DJI Phantom 3 hoists 4K video and live streaming into the sky
DJI's Phantom series have become something of a benchmark for consumer drones -- or quadcopters, if you prefer -- thanks to their simple setup, ease of flying and relatively low price. The previous model, the Phantom 2 Vision+, brought a stabilising gimbal for the camera for more professional-looking shots. Its overall camera quality left something to be desired, however.
With its new Phantom 3 drones, DJI is hoping to fix that issue. Two versions of the drone will be available -- the Phantom 3 Professional, which shoots video in 4K resolution, and the Phantom 3 Advanced, which is functionally the same, but shoots video in 1080p. Both models have updated camera sensors, which promise improve dynamic range, both are equipped with ground-scanning sensors to let them fly indoors with greater stability, and both can stream your aerial footage live to YouTube.
Priced at £899 or $999 for the Advanced model and £1,159 or $1,259 for the Pro, they're hardly dirt-cheap, but they're significantly less than the many thousands you can pay for professional drones. The Phantom 2 Vision+ is still on sale for around £920 or $1,150, so it's cheaper, even with the upgraded camera and ground sensors, and adding 4K isn't a huge cost either. Australian prices aren't yet available, but the UK prices convert to around AU$1,740 and AU$2,245.
Both drones are up for preorder now, globally, and shipping is due to start towards the end of April.
The Phantom 3 looks very similar to DJI's previous models, with the white plastic body, four rotors and fixed landing legs slung beneath. It's light enough to carry in one hand and when you unscrew the rotor blades, it's small enough to fit into a decent-sized backpack. It's certainly more portable than the much larger Inspire 1 drone.
It feels as well built as before -- a drop from 200ft above the ground will probably result in the Phantom shuffling off its mortal coil, but the odd bump into walls or small crashes while you're getting the hang of flying won't faze it. The rotor blades are easily replaceable if you do snap a few.
As before, the camera is slung beneath the drone -- but it's had a bunch of significant upgrades. Its sensor has been changed from the previous model, which apparently helps improve dynamic range, resulting in more balanced bright skies, which was something of an issue for the previous version. Although DJI initially told me it was physically larger than its predecessor, both models have 1/2.3-inch sensors -- the same size seen on DJI's pricier Inspire 1 and the previous generation Phantom 2 Vision+.
The headline feature on the Professional model is of course its ability to shoot video in Ultra HD 4K resolution. It can do this at frame rates of 23, 24 or 30 frames per second too, so you'll still get smooth shots. The benefit of 4K footage isn't just to look crisp on a 4K monitor, it also gives you a lot of room to crop into the frame, while still maintaining full HD quality or better.
The lens on the camera has a 90-degree field of view, which is narrower than the previous version. That may seem a step down, but it's actually for a very good reason. The extreme wide angles previously used caused distortion of the image, particularly at the corners, meaning a lot of digital correction had to be used, if the footage was for a professional purpose. The smaller field of view will help keep distortion down and require less, if any, post processing.
The camera is mounted on the same three-axis stabilising gimbal, which automatically corrects for any slight movements of the drone, as well as smoothing out vibrations from the rotors. It results in considerably smoother footage, without the unpleasant jerks and bumps seen from drones that don't use stabilisation -- including DJI's Phantom 2.
One of our criticisms of the previous model was that it could struggle to balance a very bright sky against a darker ground, which was something of an issue for a camera designed for filming both the sky and the ground. Hopefully this new model will fare better.
Behind the camera unit are a couple of new sensors. They point down and detect patterns on the floor to lock on to, in order to remain stable when flying indoors where GPS signal (which is used for stability outdoors) may not be available. Although you could technically fly any of the previous drones indoors, the new sensors mean it will have much better stability and is able to hover in a fixed location with no effort on your part.
The controller is roughly similar to previous versions, with two main control sticks and a clamp to hold a smartphone or tablet, which acts as the display for the drone's camera. On each top corner of the controller you'll find buttons for quickly changing camera settings and starting and stopping recording while the drone is in the air.
The DJI app (on iOS and Android) still provides a live video feed of the drone's view, and gives information about battery, flight time, height and speed. It also allows you to change in-depth camera settings, such as exposure and white balance. A couple of new features have been added, including a training mode, that lets you practise flying a virtual drone on the screen, using the controller, helping you get the hang of flying without trashing your pricey new gadget. In my experience, however, the Phantom drones are extremely easy to learn to fly.
DJI has also added the ability to stream live video from the drone to YouTube, in 720p resolution. That will be great news for those of you who want to give your YouTube fans an overhead view of your garden, but it could also have great value for journalists wanting to stream live footage of events around the world. How this works in practice remains to be seen.
Other features include the existing return to home function, which safely brings the drone back to you when the battery is about to give up, and the battery itself has been made slightly larger. DJI reckons you can get around 20-23 minutes of flight time from a single charge, which is probably plenty if you're just flying around outside your house, but you'll almost certainly want to buy a few spares if you're using it professionally.
DJI's new Phantom 3 drones maintain the overall simplicity and ease of use of the previous Phantoms. The addition of 4K on the Pro model and the indoor flying and supposedly improved image sensors on both models should help them appeal even more to enthusiastic amateur filmmakers who want to experiment with aerial footage, but don't want to break the bank to get their shots. We'll look forward to reviewing them in full soon -- stay tuned.