The Best Drones of 2017
Looking for an aerial view? We researched all the popular camera drones on the market, then bought the 14 top contenders and tested them side-by-side for more than 200 hours. Drones have been on an exponential growth curve for the last few years, and it can be difficult to keep up and make sure you're getting the best model for your intended use. We've kept an eye on all the new models so you don't have to, and have put them in the hands of both beginners and full time drone pilots to find which ones work best for every person that wants to take to the skies.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Updated August 2017
We've spent the last couple weeks getting to know the new DJI Spark. This little firecracker packs a lot of technology into a small body, and provided one of the easiest and most fun flying experiences we've ever had with a drone. Its size definitely limits the quality and scale of the shots you can get, but it's certainly our favorite model for selfies, just flying around for fun, and basic video.
Best Overall Camera Drone
DJI Phantom 4 Pro+
We've all got that tiny urge inside of us to splash our creativity onto a screen and become the next great film director. The Phantom 4 Pro+ brings you one step closer to making those dreams a reality. With a huge sensor, 4K resolution, and adjustable aperture, the Pro+'s camera delivers cinema quality images with minimal lens flare (Sorry J.J. Abrams). It can also capture 4k video at an incredible 60 frames per second, which is double that of most models. This allows you to capture incredible slow motion images, or slow everything down if you captured that panning shot going a bit too fast. Its flight is stable and predictable. If you flip it into sport mode it will race around at 45+ mph and have you yee-hawing like Han Solo taking out some tie fighters. On top of all this it boasts a controller with built-in 5.5" antiglare screen, field leading 30 minutes of maximum flight time, and a 5-direction obstacle avoidance system. If you're looking for the highest quality aerial shots you can get without having to sell your car, this is the model for you.
Top quality, stable video
Great flight performance
Built-in controller screen
Read full review: DJI Phantom 4 Pro+
The new Phantom 4 Advanced
DJI recently released the Phantom 4 Advanced. This new model is near identical to the Phantom 4 Pro, except it lacks the rear and side facing obstacle avoidance sensors. This gives you the same video quality as the Phantom 4 Pro, but saves you $150. In our opinion, if you're going to invest $1300+ into a drone,
it's worth another $150 to decrease the likelihood that you'll crash into a tree.
Best Camera Drone for Travel
DJI Mavic Pro
If you want something that can produce quality video and still fit in a normal backpack, the DJI Mavic is your new best friend. The Mavic boast a 4K camera, great gimbal stabilization, and all the flight performance you need to get dramatic panning footage and fast paced follow shots. Sure it can't quite match the video quality of the Phantom 4 line, but it gets close in a package that can fold down to the size of a one-liter water bottle (let's see a Phantom try to do that). Bottom line, this is the only drone we've found that can make its way onto a plane without requiring its own travel case and still provide footage worthy of watching on a big screen.
Small and packable
Great flight performance
Can't match video quality of Phantom 4's
Read full review: DJI Mavic Pro
GoPro Karma Quadcopter
While the GoPro Karma isn't particularly cheap, it does provide a much more versatile set of tools than other models. The gimbal can be removed from the drone and be attached to almost anything using the included assortment of mounts, or used as a handheld camera stabilizer. This makes it the only drone we've tested that can get an epic aerial establishing shot and then strap on to your bike's handlebars for some first person view footage. Plus, the Karma can fold up into its own dedicated backpack. It's not as portable as the Mavic, but is much easier to carry around than any of the Phantoms. If you're already thinking about getting a $400 GoPro, the Karma can exponentially expand your filming options for $700 more.
Great video quality
Gimbal can be used in ground based filming as well
Controller joysticks could be better
Fisheye lens not ideal for aerial shots and must be digitally corrected
Read full review: GoPro Karma Quadcopter
Best Buy for High Quality Video
DJI Phantom 4
Though it was recently displaced from the top of DJI's Phantom line, the Phantom 4 can still punch in the heavyweight class. In our testing it produced amazing, professional quality footage that was, if anything, only a smidgen less clear and vibrant than that of its successor, the Phantom 4 Pro+. It also boasts a sharp, high quality video downlink and 28 minutes of maximum flight time. Since this quadcopter is no longer considered the gem of the Phantom line prices have been dropping at many online retailers. We've seen it selling for multiple hundreds of dollars below the list price, meaning you could snag a rig that produces professional level footage for nearly half of what the Phantom 4 Pro+ lists for. This value secured the Phantom 4 our Best Buy Award for High Quality Video award.
High quality, stable video
Great flight performance
Great video downlink
Can be expensive
Read full review: Phantom 4
Best Bang for Your Buck
DJI Phantom 3 Standard
The DJI Phantom 3 Standard is essentially the stripped down little brother of the Phantom 4, but it's a little brother with a chip on its shoulder, with something to prove. It still offers a high quality 2.7K camera, and its gimbal is able to keep that camera steady in all but the most difficult of circumstances. While some aspects of its flight are somewhat less stable and its video downlink is slightly more pixelated than those of the Phantom 4, none of these things will get in the way of you capturing the footage you want. While it's not the best, the Phantom 3 Standard is still an incredibly powerful cinematography tool, and it offers its functionality for a list price that is $600 less than that of the Phantom 4 (and can often be found for significantly cheaper online). This incredible value is what earned the Phantom 3 Standard our Best Bang for Your Buck award. If you're looking to get into the drone filmmaking game but can't justify spending upwards of a cold hard grand, the Phantom 3 Standard will get you most of the performance of more expensive models, while leaving a bit more breathing room in your bank account.
Inexpensive (especially when on sale)
Good video quality and stability
Controller not as nice as other Phantoms
Video quality slightly inferior to higher end models
Read full review: DJI Phantom 3 Standard
Top Pick for Selfies and Fun
If we could use one word to describe the DJI Spark, it would be fun. Whether buzzing it around the backyard, having it land in our hands like one of the birds that help Cinderella get dressed, or using hand gestures to fly it around (admittedly the hand gestures are a bit finicky, but still fun), using the Spark always put a smile on our faces. The small form factor both makes the Spark very portable and crashes less consequential, so it's a great drone for the kids to play with. The 1080p camera is comparable to an iPhone camera and is more than adequate for selfies and getting a cool aerial shot of the family barbeque. This drone also features a teeny tiny 2-axis gimbal, a rarity on a model this small, providing much more stable video than the other small models we tested. It still lacks the clarity and stability to get the epic panning shots that likely come to mind when you think of aerial photography. While it doesn't deliver cinema worthy video, this quadcopter will provide you with hours of entertainment, and isn't that why you wanted a drone in the first place?
Easy to fly
Mediocre video quality
Shorter flight time
Read full review: DJI Spark
You should always obey the law while flying drones there are many FAA regulations regarding small unmanned aircraft that you should be familiar with. The FAA site is user friendly and registering a new drone is very straightforward. Always check to see if the area where you plan to fly is restricted and never fly above 400 feet. Skyvector provides excellent charts for free.
Analysis and Test Results
In recent years small unmanned aerial vehicles, more colloquially referred to as drones, have been getting less and less expensive. This has made them economical enough for some commercial applications, and has even allowed the technology to be leveraged to do some real good in the world. This has also made camera angles and perspectives available to the average, amateur videographer that were once the sole domain of big name directors working on grandiose, huge budget blockbusters. As a result, there is a whole new community of people producing footage that uses unique angles to highlight the innate beauty in the things us crazy humans do every day. Whether you're already engaged in this community, or are excited to become a part of such a creative enterprise, our testing results and scores can guide you to the model that is going to give you the best possible experience.
All of our scores are based on real-world tests, which we designed around the goal of discovering which model can deliver the highest quality footage in the most reliable manner. For all of our tests we flew and captured footage ourselves, and rigorously compared the results side-by-side. For more on our testing procedures, check out our how we test article.
As fun as it can be to pilot radio controlled aircraft, the resulting video footage is the ultimate end goal of most users, thus we made its quality our most heavily weighted metric. The resolution, sharpness, and color quality created by a camera is vital to creating a good image. To test this we took similar footage with each one of our models and carefully examined the resulting video files side-by-side on the same high definition monitor. The best resolution and most vivid colors can be ruined if the video itself is shaky and unstable, or if there are rotors impeding on the camera's view. We tested these attributes of video quality by recording both broad panning shots and fast paced tight shots while following a fast subject. We then evaluated this footage based on how smooth and stable it was, how well the horizon was kept horizontal, and whether or not there were any visible rotors or rotor shadows present.
The DJI Phantom 4 Pro+ and the DJI Phantom 4 Pro shared a rare perfect 10 out of 10 in our video quality testing. The footage produced by these 4K models in our testing looked straight out of a BBC wildlife documentary with vivid color, crystal clear clarity, and impeccable image stabilization. The adjustable aperture also let us get great footage when pointing the camera into the sun. The DJI Phantom 4 was close behind the leaders with a score of 9. It also produces incredible 4K footage, but with just a touch less vibrancy than the Pro models. It also had some issues with annoying lens flares when pointing at the sun (though you might not mind this if you're trying to emulate J.J. Abrams). Like all of the Phantoms these models have some issues with propellor intrusion, but only when flying at high speeds that most aerial videographers probably won't hit when filming.
the above video compares footage from the top scoring DJI Phantom 4 Pro+ and the super portable DJI Mavic Pro. If you look at the evergreen trees you can see that the Phantom 4 Pro (top) captures a realistic and flatter color profile, which can easily be edited later. The Mavic Pro's camera (bottom) has upped the contrast, sharpness, and saturation in camera to provide a vivid look straight out of the box. This results in trees that look greener, almost unnaturally green in some instances, and a degree of sharpness that borders on pixelation. The lower bit rates (60Mbps of the Mavic vs. 100Mbps of the 4 Pro), as well as the in-camera processing leave you with a video file that is much harder to manipulate in post. The Phantom 4 Pro provides a cleaner image with a flatter color profile straight out of the box. Note that you can change sharpness, saturation ,and contrast in the DJI Go App for both cameras.
The GoPro Karma Quadcopter and the DJI Inspire 1 V2.0 both shared the score of 8 out of 10 in our video quality testing. Both of these models provide 4K video resolution and have excellent gimbals that all but eliminate vibration and produce perfectly smooth footage. The Inspire's gimbal can be operated by a second pilot and can spin 360˚, something no other model that we tested can do. Its propeller design also nearly makes propeller intrusion a non-issue. The Karma's design, like the Inspire, makes propellor intrusion nearly impossible. Additionally, while the trademark GoPro fisheye look is great for first-person point of view shots, it can cause an annoying curvature in the horizon when used in conjunction with the Karma. This effect can easily be corrected for in post processing, but it is done digitally, meaning some resolution is inevitably lost. The Inspire's dual controller design, while adding a lot of versatility, does take some practice to produce perfectly smooth shots. Also, the footage it produced was surprisingly and noticeably less crisp than that of the Phantom 4's.
This video compares the DJI Phantom 4 Pro+, Spark, and Mavic. The 4 Pro+ represents the best video quality you can get in a consumer drone, the Spark Is the smallest and most portable drone DJI makes, and the Mavic is a midpoint between the two that balances portability and video quality.
The DJI Mavic Pro Earned a score of 7 in this metric. It had nearly no issues with propellor intrusion in our testing. Despite its small size the gimbal was surprisingly stable but did shake a bit more in quick maneuvers than the Phantom 4 models. The 4K footage is generally crisp, and the colors look bright. The Mavic's camera does have a relatively small sensor, and to make up for this the camera plays some tricks with exaggerated sharpness and saturation. This results in very vivid colors and a seemingly crisp image, but often with a sacrifice in quality. This results in footage that looks spectacular upon first glance, but doesn't quite stand up to scrutiny and cannot be extensively edited. For example, when first viewing some footage from the Mavic we thought, "Wow those trees look so green and crisp," and then when we watch again with more discerning eyes we thought, "those trees kind of look like they're made of playdough." Bottom line, it's footage that is fantastic for a Youtube highlight reel of your adventures, but not worthy of a visually stunning documentary or professional work.
Both the Autel Robotics X-Star Premium and the DJI Phantom 3 Professional also earned scores of 7 in this metric. Both of these models have workable gimbals, but we did start to see some shakiness when flying aggressively. The Phantom 3 Professional has a 4K camera that produces great footage, but we found it had slightly worse color aberrations when pointed at the sun than the Phantom 4. The Autel X-Star has a 4K camera that also captures great footage, but the colors are a bit cool, lending a slight blue tint to many shots.
The above video displays a direct comparison between the footage produced by the Phantom 3 Standard, which provides the best overall value of the models we tested, and the Phantom 4 Pro, which is the most inexpensive option for high quality video. Though a lot more clouds rolled in when the Phantom 4 took off, if you look at the trees it is clear that it captured much more detail than the Phantom 3 Standard.
Occupying the middle of the pack in our video quality testing were the DJI Phantom 3 Advanced and the DJI Phantom 3 Standard, both of which scored a 6 in this metric. These models are comparable to their higher priced brethren, but their lower price does bring some sacrifices in gimbal stability. Both models can still produce smooth images, but camera shake is induced more readily with aggressive flying than with the higher scoring models. The Phantom 3 Advanced sports a 2.7K camera and the Phantom 3 Standard also features a 2.7K apparatus. Both of these cameras produced great footage in our test, but upon very close inspection they could be seen to be just a bit less sharp than the footage from the top scoring models.
The DJI Spark was in a category of its own, earning a 5 out of 10 in our video quality testing. Its 2-axis gimbal provided much steadier footage than the gimballess design of the other small drones, but it still got a bit jerky when flying at higher speeds. The resolution maxes out at 1080p, but looks amazingly good when viewed on a small screen (like a phone). That lack of resolution becomes quite apparent when blowing the video up on a larger monitor, but it is more than adequate for selfies and home videos.
the above video displays the kind of propeller intrusion that is possible when flying fast and aggressively. This is one of the few weak points of DJI's Phantom line, though this really only occurs at speeds that exceed what you would hit during normal aerial filming.
At the bottom of the leaderboard in our video quality scoring were the Yuneec Breeze 4K and the Parrot Bebop 2. These models both scored a 3 in our testing. Lacking proper gimbals, these devices just were not able to produce the smooth footage of the other models. Video was inevitably jumpy, both due to a lack of camera stabilization and the inevitably jerkier flight of these smaller models. Additionally, their light weight meant wind significantly affected their flight performance. Even a light breeze was able to push them around, a problem we didn't experience with any of the gimbal models. The footage these models produce might be fun for kids to look at after they have fun zipping these little helicopters around, but really would not be suitable for any sort of filmmaking venture.
While fun to fly, non-gimbal models, like the YUNEEC Breeze, tend to produce quite shaky footage.
Ease of Use
It's easy to forget how much much technology is stuffed into these little quadcopters, and just how complex the required algorithms are that bend that technology to the will of the user. Effectively distilling all of this technology into a simple yet versatile user interface is a challenging task, and some manufacturers certainly do it better than others. Our ease of use testing covered every facet from opening the box, getting in the air, landing safely, and downloading footage. We evaluated initial setup, including charging batteries, installing rotors, downloading apps, and linking each model to the requisite controllers and smart devices. We also considered the controllers themselves, determining how they felt in our hands, how intuitive they were, and the usability of on screen menus. Finally, it is not a good feeling to realize the battery is about to die when the drone is still far away, or that a connection was lost and you no longer have control. We thus scored each model on how adequately they warned the user of such less than ideal situations in order to avoid a catastrophic ending to the flight.
In general we found that the gimbal models we tested were all relatively easy to setup and get in the air, and had nice controls. The non-gimbal models were also easy to setup but tended to have less streamlined user interfaces. The DJI Phantom 4 Pro+ and the DJI Mavic Pro both earned the top score of 9 out of 10 in this metric. Both had seamless initial setup processes and were in the air within 20 minutes of them arriving in our eagerly waiting hands. The Phantom 4 Pro+'s built in control screen streamlines use as you don't need to fumble around with connecting a smartphone. The Mavic Pro is so much easier to transport than any of the other gimbal models that we always felt pleasantly unencumbered when carrying it around.
Apart from the Phantom 4 Pro+ nearly all of the DJI Phantom models we tested were identical in their out of the box setup and controller design, thus most of them shared the same score of 8 out of 10. Setting each copter up out of the box and installing the rotors was easy using the quickstart guide. Downloading the DJI GO app onto your mobile device of choice and making it talk to the controller and drone was similarly painless. The DJI models did require downloading an update on a computer and transferring it to the drone, which was less than ideal but not particularly troubling. Most of these models share very similar controllers, which our testers generally enjoyed. They felt good in your hands, the joysticks felt solid and responsive, and are long enough to accommodate flying with just thumbs or using the more advanced technique of pinching with thumb and pointer finger. The only downside to the controller interface was the menu present on whatever mobile device was in use. While it allowed navigation through DJI's expansive catalog of options and adjustments, it felt a bit crowded on the screen and was not super intuitive upon first use. DJI controllers are quick to provide clear warnings about low battery, loss of signal, or flying in a poor RF environment, all of which made us feel confident we wouldn't unknowingly wander into a sticky situation.
The only DJI Phantom that earned a lower score in this metric was the Phantom 3 Standard, which scored a 7. In terms of ease of use it is identical to all of its siblings in every way, except it uses a slightly different controller. We felt the joysticks on this controller felt just a bit less supple, and that the included smartphone clip felt more like something you'd use to close a bag of potato chips than hold an expensive phone steady. Therefore it got bumped down a point.
The Autel Robotics X-Star Premium also scored an 8 in this metric. Our testers felt its setup was similar to the DJI Phantom's. Likewise, the controller had nice joysticks and a pleasant feel. The only place it lost ground was its app. Once installed it is easy to use and worked well on all of our mobile devices, but it took some digging and searching to actually find it on the app store. The DJI Spark also earned an 8 out of 10 in this metric. After initial setup it was incredibly intuitive to fly, and we think beginners would be having fun with this quadcopter within 10 minutes of opening the box. The only reason we didn't give it a higher score was some difficulties getting the hand gestures to work, and initially connecting the optional remote controller (which we highly recommend) can be a little confusing.
The GoPro Karma Quadcopter scored a 7 in our ease of use testing. It was definitely the easiest model to configure out of the box. The onscreen startup menu that runs through initial setup felt more like a video game than a calibration procedure, and it even provided a flight simulator to get accustomed to the controls before taking off. It lost points for its controller design. While we loved its built-in screen, which negates the need for a smartphone, and its compact form, we couldn't get over the joysticks. They are a bit smaller than those of other models and just didn't seem to provide the same nuanced in flight control as its competitors. Additionally, we found its integrated screen to be difficult to view in bright sunlight.
The DJI Inspire fell slightly behind the other gimbal models, scoring a 6 in this metric. While the Inspire's controller is ergonomic and has great feeling joysticks, it is definitely geared towards professional users. This means it requires much more complex setup, not only out of the box but before each flight. This is fine if flying is your full-time job, but this felt cumbersome for a hobbyist or even a very serious amateur. The worst scorers in our ease of use testing were the Parrot Bebop 2 and the Yuneec Breeze, both of which earned a score of 3. We found both of these models to be a bit finicky when connecting them to a smartphone. Both also use only a smartphone or tablet as a controller. This means virtual touch screen joysticks that provide no tactile feedbacks, making flight feel much more tenuous and much less controlled.
Drones that are more responsive and fly in a more predictable manner don't only result in better footage, they reduce the stress of buzzing your $1000 investment around trees and over rivers. Additionally, being able to maintain solid flight control at higher speeds increases your possible repertoire of shots. Takeoff and landing are some of the riskiest points in any aircraft's flight, so in our testing we closely evaluated the stability of each model during these possibly tenuous maneuvers. We also determined how steadily each model was able to hover, and how well and smoothly each responded to the commands from the remote controls. We also tested each model's various autonomous flight functions. These include things like "cable cam" that flies a straight line between two predetermined points, often while still allowing adjustments in camera angle, and automatic return to home functions (note: it is our opinion that return to home functions should only be used as a last resort, click here for our full thoughts). Most models also have a follow function that will automatically follow a particular subject. We found these functions to be consistently mediocre across all of the models we tested. Thus they did not factor heavily into our scoring, and we would recommend manually piloting these copters to follow a moving subject when possible.
Before you start flying, make sure you are properly registered with the FAA. You can find out more about that process here.
The DJI Phantom 4s dominated our flight performance testing. The Phantom 4 Pro+, the Phantom 4 Pro, and the Phantom 4 all shared the top score of 9 out of 10. Across the board these models are incredibly stable and flight always felt solid and locked in. All of these models have sport modes that allow them to break 40 mph and fly like they were designed to race rather than capture footage. No other model was able to match this combination of reliable stability and sporty maneuverability. Combine that with rock solid takeoffs and landings, near-perfect orbit point of interest and cable cam functions, and incredible responsiveness, and you've got a fleet of top notch fliers.
Despite its small size the DJI Mavic Pro also earned a score of 9. We found it to be impressively stable in all aspects of flight, and it also has a sport mode that allows it to hit 40mph. The only slight downsides were due to its size. The smaller quadcopter did feel a bit less maneuverable in high winds, and its short stature meant we had to be very careful of high grass during takeoff and landing.
The GoPro Karma Quadcopter was just behind the Phantom 4s, scoring an 8. This model performed very similarly to the Phantom 4s in terms of stability, responsiveness, and autonomous flight functions. It could not match the Phantom 4s in terms of top speed and precise maneuverability. However, it was comparable in terms of the stable, lower speed flying required for capturing most quadcopter shots. It had a few other drawbacks as well. Its propellers are set very low to the ground, making taking off and landing in grass somewhat problematic. We also found that the small, recessed joysticks on its controller made precise control of the aircraft more difficult. It also provides a maximum of 20 minutes of flight time, compared to the Phantom 4's 28.
Orbit point of interest functions fly a circle around a determined point.
Apart from the Karma, a slew of other models also scored an 8 in our flight performance testing. These models include the DJI Phantom 3 advanced, the DJI Phantom 3 Professional, and the DJI Inspire 1 V2.0. All of these DJI models provide very similar design and flight performance to the top scoring Phantom 4, with some minor drawbacks. Both the Phantom 3 Standard and Advanced were just slightly less stable than the Phantom 4 during takeoff and landing and when hovering. We would still consider them impressively stable in these aspects of their flight, they just couldn't match the absolute rock solidness of the Phantom 4s. The Inspire was very stable, but tended to react in a jerky manner to any control input when starting from a hover, and offers a relatively short maximum flight time of 18 minutes compared to the Phantom 4's 28. We were eventually able to correct this jerkiness by make making adjustments deep within its settings, but this would be very difficult for all but very experienced pilots.
Slightly distanced from the rest of the DJI pack was the Phantom 3 Standard, which scored a 7. It lost some points because its hover felt just a bit less stable, and it felt just slightly less responsive when flying. These things would not be noticed in isolation, but are clear in a direct side by side comparison. The DJI Spark also scored a 7. Its small size limits its acceleration, top speed (31 mph) and maximum flight time (16 minutes) a bit, but we were enamored with the fact that it could take off and land in your hand. It also felt fairly responsive, and being able to fly it with simple hand gestures was great for taking photos.
The DJI Spark can perform some basic maneuvers using only hand gestures. This is great for framing and taking a quick photo.
The Autel X-Star Premium picked up a 6 in our flight performance testing. We found it to have solid autonomous flight functions and a maximum flight time of 25 minutes. It lost some points because it felt just a little less responsive than the DJI's, but mostly received a lower score due to its takeoff, landing, and hovering performance. In takeoff and landing it tended to drift unpredictably side to side, adding an unnecessary degree of stress. It also had poor altitude control when below 20 feet, randomly losing and gaining altitude five feet or more at a time. It seemed that one of its sensors was confused when in close proximity to the ground, causing this erratic dipping. This problem disappeared at higher heights.
In this metric the non-gimbal models were again at the bottom of the scoreboard, with both the Yuneec Breeze and the Parrot Bebop 2 picked up a score of 5. These models were much shakier than all of the others during takeoff and landing, and with their smaller size were inevitably less stable in all other aspects of flight as well. The Yuneec does have a suite of autonomous flight functions, including cable cam and orbit point of interests. We found that these functions worked, but the unstable flight made them less useful than on other models. The Bebop does not have these autonomous flight functions but has a much longer flight time of 25 minutes, compared to the Yuneec's 12 minutes.
Video downlink refers to the live video feed that streams from the camera. For most models this is displayed on a third party smartphone or tablet, but some do have a screen built into the controller. A smooth, real time, high quality video downlink allows you to see exactly what is being recorded at any moment, meaning you can react quickly and effectively to get the exact shot that you want. For the more imaginative amongst us, it can make you feel like you're actually hanging outside of a helicopter with a video camera pressed to your face. If the video downlink is choppy or low quality, getting the perfect shot becomes a crapshoot. This is because instead of flying based on what the camera is seeing, you have to look at the drone itself, infer which way the camera is pointing, and guess at what the shot looks like. This disconnect can easily lead to subpar footage. Video downlinks are also very important for framing shots. If the downlink isn't showing exactly what the camera is seeing, or parts of the downlink are obscured by on screen menus, you can end up with things in the edge of your shot that you didn't want there. We evaluated video downlink quality by taking all of the models on a long flight while noting the quality of the picture and any glitches we experienced in flight.
Here again we saw a clear split in performance between the gimbal and non-gimbal models. The DJI Phantom 4 Pro+ led the field in this metric with another perfect 10 out of 10. Its downlink remained crystal clear and lag free throughout all of our testing. DJI claims the built-in controller screen is twice as bright as a smartphone and we believe it. It was the only downlink we were able to easily see even when bright sun was glaring down upon it.
The DJI Phantom 4, the DJI Inspire, the DJI Phantom 4Pro, and the DJI Mavic Pro all held the second step on the podium with a score of 9 out of 10. These models provided consistent, high definition video to their controllers throughout our testing with no glitches or drops in quality. The only minor complaint we had with the downlinks of these models, as well as the other DJI models we tested, had to do with the design of the DJIGO app. The menu bar at the top of the screen obstructs a small part of the video feed, making it difficult to see exactly what is at the very top of the shot. Swiping on the screen removes the menu and lets you see the entirety of the video, but then you can't monitor things like the amount of battery remaining. The Mavic is slightly better in this regard because its controller has a small built-in screen that displays some things like battery life.
With the exception of the Parrot and the Yuneec, which have limited ranges, we tested all models on a 3000-foot flight where the quadcopters remained within visual line of sight at all times. Some products advertise a range of up to three miles. Flying at such a distance would almost certainly put the copter completely out of sight, which is not recommended. The professional drone pilot we worked with has never had to fly at such a distance to get a shot, and we would suggest flying with your copter well within sight at all times, and according to the manufacturer's recommendations.
Two more DJI models, the Phantom 3 Professional and the Phantom 3 Advanced, scored 8 in our video downlink testing. These models were nearly identical to the top scoring DJI models, except the on screen video quality was just slightly reduced. Not at all to a degree that would affect your ability to get the perfect shot, but just enough to not feel quite as immersive as the top scoring models. The DJI Phantom 3 Standard and the Autel X-Star, both of which scored 7 in this metric, had similar on-screen video quality to the models that scored 8. However, on both of these models we experienced very occasional and short lived bouts of pixelation. Again, this issue was not bad enough to significantly detract from getting a great shot, but was a noticeable hiccup in an otherwise great user experience. The GoPro Karma also scored a 7. Its video stream was flawless, never wavering in quality. However, the on screen video resolution felt a bit soft and didn't pop like that of other models. In most cases this wouldn't be an issue, but in certain lighting conditions it may be harder to discern some details, and thus harder to frame the shot exactly as you'd like.
The DJI Spark picked up a 6 out of 10 in our video downlink testing. The downlink was very steady and we never experienced interruptions, but it did look a bit grainy at times. Also, when using a smartphone alone you have to cover the actual video feed with your fingers to use the virtual joysticks. This problem is completely rectified by getting the optional remote controller.
The Yuneec Breeze and the Parrot Bebop 2 both scored a 4 in this metric. This steep dropoff in scores was mostly due to their interfaces. Both of these models use only a third party mobile device as a controller, utilizing virtual touch screen joysticks to fly. Having your thumbs on the screen inevitably means you're blocking at least half of the video downlink from view. This makes it nearly impossible to effectively use the downlink to frame a moving shot. It works fine if you want to slowly maneuver the camera into place to take a still selfie, which is really what these models are better suited for overall. The resolution of the downlink of both of these models was also significantly lower than the rest of the field.
These are fairly complex machines that represent a fairly significant investment, so knowing you can get someone knowledgeable on the phone if something goes wrong provides vital peace of mind. We called and submitted customer service requests to the manufacturers of all of the models we tested, whether our issues were real or made up, and graded each company based on the helpfulness of those experiences.
Autel was the best performer in our customer service tests, earning the top score of 9 out of 10. We found its customer service to be exceptional. The model we received came with a dead battery. In one phone call we were quickly speaking to a customer service representative. They apologized, cited that the dead battery was most likely due to the warehouse storage conditions of the distributor we had purchased it through, and within three days we received a brand new battery in the mail, free of charge. This opinion of high quality customer service is corroborated by a number of online user reviews. Parrot was just slightly behind Autel, scoring an 8 in this metric. When calling the customer service line we were always put in touch with a representative right away, and those representatives were knowledgeable and helpful. GoPro also scored an 8 in this metric. We found GoPro customer service to be great. Whenever we called we were quickly connected with a knowledgeable customer service representative that was able to help with whatever issue we were having, real or fabricated. YUNEEC fell behind the top scorers, earning only a 5 in this metric. We did not get timely feedback from Yuneec's customer service department. When our Breeze malfunctioned and crashed we had much better luck getting a replacement from the retailer we purchased through than from YUNEEC.
Despite the high quality products they produce, DJI has a reputation for poor customer service. Our own experiences anecdotally verified that reputation, and DJI thus earned a score of 3 in this metric. When calling their customer service line there was almost always a long queue and we inevitably had to wait on hold for an extended period of time. You could skip the line by sending an email or using their live chat service, but we found DJI to be tardy in responding to those avenues of contact as well. Any contact with customer service required filling out long forms asking for extraneous information, which felt like a hurdle to getting any actual assistance, which was hard to come by. We much preferred dealing with the customer service of the dealer we bought our copters from, rather than DJI's itself. All of this talk about DJI's poor customer service may have left a bad taste in your mouth. However, the fact is we still feel DJI makes the best camera drone available, and the Phantom 4 Pro+ is still the model we would recommend to our friends. We would just suggest that you keep this customer service limitation in mind, and make sure to buy your copter through a dealer that has a generous return policy. We personally were able to easily get a replacement of our crashed Phantom 3 Standard through Amazon.
A Note About Reliability
Generally we like to identify any potential reliability issues in a product by scouring its online user reviews, looking for any trends or a significant percentage of reviews that mention a particular issue. This is difficult to do for drones, however, for a few reasons. First, there are not a huge number of online reviews for any of these products. At the time of this writing all of the models we reviewed have less than 1000 reviews on Amazon, with most well under the 200 mark. This just isn't enough data with which to draw meaningful conclusions. Secondly, the most common complaint across all models is some malfunction that led to a damaging crash. While this is clearly a concern, most of these reviews provide little detail regarding the circumstances of the crash. Most likely some portion of these crashes occurred from users doing something ill advised, like flying beyond line of sight, and it's difficult to parse out which ones indicate an actual reliability issue. Finally, the user reviews for these products are negatively skewed. For example, one of our top scoring models, the DJI Phantom 4, currently has an average amazon rating of 3.7 stars. In the world of amazon reviews, this corresponds to about a C+. These lower averages seem to be due to a disproportionate number of one-star reviews. Most of these reviews stem from people being understandably upset about their expensive new quadcopter crashing and getting damaged, but this brings us back to the issue of not being able to determine the actual causes of those crashes.
While analyzing online user reviews of these products did not yield the kind of meaningful data we would have hoped for, it did teach us one major lesson: no matter which model you buy, there is a chance you could end up with a dud that crashes for one reason or another. We experienced this firsthand as two of the models we purchased had odd malfunctions that caused quite spectacular crashes. As amazon user Alan Roy put it in his one-star review of the Phantom 4, "Do you feel lucky?" Knowing this sort of thing is a possibility makes customer service an even more important thing to consider in your purchase decision. The problem is the company that clearly makes the best quadcopters, DJI, also has the worst customer service. We would still recommend purchasing a DJI model, but also strongly recommend that you purchase it through a good retailer that offers quality customer service itself and has a generous return policy.
A Note About Return to Home Functions
While we're on the subject of reliability and crashes with unknown causes, we'd like to touch upon return to home (RTH) functions. RTH is an autonomous flight feature that flies the quadcopter back to its starting point and touches it down on the ground, all on autopilot. These functions take control out of your hands, drastically increasing the chances of hitting an obstacle. RTH is a great feature to have in an emergency situation, like some sort of controller malfunction that makes it impossible to pilot the quadcopter back yourself. However, RTH functions should only be used in these types of instances, not as a way to end every flight. We wanted to highlight this because, though all manufacturers suggest only using RTH in these emergency types of situations, some of their advertising can be misleading. For example, much of DJI's advertisements suggest RTH is a feature that can be used commonly, saying things like, " bring it back home at the tap of the finger." However, this seems to be in direct contradiction with the user manual that, depending on the exact model, says something along the lines of, "Only use the failsafe and Return to Home functions in case of an emergency."
We analyzed these drones both through our own beginner eyes and through the experienced eyes of our collaborating professional pilot. From both viewpoints it was clear that the DJI Phantom 4 Pro+ is the model to get if you want to take your amateur videography to the next level. It is easy to fly yet provides professional level footage and plenty of advanced settings to grow into as you expand your skill set. The the Phantom 4 Pro and the Phantom 4 also provide pro level footage, and the Mavic Pro delivers solid footage in a compact and portable package. After these top models we found that most of the other competitors performed fairly similarly, with the DJI Phantom 3 Standard providing the best value-per-dollar for an aerial videographer on a tight budget. We believe we've completed the most exhaustive and scientific side-by-side comparison of the current models available on the market, and we hope this has helped you decide which one you will use on your path to spreading awe on Vimeo, Facebook, and Instagram.
— Max Mutter and Steven Tata
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