Nobody has done more to put drones in the hands of nervous amateurs than DJI.
With its steady succession of affordable but advanced quadcopters toting superb cameras and damn-near idiot-proof flight controls, the Chinese company has transformed what was a niche activity for DIY hobbyists and enthusiast filmmakers into something that anyone with a smartphone and a few hundred quid to burn can get into.
The only problem? DJI has launched so many different models that it’s tricky to work out which one is your perfect rotor-equipped match. Should you shell out for a Spark, or fork out for a Mavic? The struggle, as they say, is real.
But no more. Because your fly friends at Stuff, having sent the vast majority of DJI’s bad boys up into the clear blue yonder and back many times, are here to help. Read on, would-be pilots – your drone shopping trip is about to get a lot easier.
Best for...beginners on a budget
DJI Spark (£359)
DJI’s smallest quadcopter felt like a quietly revolutionary product on its launch in the summer of 2017, mostly due to its dinky size and controller-free flying.
While the Spark is not without its issues – the stingy 10-15 minutes of flight time per battery charge and the slightly high price on launch, particularly if you factored a twin-stick controller into the bill – its key strengths remain appealing the best part of a year later.
First, there’s the fact that it’s small and light enough (just 300g) to launch from and land on the palm of your hand, even if its lack of folding prop arms make it a little too large to call pocket-sized.
Then there’s its gesture control scheme, which (when it works, which isn’t quite as often as we’d like) allows you to instruct it to perform basic manoeuvres simply through forming specific shapes with your hands – a form of Jedi mind control, almost.
You don’t need to rely on your mitts, though. With either the optional hardware controller or your smartphone running DJI’s app, it’s possible to trigger impressive auto-fly modes as well as engage in much more complex manual movements – plus capture crisp, colourful 1080p videos and 12MP photographs.
Now available for significantly less than its original £519 asking price, the Spark remains a great choice for drone newbies operating on a tight budget. Those with a little more to spend can choose to “level up” the Spark by adding extra batteries and a controller – or they can opt for DJI’s newer, fancier Mavic Air.
DJI Mavic Air (£769)
The newest model in this list, the Mavic Air takes bits and pieces from a range of other DJI models to deliver a drone that’s not only compact enough to carry around all day but competent enough to capture pin-sharp 4K footage while slicing through the sky at over 40mph.
Folding down to the size of a water bottle and weighing only 430g, you’ll have no issues stuffing the Mavic Air into a backpack, and depending on your choice of coat you may even be able to get it into a pocket.
A twin-stick RC controller comes included in the base package (which, when used, boosts the control range from 80m to 4km) while battery life is a little beefier than the Spark’s (while less than the Phantom and Mavic Pro Platinum models’), with around 21 minutes of air time per charge in the standard flight mode.
Other areas in which the Mavic Air bests the Spark are video/photo quality and flight safety. A 3-axis gimbal keeps the camera steady while it’s capturing 4K video and decent 12MP snaps (with HDR) to the 8GB of internal storage (there’s a MicroSD slot if you need more space), making its aerial imaging chops significantly more impressive than its cheaper cousin.
Safety-wise, the six infrared sensors on board (two up front, two rear-facing and two downward-facing) give it superb spatial awareness to help prevent collisions, with the new Advanced Pilot Assistant System automatically steering it around obstacles.
Overall, the Mavic Air makes an obvious choice for anyone who wants to keep a drone on hand during travels (although the relatively short flight time might require you buy a couple more batteries), but we think it also appeals as a perfect first drone for those who need a little more range, safety and imaging ability than the Spark affords.
Best for...a quieter flight
DJI Mavic 2 Zoom (£1,099)
The cheaper of DJI’s second-generation Mavic models, the Mavic 2 Zoom is a quadcopter that shares the same basic folding shape as the Spark and Mavic Air models. When it comes to spec and features, however, the Zoom has more in common with the Phantom 4 range, offering similar transmission range, battery life and camera performance but with a more carry-friendly size and shape.
The Zoom’s propeller and streamlined body design make it quieter in the air than the original Mavic Pro model in flight, and while you certainly couldn’t describe it as silent, it’s less obnoxious (and less like a swarm of killer bees) than most drones while overhead. That means you can capture videos and photos in public areas without attracting too much attention or feeling like you’re intruding.
There’s much more to love about this drone than its lack of ear botheration, though: capable of capturing crisp 4K video, it has the only drone camera to offer a 2x optical zoom lens, which lets you get a little closer to the action. The Zoom also offers a generous 31 minutes of flying time per battery charge, and a tottering heap of safety features – including anti-collision sensors on all sides to make crashing virtually impossible.
DJI Phantom 3 SE (£599)
The Phantom 3 range may be almost three years old now, but don’t go thinking it’s obsolete.
DJI released this SE version in 2017 in an attempt to offer an affordable entry-level model that offered more than the Spark in terms of in-flight stability, range, flight time and camera performance – albeit in a significantly larger package.
With its non-folding design, removable props and large controller, you’ll need to lug the Phantom 3 SE in a specialised carry case or bag rather than simply slinging it into a backpack.
It’s not particularly portable, then, but its size and shape help it to maintain stability on blustery days where flying DJI’s “flatter” models like the Spark and Mavic Air or Pro would be ill-advised.
Each battery you have will afford the drone 25 minutes of flight time, with GPS and a Vision Positioning System (twin downward-facing sensors – note that there are no forward-facing sensors to prevent collisions, though) helping to maintain stability while in-flight.
There’s a 4km range and a top speed of 35mph – not quite up to the Mavic Pro or Phantom 4 Pro’s standards, but more than enough considering current UK law dictates you must keep any drone you’re piloting within your line-of-sight.
Video and photos come courtesy of a 1/2.3in CMOS sensor like the one used by the Mavic Pro and Air models, and as with those models you can capture 4K videos at 25 or 30fps, 1080p videos at up to 60fps and 12MP stills in either JPEG or DNG RAW format, all stabilised with a 3-axis gimbal.
Cheaper than the Mavic Air, the Phantom 3 SE is the perfect model for beginners who aren’t too fussed about portability, or intermediates who value stability (and therefore smoother-looking videos).
Best for...video lovers
DJI Mavic 2 Pro (£1,349)
Professional filmmakers will probably go for one of DJI’s pricier drones, but looking purely at its normal consumer range, one model stands out as the choice for wannabe aerial videographers: the Mavic 2 Pro.
Its fantastic camera, made in conjunction with legendary Swedish company Hasselblad, is the best ever featured on an affordable consumer drone. Its 1in 20MP sensor and adjustable aperture make it a fine performer in almost any lighting conditions, able to produce footage (or still photos, for that matter) with brilliant colour depth, wide dynamic range and clean detail straight out of the camera. The Mavic 2 Pro can also record 10-bit hybrid log gamma HDR video for those with the means of playing it back, or in a 10-bit Dlog-M format that designed for easier post-production colour grading, all of which make it a very exciting platform for those looking to create better aerial footage.
The Pro shares the same 31-minute battery life, portable design, quiet operation and safety features as the Mavic 2 Zoom. In fact, aside from the camera it’s exactly the same drone. So not only is it very easy to fly and easy to carry around, it’s also incredibly capable. At the moment, we’d say it’s the best consumer drone on the market, full stop.