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DJI Inspire 1 review: Dreamy ready-to-fly 4K-camera drone with an upgrade path

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There are quadcopters with cameras out there that could be considered nothing more than toys. The DJI Inspire 1 is no toy.

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8.2

DJI Inspire 1

Pricing Not Available

The Good

The DJI Inspire 1 is a well-built, ready-to-fly quadcopter that captures excellent 4K-resolution video. Its camera is removable, giving it the potential for upgrades and is also compatible with a handheld mount. Option for two-controller operation with one for piloting and the other for camera control. Supports DJI's Intelligent Flight options including autonomous waypoint navigation or Follow Me.

The Bad

The battery life will seem all too brief and additional batteries are pricey. To get the most from the Inspire 1, you'll want to buy it with two controllers, which drives the price up to $3,399, £2,747 or AU$5,279. Android support is limited.

The Bottom Line

The DJI Inspire 1 offers an excellent aerial photo and video solution for professionals or well-heeled enthusiasts looking for a simple, ready-to-fly drone with camera-swapping potential.

Larger and, frankly, more menacing-looking than the company's chunky little Phantom 3 drones, the Inspire 1 was made for professionals, but is as ready to fly and easy to pilot as the Phantom models. However, at $2,900 in the US, £2,380 in the UK and AU$4,130 in Australia, its price is more than twice the top-of-the-line Phantom 3 Professional.

Considering the Phantom 3 Professional and Inspire 1 have the same camera specs and features -- both capture video at resolutions up to 4K (4,096x2,160 pixels) at 30fps and 1,080p at 60fps and 12-megapixel stills -- it's fair to ask where the extra money is going.

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For starters, while the cameras may perform the same, the Phantom 3's can't be easily repaired or upgraded. The Inspire 1's camera and gimbal, on the other hand, can be removed by releasing a lock and twisting it off. This not only makes it safer for travel, but future upgrades are possible for better or different cameras. Plus, DJI developed a mount to use the camera and gimbal as a handheld camera.

The gimbal can also rotate the camera 360 degrees and tilt it 125 degrees, so instead of having to move the quadcopter around to get the shot you want, you can just move the camera. The gimbal itself is more substantial and designed for a higher level of stability and longevity than the Phantom's, which can be said for the rest of the quadcopter, too.

From the carbon-fiber landing gear that lifts and lowers automatically on take-off and landing to its specially designed brushless motors that are powerful while being more efficient, the Inspire 1 is built for high performance. And the performance is noticeably swifter and smoother than the Phantom 3, which is excellent in its own right. The Inspire 1 handled high winds with ease and the larger body makes it easier to spot in the sky. It also looks pretty badass and I almost expected it to have lasers. (Note to DJI: Add lasers.)

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Sitting to the back of the gimbal is DJI's Vision Positioning System, a set of sensors to help the Inspire 1 hover while indoors when GPS isn't available. There are many caveats for it to work properly, however, such as not flying over sound-absorbing materials, water or highly reflective surfaces. Also, according to DJI's site, it's only effective up to about 16 feet (5 meters). That's higher than the Phantom 3's 10-foot (3-meter) range, but still, if you're thinking of getting the Inspire 1 to fly above crowds in an arena or auditorium, you better up your piloting skills first.

When you're outside, GPS is used to help the drone determine its position and yours and is what makes it possible for the drone to stop and hover in place when you release the controller's sticks as well as delivering accurate location data for safety features like automatically returning to a home position. The more satellites it can lock onto, the better off you are, so DJI added the Russian navigational system, GLONASS, which lets it tap into more satellites than GPS alone.

Satellite acquisition speeds are noticeably faster compared to the older Phantom 2 Vision+, so you can lock on and start flying more quickly. Also, with the Vision+ there were times I would struggle to get a solid lock on six satellites (the minimum for GPS-assisted flight). The Advanced never had a problem grabbing onto 10 satellites or more in a matter of seconds and regularly had upward of 15 in my testing. This makes a huge difference when it comes to putting the drone in the exact position you want for photos and video.

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Joshua Goldman/CNET

The controller and DJI Go mobile app (formerly called Pilot) are important, too, of course. The Inspire 1 and its controller have DJI's Lightbridge technology for better video transmission between the sky and ground at distances up to 1.2 miles away (2 kilometers). Lightbridge allows for a continuous connection back and forth between the two and increases flight range over the wireless range extender used for the Phantom 2 and the entry-level Phantom 3 Standard. This does mean you'll need your iOS or Android device's charging cable to use it, but the performance improvement is well worth it.

On each of the top corners you'll find discrete camera controls for starting and stopping recordings, taking pictures, reviewing your shots and two wheels, one for adjusting exposure compensation, ISO and shutter speed and the other for the gimbal's tilt. Two customizable buttons are on the bottom as well that can be used for a handful of camera or gimbal functions, including switching the wheel for adjusting camera tilt to have it adjust camera rotation instead.

DJI also included a Return-to-Home button for those times when panic starts to set in and you just want to bring it on back. (A switch around this button controls the landing gear.) The controller's battery is built in and will last through several flights before you'll need to recharge it. DJI simplified charging, too, using one power supply with two cables attached: one for the controller's battery and one for the drone's.

With the Inspire 1's controller, you also get a Mini-HDMI output for connecting to an external display. But, more importantly, you have the option to add a second controller, which allows one person to pilot (Master) while the other controls the camera (Slave) and both people have a live view from the drone's camera.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

Connecting your iOS or Android smartphone or tablet is as simple as plugging in your device's charging cable into the USB port on the Inspire 1's controller. (It'll keep your device charged while you use it for flying, too.) Then, with the controller and drone turned on, you just open the DJI Go app and tap to get the camera view.

The controller's device mount can handle phones and tablets big and small, however the app is optimized for use with the iPhone 5S , 6 and 6 Plus. Android device support is thin, with just the Samsung Galaxy Tab 705c, Samsung Galaxy S6, S5, Note 4 and Note 3, Google Nexus 9, Google Nexus 7 (second-gen), Ascend Mate7, Nubia Z7 mini, Sony Z3 Experia and Xiaomi MI 3 and MI Pad listed. DJI does continue to add support, though. I tested with both a 6 Plus and a Galaxy S5, and the app performance was clearly stronger on the iOS device than with the S5, which locked up a couple times forcing me midflight to restart the app.

In addition to a first-person view from the camera, you get complete camera controls, meters for signal strengths, GPS and battery life and access to settings for the whole system. It will also notify you if a firmware update is necessary (which occur with some regularity) and, eventually, you'll be able to do the updates through the app; currently they're done by downloading a file to a microSD card and popping the card into the drone's camera.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

The app can also be used for automated take-offs and landings, if you don't want to handle them with stick commands, and triggering the Return-to-Home safety function. This feature can be dynamic, too, so your home point will refresh to wherever you are. This allows you to calibrate and take off from one location and if you move, it will come back to you and not where you launched from. (A feature you definitely want if you plan to take off from a moving boat, for example.)

Another new safety feature of sorts is the Beginner Mode. This sets up virtual barriers called a geofence with a maximum altitude and flight distance of 30 meters (98 feet), giving you a safe way to limit where the drone can travel. It's pretty amazing to see in action as you send the Inspire full throttle toward its limit and the drone stops as if it's been snagged in an invisible net.

As for the camera settings, video recording options include full HD (1,920x1,080-pixel) and HD (1,280x720-pixel) resolutions at 24, 25, 30, 48, 50 or 60 frames per second and you can choose between MOV or MP4 formats. Thanks to the Lightbridge technology, you can even use it to live-stream video straight to YouTube and uses your mobile device's mic for capturing audio.

The live-streaming quality to YouTube is just OK. You have to have a pretty strong wireless connection to keep the video moving smoothly and even then the results were a bit glitchy and compressed. Still, it's sort of amazing it can do it at all and could be helpful for professional uses.

Lastly, whenever you record a video, a compressed 720p version is stored to your mobile device. To help make the most of these clips, DJI built in a basic video editor to the Go app. You can use it to cut up your clips, gather them up and then combine them into one movie. DJI also included some style templates with music you can apply before you save. Then you can just share away.

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Enlarge Image
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Joshua Goldman/CNET

For photos, you can capture in JPEG, DNG raw format or both simultaneously. Shooting modes include single shots or bursts of three, five or seven; HDR and auto exposure bracketing (0.7EV bias) of three or five pictures; and time-lapse continuous shooting at 5-, 7-, 10-, 20- and 30-second intervals. You can also control ISO, exposure compensation and white balance.

So what's missing? At the time of this review the Inspire 1 doesn't have DJI's Intelligent Flight features including waypoint navigation, point of interest (POI) flight planning or Follow Me function. Waypoint navigation lets you set up a multipoint path for the drone to follow while you control the camera, while POI flight planning allows you to autonomously fly a circle around a subject, keeping it centered. Follow Me sets the drone to track your movement based on your orientation. A DJI representative said these features are in development, though, as is support for SDK apps already created by third-party DJI developers.

As I mentioned earlier, the Inspire 1 might have more power than DJI's Phantom quadcopters, but, like those models, it is still extremely easy to fly. However, regardless of safety features and how stable the Inspire 1 is, I highly recommend taking your first flights out in an open area where there are no people or distractions, especially given its larger size.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

The copter can take off and land with a tap and a swipe on your screen, but you can also use stick commands to spin up and shut down the props. With a GPS lock, the drone will just sit and hover wherever you leave it. Start flying a bit too close to a tree and you can just let go of the sticks and it will stop while you regroup and steer away. You can fly without GPS, but if you release the sticks the Inspire 1 won't stop but instead continues to drift in the direction it was last headed. It's a gut-wrenching experience watching $2,900 float away seemingly uncontrollably, so it's best to fly with GPS until you fully understand the controls.

The app is well laid out and at a glance you can see all the information you need. There's even a battery timeline meter giving you estimates on everything from remaining flight time to the power required to return home or land.

Speaking of battery life, on a full charge under ideal conditions, the Inspire 1 can only fly for up to 18 minutes. Wind and fast flying will shorten that flight time; I averaged 15 minutes in the air before I had to land. Additional batteries cost $159 (£166, AU$219) and DJI sells a more powerful battery for $199 (not available in the UK or Australia) that gets up to 22 minutes of flight time as well as a faster charger for $95 (£77, AU$136) and a $90 charging hub (£80, AU$125) that can handle up to four batteries at once.

All things considered, the battery life is good and were it not for how well designed the Inspire 1 is, it likely wouldn't last nearly as long. However, that doesn't change the fact that your time in the air is limited and you do have to pay close attention to what you're attempting to shoot.

Conclusion

The DJI Inspire 1 is basically a prosumer drone, good for professionals or well-heeled enthusiasts looking for a better ready-to-fly aerial photography platform than the smaller Phantom-type drones. That said, it's still expensive and, regardless of how good it is compared to other high-power quadcopters, battery life can seem all too short, and if you want to be able to use a dSLR or mirrorless compact, you'll want to look elsewhere for a multirotor that already lets you use those things and not wait around for DJI to make the camera you want.

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8.2

DJI Inspire 1

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Design 9Battery 6Features 8Ease of Use 9