders above anything in its class. The P3 series is still widely used today – although officially all models other than the $499 “Standard” (lowest end) model have been discontinued.
DJI has been very quiet about the launch of this new model – in fact, I had to email the company to find out if it truly was a new model or just a renaming of an older model which was called the “Phantom 3 4K”. They assured me that this is a model which is updated and upgraded and hasn’t been sold in the US until now.
For that price you get a top notch 4K capable camera, the VPS (ground sensing) system and a new upgraded wireless connection which increases the range to as much as 4KM. Note – we suggest cutting these maximums by 50% for your use in most normal situations….but, realistically, even 1 KM is fine for most of what consumer camera drones are used for.
Some other basic specs:
25 minute flight time
Dual GPS (American/Russian)
Video up to 4K 30fps – 60MB Bitrate
What it does NOT have is the “lightbridge” DJI system, which is an advanced wireless protocol…with longer and more reliable range (in many cases).
The P3 models are quite mature and reliable and many pilots may not need the advanced features in more expensive models (obstacle avoidance, etc.). Commercial pilots (Part 107) often desire a “backup bird” in case something happens to their primary camera drone. The Phantom 3 SE seems perfect for such uses.
The Phantom SE (Special Edition) is a well kept secret – but it shouldn’t be. You can buy a cheaper Phantom (DJI Standard…refurb and/or new is $399 to $499) – but you would be missing out on a number of features, most importantly the extended range and better camera.
One might say this is the “Toyota Corolla” of consumer camera drones. It does the job which is asked of it and is reliable and a good value. The Image Quality is on a par with the Phantom 4 (plain) and exceeds that of the Mavic Pro and Spark.
With the purchase of a 2nd battery and a case/backpack you’ll be ready to go “pro” for about $700 brand new.
Note – at the time of this writing the Phantom 3 SE is not listed on Amazon, so you’ll probably be best off ordering direct from DJI at this link. Note that the downloads and specs tabs on that page will offer further details on this new budget 4K model.
Droneflyers.com received a review model of the DJI Spark Camera Drone before the official launch. We therefore have had a few months to put the model through its paces and determine the pros and cons of this ultra-portable quadcopter. Note that we have our initial review in this article as well as a number of Spark videos at our youtube channel. These may answer many of your questions, however the below is a summary of our thoughts at the present time. We will present most of the benefits and features in the beginning of the article and list out the major “cons” (what it doesn’t do, etc.) at the end.
What is Spark and who is it for?
The DJI Spark is the first mass-market ultra-portable drone that still has most of the features of the larger and heavier models. These include a camera gimbal, front and bottom sensors, dual GPS, FPV, an advanced App and an array of photographic and other options. Up until the Spark, the closest model to this ideal was the Parrot BeBop 2 – which has many of the above features, but lacks a gimbal (mechanical camera stabilizer) – instead using Electronic Image Stabilization to remove vibrations and other unwanted movement from the video(s). Most experts will agree that the mechanical (Spark) camera gimbal results in better overall video than EIS.
The DJI Spark is available with or without an option R/C controller. When purchased without the R/C controller, the range is limited and the model must be controlled using “virtual sticks” which are on the screen. Those who have no experience with either virtual or real “sticks” will likely need a lot of practice (and reading) to become familiar with operating the Spark via Mobile Device. Still, in our opinion, the Spark represents a truly useable camera drone/mobile device combo….something that we feel is lacking with most earlier models.
Adding the R/C controller makes the Spark a much more capable device – extending the range, the control “feel” and other options enough to make it a totally different experience. The R/C controller also features a “Sport” mode – which turns the normally tame Spark into a racer/FPV model that you’ll enjoy flying around the local fields. It can also integrate with the DJI Googles – giving you the full FPV experience (our DJI goggle review is here). [Read more…]
The advances in consumer Camera Drones have come quite quickly, outpacing similar technologies such as smart phones, computers and flat screen TV’s. As one example, an iPhone 3 in 2009 sold for a similar price as an iPhone 6 in 2016 (when inflation is considered). Of course, the newer iPhones are much more powerful and capable due to increased processing power.
When it comes to consumer camera drones, the price/performance (value) evolution is much more drastic. As an example, we will use the first Phantom/Gimbal combination to illustrate the point.
Mid-2013 Consumer Camera Drone Example
The first models of the Phantom (Phantom 1) were followed by an optional gimbal (stabilizer) – designed for the GoPro Hero 3 models. The gimbal was named “Zenmuse H3-2D” the “2D” meaning it was a 2-Axis gimbal. The Gimbal sold for $700 US, however existing Phantom owners also had to buy a PMU (power management unit) as well as the GoPro 3 Camera. A basic unit would therefore be:
$650 Phantom 1
$780 – Gimbal with PMU
$400+ – GoPro Hero 3
This setup required installation and tuning – the Phantom had to be opened up to install the wires and the PMU. Having this done by a dealer…plus a couple extra batteries, would bring the minimum price up to approx. 2K. [Read more…]
Note – we are adding a number of videos on our youtube channel. Most are embedded in this article however the direct link is here.
We also have a “Forum Continuation Thread” where we are posting tips and hints as they are known…and where you can even ask a question and take part in the conversation. Here is the link.
DJI introduced a smaller and lighter camera quadcopter (drone) named Spark on May 24. The Event was held in Grand Central Station in New York City.
Droneflyers.com obtained a pre-production model which we will be testing and flying extensively in the weeks ahead. Here are the very basics as we know them before…and at the time of launch. Xparks should be shipping very soon (Late June, 2017)
Price: $499 for the basic unit – operated by gesture control and/or smartphone.
$699 – for a complete package with Remote Control, Case, Prop Guards, Multiple Battery Charger, etc.
The DJI Spark is a small drone that does not fold – but is smaller and lighter than the Mavic Pro. It contains a 2-axis gimbal capable of 12MP Stills and 1080 Video. The DJI Spark is positioned as a “starter” drone but I’m sure more experienced and creative pilots will be able to use it also due to its size and capabilities. If you just want to order one now – try this link at DJI. Amazon is now taking orders also for Mid-June Delivery – here is a link.
In terms of weight, here is what our little scale read:
Weight – 344 grams with battery and prop guards (12.12 oz.)
305.4 grams with battery – no prop guards – (10.77 oz.)
Battery only – 95.8 grams (3.38 oz)
Flight time is advertised as 16 minutes – this is a maximum without the prop guards, which add quite a bit of weight. Figure on 12 minutes when you are using the prop guards. True flight time (usable) is closer to 13 minutes without prop guards and 10 minutes with. The battery only takes a couple seconds to swap out, so this is not going to be a problem for the close-in work this drone is designed for.
The base unit will sell for $499 and is controlled by “gesture control” (your hands, palms, face, etc.) or a smart device and wireless communication protocol. Advanced control on the smart device is through the DJI GO 4 App and a similar interface as other DJI models – except that the “sticks” show up virtually on the screen when your fingers touch it. The Go App for Spark features a number of Intelligent Flight Modes as per the screenshot below:
Note – there are some fancy moves such as “palm launching” as well as new camera modes and controls – most designed for the “selfie” aspect of this model. For example, a pano mode is included as well as a option to have a shallow depth of field (DJI calls this “Shallowfocus”). Vertical and Horizontal models are included (Landscape and Portrait).
An R/C (Remote) will be available for the Spark – as an extra cost option. This greatly extends the range and height.
Range and Wind Resistance [Read more…]
When DJI announced the Mavic Pro, they also showed a pair of advanced FPV/VR Goggles. Unfortunately, these have not yet been available – until now! In the meantime it appears they have cut the price in 1/2 (based on original projections). The goggles are available to order for just $449.
DJI has provided us access to an early shipment of preproduction – we have now received them and are in the process of a full review. If you are interested in getting in line to order, check out the DJI order page – all of the specs are there also.
Give the price and the features, these may be the first “mass market” goggles in the camera drone world. Sure, they won’t be used by most professional racers who have customer (read that speedy) setups which fit their uses – but for everyday control and an immersive flying experience, these should do the trick!
Stay tuned…..the entire reviews will follow here as it moves along.
First, here is the owners manual. It’s nice to have – for example, I didn’t get one with my (pre-production) set, so didn’t even know how to charge the batteries!
DJI has announced a version of the Phantom 4 – like the Pro and Pro +, it features the 1″ Sony Sensor, larger lens and higher resolutions and bitrates. It is sold without the rear and side obstacle avoidance (I personally don’t use them anyway!) – the good news is that you get the top of the line camera and the other cool stuff – for less money – $1349 (bring your own device) or $1649 with the built-in Android based ChrystalSky Monitor.
Shipping NOW……you can order now at the DJI Store by using this link (info and ordering!)
DJI was kind enough to send us an evaluation (pre-release) model so we could test the new Phantom 4 Advanced + with the built-in CrystalSky Monitor.
What is CrystalSky? Simply speaking, it’s the best and brightest monitor available for consumer and prosumer level drones. DJI says it this way:
“A maximum 2000 cd/m² of brightness means the CrystalSky monitor is more than four times as bright as typical mobile devices. On-screen details are clear and sharp, and colors are vibrant, giving the quality needed to fine tune image composition. A dedicated Sunlight Readability Enhancement mode is especially designed for processing the image in real-time to ensure more comfortable viewing under bright light.
* 5.5” / 7.85” 1000 cd/m2 7.85” Ultra Bright 2000 cd/m2
Resolution: 2048×1536 (7.85’’) / 1920×1080 (5.5’’)
Let’s get back to the CrystalSky in a minute – first, we will describe the new Phantom 4 Advanced so consumers are clear about what they are getting – or not getting. At first glance the P4A looks exactly like the other Phantom 4 models. However, the advanced Sony 1″ Sensor means we can only compare it to the Phantom 4 Pro (and Pro+). We did an extensive review of the Phantom 4 Professional (without CrystalSky), which is located here.
Here are the differences between the Phantom 4 Pro and the Phantom 4 Advanced.
In a surprise move, DJI has announced the termination of production of many of their Phantom quadcopters. Here are the units they claim to have discontinued:
Phantom 3 Pro
Phantom 3 Advanced
Phantom 4 (original)
The communications from DJI do not mention the Phantom 3 Standard, however they do mention this:
“The (DJI) consumer drones will be limited to the Mavic Pro, the Phantom 4 Pro and the Phantom 4 Pro Plus.”
If we take them at their word, this would mean DJI isn’t going to produce models at the very low end of the price range ($400-$700). Given current prices, this would mean: [Read more…]
In approx. order of USA sales rank. # given afterwards is rank in Camera and Photo (or approx. calculated rank). Our commentary is given below this list.
Parrot finally seems to have a winner with their BeBop FPV package – this features a smaller R/C controller as well as a headset to mount a smartphone into. Experts, including ourselves, have been telling Parrot for YEARS to forget about the “app control” and use a real R/C remote. It seems as if they have finally listened and consumers are thanking them for it.
While the Phantom 3 Standard is still the largest seller, the Mavic Pro and the Phantom 4 rank shows that consumers will spend more money (and even wait a month or two – in the case of the Mavic) for an advanced and feature-laden model.
Autel remains on the list largely due to their price reduction – the X-Star Premium introduced last May at $1199 is now $699, allowing some consumers to choose it over similar priced Phantom models.
Yuneec again lags the field – although the more expensive model H is selling better than their older Q model. Yuneec has also lowered their prices as much as $500 on the H (with RealSense) in order to stimulate sales.
Although it is impossible to accurately calculate exact market share – indications are that DJI still holds a solid 75-80% of the consumer level (less than $1500) stabilized camera drone market. Their 2016/2017 unit sales are likely to be in the millions (1.5 to 2.5 million units) while many of the other makers are measuring in 10’s of thousands or – at most – 100K to 200K units a year.
These numbers do not include toy models which are selling by the millions.
Rankings can vary daily due to special sales and general ups and downs of pricing and demand. However, many of these models have been Best Sellers for many months indicating a high degree of consumer acceptance.
DJI’s Phantom line is well known as the standard for consumer level Camera Drones. In our recent “Slugfest” of popular 2016 models we gave it our highest rating – an opinion shared by most experts. However, consumer-level ($400-$1200) Camera Drones have some limitations, especially when it comes to Photo and Video quality. Drones at this price level are closer to “smartphone quality” than the level of what many expect from fancier “prosumer” mirrorless cameras. As an example, my Sony RX-100 takes stunning pictures and videos – so good that many Aerial Photographers have attempted strapping them to drones to get these high quality images from aloft!
DJI has now, in effect, put the Sony RX-100 level imaging into the new Phantom 4 Professional (P4P) model – ($1499) providing an unheard of level of Aerial Photography for a price that won’t break the bank.
Until today, the pilot who needed better quality than the Phantom 4 had to step WAY up in price and size to the DJI Inspire line with the X5 Camera ($3400 plus extra batteries). With the release of the P4P, the price for a somewhat similar setup has now been cut in 1/2 or more – and cut down in size to allow for easier portability.
(Note – DJI also announced a new Inspire 2 today (starting at $2999) – see this link for details)
Sensors, Bitrate and Quality
Hang on, my dear novice friends! You are about to learn something! In general the quality of a video depends on the camera sensor size and type, the lens – AND – even more – by the ability (speed, bitrate) that the camera sensor can send those images into memory (the sd card). After all, 4K video at 30fps (30 frames per second) is a LOT of data (memory, bits and bytes). All things being equal, the larger the sensor and the faster the rate…the better the potential quality of the final image and/or video. Technology also plays a role here – smaller sensors have gotten better and good results can be gotten from these new marvels by various tuning of both hardware and software.
The bitrate of a video camera is the speed at which it writes data to a storage device (usually an SD or MicroSD card). This is expressed in Mbps or MBits/s – both meaning “millions of bits (1’s or 0’s) per second. Another way to think of it is similar to your internet connection…often called “bandwidth”. This expresses how quickly data can download and upload from the internet to your computer.
Most consumer-level Camera Drones use bitrates of 20-50 Mbps with the Phantom 4 (plain) topping out at 60. Sports cameras such as the GoPro Hero are also in the range of 45-60 Mbps. All of these cameras shoot still photos in the range of 12MP – or 4000 x 3000 resolution.
In contrast, the new P4P features a video bitrate of up to 100 Mbps and a still photo resolution of 20MP. It uses a larger sensor – the well-known Sony Exmor 1″. This sensor is 4X the size (116mm vs. 29mm) of the 1/2.3 sensor used in most other consumer drones (as well as smartphones and GoPro cameras). This means more light hitting the sensor – and a better image quality. The combination of a better sensor and higher bitrate takes the Phantom 4 Pro to another level.
The Basics of the Machine
The improvements in the camera are the primary reason that that Phantom 4 Pro will become an Object of Desire for many photographers. However, DJI added a LOT more to the P4P – making it the most advanced drone – by far – in its class. Here are some of the improvements over the P4:
Longer range – now up to 4.3 miles (7KM).
Longer flight times – up to 30 minutes
Improved Computer Vision System rear and front- more speed, more range, etc.
New TOF Sensing System – Infrared Obstacle Avoidance on left and right side of Phantom
Improved Intelligent Flight Modes and Options!
Note: The physical size and weight are quite similar to the standard Phantom 4.
The camera is slightly larger – but if you didn’t already know this it would be hard for the average person to discern.
Another difference is the choice of Remote (R/C controllers). DJI offers a package with a built-in device/screen (Android) for those who desire such a setup. This Remote also features a standard HDMI output as well as a GPS, microphone and speaker capabilities. They also offer a more standard R/C controller which accepts a phone or tablet of your choice. The inclusion of a screen is a first for a DJI product and is very important to certain buyers for various reasons. [Read more…]