The latest of DJI's camera-toting quadcopters takes everything we’ve come to expect from the line and adds features that mean pretty much anyone can fly one. It’ll dodge obstacles, line up your camera shots for you and create some truly breathtaking 4K video in the process.
I’ve been flying one around South London for the past week, but it’s now so smart I’m pretty sure it could have done the job even if I hadn’t turned up.
Everything about the Phantom 4 feels more user-friendly, right down to the box it comes in. The grey Styrofoam suitcase is compact, but has room inside for drone, controller, battery charger and spare propellers, as well as the iPad Mini I was using as a display. You could easily mistake it for something the secret service might carry the Nuclear Button around in, but it’s a whole lot nicer than the basic cardboard the Phantom 3 turned up in - and it means you don’t need to invest in a carry case right away.
Lift the drone out of the box and it’s easy to spot DJI’s visual tweaks: the glossy, white, plastic frame looks thinner and more aerodynamic; the quick-release propellers make set-up much faster than older Phantoms; the exposed motors and smooth curves make it the ideal match for Apple’s retail stores, which will be the only place to pick one up for the first month.
Flip it over and you’ll spot the second IMU, or Inertia Measurement Unit, as well as the cameras and sensors that help keep the Phantom perfectly stable in the air, even in moderate winds.
It’s these new additions that help keep the Phantom 4 in the sky, and away from obstacles.
While other drones that rely purely on GPS don’t know if they’re about to fly into a tree, DJI has given its drone eyes and a brain to stop you crashing. Obstacle Avoidance works a bit like the parking sensors on a modern car; you get green, yellow and red indicators onscreen as you get closer, but get within six feet and the Phantom will simply refuse to go any further.
Trying it out against a brick wall at high speed brought me out in a cold sweat, but thankfully the drone came out unscathed. Because the cameras only face forwards, obstacle avoidance won’t work when you’re flying backwards or sideways, and it can sometimes refuse to go through gaps that a pilot would be able to navigate by hand. But they're minor drawbacks really to what is a fantastic addition to the Phantom's skills.
All of the Phantom 3’s intelligent flight modes return, but they're limited to GPS navigation only. That means you won't be able to use Obstacle Avoidance with the likes of Waypoint Navigation, Follow Me and Point Of Interest Orbiting and will have to do the spotting yourself instead.
Fortunately, you really don’t need to be an expert behind the sticks to use the Phantom 4: tap-to-take-off and -land return, but you can now tap-to-fly too. With TapFly enabled, pressing anywhere on the live view will send the drone in that direction. It’s smart enough to turn smoothly, so your footage looks perfectly stable.
The feature doesn’t work until you’re at a certain height, so it’s not like you can ditch the controller altogether, and you’ll want to have it to hand in case you need to take manual control, but it’s a great way for novice fliers to get started. When you’re ready to give the physical controls a workout, though, the Phantom 4 becomes an entirely different beast.
The need for speed
The last Phantom was hardly a slouch, but DJI has turned things up a notch for the Phantom 4. You’ve essentially got three speeds now; switch on Obstacle Avoidance and you’ll reach 22 miles per hour. In normal mode, that jumps up to 35mph, and in the aptly-named Sport mode, you’ll top out at a frankly terrifying 45mph.
Flying this thing at full-throttle takes guts. If you know what you’re doing though, you’ll be amazed at how agile the Phantom can be at full tilt. It could make the difference to camera pros trying to get that all-important action shot, but even if you aren’t filming, it’s brilliant fun.
Once you’re in the air, DJI’s estimated 28 minutes of flight time felt pretty much on the money. That’s a slight improvement over the old model, and might sound like a lot, but if you’re hoping to use the Phantom for any professional jobs, or will be out of the house all day, you’ll definitely want to invest in an additional battery (£129 each).
Switch into Sport mode and you’ll drain the Phantom much faster; I struggled to hit 20 minutes when flying at full whack. Still, at least the controller lasts a lot longer between charges, so plugging it in after a handful of flights should keep it topped up. Both controller and drone battery hook up to the same power adapter, and both are fully charged within an hour.
Eye in the sky
DJI hasn’t given the camera any major upgrades over the Phantom 3 Professional, but then it didn’t need to; the 4K sensor already shoots ridiculously sharp and detailed video.
That means the 12.4MP Sony Exmor sensor returns, paired to an f/2.8 lens and wide 94-degree field-of-view. You still get the maximum 4096 x 2160 resolution at 24 or 25fps, or 3840 x 2160 at 24, 25 and 30fps.
If that all seems like overkill, bear in mind that even if you’re editing at 1080p, being able to crop without sacrificing detail can be a godsend for video pros. Slow-motion 1080p recording at 120fps is a welcome addition, too.
DJI has tweaked the three-axis gimbal, which automatically keeps your footage steady and level, even when you’re flying at speed. It’s now fixed on both sides for extra stability, so my videos stayed locked at whatever I pointed the camera at - even when banking at speed.
As with the Phantom 3, the camera is still best suited to daylight shooting at low ISO; boosting the sensitivity in dark conditions makes your footage look a lot grainier. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re planning to film at night.
I was blown away by some of the footage that came out of the Phantom 4, mainly because I wasn’t actually in control at the time. AutoTrack uses computer vision tech to recognise any subject, then lock on to it with the camera. It would sometimes take a few tries to lock on, either because the subject was too small or too far away, and groups of people could confuse it, but it worked brilliantly about 15ft away from your subject.
Hold the control stick to the left or the right and you’ll get an orbit, with your subject still in the centre of the frame. That’s not an easy move for inexperienced pilots, but it’s a piece of cake here.
You can snap 12MP still photos while you’re filming, in either JPEG or RAW DNG. Quality is probably on par with a top-end smartphone camera, meaning great results in bright light. As with video, though, expect much grainier images when it gets dark. At least with RAW you can tweak the end result once you get home.
Manual modes for video and stills shooting let you set ISO, shutter speed and white balance, although you can’t adjust the fixed aperture. Zebra stripes and a histogram, meanwhile, help point out an over- or under-exposed shot.
It’s all controlled from the smartphone or tablet companion app; the buttons are large enough to be usable on an iPhone 6s, but the extra space you get on a tablet makes things a lot easier to tweak on the, um, fly.
The app, DJI Go, is a massive improvement over the older DJI Vision used for the original Phantom, and it’s available for both iOS and Android. It finally handles firmware updates without having to head to a PC or Mac, and keeps the same layout as the version that landed with last year’s Phantom 3.
You can toggle between the drone’s live view camera and a map view at any time, and there’s still room for an information readout that lists your altitude, speed, remaining flight time and signal strength. The simulator mode is a great first stop for new pilots, even if you have to have the drone switched on while you’re using it, and you can also set your own height and distance limits, to keep the drone nearby in case you get into trouble.
Under the Thumb
The remote controller hasn’t really changed from the Phantom 3, with the same flip-out cradle for a phone or smartphone, twin control sticks and enough buttons to record video or take photos without reaching for the touchscreen. The customisable buttons on the back of the controller were handy before, but they come into their own with the new autonomous modes: you can toggle them on and off without taking your eye off the drone.
Device and controller connect with a USB cable, rather than messing around with Wi-Fi. That ensures you’re getting an uninterrupted and lag-free live view of the drone’s camera. And as a further bonus, DJI’s 720p Lightbridge downlink is second to none, with a very clear video stream that never once lost connection in our testing.
The drone has a maximum transmission range of 3.5km before it loses contact with the controller, but even if you do let it go that far you won't need to worry about crashing: the Return to Home mode automatically kicks in at that range. Bear in mind also that the flying environment make a big difference to range, so you'll be able to fly it further in wide open spaces.
You’re still altitude-limited by the app, although you can turn it off if you don’t mind run-ins with the law once you get over 120m - the legal limit in most parts of the UK. We wouldn't recommend you do that, obviously. Plus, there's really no need - that’s still more than high enough to get some stunning footage. You'll also find certain restricted areas, such as airports, geo-fenced to stop you getting into serious trouble.
DJI PHANTOM 4 VERDICT
At £1229, the Phantom 4 is more expensive than last year’s model, but the autonomous modes make it the clear choice for anyone looking to make their first flight as a drone pilot.
That doesn't mean it's solely for beginners, though: pros will appreciate the extra tech too, and the speed upgrades mean it can even take on the high-end DJI Inspire 1.
DJI really has pulled off something special with the Phantom 4. Other companies might have been happy to bump up the flight time and add a few visual tweaks, but the Phantom 4 is not so much an upgrade as an evolutionary leap.
The world of drones can be an intimidating one, but what DJI has done here is to create a quadcopter that anyone really can fly – and do it safely. Expect to see a lot more of these in the sky soon.