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DJI FPV drone hands-on: A high-speed immersive flying experience with 4K video for $1,299

The speed of a racing drone plus the easy operation of a DJI camera drone is an amazing combination.

The DJI FPV drone is made for everyone but is not for everyone. It's built for speed and agility, but its features and capabilities cater to both beginner pilots and those who can keep a drone in the air without the assistance of sensors and GPS. The FPV drone is also much more about experiencing flight than it is about what the camera can do. 

In the box for $1,299 (£1,249, AU$2,099) you'll get the FPV drone, DJI's FPV Goggles V2, a new gaming-style controller and a single battery. That means out of the box you have everything you need for FPV flying and, with the exception of a firmware update, it's also ready to fly. That's unusual for the category, which is still mainly a DIY situation. Even the prebuilt drones this size usually require some setup. 

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The FPV has obstacle detection to help beginners.

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No fear of flying (well, almost)

If you've never flown using an FPV headset, it can be simultaneously thrilling and terrifying, with a little bit of nausea thrown in for good measure (at least for me). It really does feel like you're in the pilot's seat of an aircraft as you soar through the air or zip above the ground at speeds up to 87 mph (140 kph). It also means one small control slip-up could take you out of the sky and empty your wallet. 

If you've ever built your own racing drone, you're likely good to repair damage from crashes. Trying to lower that bar, DJI made some of the FPV's parts easily replaceable, specifically the landing gear, the plastic top shell (an extra is included), the gimbal and the propellers. It's sturdier than DJI's other drones, too, which helps if you get a little too close to a tree, building or other obstacles. 

The large battery is integrated into the frame and securely clips in. DJI says it will last up to 20 minutes, but that's going to depend on how aggressively you're flying. Still, I didn't have any problems getting past the 10-minute mark in Sport mode, which is about the best you can do. It's typical for an FPV drone to only last five to 10 minutes in the air. 

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Most of the main body is a battery.

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Choose your own adventure

The FPV has three flight modes -- Normal, Sport and Manual -- with varying degrees of automated assistance. Normal mode is the closest to flying something like DJI's Air 2 or Mini 2 camera drones. Cameras on the bottom can keep the drone hovering in place without your help, while more on the front will slow you down as you approach obstacles. The top speed is 30 mph. 

Switching to Sport mode lets you fly at up to 60 mph, but the front obstacle detection is shut off. In Manual mode, you're pretty much on your own, although by default it starts with an attitude limit that can be turned off. There is no obstacle detection and no help hovering in place. You can even open up the back of the controller and adjust the stick tension so they don't spring back to the center. 

No matter what mode you're in though, you get an emergency brake on the controller and the same button will trigger the drone to return to the home point. Plus, there's a Find My Drone feature that you can use if you crash and can't see exactly where it went down. 

Analog performance with digital clarity  

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The Goggles are lightweight and comfortable. 

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Most FPV drones aimed at consumers typically rely on using an app and your phone in a VR-type headset. That's fine for casual flying, but the latency of the video feed from the drone's camera to the phone won't be much good at speeds up to nearly 90 mph. On the other hand, FPV racing drones generally use low-resolution analog cameras to send a low-latency feed to a headset while a second camera records the action. The image quality isn't great but when milliseconds count, you want as little delay in the video as possible. 

The FPV drone paired with the FPV Goggles V2 solves these problems by using DJI's transmission technologies to give you low-latency video with great visual clarity. When DJI launched the Goggles I said it's like the difference between a VHS tape that's been played a few too many times and a remastered DVD. 

It's the clear, cinematic live view at 810-pixel resolution that drives the immersive experience from the FPV. Plus, since all of the pieces are paired and ready out of the box, it's a hassle-free experience. Turn on the drone, the headset and the controller and you're ready for take-off. 

A controller fit for FPV gaming

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The controller ties it all together. 

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Many transmitters used for FPV drone racing are large, clunky and loaded with switches. DJI's controller has more in common with your favorite gaming console controller. Flying by FPV feels a lot like you're playing a racing game with a view from behind the wheel, so it's fitting that the controller feels like one made for gaming. 

On top, you just have the two sticks, the power button and a programmable shortcut button. The sticks unscrew and can be stored in the controller's grips and the antenna flips down so it's easier to slip into a bag. The back of the controller is loaded with buttons to control the camera and performance. For example, there's a switch for jumping between flight modes as well as a switch and a dial for moving the camera up and down on its gimbal. 

DJI also made a single-handed pistol-grip motion controller. There are buttons for camera controls, the emergency brake and take-offs and landings. Flying, however, is done by pulling back on a trigger and tilting your hand to the sides or up and down. It's available for $200. 

More a drone with a camera than a camera drone

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The FPV's camera records 4K video and transmits a view to the headset.

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The FPV's camera can record video: up to 4K resolution at 60 frames per second and 128 Mbps, or 1080p at up to 120 fps. It's on a single-axis gimbal for image stabilization, as opposed to the three-axis gimbals found on most of DJI's drones. The gimbal helps when rotating vertically, but most of the shake and vibration is controlled with DJI's RockSteady electronic stabilization. The results are overall good, especially given how quickly the drone moves, but it's not without some motion artifacts. If you're expecting the silky smooth -- and level -- video of a three-axis gimbal, you're better off with a Mavic 2 Pro

Also, recording video is pretty much the end of the road for camera features. There are no drone modes or any other automated camera moves. There's no subject tracking or panorama photos. You can correct distortion to remove the fish-eye look from your recordings and video can be stored in H.265 or H.264. That's it, though, and all of the settings are navigated with a mini-joystick and buttons on the headset. Also, there's a microSD card slot on the headset so you can record the FPV video, but it won't have the RockSteady stabilization. 

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A big battery for big power. 

Drew Evans/CNET

The DJI FPV is fun to use. For beginners, there's just enough flight assistance to take some of the intimidation out of flying. Experienced pilots will appreciate the additional camera control and how agile and fast the drone is and the great-looking video in the headset. And it's also a good, albeit expensive, way to grow as an FPV pilot without needing to cobble together your own drone, headset and transmitter combo.