DJI Phantom 3 Advanced review: The sweet spot for features, performance and price

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. 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 Phantom 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, 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.

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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.

At the time of this review the Phantom 3 Advanced (and Professional) didn't have DJI's Intelligent Flight features including waypoint navigation, point of interest (POI) flight planning or Follow Me function, but these are now available.

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. Support for SDK apps already created by third-party DJI developers is available as well, giving the Advanced more features and future potential.

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Flying

If you're reading this review, you probably already know that DJI's Phantom quadcopters have a reputation of being extremely easy to fly (and fly away, but it's something I've never experienced). With the Phantom 3 the experience has only improved.

DJI has added a flight simulator to the mobile app (iOS only) that you can use to learn your way around the app and controls. I found it to be a little frustrating because the actual drone performs so much better in real life. Regardless of safety features and how stable the Phantom 3 is, I highly recommend taking your first flights out in an open area where there are no people or distractions.

Again, if you don't want to use stick commands, you can takeoff and land with a tap and a swipe on your screen. With GPS, 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 Phantom won't stop but instead continues to drift in the direction it was last headed. It's a gut-wrenching experience watching $1,000 float away seemingly uncontrollably, so it's best to fly with GPS until you fully understand the controls.

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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, DJI says you'll be able to get up to 23 minutes of flight time. I was able to get to just under 21 minutes of flying -- nothing too aggressive, mostly hovering in place and in light wind -- before it took over and landed itself. That flight time is very good when you factor in all that it's doing to stay in the air while recording video. It does feel short, though, especially if you're trying to get out some distance for a picture and still make it back. And extras are pricey at around $149, £125 or AU$205 each.

Video and photo quality

Closely examining the 4K video of the Phantom 3 Professional or DJI's higher-end Inspire 1 straight from the camera against the 1080p clips from the Advanced, there are noticeable differences, mainly in the level of fine detail and sharpness of subjects. There is better detail from the 4K and it's especially visible if you're viewing on a large TV or monitor. So, if it's necessary for you to capture the highest quality video without ponying up a ton more cash, the Phantom 3 Professional is the better choice.

Frankly, though, the full-HD clips from the Advanced look pretty great as do its photos, and they're more than suitable for sharing online and/or viewing on a phone, tablet or laptop. It's also a huge jump in quality from the Phantom 2 Vision+. For those considering an upgrade from that model to the Professional, your needs might be met with the less expensive Advanced.

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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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Conclusion

The DJI Phantom 3 Advanced is a great little aerial photo and video machine, however it's the whole system -- the drone, the controller and the app -- that make it so easy to pick up and just start flying. It's not inexpensive, but compared with the $900 Parrot Bebop with its Skycontroller , you won't regret spending the extra money. And if you don't need the Professional's 4K video, you can put your money toward a spare battery or two so the good times don't come to an end after 20 minutes.