DJI is the Nike of drone makers, and the Phantom series is its Air Max 1 – a compact, lightweight, camera-wielding quadcopter whose white silhouette has become a familiar sight in the skies over parks, beaches and, well, pretty much everywhere over the past couple of years.
There’s no shortage of quadcopter options out there, but the Phantom range’s ready-to-fly design, sturdy build, simple controls and – probably most importantly – its affordable price tag have given it near-ubiquity.
Well, now the range has been updated with two new models, promising all manner of tweaks and updates to make what we consider the best all-round consumer drone even better.
And we’ve been flying one of those models - the 4K-capable Professional - around South London for the past few days.
Yes, that’s right: the Professional is the first Phantom to shoot in ultra HD, which widens its appeal to videographers and budding creative types who want eyeball-slicingly sharp footage.
Even if you’re editing your final cuts to 1080p or below, starting at the highest resolution possible gives you precious extra scope, and the Professional offers a maximum of 4096 x 2160 at 24 or 25fps (or 3840 x 2160 at 24, 25 and 30fps). That’s filmed with a camera using a 12.4MP Sony Exmor sensor paired to an f/2.8 lens with a nice wide 94-degree field-of-view.
As with the Phantom 2 Vision+, this camera is fitted to the drone by means of a three-axis gimbal which automatically keeps it steady and level (assuming that’s what you want it to do) no matter the angle or speed of the aircraft.
Its 1080p quality is smooth and reasonably sharp (definitely sufficiently so for most people) while the 4K footage is astonishingly crisp, detailed and rich. I don’t think the average consumer needs the 4K option, to be quite honest, but video pros will definitely appreciate the extra pixels.
The camera fares well in daylight with low ISO settings, but at night it requires you to boost the sensitivity, which leads to images that are a lot grainier and lacking in detail. It’s not terrible, but take a look at the test footage to get an idea of what you should expect in low light.
The gimbal works like a dream 99% of the time, keeping the camera perfectly aligned and steady. Bank to the left or move forward and back and the camera will remain locked to the horizon, or wherever you’ve pointed it.
According to a warning on the Android app, my review Phantom was suffering from “gimbal motor overload” but this didn’t seem to have any affect on performance, didn’t appear when I was using the iOS app, and consequently I suspect it may have been a bug in the software rather than an actual issue.
The quadcopter we tested was the Phantom 3 Professional, which retails for £1,159 on DJI's online store. Its other new flyer is the Phantom 3 Advanced, which costs £899. The chief difference between the two models, aside from the colour of their decal livery (gold for the Professional, silver for the Advanced), is that the Professional offers 4K video recording while the Advanced tops out at 1080p. The Professional also has a more powerful battery charger (100W opposed to 57W) which lessens charging times.
I do have one problem with the 4K recording, and it’s a fairly big one: rolling shutter.
Because the sensor captures each frame in a sweeping pass rather than in one go, recording at high shutter speeds can result in video that, when played back, looks distractingly wobbly. It’s often referred to as the 'Jello effect' for this reason, and I found it particularly prevalent in the 4K material I filmed (in 1080p, I barely noticed it).
Essentially, it’s worse the better the lighting, which means almost everything I filmed in 4K on these clear late-June days came out wobblier than a blancmange on a bicycle when watched back on my Mac.
There are ways, reportedly, to counteract it: flipping the app to manual settings and ensuring the shutter speed is 50 keeps it under control, but because of the lens’ fixed f/2.8 aperture this isn’t always possible – everything comes out overexposed unless you’re filming in low light.
Apparently, a lot of pilots have been fitting their Phantom 3 Professional’s cameras with light-reducing neutral density filters for this very purpose – something I wasn’t able to try out during my time with the drone, sadly.
Either way, it’s a characteristic of the camera you should definitely be aware of before making a decision to buy, especially if you’re fastidious about the quality of your 4K recordings.
Bromley in all its, ahem, glory
Dulwich from the air
Anyone for cricket?
A night on the town
The camera also takes 12MP stills, which can either be captured in JPEG or RAW DNG. There’s not a huge amount to be said about still quality, really – I’d put it on a par with a high-end smartphone camera.
It’s superb in good lighting, a little less impressive in gloomier conditions, but the RAW capabilities afford you a wide measure of control over how the image turns out in post-processing.
Both the video and still cameras have manual modes allowing you to set ISO, shutter speed, white balance and the like (one thing you can’t adjust is aperture), all of which is controlled through the companion app and your phone or tablet touchscreen.
You can even bring up a histogram or zebra stripes to show areas that are under- or overexposed. Stills also suffer from noise and lack of detail in low light, but it’s possible to lengthen shutter speeds and get slightly better results if you use the manual settings. Even so, you shouldn’t expect supremely sharp shots once the sun starts to dip below the horizon.
APP’S THE WAY TO DO IT
Sam putting the DJI Phantom 3 Professional through its paces
The app used to control the Phantom 3’s camera and settings, DJI Pilot (which launched alongside the step-up Inspire 1 quadcopter), is available for both iOS and Android devices.
The list of 'recommended' phones and tablets is fairly short at the time of writing, especially when it comes to Android tablets and phones, but DJI promises to expand that shortly. I used the app on an iPhone 6 and a second-generation Google Nexus 7 (both of which are recommended devices) and had no major issues whatsoever.
The app is a huge step up from the previous DJI Vision app used with older Phantom models. For one thing, it supports DJI’s Lightbridge quad-antenna technology, which allows a 720p HD live feed of whatever the drone’s camera is looking at to be streamed right to your device.
It’s sharper, clearer and less laggy than DJI Vision’s feed, and given that you can use tablets up to the iPad Air in size (anything larger won’t fit on the controller’s mount), it’s very easy to clearly see the world around your quadcopter and judge its position even when you can’t physically see it (which, if you’re in the UK, won’t matter anyway, because the law states you need to have eyes on your drone at all times).
The app also features a map that shows both the home (starting position) and the Phantom’s current location, as well as a full info readout that gives you pretty much all the data you could want: altitude; speed; distance from you; the number of GPS satellites it’s in contact with; and remaining battery life and flight time.
FLY LIKE AN EAGLE
The new DJI Phantom 3 controller
The redesigned remote control features a cradle for mounting phones and tablets, and rather than perform the older Phantoms’ elaborate dance of connecting your to the controller via Wi-Fi, you simply plug it in via a USB cable. Much quicker and much less fuss.
There are also more physical controls than previous DJI remotes, including two customisable trigger buttons, so you can do more without having to take your thumbs off the sticks.
Turn on the Phantom 3 via its battery, then switch on the controller, open the app and within a few moments everything is connected and working. The quadcopter still takes a minute or so to warm up before giving you the indication that it’s ready to fly, but you can play with app settings while it’s doing so – it’s far better than the lengthy, complicated setup process of older Phantoms.
And once it’s ready, you’re free to start the engine and push up the left stick to lift off. But you don’t have to do it manually: you can also tap an on-screen button and the drone will automatically start up and fly to a height of 1.2m.
The same applies to landing: rather than manually bring it back to solid ground, you can manoeuvre it over a clear spot and tap a button to have it slowly descend, land and turn off its motors.
The “come home” control from older Phantoms remains too, both on-screen and as a physical button on the controller: hit it at any time and the Phantom 3 will return from wherever it’s flying and land as near as dammit to the spot it took off from.
I remain a little wary of using this in areas with lots of trees, buildings or other obstacles, but the couple of times I tested it, the drone travelled back horizontally, then dropped vertically back to within a few metres of its starting point.
It’ll automatically kick in if the control signal drops or the battery life gets to its last dregs, too: the Phantom is clever that way, and if it does crash into anything it’s almost certainly going to be because of something a human did.
The drone has a claimed range of 1.2 miles (or 2km) before it loses contact with the controller, but in practice I found that the signal becomes choppy at around 500m, and often drops a little beyond that. I suspect your environment makes a big difference to the range, so flying in open countryside might well lengthen the signal.
Altitude-wise, DJI has software-limited the height ceiling to 120m by default – that’s the legal limit in most parts of the UK. You are free to turn off the limiter, but we certainly don’t recommend that you do if you want to avoid run-ins with the law. And 120m is certainly high enough to capture great footage and images.
Older Phantoms were pretty laissez-faire when it came to the legal dos and don’ts of drone flying, with DJI assuming that new pilots would do their own research, find out what they were allowed to do (and more importantly, what they weren’t) and not get into trouble.
But now, possibly due to the amount of negative press concerning idiotic drone pilots in recent months, the company evidently feels it has a responsibility to school customers in the ways of quadcopter etiquette.
Not only does DJI's website have a dedicated 'Fly Safe' section, but the app also prevents you from using the Phantom 3 in certain areas (near airports, for instance), features a simulator to allow you to practice, and allows you to set your own limits to height and distance if you wish.
It’s a welcome feature, given how many people are currently buying quadcopters.
The Phantom 3 in flight
In terms of flight time, I found DJI’s claims of up to 25 minutes per battery to be pretty much accurate. That might sound like a long time (and it’s a slight improvement over older Phantoms) but if you’re planning on using the Phantom 3 in any sort of professional capacity or taking it out on a day trip, you’ll almost certainly want to pack additional batteries (these cost £124 each).
The 100W charger does replenish batteries surprisingly quickly (I’d estimate it to take about 40 minutes from zero charge to full), but that’s not much use if you don’t have access to a power socket.
The remote controller also features a rechargeable battery (the same 100W charger is used to top it up), and thankfully this lasts a lot longer than 25 minutes – you can expect to get several full flights out of it before it requires replenishment.
As with previous Phantoms, build quality is excellent. I managed not to crash the Phantom 3 into anything, but whoever had been using the review unit prior to me had clearly bashed the drone around quite a bit. But, aside from a few scuffs and some dings on the propellers (the cheapest, easiest element to replace at £11 for four), the quadcopter was in good nick despite whatever trials and tribulations it had been through.
Having watched agape as a Phantom 2 Vision I was piloting plummeted 10 or so metres on to concrete a couple of years back (totally my fault), only to find it bruised but perfectly functional afterwards, it’s clear that DJI has built these beasts to survive relatively minor mishaps.
DJI Phantom 3 Professional verdict
5 stars for the Phantom 3...
If you can live with the rolling shutter 4K problem – and there are ways to get around it – the Phantom 3 Professional is pretty much the perfect 'first flying camera'.
Despite looking rather cuddly and plasticky, this isn’t a toy: its flight capabilities and aerial photography skills make it a piece of equipment that plenty of people could use professionally; it could easily replace expensive, bulky equipment such as cranes and dollies on a film shoot, for instance.
And even if you aren’t planning on making money from it, there’s major value in the way it allows you to instantly gain a new perspective on the world around you. You might have been living somewhere for 20 years, but seeing it from 400 feet in the air makes it feel brand new.
The Phantom 3 Professional certainly isn’t cheap, but it comes across as affordable for what it provides – although I do feel that, for most people, the £899 Advanced model should fit the bill perfectly adequately, especially given the rolling shutter issues I experienced with 4K footage.
But if 4K is a must, you'll want to buy the Professional - and trust us, you're guaranteed to have fun with it if you do so.