DJI Phantom 4
One of the first things we noticed when the Phantom 4 arrived on our doorstep was that the packaging certainly wouldn’t be out of place in an Apple store – perhaps no coincidence given DJI’s recent collaboration with the tech giant. It’s plain white with a high resolution gloss print over half of the product with the words ‘Phantom 4’ and ‘DJI’. It’s premium and minimalistic, and something straight out of the Cupertino handbook.
Inside the cardboard sleeve there’s a grey foam chest, with a locking mechanism and a handle on the top. Whilst it’s a serious step up from the egg box style of packaging seen in previous models, it’s unclear what the purpose of this is. The foam doesn’t seem like it will last long out in the field, but it seems too good to just throw away. It’s possible that DJI will release an outer shell or backpack (see more in our feature on page 72) and that this foam chest will slot into it at some point in the future. If not, some enterprising eBay seller will be peddling such a thing before long.
Open the foam chest and you’ll find the Phantom 4 itself and the transmitter, charger, two USB cables, the quick start manual pack and a black fabric sleeve with eight shiny propellers inside – and we mean literally shiny, just like the Phantom’s body.
The new Phantom charger could also have been designed by Apple’s own Jony Ive. It’s all white with a small DJI logo indented on one face. As before, the charger has outputs for both the transmitter and Phantom battery. It’s out with the two-pin connector of previous models and in with a new SCART-like ten-pin connector for the battery.
After you’ve charged the batteries and powered up, the first thing the DJI Go app will ask you to do is update the firmware. Thankfully the update process has changed on the Phantom 4. On previous models an upgrade involved downloading the latest file from DJI’s website to your PC, putting it on to a Micro SD card and then turning it on. If you had done everything correctly (including deleting any evidence of previous attempts from the card) then the Phantom would start beeping loudly. This would continue for up to an hour and, once complete, the beeping would change slightly.
Understandably some users bailed out early and removed the battery causing all sorts of problems. As often as not the result was even louder beeping from upset ESCs and not much else. With the Phantom 4 a USB-A to Micro USB adaptor is supplied and the DJI Go app guides you to plug your phone directly into the Phantom 4 to do an upgrade.
There’s no loud beeping and the screen keeps you up to date with what’s going on and how long it’s likely to be. There’s no need to have a Micro SD card reader or a computer at all for that matter. It’s certainly an improvement and seems less prone to problems – and even the beeping that the Phantom 4 does emit is much more pleasant, with a nice echo effect to it.
- Camera: 12MP, 4K, 3-axis gimbal; 4K/30fps HD, 1080p/120fps slow motion
- Weight (with battery): 1380g
- Battery type: 5350mAh LiPo
- Flight time: Up to 28mins
- Dimensions: 196 x 289.5 x 289.5mm
The Waiting Game
As with the Phantom 3 and the Inspire 1, the Phantom 4 won’t let you start the motors until you’ve activated it through the app which involves registering your email address and a password with DJI. It’s painless enough and once it’s complete you’re ready to fly. Or perhaps not.
For our first test we walked to our favourite flying spot, powered on the Phantom 4 and it said “Firmware update required”. Having been happy indoors only a few minutes before it now insisted on updating the firmware of the RC controller. The device we were using had no SIM card so we activated the Wi-Fi hotspot on our phone and began the download – while doing jumping jacks and running on the spot to keep warm! The download finished after five minutes or so, but then it had to install it. Another fifty jumping jacks! Now we must be ready… But no.
DJI Go flashed a red warning: “IMU Calibration Required”, and the app was honest enough to tell us that it would take five more minutes. Time to retreat back indoors, much to the disgust of our ‘hare’ (otherwise known as the colleague we intended to have the Phantom chase around the park!).
A few minutes later we were back, and thankfully the battery still had some charge left in it, so we pulled the sticks to the bottom-middle CSC position and launched. The Phantom 4 took off easily enough and held its altitude perfectly, as we’ve come to expect from all things DJI. It drifted off slightly to the left at first (the wind was from the right) but that was short-lived and the Phantom was as solid as a rock throughout the rest of the test. Now it was time to truly test its mettle!
We started off with a few exciting manoeuvres to see how it behaves. However, leaning hard forward on the right stick did virtually nothing; full forward and the drone gingerly moved off at walking pace – literally (we walked under it to demonstrate!). It made a Phantom 3 look like FPV champ Luke Bannister’s mean machine!
We decided to change tack and tried some of the Phantom’s new tricks, starting with the front obstacle avoidance sensors. Our aforementioned colleague stood in front of the Phantom and we pushed forward on the sticks. As we closed in on our target, red indicators popped up on screen, there was a little beep but nothing else… No movement. Huzzah! That was impressive. The Phantom didn’t attempt to go around the obstacle but we later discovered that that behaviour, along with ‘backwards flying’, must be activated discretely. RTFM you might say.
ActiveTrack was next on the list of new features worth checking out. Simply put, if you draw a square around a person on the screen, the Phantom 4 will follow them. It wasn’t as straightforward as we’d expected but once activated in the menu system a wizard guides you through the process and, sure enough, Mr Hare was selected. Off he ran and the Phantom began to slowly follow, albeit at a tortoise’s pace.
It’s certainly possible to throw the Phantom off the scent by bolting out of frame, but actually it’s really impressive. It tracked our subject when he faced forward, sideways, backwards and even made a good attempt when he was mostly hidden behind us. All that was lacking really was an on-board BB gun and a red button!
That said, it will take a brave person to set off along a treelined bicycle track with the Phantom 4 following them. It’s a lot of money to have up in the air, making its own decisions. Who’s to say it won’t follow someone else home? Or attempt to marry a tree. Or form an alliance with other Phantoms and begin plotting against us.
Slow and Steady
TapFly was up next. The premise for this is simple: Forget the sticks and just point to the desired location on the screen and the Phantom will fly there. This shouldn’t be confused with setting a waypoint on a map and getting the Phantom to head out to it, which even the Phantom 2 Vision Plus could do. With TapFly the Phantom works out the coordinates you desire just from where you click on the live video image from the 4K camera, and off it goes.
Our test unit was still impersonating a flying tortoise so it would have been quicker to carry it there, but it definitely worked. Quite whether it had understood that we wanted it to stop this side of some trees, rather than unintentionally testing the Obstacle Sensing System again, was unclear because we bottled out and pressed the new “Pause” button on the Phantom’s controller when it started to look risky – which should prove a very handy function whenever other potential dangers arise.
To give the Phantom 4 a chance to redeem itself in the speed department we removed the warning sticker and flicked the flight mode switch to “Sport”. A message popped up on screen asking us to activate “Multiple Flight Modes” which we did and then, lo and behold… nothing. Exactly the same sedate behaviour as before. This might be great for beginners but it was a poor second to watching paint dry in the excitement department.
Return To Home worked roughly as expected, although the default setting seemed to take it extremely high (but that is customisable in the Go app). The Phantom 4 came down with its characteristic thump on RTH and we used the new left-stick-to-bottom-left-corner command to stop the motors and called it a day. We’re happy to report that no trees, animals or review units were harmed in the making of this article.
The Phantom 4 is a fantastic piece of engineering. The build quality is second to none; the packaging, the accessories, the app: the whole experience is premium.
DJI has developed features that push the envelope and in many ways beggar belief. Whether those new clever features can be used practically, safely or legally is another matter. We suspect that for most people they’ll become like the eye tracking features on a Samsung phone; Smart Pause, Smart Stay and Smart Scroll. They sound great and may entice buyers in, but after a few days of strange behaviour they’re turned off never to be used again.
Although we had our some early problems getting our test unit to be more hare than tortoise, with the speed turned up from 1m/s to its maximum 9m/s, the Phantom will happily zip around, and in Sport mode the 4 promises to be the fastest Phantom yet.
As a flying camera platform, or a B camera to an Inspire 1 or S900, the Phantom will be hard to beat. Put the gimmicks aside and the market leading build quality, battery life and Lightbridge wireless link are still enough to seal the deal. The question is: how can DJI possibly improve on this in 11 months’ time?!