DJI Phantom 3 Professional review: Stunning 4K aerial footage that doesn't break the bank
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 Phantom 2 series , 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. The Phantom 3 Advanced is 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 affordablePhantom 3 Standard ($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 Phantom 2 Vision+. (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 on 4K displays is 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 larger Inspire 1 drone.
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 iPhone 5S , 6 and 6 Plus . 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 Note 3 , Sony Xperia Z3, Google Nexus 7 II , Google Nexus 9 , Xiaomi Mi 3 and ZTE Nubia Z7 mini listed.
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.
The batteries are removable, and you can buy spares, but they'll set you back around £125, $149 or AU$205 each. Batteries compatible with previous models are not compatible with the Phantom 3.
A return-to-home function will automatically bring the drone safely back to your location to land when it detects that the batteries are critically low -- it won't simply fall out of the sky. You can also press the return to home button on screen and there's one on the controller too. It will automatically bring the drone back to the location it took off from, which is a handy failsafe option to have if you begin to lose sight of it and want to bring it back to you safely.
As with the predecessor, the camera is slung beneath the drone -- but this time with a bunch of significant upgrades. It has the same 1/2.3-inch sensor, although it's been tweaked to provide better dynamic range. Exposure is generally more balanced. Bright skies are kept under control, while the darker ground is kept easily visible.
The Phantom Vision 2's camera had a habit of either exposing for the bright sky, plunging the ground into shadow, or exposing for the ground, resulting in a washed-out sky. The Phantom 3 does a considerably better job, producing rich, well balanced footage.
The headline feature on the Professional model is its ability to shoot video in Ultra HD 4K resolution. It brings a tonne of detail when viewing the footage on a high resolution monitor, which is particularly noticeable when looking at small details on house roofs far below. 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.
If you're shooting a specific object, this extra resolution allows you to digitally stabilise the footage, smoothing out any slight movements of the drone and ensuring the object stays perfectly central, without sacrificing any quality.
It can do this at frame rates of 24, 25 or 30 frames per second too, the latter of which will be great for long, smooth shots. If your shots require faster motion from the camera and the subject, then shooting at 60fps in Full HD will produce much smoother footage.
With the wheels on each corner of the controller you can tilt the camera up or down, and to pan simply turn the drone on its axis. You can point it exactly down, which gives a really neat view of the landscape, particularly when you take it really high. One of the main differences between this and the pricier DJI Inspire 1 drone is that there's no ability to control the camera using a second controller. If you want to shoot a subject with one person flying the drone past, with a second producer independently controlling the camera (which can pan and tilt in all directions), you'll need to splash more cash for the Inspire.
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 used by the Phantom 2 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. It's particularly noticeable when panning around a horizon, as you can visibly see the horizon curving down at the edge.
The narrower angle does make a huge difference, with considerably less distortion of the image. As well as just producing nicer-looking footage for your Facebook feed, professionals among you will appreciate the time saved by not having to digitally correct it.
The camera is mounted on the same three-axis stabilising gimbal, which automatically corrects for any slight movements of the drone, and smoothing out vibrations from the rotors. It works incredibly well and results in much smoother footage, without the unpleasant jerks and bumps seen from drones that don't use stabilisation -- including DJI's Phantom 2.
Do keep in mind that when flying the drone at high speeds, or turning quickly, the gimbal will have to move the camera at a more extreme upwards angle to the extent that it's possible to see the rotors in the top portion of the image. Smooth motions will therefore produce the best results. You can see some of our test footage in the following video:
A neat new feature on the Phantom 3 is the ability to stream live video from the drone to YouTube. The DJI app makes it easy to set up live streaming -- you also need to enable your YouTube account for live video on the desktop site. It needs a good data connection, so if you're using a tablet or phone that doesn't have a SIM card, you'll need to tether it to your phone.
Streaming video is no easy task for a mobile connection, so you'll want to make sure you're on a fast 4G LTE connection for it to work properly. When I was on 3G, the YouTube stream being watched remotely was extremely jumpy and froze numerous times. On 4G, however, it was much smoother and gave a good view of the action. Its lower quality and lower frame rate means it's far less smooth than video taken directly from the camera, but it's perfectly watchable, particularly when the drone remains fairly still in the air.
It might not be a killer feature for many of you, but it could be handy for news journalists wanting to give a top-down view of an unfolding event. Engineers too may find it useful to be able to fly into a potentially dangerous building and send footage back, without risking injury by entering themselves.
The DJI Phantom 3 Professional drone is simple to set up and incredibly easy to learn to fly, making it an accessible piece of kit even to those with only a vague knowledge of technology. Its drastically improved image quality, addition of 4K resolution and its excellent stabilising gimbal allows it to capture brilliant footage, with none of the jerkiness or exposure issues seen on earlier models.
Ultimately, the stepdown Phantom 3 Advanced -- with all of the same features except a 1080p camera in place of the Pro's 4K one -- is the better choice for most flyers, but anyone who needs the extra resolution (or the comfort of futureproofing) will find the Phantom 3 Pro a solid choice. Either one is a much more affordable entry into aerial videography than any professional drone, and is well worth considering, whether you're an enthusiastic amateur filmmaker or simply want to add cool, creative shots to your home videos.
CNET Senior Editor Josh Goldman contributed to this review.