Initially released in the spring of 2016, DJI’s Phantom 4 is the next evolution in their professional mid-tier lineup and the official replacement to the previously released Phantom 3. DJI’s Phantom series are among the most popular drones around. And they’re acclaimed for bringing the highest-end features, functionality, and capabilities. This latest model aims to follow suit.
And, on paper, it looks to be a refinement and culmination of best elements from previous models, but better. With this iteration, DJI opted to re-design the body, update the camera, and add a slew of new intelligent features to make it even harder to crash.
Now dubbed as the ultimate flying machine, it looks to be the ideal choice for enthusiasts looking for a high-quality intelligent drone. And a drone perfectly tailored to compete with Yuneec’s Typhoon H and 3DR’s Solo. In today’s post, we address its strengths and weaknesses. And we’ll answer whether or not it’s still a relevant contender today.
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What are some of the goods, bads, and uglies of the DJI Phantom 4?
Build Quality & Design
Compared to the predecessor, DJI has streamlined the design and performed a full cosmetic overhaul. It now features cleaner lines, and any previously exposed hardware cleanly fits into the drone’s housing. These cleaner lines give the drone a sleek, unibody design. And its new glossy finish also creates quite a sophisticated and elegant look. In construction, however,
it retains much of the predecessor’s tried and true elements. In this case, that’s the magnesium frame for strength and agility. But, DJI has refined the design for better performance and safety. Firstly, they’ve raised the motors to prevent the propellers from entering the frame during recording, a problem faced by most drones when their camera tilts above the horizon. And those motors are even more powerful than the predecessor, improving its top speed.
Secondly, they’ve re-designed the propellers with a quick-release system, a feature inherited from the Inspire 1, which simplifies replacement. Thirdly, they’ve also installed new navigation lights to help pilots accurately recognize the drone’s orientation. And, lastly, the drones landing gear is now wider than before, reducing the likelihood of tipping during touchdown. In all, the culmination of these cosmetic changes makes for a more aggressive and modern design. And it’s a significant improvement over its predecessor.
Like the predecessor, it uses a MicroSD slot for in-flight storage.
Much of the camera system remains unchanged from the predecessor. However, DJI has made a few improvements. It inherits the same 1/2.3″ Exmor CMOS sensor, which provides 12.4MP still images. And like the predecessor, it captures C4K video up to 24 fps. However, new for the drone is 1080p FHD video up to 120 fps for super-slow-motion videos.
DJI has also equipped the drone with a new 20mm f/2.8 lens, which shows improved edge sharpness and reduced chromatic aberration. And overall, the lens provides much better image quality. The lens also reduces barrel distortion, a nice touch.
Another change is an update to the 3-axis gimbal. The gimbal now has two mounting points, further reducing vibrations compared to the predecessor’s single mount. Otherwise, it offers an excellent selection of shooting modes, from bursts to time-lapses, HDR, or exposure bracketing. And full manual control over the camera is available, be it white balance, ISO, or shutter speed, to name a few. Plus the camera offers both the DNG and RAW format as well as flat picture profiles like d-log and Cinelike for grading.
Overall, the image quality is excellent in both manual and automatic modes. The footage offers a greater dynamic range and less digital sharpening, which provides added flexibility in post. And its images are reasonably sharp, with ample fine details and accurate color rendering.
The gimbal also does an excellent job counteracting movement and provides incredibly smooth videos. And it allows manual shooters plenty of room to shoot at slower shutter speeds with sharp images. Given the results here, this is an excellent camera for most professional applications.
The drone features a brand new battery system. It now uses a 5350 mAh battery, which is a 20% improvement over the predecessor 4480 mAh battery. This battery allows the drone to boast a flight time of 28 minutes on a single charge, making it among the highest in the medium drone segment. And not only does it outlast the predecessor, but it also provides a longer flight than DJI’s flagship Inspire 1.
DJI ships the drone with the same Lightbridge remote controller as the predecessor. And the remote offers dedicated buttons for shutter release, video control, gimbal tilt, and one-press Return Home. The controller also provides two customizable buttons for added versatility along with a dedicated Pause button.
The Pause button is a welcomed safety addition that immediately stops the drone in place, perfect to avoid collisions. Like the predecessor, the remote connects to a smartphone or tablet for use with DJI GO 4 app for a crystal clear and lag-free video stream.
And DJI rates the remote for a maximum transmission range of 5000 m. Overall, the controller remains excellent. It’s lightweight but well-built and robust. And coupled with its comfortable ergonomics, it provides a responsive and tactile flying experience, indeed.
You fly the drone using the DJI Go 4 app, which is excellent. The app’s interface is well-designed, straightforward, and intuitive to use. The left side displays various flight modes, including take-off, Return Home, and Intelligent Flight Modes.
And the right side shows shooting modes. The app offers plenty of adjustments and customization and mostly matches their higher-end drones. You can customize flight parameters, the camera settings, joysticks, among others.
And, overall, the flight app remains excellent. DJI’s also included a video editor in the app, making the process of sharing photos or videos quite seamless. And the app also includes no-fly zones pre-built-in to warn you when flying in restricted airspace. Plus the drone automatically geotags images, which translate into the post-processing software.
Taking off is as simple as hitting the take-off icon on the app. After this, the drone will take-off and hover while waiting for a command. Landing is equally as easy using the drone’s Automatic Return Home feature. And combined with its dual GPS/GLONASS and downward-facing sensors, it can land within inches of the original take-off location.
In the air, the drone is astonishingly stable. The drone obtains the Vision Positioning System of its predecessor, which allows the drone to monitor its position without a GPS signal. However, the drone doubles the number of downward-facing sensors, further increasing stability and reducing vibrations. And DJI claims it’s now five times more stable than the predecessor, which surely seems to be the case. It rarely drifts from its position, even in mild winds.
And DJI has also added Dual IMUs and compasses, to provide added fail-safe redundancy. Overall, these combine to create a more resilient and responsive flight experience.
But, not only is the drone stable, but it’s also incredibly fast. Flip it into Sport Mode, and it can quickly reach 45 MPH speeds, providing an almost racing experience. DJI’s even improved the drone’s maximum transmission range, now to a maximum of 5000m with a reliable video stream and remote control connection.
New for the drone is a robust Obstacle Sensing System (OSS), a new form of computer imaging. DJI outfitted the drone’s front and bottom with a set of sensors, which constantly scan for obstacles. And it can recognize and avoid these obstacles within a 15 m range by going around, over, or hovering in place. Overall, this system works well and will prevent some accidental collisions.
Also new for the drone is TapFly. TapFly allows you to fly in any direction with a tap of the finger, without a remote controller. And with Obstacle Avoidance turned on, the aircraft will automatically avoid obstacles, slow down, and hover when required.
And, in this mode, the drone also gently eases into turns, avoiding any jerky movements. However, it does limit movements to a single direction, and also means you can’t execute tight turns if needed.
It’s also the first drone to feature DJI’s ActiveTrack, a revolutionary addition that includes the use of subject recognition algorithms for tracking. Draw a box around the desired subject, and the drone tracks it and keeps the camera centered on it. Additionally, you can fly the drone around the subject to create cinematic shots. Before this, drones were dependent on the GPS receiver in the controller to follow a subject, limiting its usability. But, this addition allows the drone to follow virtually any recognizable subject and maintain a safe distance away. And overall, it’s quite a brilliant addition that works well.
It obtains all of the Intelligent Flight Mode from the predecessor, which include:
- Point of Interest: the aircraft orbits around the subject automatically
- Follow Me: the aircraft follows the mobile device and tracks your movements.
- Waypoint: the aircraft flies along a recorded flight path drawn in the app.
- Automatic Return Home: the aircraft automatically returns to the last recorded Home Point, either manually or when the battery gets to 10%.
Build & Design
Both the landing gear and camera are fixed to the body. So the drone isn’t collapsable, which means it’s a bit bulky as a traveling companion. And you can’t upgrade the camera either.
The images the drone produces are too grainy, even at ISO 100, to make it a strong choice for all commercial applications. While the image quality overall is excellent, its sensor size doesn’t provide much latitude in dynamic range before noise occurs. Without second-hand noise reduction, the RAW files as-is aren’t strong enough. So, for most professional applications, the images will require a bit of editing and cleanup before delivery. And depending on the application, it may or may not be a good suit.
The drones OSS has quite a limited range, and it can only see 60° horizontally and 27° vertically. In the real-world, this means that objects, namely trees and branches, can easily be outside of its visual range, and it has no way of knowing. Sure the drone has a general sense of its surroundings. But it only can sense what’s in front of it, not above, to the sides, or behind it. So, while it can prevent some head-on collisions, you’re not protected from crashing in other directions. OSS is an excellent addition, but for new pilots, it’s not a permanent fail-safe. Also of note, is that this system also doesn’t work in the Sport Mode, and you can easily crash when flying at its top speed.
The drone’s ActiveTrack often gets confused when tracking subjects. For the mode to work correctly, it needs ample light and sufficient contrast between the subjects and background. If following subjects across a more complex scene, it will quickly lose them. Thus, it’s best to follow only a single well-defined subject.
Is this a good beginner drone?
Combined with its updated TapFly, excellent Return Home functionality, virtually anyone can fly the Phantom. And that’s good news for beginners. But, for absolute beginners, it still requires practice. Thankfully, the drone is extraordinarily intuitive to fly and responsive. And it’s a very polished stable drone that provides a far safer flight than previous models. However, it’s essential to know it offers only the first implementation of obstacle avoidance, and this system isn’t perfect. Thus, you can easily crash the drone if relying on its sensors alone. Otherwise, it provides exceptional value for first-timers or season pilots considering the performance and experience it offers. And it’s a strong choice.
Is this a good drone for you?
While it’s not cheap, it remains one of the smartest drones around. Sure, in some ways, it’s only a modest update over the predecessor and the culmination of its proven successes. But, its additions create a far superior platform and an excellent evolution in the series. The new streamlined design dramatically improves the flying experience.
And combined with its updated camera, Obstacle Avoidance system, and intelligent flight modes, it’s quite a powerhouse. These changes make it a worthy successor, and current Phantom 3 owners should consider upgrading. With the Phantom 4, DJI has made a notable leap over the competition and officially the first to bring about reliable autonomous flight.
And those added autonomous capabilities indeed raised the bar of what’s possible in a mid-tier consumer drone. To date, it remains an excellent all-rounder for both amateurs looking for their first drone or professionals looking for a new angle. And, in many respects, it offers better capabilities than DJI’s higher-end Inspire 1, all without its demanding price.
If you’re looking for a smart drone that’s reliable enough for high-end aerial photography and videography, it’s a good option in this segment of the market. And a strong choice for first-time purchasers looking for a smooth experience with the image quality and sophisticated design to back it up.
DJI’s Phantom 4 remains one of the smartest drones around. And they’ve created a superior platform that inherits its predecessor’s proven strengths with additions that catapult the series ahead of competitors. For the price, it provides exceptional value for money and the ideal choice for those looking for a confident all-rounder.