Wow. The drone world just changed in a blazing flash.
There are all kinds of drones. There are cheap toy ones. There are compact ones with limited intelligence. And there the big nice ones that professionals use, like the DJI Phantom 4—with 4K video capture, 25-minute battery life, 3-mile range, object avoidance, stabilized video, tilting camera, optical sensors so they can fly indoors without GPS, and four-digit price tags.
On October 15, DJI, the world’s largest drone maker, will release the Mavic Pro. In 140 characters or less, here it is: A $750 drone with all the same features as the $1,200 Phantom 4—but folds down to the size of a sub sandwich.
(It’s $750 if you use your phone as a controller. A compact folding remote costs $250 more; read on.)
The Mavic news is really stunning; no drone ever made offers so much in such a small package. It’s particularly worrisome news for the just-announced GoPro drone, called the Karma. The Karma is priced about the same, but can’t fly as far, as fast, or as long on a charge; doesn’t have obstacle avoidance; and—incredibly, for a sports drone—can’t follow you automatically as you ski or bike.
You know what other drone’s sales will be killed by the Mavic? DJI’s own Phantom 4. The Mavic Pro leaves very few reasons to buy it. Honestly: Which would you rather pack and carry around?
DJI must be doing the math like this: “Well, right; the Mavic Pro will cannibalize our Phantom 4 sales. On the other hand, we’re going to sell a lot of Mavic Pros.”
The solid Mavic, made of military-gray plastic and metal, is just incredibly small. Not small enough for a pants pocket, but for winter-coat pockets? Sure. The real point is that it no longer represents another entire piece of luggage.
Listen: Small is huge. As the saying goes, “The best camera is the one you have with you”—and when you can slip your drone into your backpack or messenger bag, you’ll take it with you much more often.
The battery pops out and plugs into its own charger; it’s full in about 75 minutes. An extra battery costs $90. Now, 25 minutes of flying per charge is a long time (as drones go), but you really want an extra.
When it’s time to fly, you don’t have to mess around screwing propellers on one by one, as you must on other pro drones. Instead, you flip the four legs out—they snap into place with the satisfying click of a Lexus car door—and that’s all. The propellers spin out into position by centrifugal force once you power up.
When you touch the Take Off button, the Mavic slowly rises to three feet above ground and just hovers, awaiting your next command. It’s quieter than other drones, which is a blessing.
You can fly the Mavic in any of three ways:
Using the DJI Go app on your smartphone. You drag your thumbs on circular representations of what, on a real controller, would be two joysticks. Pro: You save $250. Con: Limited range. Your phone’s WiFi can communicate with the drone only to within 250 feet.
Using the $250 controller. The controller is compact and rugged and much better designed than the bulbous Phantom controller. Pros: Boosts the range to what DJI says is four miles. (In the real world of radio interference, you can expect a range more like 2 miles. That’s still far beyond the FAA’s legal limit, which requires line of sight—unless you have an observer who’s in phone contact with you.) Cons: The controller’s screen shows only text (altitude, battery levels, and so on); you can’t see what the drone’s camera is seeing.
Using both. The lower legs of the controller flip out to form a cradle for your phone. There’s a little Lightning connector for your iPhone, or a USB jack for your Android phone. (A USB-C adapter comes in the box.) Pros: Now you get both the insane range of the controller and a live, lovely view from the drone’s camera. Cons: A couple of extra setup steps, and substantial phone-battery drainage. Also note: There’s no way to attach a tablet to the controller—it’s phones only.
This drone is fantastic to fly. It responds crisply and instantly. It feels more in control than a Phantom, or any other drone I’ve flown. It’s just ridiculously steady and stable, even in a 20-mph wind (see my video above).
It’s teeming with safety features. Here’s a big one that’s missing from lesser rivals: front-facing sensors for obstacle avoidance. If the drone approaches an obstacle ahead of it, it jerks to a halt about eight feet away and hovers. I tested it with garage doors, trees, and even my own body. Those tests really get your adrenalin spurting, but the Mavic never crashed.
(Note that if you want super speed—the advertised 40-mph rush—you have to turn on Sport mode, which disables obstacle avoidance.)
There are sensors underneath, too, that can keep the drone at a fixed altitude even if the ground level is changing—for example, when it’s following you up a mountain. Those sensors also let the drone remain steady indoors, where there’s no GPS signal to help it know where it is.
The drone automatically flies back to its launch point if it loses signal with your remote, or when the battery is low, or when you press the Return Home button.
The Mavic even takes a video of the launch spot when it takes off, and, when landing, compares that image with its down-pointing cameras’. As a result, it can land within one inch of its takeoff point. In practice, that works only if there’s no wind at all.
Canned flight paths
Like most consumer drones, the Mavic comes ready to fly itself while it records video. You just open the app, tap the Paths icon, and then choose from a selection of canned flight paths.
One of them, Orbit, makes the drone fly in a circle, keeping its camera pointed at the subject in the center.
Another, Active Track, makes the drone follow you as you do your extreme-sport thing. Some drones do that by following the controller, which you have to conceal on your body. But the Mavic, like the Phantom, lets you drag a box around the subject on the phone’s screen—now it can be a person, dog, bike, or car—and the drone will keep that subject in view as it moves.
This is super ingenious: You can park the drone in the air, hovering, camera aimed at you, and then ditch the remote control. Using only hand or arm gestures, you can trigger it to take a “dronie” (an airborne selfie); the front-arm lights give you a three-second countdown. Another gesture means “Start following me”—great as you ride you bike, ski, or roller skate.
The preproduction drone I tested didn’t have these features activated, alas, so I couldn’t try them. But what a cool idea.
OK, here we go: The camera.
It sounds like it’s the same one as the Phantom’s—for example, it tilts up or down, but not side to side (as the Yuneec Typhoon H does). But the Mavic’s camera is different in several important ways.
The big one—one that damaged the Mavic’s reputation even before it was out of the gate—is that you have to tap the phone screen to focus before each photo or video you take.
You can’t believe how many blog headlines talk about the Mavic’s “blurry video,” simply because the operators didn’t know about this requirement.
And many of my pictures and videos came out blurry because I forgot to tap first.
Other drones keep everything in focus, near and far. You never wind up with blurry footage, but of course you can’t get selective focus, either (trees in the foreground sharp, soft-focus mountains in the background).
Either way, the Mavic will generate a lot of blurry images and videos for a lot of disappointed people who don’t tap first.
The Mavic camera’s field of view isn’t as wide as the Phantom’s. That could be a plus or a minus, depending on your video ambitions.
Finally, I got some weird bluish color casts in my pictures and videos in certain lighting conditions. You can adjust the white balance manually, but the Automatic White Balance setting really should do better. These color casts are easily fixed in Photoshop or a video editing program, but it’s strange. (DJI says it hasn’t heard of this problem, although I’ve seen it in other reviewers’ samples.)
This camera business is, by the way, one of the two remaining reasons anyone would consider the GoPro Karma drone instead of a Mavic: You can use whatever camera you want, now or in the future. On the Mavic, you’re stuck with DJI’s camera forever.
(The other advantage the Karma will offer: The stabilizing gimbal comes off the drone to become a handheld stabilizer for your camera.)
The top line
It’s a good thing the Mavic is $750 or $1,000; if it were any cheaper, its stealth looks and tiny size might fool people into thinking it’s a toy.
It’s not. It’s got more safety features than ever (including Beginner and Tripod modes that prevent any sharp or drastic moves), but it’s still a complex piece of gear. There are so many options and settings to learn, there ought to be a 12-part YouTube video class on it.
You really, really need to practice this thing.
I crashed my test unit twice—no damage, thank goodness. It’s really rugged. (My Mavic initially came without an instruction manual, so I didn’t realize that you don’t shut off the propellers as you do on the Phantoms—by pushing the joysticks down and together. On the Mavic, that gesture actually means “flip over and crash.” Now I know.)
But man, I cannot tell you how radical a leap forward this drone is. Seeing it is like seeing the MacBook Air when laptops were thick and heavy, or seeing a Tesla drive up when “electric car” meant golf carts.
The bottom line: For the first time in drone history, “tiny” doesn’t mean “stripped down.”
David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s firstname.lastname@example.org. Here’s how to get his columns by email.