DJI Mavic Pro
Back for another review and this time it's with the new DJI Mavic Pro (UAV). The company announced it last year but due to demand and lack of preparedness they were back-ordered for months. Mine arrived suddenly right after the XMAS holidays, quite awhile after I placed the order.
I've worked my way up through the DJI eco-system from the bog-standard Phantom to the (version II) Inspire 1 and I have yet to find another UAV manufacturer that does it better. They are reliable, safe to use for competent operators and come with a variety of Flight Modes that make complex maneuvers easier to pull off for cinematic shots. The Inspire is definitely my fav of the bunch but it's a pain to transport, not to mention...positively nerve wracking to take commercial flights with. It's sheer size makes it super stable in less than ideal weather conditions and those powerful motors get's you to the shoot location fast enough to outrun the quick-draining batteries. Those features pretty much guarantee that it has to be checked instead of carried unto the plane with you. No matter what anyone says, very few planes will accommodate a suit-cased Inspire in the overhead compartment.
That's where the Mavic came in.
I'm an investor (stock market) in GoPro and so I'm constantly in touch with the latest news that may affect it's share price. When they announced the Karma UAV I actually thought of making the switch. Having a drone small enough to travel with or even transport locally was something I've been after for awhile. Fortunately DJI came out with the Mavic and all it's features fit right into my needs and wants categories. Good thing too...the Karma was an initial flop due to a design issue and took many months to reintroduce once they got the problem solved. Like the Karma, the Mavic folds up into a neat little package small enough to fit into all three of my camera bags with no effort at all. The controller itself has the approximate footprint of your standard iPhone 6...
I'll break down the review this way...
The Mavic is built similarly to the Inspire 1...high quality materials and everything is tight. Nothing has come loose or fallen off after 3 months of steady use. I clipped some branches on one occasion and though two of the props were damaged it kept right on flying. In fact I didn't realize the damage was done until I landed and went to pack it away.
By contrast the Inspire 1 is not so forgiving. If any one propeller is damaged that thing is going down hard due to the size and weight. To my knowledge, DJI consumer drones do not have any sort of flight redundancy built in. If any one "thing" fails, a crash will result most likely. This means that the Mavic is the only DJI "consumer" drone that can withstand the odd impact here and there...though I don't recommend it. The electronics are fantastic and the paired software app work together for a really good flying experience.
Although the Inspire 1's camera and (3-Axis) gimbal are billed as a more advanced system I really didn't see any significant difference in Photo or Video quality. Of course the Inspire's gimbal has a 360 degree rotation ability and with the landing struts raised it was rare to ever get the props in images or footage. Plus it looks damn cool. Score 1 for the Inspire for the gimbal rotation but when it comes to image output I found them basically the same. If you want a higher quality or more flexible video footage for post production then you have to pony up an amount equal to "Or Exceeding" the inspire 1 itself. The Zenmuse X5R camera is listed at $3600 USD while the standard X5 is at $1300. Then you are in the big leagues and should have a post-processing skillset to make use of it all.
A lot has been made about the film making ability of the camera...what settings to use etc. First let me say that people are simply expecting too much from the camera systems on drones like these. The sensors used are TINY...as such dynamic range and ability to process various resolutions during operation is limited as compared to your standard DSLR or Mirrorless camera. 4K video is all the rage now and the Mavic will record 4K at (4096X2160 24p) and (3840X2160 30p) in addition to the the usual 2K and 1080p varieties. However, in my opinion, the maximum bitrate of 60 mbps limits the degree of push and pull in post processing. So color graders out there will want to consider that factor when making a purchasing choice between drones. Again...no difference with the Inspire 1 (X3)...the Mavic is the same basic camera with a few additional choices for the HD/SD video options. I've found that using the D-LOG image profile at (-1,-1,-1) gives me a pretty good baseline for additional post processing work on footage.
The stills from the camera are also pretty good, not unlike the output of an advanced compact/mirrorless camera. The above image is an unprocessed DNG with my "average" settings. As with the video, you can decide on how much is baked into the final image by changing the settings to your taste or shoot RAW (DNG) and adjust it later.
The field of view is slightly different than the Inspire's as shown in the image above. At 28mm (35mm equivalent) things are a bit tighter but I prefer it to the wider angle view.
DJI Inspire 1 DNG Image Sample
BTW, that image of the pool was taken on a very windy day on the coast of Curacao and the Mavic held fairly steady for the shot.
The "only" real niggle I had with the Mavic's camera is the gimbal in cold weather. On a few occasions it was affected with the jitters and DJI has subsequently addressed that via a firmware update. Issue solved.
This goes to the Inspire but just by an edge. The Mavic operates well under normal conditions in fact I find it more stable than the Inspire or Phantoms I've flown in the past. It simply refuses to drift significantly in any direction. When the wind kicks up above normal the rubber meets the pavement. The Mavic will hang as best as you can expect for a craft this small but it struggles. I took it to Curacao with me a few months back and I got high wind warnings frequently. The turbulence was enough to overcome the gimbal on a few occasions. The Inspire can take that and a bit more, However I don't fly in such conditions...simply not safe or smart. Speaking of safety, the Mavic has sensors built in for obstacle avoidance. It also has two speeds...regular and sport. Sport mode is truly...wow. This thing can really move, however the avoidance sensors are turned off in this mode. I also love the Tripod Mode...it transforms the drone into a very sophisticated and smooth jib or slider. Take your pick.
Flight time is somewhere around 20-25 minutes depending on how active you are with it. DJI says that forward flight is "The" most efficient operation for maximum battery usage and I've found that in practice. On a straight hovering test both on windy and calm days I was averaging 15-20 minutes. The Inspire by comparison was nowhere near it's rated flight time, I'm lucky to get 15 minutes on a typical flight. This item is particularly important to filming as you need time to take-off, setup your shot...exposure, etc. You may even need to do one or two runs to fine tune and get things right. It helps if you can do all that without landing an swapping out batteries. Score this one to the Mavic.
Overall I love the way the Mavic flies. The small size and stability allows for very precision flying in the most confine spaces, especially when you enable Tripod Mode which takes the edge off sudden movements and start/stops. If you are familiar with a slider...consider Tripod Mode an endless version of that. I was able to fly indoors around furniture with confidence...something I wouldn't dare try with the Inspire. The small size has another benefit...it doesn't call attention to itself as much as the Inspire and I'm a lot less likely to irritate others or wildlife while flying. I get that some people like to show off ...the whole bigger is better thing, but I'm an understated kind of guy and I prefer to be discreet and work without drawing too much attention to myself or the gear I'm using.
I'm extremely happy with the Mavic Pro.
It's a good choice for people on the move like me. Often times I have to consider how I'm going to get into a location with my gear with enough energy to get back out. After hauling a suitcase/backpack with the Inspire 1 for a year this addition makes a real difference. Yes, of course you give up some things...there is always a tradeoff in life but what you gain is the ability to always have an aerial camera with you. As I learned early on in my photographic life "The Best Camera Is The One You Have With you". The trend has definitely picked up speed in the past 3 years with professionals and hobbyists alike trading in those large bricks (cameras) for lighter mirrorless products. Drones are experiencing a similar evolution...smaller, lighter and better.
DJI has since released the Phantom 4 Pro and Inspire II...and the prices are way up there. Each model has addressed some of the issues I've indicated in this article...for instance the new Inspire has 2...thats right, TWO batteries to extend flight time and also add some redundancy. None of that matters if one of the motors quits mid-air though and it's an expensive UAV to fix.
Your choice of drone will always remain a personal matter...the tools are dictated by the job you need to do.