You know how Apple sometimes seems to be behind its competition in performance, design or features, only to eventually leapfrog them and take the lead? That's what DJI did with the Spark.
While the company was concentrating on making higher-end camera drones for prosumers and professionals, other drone makers -- established and startup -- were creating highly portable drones for people who wanted cool aerial selfies (aka "dronies") without having to be an expert pilot.
DJI's $999 Mavic Pro seemed as close as the company would get to the category, with its compact folding design and intelligent subject tracking that let you capture selfies with a hand gesture. But then the Spark arrived in May and pretty much made everyone forget about all the selfie drones that came before it. It offers many of the Mavic's same features in a body that's roughly the size of a soda can.
The Spark is aimed at the dronie crowd, but shares tech from the Mavic such as obstacle detection, dual-band GPS and a visual positioning system that lets it hover in place up to 98 feet (30 m) above the ground -- indoors or outside. Also, while the competition relies on electronic image stabilization alone, DJI put the Spark's full HD video camera on a two-axis motorized gimbal for smooth results without sacrificing image quality. And DJI took its gesture controls to the next level with the drone, too.
Priced at $499 in the US, AU$859 in Australia and £519 in the UK, you don't get much more than the drone and a single battery. For $699 (AU$1,199, £699), DJI bundles the Spark, extra props and a set of prop guards, two batteries and a charging hub for refreshing three batteries at once, a remote controller and a carry bag -- a savings of $154, according to DJI's site.
The bundle is a good value and worth getting if you think you might want to do more than quick flights for selfies. Then again, the Mavic Pro is pretty close in price and can be flown farther, faster and for longer, it has a better camera and stabilization and folds up to a very travel-friendly size as well. Basically, if you're really interested in learning to fly a drone immediately for capturing spectacular photos and video, save up for the Mavic. The Spark is a great choice if your main goal is to get cool dronies, without limiting your opportunities to do more down the road.
You're gonna fly it in an instant
With its brightly colored shell -- white, blue, green, red or yellow -- and tiny frame, the Spark greatly lowers the intimidation factor. For new pilots, having something small that, out of the box, you can fly without having to learn any real controls whatsoever is a big deal. The Hover Camera Passport made a big splash at CES 2017 with its Owner Mode, which uses face detection for smartphone-free flying, and DJI does something similar here with its Gesture Mode.
Fire up the quad, hold it out in front of you facing the camera and double-tap the power button. The camera gives a quick scan, locks onto your face and spins up its propellers (watch your fingers). Let go and the drone just hovers in front of you.
To move the drone around, you hold up your palm to the camera and wait for the drone's front lights to turn green. Then you can move your hand up and down to raise and lower it and move your hand left or right to move it side to side. Give your hand a wave and the Spark will fly backwards away from you and then start tracking your movements. Make a frame shape with your thumbs and forefingers and it will snap a photo (sadly, there's no video options in Gesture Mode). Put your hands in the air in a Y shape and it will return to you. Put your hand underneath it and it will land in your palm (again, watch your fingers).