DJI's Phantom series have become a benchmark for consumer drones -- or quadcopters, if you prefer -- thanks to their simple setup, ease of flying and relatively low price. The current king of the lineup, the Phantom 3 Professional, raises the bar even higher with the addition of 4K video recording from its stabilised camera.
Its design is almost unchanged from the previous, with a chunky white plastic body, and it's still incredibly easy to learn to fly. It has improved image sensors too, which provide superior footage than previously available, and ground-scanning sensors to help it fly indoors. If you want to take your home movies to the next level, but don't want to fork out the many thousands for professional-level drones, the Phantom 3 is a superb starting point.
There are currently three versions of the drone available. The Phantom 3 Professional (which I review here) shoots video in 4K (3,820x2,160-pixel) resolution and retails for $1,259, £1,159 or AU$1,950. Theis functionally identical, but shoots video in 1080p (1,920x1,080); it costs $999, £899 or AU$1,550. Both of those debuted in April, but they were just joined by a third model, the more affordable ($799, £649 or AU$1,299), which strips away some of the better features of its sibling models and includes the same controller as the older . (Meanwhile, DJI has also scheduled a press conference in Los Angeles later this month, making another new drone announcement likely.)
Ultimately, the Advanced is arguably the sweet spot, given the fact that its 1080p video will more than suffice for most eyes (discerning the extra detail onis a challenge, to say the least). But for those who must have 4K, the Phantom 3 Pro delivers best-in-class video for many thousands less than you'll pay for professional drones.
The Phantom 3 looks pretty much identical to DJI's previous Phantom models: a stout white plastic body, four rotors and narrow, fixed landing legs slung beneath. It's light enough to carry in one hand and, when you unscrew the rotor blades, it's just about small enough to fit into a decent-sized backpack. It's certainly more portable than the much largerdrone.
It feels as well built as before, with the capacity to survive both the odd bump into a wall or a small crash while you're getting the hang of flying it. I managed to fly it straight into the roof of my house where it plummeted three storeys to the grass below. Aside from a few cosmetic scuffs, it was absolutely fine, and continues to fly without any trouble.
The rotor blades are easily replaceable if you snap a few. Just unscrew them from the motors on each of the drone's four corners. You'll know how to do it already, since the blades are the only parts you need to assemble out of the box.
The controller is roughly similar to previous versions, with two main sticks and a clamp to hold a tablet -- I used my iPad Mini without a problem -- which acts as the display for the drone's camera via the DJI Pilot app. There are small, fold-down brackets to hold a smartphone, with the app optimised for use with the Sony Xperia Z3, , , and ZTE Nubia Z7 mini listed., 6 and . It was easier, however, to view the footage and use the app's small on-screen buttons on the the tablet's larger screen. Android device support is thin, with just the Samsung Galaxy S5 and ,
On each top corner of the controller are buttons for starting and stopping recording and quickly changing camera settings like the exposure and angle of view. Using these physical controls is much easier than poking at the tiny on-screen controls while the drone is airborne.
Getting started with the drone is incredibly easy. When you take it out of the box, just start charging the battery and the controller (a supplied lead charges both through one plug), and download the DJI Pilot app onto your iOS or Android device.
Once everything is charged, switch on the controller and the drone, pop your phone or tablet into the bracket and connect your mobile device with its usual charging cable to the controller. Then, after a few simple steps on the app, you're connected and ready to go -- around five minutes of playing around had me up and running.
Before you take off for the first time, you can use the app as a training guide. You pilot a virtual drone around a field on-screen, allowing you to familiarise yourself with the main controls, without risking smashing your new toy into a tree. Even so, the first time you use it should be in a very open space, and you should stick to basic manoeuvres until you get the hang of it.
When you first get your drone, it's worth checking DJI's downloads site for any available firmware updates -- oddly, I didn't see an update notification in the app, even though there was one to download. Updating the camera firmware is a long process, albeit fairly straightforward. You'll need to pop the camera's microSD card into your computer, download the firmware, unzip it and put it on the card. After you insert the card back into the drone and turn it on, it'll take about 20 minutes to install it, bleeping the whole time.
Flying the drone
The DJI 3 is every bit as easy to fly as its predecessors. Even just 10 minutes of casual flying around an open area is sufficient time to learn the basics. It helps that the drone is incredibly responsive and can accelerate -- and, more importantly, decelerate -- extremely quickly. If you see you're getting too close to some trees, a quick movement on the stick will instantly change its course to get you out of trouble or simply return the sticks to neutral to stop it in its tracks.
At close range (up to around 30 metres, or 100 feet) I find it easy to pilot the drone simply by looking at it. Once it gets a bit further away -- or it's above you, visibly lost against the bright sky -- then it's more convenient to use the camera view on your tablet, seeing what it's seeing, to help navigate. It automatically corrects for wind, so slight gusts won't throw it off course, but trying to get closeup footage of a tornado is not a good idea.
New sensors on the bottom of the drone point down and detect patterns on the floor to lock on to, in order to remain stable when flying indoors, where a GPS signal (used for stability outdoors) isn't available. Although you could technically fly any of the previous drones indoors, the new sensors provide better stability, making it able to hover in a fixed location without any control from you. This made a big difference in my testing as I was able to fly the drone from inside my living room out of the window.
Of course, you have to be much more careful than when flying outdoors as there are various factors which make it less stable. Flying above a plain surface, for example, will give the cameras nothing to lock onto, and above about 2 metres (6 feet), it doesn't detect the ground at all and can easily start to drift off course. I managed to crash it inside the CNET office when I flew it about 6 metres (about 20 feet) above the floor and it wasn't able to hold its position. It was, thankfully, unharmed.
DJI reckons you can get around 20-23 minutes of flight time from a full charge of the drone's battery, which I'd say is accurate. It does depend on how vigorously you're flying though, so if you do plan on really hitting top speed at high altitudes, expect a little less time. Although that's pretty standard for this type of drone, it's still very limiting if you want to take it away to a specific location to capture footage.