Here’s a story of two different times I flew two different drones in New York City. The first time was on a spring day this year, when I took a DJI Phantom 4 out to fly in Central Park. The Phantom 4 was, at the time, the newest drone offered by DJI, which has quickly cemented its reputation as the premier consumer-drone manufacturer — “the Apple of drones” is how the company is often described.
The Phantom 4 is a bit of a beast. It only weighs three pounds, but it’s an awkward three pounds — two large landing struts and an awkward balance make it a bit weird to carry, and worry about damaging the propellers on a $1,200 drone meant I didn’t want to stuff it into a backpack (and I’d need a pretty large backpack to stuff it into, regardless). Most enthusiasts just take off the props on their quads while in transport, but I didn’t want the hassle.
So I carried the Phantom 4 by hand through Central Park. Gleaming white, the Phantom is not an inconspicuous thing to carry — I caught some concerned glances from people enjoying the park, particularly parents with kids. I finally found an empty patch of park near Sheep’s Meadow, put down the Phantom 4, and turned on the rotors. The whine of the props getting up to speed was loud enough to get people to turn their head and watch as the Phantom took off. The Phantom flew like a dream, was packed with useful features, and its camera was top notch, giving me a view of Central Park you usually need to be at the top of a skyscraper to see — but I just felt hinky and dorky when taking off and landing the thing. If I hadn’t been doing it for work, I likely would have just called it a day without flying the Phantom 4 at all.
Flash forward to late fall, when I flew DJI’s new drone, the Mavic Pro. When you see the Mavic Pro not in flight, you may not even realize you’re looking at a drone. It folds up neatly into something about the size of a paperback book, and weighs in at 1.62 pounds — small enough you can carry it in your jacket pocket or slip it into a shoulder bag.
It was a cold and blustery day, and I was feeling lazy, so I stayed close to my apartment in Queens, finding a bit of green space near a fire station. It took about 30 seconds to unfold the Mavic Pro’s propellers, power it up, and pair up its dual-stick remote controller. The most labor-intensive part is getting your smartphone to nestle in the remote, so you can see what the drone’s camera sees while in flight. While still not anything close to whisper quiet, the smaller propellers mean the whine of the drone is significantly reduced. Within 90 seconds, the Mavic Pro was hovering at 200 feet, nearly invisible to anyone not looking for it, while I scanned the skyline of Manhattan across the East River and checked out some interesting bits of Long Island City.
Even in gusty winds, the Mavic Pro handled itself admirably, reliably hovering in place. DJI’s top-of-the-line camera gimbal kept my view steady, and its camera shoots in 4K video or snaps 12-megapixel still shots. The Mavic Pro still has the bells and whistles of the Phantom 4, including the ability to automatically follow me around, the ability to detect objects in front of it and automatically avoid them, built-in ground sensors to help it hold that perfect hover, and a single button tap to get the drone to return back to its launch spot — and it had enough battery for 27 minutes of flight time, about 6 minutes more than the Phantom. In all the ways that mattered, it was the same experience as flying the Phantom 4, but without the social awkwardness of hauling the Phantom 4 around. Instead, after flying for a bit, I landed the drone, folded it back up, tucked it into a pocket of my bag, and walked home.
At $1,000, the Mavic Pro isn’t cheap (if you’re curious about drones but aren’t quite ready to lay down $1,000, the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 Elite consistently gets high marks, and can be had for under $200). But it represents a huge leap forward in the consumer-drone market, comparable to what happened when smartphones entered the wild — it’s no leap to call this the world’s best drone, a full-featured machine you can carry around with you just as a matter of course. If you see an opportunity to fly, you can set it up quickly and be in the air within minutes.
If you want a camera drone, this is the one to get, hands down. It’s easy enough to use that even a beginner drone pilot can fly it, but powerful enough that all but the most demanding drone photographers will get everything they need. While the DJI Phantom 4 may be able to fly a little faster and hold up to slightly stronger winds, the sheer convenience and portability of the Mavic Pro means you’ll ultimately end up spending more time in the sky.
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