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

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.

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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