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Parrot's new Anafi drone can zoom in, look upward, and fly anywhere

Until recently, if you wanted to buy a drone under $1,000, your research probably went like this: “Hmmm… which DJI model do I want?”

That’s because the Chinese company DJI is the Microsoft of the drone world. It’s the 800-pound gorilla of the industry.

Now, however, there’s been an attack from the French.

Parrot has been making fun little semi-toy drones for years. But its new Anafi drone ($700, named after a beautiful Greek island) is practically a cruise missile aimed at DJI’s Mavic drones. It offers seven features that DJI doesn’t—and some of them are brilliant.

The Parrot Anafi drone ($700) is a joy to fly.
The Parrot Anafi drone ($700) is a joy to fly.

Meet the Anafi

Like the DJI Mavic, the Anafi’s insecty legs fold up against the body for travel—and they all flip out the same way. (On the Mavic Air, two of the legs flip one way, two the other.) You get a carrying case as part of the package—10.8 x 3.5 x 3 inches, about the size of a water bottle. Including the controller, the whole package weighs only 2 pounds, which is much lighter than a Mavic setup.

Because the Anafi is long and skinny, though, the resulting package is bigger in your backpack than the Mavic—especially when you add the included remote control, which is glorious to hold but bulky. (You can fly the drone with the phone alone, but not nearly as far.)

The complete Anafi kit weighs only 2 pounds.
The complete Anafi kit weighs only 2 pounds.

So what are the seven improvements?

  • The built-in 4K video camera can rotate upa first on a consumer drone. That is, it can look down, straight ahead, or upward (you control it with a flipper on the remote). That’s handy when you want to film as you fly under things, like bridges, eaves, rock formations, and trees.

  • The camera has a zoom lens! This, too, is a new idea. When you’re filming in high definition, you get a 2.8X zoom that doesn’t degrade the footage; in 4K, it’s a 1.3X zoom. The zoom is incredibly useful—you’ll use it all the time. It means that you can keep the drone far away and unobtrusive, but still get a closer picture.

  • The battery gives you “25 minutes” of flying time, more than any of DJI’s consumer drones. That’s not much, and those figures are always exaggerated by 15% or so, but more is always better.

The Anafi doesn’t withstand buffeting winds quite as well as DJI’s drones.
The Anafi doesn’t withstand buffeting winds quite as well as DJI’s drones.
  • The Anafi is quieter and lower-pitched.

  • HDR video! That means high dynamic range, a mode that minimizes “blown-out” white areas and muddy black dark ones (a weak spot in the Mavic cameras). No other consumer drone offers HDR video. On the Anafi, the results aren’t always great—they sometimes look fake—but when it works, it’s great to have.

In many situations, HDR video looks much better than the standard setting.
In many situations, HDR video looks much better than the standard setting.
  • USB-C charging. On the Mavic, you must charge the battery from a power outlet. On the Anafi, you can recharge the battery from any USB jack—including the one on a laptop or a portable backup-battery, like the one you might carry for your phone. That feature can make a world of difference in the field, in a pinch.

  • It’s effortless to fly.

That last point requires some explanation.

Freedom of flight

DJI drones are designed to emphasize safety:

  • They have anti-collision sensors.

  • They refuse to fly near airports and other off-limits areas.

  • You have to turn on the drone, and the controller, with a short press/long press pattern on power button, which nobody guesses at first.

  • DJI drones fly home when there’s still 30% battery charge left, just to be conservative.

And so on. That’s all really well intentioned, but it sometimes means that your DJI drone beeps and flashes and just doesn’t do what you want it to. Often, you can’t guess what its problem is.

Parrot’s philosophy is completely different. A spokesperson told me the company trusts you to obey the laws (including registering your drone, by the way). They don’t want to babysit you or take away your independence.

On one hand, that sounds like Parrot’s excuse for putting no obstacle-avoidance sensors into the Anafi—by far its greatest weakness. If you want to fly it into a wall or a tree, it’s got nothing to stop you. (In my three weeks of testing, I crashed it three times. Thanks to its 11-ounce, carbon-fiber construction, though, it suffered no damage.)

The Mavic Air, by contrast, has anti-collision sensors in front, back, and bottom (here’s my review). The only way you can crash it is sideways or upward. (DJI is reported to be developing a Mavic with anti-collision sensors on its top, bottom, front, back, and sides, so that it can’t crash at all.)

On the other hand, the Anafi is just joyous to fly. No beeping, no flashing, no frustration. Press the power button and boom, it’s on and ready to fly. (You don’t even have to turn on the controller; it powers on when you open the phone holder.)

The Anafi goes where you want it, when you want it. The controls have somehow been calibrated to respond just the way you’d hope, so you always feel in control. (I also like that you can adjust their sensitivity. Want the camera to swivel faster? It can. Want the drone’s maximum upward speed higher? Fine.) The phone app is simpler and clearer than DJI’s.

The phone holder is also the WiFi antenna—and sometimes, a handy sun shade.
The phone holder is also the WiFi antenna—and sometimes, a handy sun shade.

You might say the difference between a Mavic and an Anafi is the difference between a self-driving car and a stick-shift Civic. One’s sophisticated and mystifying; the other puts you completely in touch and in control.

Some glitches

Reviewers like me got sent pre-release software and no instructions, which caused me some grief. For a while, I couldn’t get video to record—turns out the included 16GB memory card was full, but the software has no error message to tell you that.

At first, I couldn’t get some of the preprogrammed flight patterns (Orbit, Tornado, Parabola, etc.) to work. Turns out you’re supposed to tap on the screen to show the center point to make those buttons available. But the software doesn’t tell you that, either.

I can imagine a better system for accessing the microSD memory card, too—you have to take off the battery and fiddle with a tiny metal bracket.

The microSD card is inside the battery compartment, held in place by a finicky silver clip.
The microSD card is inside the battery compartment, held in place by a finicky silver clip.

Oh, and get this—they want an additional $20 for the Follow Me mode, which lets you ski or bike or skateboard as the drone flies along, filming you. Sorry, but that’s just nuts.

Otherwise, though, the Anafi is a breath of fresh air. It does the same thing as DJI drones—flies and takes video and photos—but you can tell that its designers come from a very different place, both geographically and philosophically.

Nobody’s saying that the locked-off, padded-walls approach is better or worse than the untethered, we-trust-you approach. It’s just nice that you now have a choice.

David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, welcomes comments below. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. You can sign up to get his stuff by email, here.

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