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DJI Phantom 4 review: Automatic flying for the people

DJI's top consumer drone is smart enough to practically fly itself while you concentrate on getting awesome aerial shots. But maybe that's not such a good thing.

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Joshua Goldman
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Joshua Goldman

Managing Editor / Advice

Josh Goldman helps people find the best laptop at the best price -- from simple Chromebooks to high-end gaming laptops. He's been writing about and reviewing consumer technology and software for more than two decades.

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7 min read

It's all in the experience.

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8.6

DJI Phantom 4

The Good

The DJI Phantom 4 is a very polished drone compared to its competition, and for those who've flown a quad before, you'll have no trouble getting started with this one. The new Sport mode lets you get to your location faster or just have some fun. Its Obstacle Sensing System can help avoid head-on collisions as well as track subjects. Slow-motion video is a nice addition to an already excellent camera.

The Bad

The Obstacle Sensing System only sees things in front of the drone. You still need a tablet or phone ready to go along with the controller and drone battery. Extra batteries are expensive. Landing gear and camera are fixed to the body, so you can't collapse it entirely for travel and if you break or want to upgrade the camera, that's not an option.

The Bottom Line

Yep, it's not cheap, but DJI has made one of the smartest drones available with the Phantom 4.

While I could tell you all about the specs and the new features and the performance -- and I will get to those --

it's the overall experience of using DJI's Phantom 4 that puts it above the rest.

Polished is the word that comes to mind. Other drones I've flown aren't necessarily more difficult to get started with and pilot, but DJI makes doing these things painless and uncomplicated. (Though, if you've never flown one before, you'll want to at least read the quick-start guide or, god forbid, the full user manual). This, along with the Phantom 4's new Obstacle Sensing System (OSS) and streamlined design, are why it's quickly been tagged as being great for beginners. At least, beginners with deep pockets: The Phantom 4 sells for $1,399 in the US, AU$2,399 in Australia and £1,229 in the UK.

The Phantom 4 might truly be the drone anyone can fly and it is certainly worth the money if you've got it. Still, for however polished the experience is, it might be too much of a good thing for absolute beginners.

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Joshua Goldman/CNET

Crashproof? Yeah, not so much

If you've read anything about the Phantom 4, you know it's the first consumer model you can buy with an advanced obstacle-avoidance system that DJI calls OSS. The stout quadcopter has a set of optical sensors in front -- eyes that will help it navigate around or over obstacles within 0.7 to 15 meters (2.3 to 49 feet) of it or it will simply stop and hover until you pilot it away. (It also enables a couple new flight modes, which I'll get to in a bit.)

For the most part it works really well and it will likely prevent many accidental collisions. Yes, you can test it by flying it directly at things like fences or buildings or cars or yourself, and it will stop on its own. But what I worry about most when flying are trees.

Clip a tree at 100 feet in the air and it can either start an uncontrollable fall to the ground or, perhaps worse, get stuck like some cruel Christmas tree ornament you can see but never touch. Having the ability to avoid trees is especially important when using the return-to-home feature that summons the drone back to you.

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Joshua Goldman/CNET

The Phantom 4 fared better than I expected. I tested just as the Northeast was headed into spring, so I was flying around a lot of trees that were bare from winter. It had no trouble stopping itself before flying into a line of pine trees on an autonomous flight back to me. When navigating around sparse branches stripped clean of leaves, it didn't immediately recognize them as an obstacle. Had the branches been thick with leaves, it might have stopped in its tracks as it had when I flew near trees in full bloom. Or, maybe it was operator error.

You see, I was coming at the tree from an angle that could've been outside of the OSS's visual range. It senses what's in front of the Phantom, not above, to the sides or behind it. So while the system can stop a head-on collision, you'll have no problems crashing it from other directions. My point is, the OSS is great to have, but for new pilots it could create a false sense of security.

Sport mode is fun, but dangerous for newbies

All it takes is a flip of a switch on the controller and you'll be able to fly at speeds up to 45 mph (72 kph) using the Phantom 4's Sport mode. It's not just faster going forward and back, but it can ascend at 6 meters (20 feet) per second and descend at 4 meters (13 feet) per second. This is a really nice addition because it lets you get to a location that much faster to get the shot you want. It gives you a bit of a racing drone experience, too, and with an HDMI module for the controller you can connect FPV (first-person view) goggles to immerse yourself in the experience.

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Joshua Goldman/CNET

A little movement on the stick literally goes a long way, though. And the OSS doesn't work in Sport mode so if you're flying head-on into something, don't expect these sensors to save you. Plus, when it is travelling at top speed, it takes much more time for it to stop. The DJI Go app warns you of this the first time you enter the mode, but never again. Regardless, it's not a mode I would suggest for first-time pilots.

Alright, you probably get the idea by now: the Obstacle Sensing System can potentially keep you out of trouble, but it's no excuse to fly recklessly or not learn how to properly pilot the drone. Now, on to the good stuff.

Better video through autonomy

So yes, the Phantom 4 can use its optical sensors to avoid crashing into things when you're piloting. But it can also use them to automatically do your bidding in the air.

DJI's Go mobile app for iOS and Android devices is used not only for getting a view from the drone's camera, but adjusting settings and seeing all your important flight data and battery status. Connect your device to the controller via a USB cable, open the app and voila, it's all at your fingertips.

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The app is also how you set the Phantom 4 up to fly autonomously using DJI's Intelligent Flight modes. These include the ability to have the drone follow you using a GPS signal from the controller and perform movements like orbiting around you or another point of interest and arranging a set of waypoints on a map for it to follow.

You can do all of those things with the Phantom 3 models, but new for the Phantom 4 is ActiveTrack, which uses the OSS to follow a subject. You just draw a box on screen around what you want to track, tap the Go button that appears and the drone starts following, keeping the camera centered on whoever or whatever you selected.

I tested it out on my daughter as she rode her bike and as long as she didn't move too fast, the drone was able to keep up. The subject has to be close or large to work effectively. When she did travel out of its range, the drone started tracking her when she got near again. Though it's not perfect, it worked better than GPS for keeping her in the center of the shot.

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Screenshot by Josh Goldman/CNET

Another new mode called TapFly pretty much does what the name implies: Tap on a point on screen and the Phantom 4 will fly there, avoiding obstacles along the way. Tap another point and it will transition and pilot its way there. An on-screen horizon line gives you control over changing the drone's altitude by tapping above or below it. And you can still use your sticks to steer the drone for your shot, too.

Basically, it allows you to set up a single-point flight path on the fly, assuming that point is in front of the drone. Combine this with the drone's automatic takeoff with a swipe and a tap in the app and, well, yes, anyone could put the Phantom 4 in the air and "fly" it.

If at any point you want to stop and think about your next move, a Pause button has been added on the controller that will set the drone to stop and hover in place. (The Pause button works regardless of the mode you're in, too.)

A new design for a new era of flight

Making most of these new features possible required a redesign. DJI streamlined the body and gimbal design, putting more of it inside the body. It has more powerful motors and propellers that lock on with a simple push and twist instead of the endless spinning required to get the old props on and off.

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Joshua Goldman/CNET

Due in part to these design changes and a new battery, DJI was able to squeeze more flight time out of the Phantom 4 at up to 28 minutes. I was unable to reach that mark, but I was regularly flying in a fair amount of wind. I averaged between 22 to 25 minutes if I ignored the constant low battery warnings. The default settings start the controller beeping starting at 30 percent battery and then lands you automatically at 10 percent. These can be shut off, but, you know, they're there for a reason. Also, extra batteries are expensive at $169 (AU$289, £129).

The landing gear is slightly shorter and spread wider than previous models making touching down less likely to cause it to tip. However, the legs are still fixed to the body, so while the body overall is more compact, you're still not slipping this easily into an average backpack.

The camera is for the most part unchanged from the Phantom 3 Professional's excellent shooter. But DJI added a slow-motion option capturing 1080p at 120fps and it has improved the lens so there's less chromatic aberration and better corner sharpness. It, too, is not removable, which means it can't simply be upgraded or replaced.

DJI's Phantom 4 is in fact a pretty amazing piece of technology and -- for the moment -- has supplanted the Phantom 3 Professional as the consumer camera drone to get if you've got the money. That said, the out-of-the-box flight experience isn't all that different from the Phantom 3 -- any of them. To be sure, the Phantom 4 does more, but if you are a beginner, there are less expensive options for learning to fly and capturing nice video and photos while you do it.

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8.6

DJI Phantom 4

Score Breakdown

Design 8Battery 8Features 9Ease of Use 9
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