DJI Phantom 4 Review: The Best Drone I've Ever Crashed

The DJI Phantom 4 Is the Best Drone I've Ever Crashed

The DJI Phantom 4 is a slick, feature-packed drone. People say it's the drone that anybody can fly, the quadcopter that you just can't crash. Let me be painfully clear about two things: 1) Not everyone can fly the Phantom 4, and 2) It's pretty damn easy to crash.

Each new model in DJI's Phantom series is easier to fly and better for aerial photography than the last, an Apple-inspired approach to incremental updates that the company can market like hell. The first drone I flew was the Phantom 2 Vision, and it was a fun and easy experience for someone who'd never flown a single thing in his life. But I crashed it and broke it and hurt myself in the process.

The DJI Phantom 4 Is the Best Drone I've Ever Crashed

The Phantom 4 introduces a slew of features that are supposed to make it easier to fly and harder to crash. Whereas past versions incorporated neat features — quick release propellors, simplified controls, impressive camera upgrades, new intelligent flying modes — the Phantom has always lacked the autonomous flight features that drone pilots want. These include obstacle avoidance and more advanced computer vision that will allow the drone to follow any object. So it was exciting when DJI announced that the Phantom 4 would include front-facing cameras to prevent it from hitting walls and trees, and a feature called ActiveTrak that would keep the camera focused on a specific subject.

The reality is not quite as appealing. The Phantom 4 is certainly the best DJI quadcopter I've ever flown. But it's not the drone for everyone. It's definitely not the drone for beginners.

Test Video


I said "wow" when I first pulled the Phantom 4 out of the box. For the first time, DJI has redesigned the Phantom chassis so that it's smaller and more streamlined. The design is supposed to yield better battery life, and make the rig a bit more portable. (The battery life is even slightly better than the advertised 28 minutes, but it sucks that you can't fold the landing gear and slide the drone into a backpack.) Meanwhile, upgraded motors allow for a new Sport Mode that would let the Phantom 4 fly as fast as 72km per hour.

The DJI Phantom 4 Is the Best Drone I've Ever Crashed

The Phantom 4 also includes an array of downward-facing cameras and sonar sensors that enable a Visual Positioning System, allowing the drone to know where it is without completely relying on GPS. (The Phantom 3 also has this feature.) Along with an additional inertial measurement unit (IMU), the Phantom 4 feels impressively stable while flying. The lighter form factor does make it a little unwieldy in high winds, but you shouldn't be flying a little consumer drone in high winds anyways. The camera is just as phenomenal as the one on the previous Phantom drone. It shoots 4K video and takes 12MP still shots. A new gimbal design provides noticeably smoother videos.

Then there are the Phantom 4's new autonomous features. The quadcopter features two optical cameras on the nose that sense and avoid objects in its path. This is obviously only handy if you're flying forward — more on this in a second.

The DJI Phantom 4 Is the Best Drone I've Ever Crashed

The computer imaging technology that enables these new features, dubbed TapFly and ActiveTrak, sound truly revolutionary. Almost all existing drones depend on a GPS chip in the controller to follow a subject, but the Phantom 4 lets you draw a box on the screen of your mobile device, and tracks that object wherever it goes. Turn it on, leave the RC behind, do your thing, and catch it all on the sky cam.

As a longtime crasher of drones, the obstacle avoidance immediately seemed like the most important addition to the Phantom. Visual tracking is cool, and the ability to tap an area on the screen is probably handy for some people. Nothing beats not crashing when you're flying a $US1,400 ($1,841) gadget.

So you know what the first thing I did with my shiny new Phantom 4 was? I crashed it. I took off and it drifted sideways, right into a wall. As insinuated above, the forward-facing cameras only work when the drone is zooming nose-first at a larger obstacle (i.e. not power lines or small tree branches). If you find yourself flying sideways or backwards — or in speedy Sport Mode — you're fucked.

The DJI Phantom 4 Is the Best Drone I've Ever Crashed

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The first thing I really did when I got my Phantom 4 was make many failed attempts at getting it off the ground. As I've learned from past experience, very few quadcopters are truly ready to fly out-of-the-box. The Phantom 4 is no exception. Batteries need charging, and things need calibrating. At first, I had trouble with a beta version of the DJI GO app, which is necessary to fly the Phantom. Then, after I'd schlepped to the park, there was a firmware issue that I couldn't easily resolved over a cellular connection. All things told, it took me three tries before I got the Phantom 4 off the ground.


Once I did get it a wide open space, I immediately realised that the Phantom 4 is a thrill to fly. It's nimble and powerful. The camera is incredible. Here's a shot of New York City that I took on my first flight:

The DJI Phantom 4 Is the Best Drone I've Ever Crashed

But as I learned over a couple weeks, the software isn't as user friendly as I wanted it to be. You have to hunt through menus to unlock features, and it's not easy to make the Phantom 4 do what you want it to, especially the ActiveTrak feature. I recently read an anecdote from another tech blogger who let his toddler fly the quadcopter. I do not recommend this! This is a truly powerful aircraft that stands to cause damage if it crashes — especially if it crashes into people.

The new Phantom is easier to fly than older generations, but it's not an autonomous drone. Since the object avoidance feature only works when you're flying forward, novice pilots will definitely have trouble making sure the red lights — which mark the nose of the aircraft — are facing the right direction. The ActiveTrak feature isn't as graceful as some reviews make it seem. When testing, I could get the camera to keep me in the frame. When I walked further away, the drone didn't move and lost me completely.

The DJI Phantom 4 Is the Best Drone I've Ever Crashed

I'm confident that the Phantom 4's fancy new features work in the right scenarios. I tried to make the drone hit me in head, and it wouldn't — although there were a few close calls! I flew it straight at a chain link fence, and it slammed to a stop. I flipped on Sport Mode, and watched it rip across a field at a mind-boggling speed. But the way the Phantom 4 is marketed suggests it flies itself. The new autonomous features certainly show progress, but they're hardly perfect.


I was standing in the middle of a baseball diamond on a blustery Brooklyn day when things went wrong. It had just rained, and the park was deserted. The time was right to test the limits of the Phantom 4, so I switched it into Sport Mode and curled my toes.

"Let's see if it will avoid objects when it's going fast," I shouted to my cameraman, who immediately looked very nervous.

I aimed the Phantom 4 towards the cage and cranked the throttle. I cannot express how fast this drone will move when you let it. The Phantom 4 reached full speed around the time it zoomed over my head, and I turned around just in time to see it explode. White bits of plastic flew in every direction, the consequence of sending an aircraft flying at full speed into a chain link fence.

The DJI Phantom 4 Is the Best Drone I've Ever Crashed

Like I mentioned earlier, the object avoidance feature doesn't work in Sport mode. It says so in the manual, which I'd read cover-to-cover. But the problem with drones — especially sophisticated models like the Phantom 4 — is that you can't juggle the configurations very easily on the fly. If you're a relative novice trying to make the best use of your 25-minute battery life, you're likely to forget which features work when any given switch is in a certain position. I did, and destroyed a gadget that cost as much as my last car. Thank God, it was in an empty baseball field.

Accidental as it was, my crash illustrated a fundamental problem with the Phantom 4. It's not crash-proof. It's also not idiot-proof. And we all have idiot moments.


The Phantom 4 is a fantastic quadcopter, perhaps the best I've ever flow. It is not the autonomous drone you want it to be. That's totally fine for experienced pilots. But it's not the best beginner drone for everyone.

As an aerial photography drone, the new Phantom is one of the best. As a versatile flying gadget, it's a thrill to use. The fancy new features could be easier to use, but I doubt you'll have trouble figuring them out.

So do you want t0 buy the best quadcopter for serious pilots? Buy the Phantom 4. Do you want a drone that flies itself? Hang back a year or two.

The DJI Phantom 4 Is the Best Drone I've Ever Crashed

ReadMe

  • The Phantom 4 costs AUD $2,399.00 from the official DJI store — with free shipping. Some local enthusiast shops may also save you a little bit on that.
  • The Phantom 4 is the best Phantom yet, an absolute thrill to fly and a fantastic photography tool.
  • The new autonomous features — TapFly, ActiveTrak, and obstacle avoidance — work most of the time, but it really sucks when they don't.
  • You should not let your toddler fly the Phantom 4, and you should still be careful if you're an adult novice.
  • But seriously, this thing is awesome for both aspiring and experienced drone pilots.

Comments

    "It’s not crash-proof. It’s also not idiot-proof."

    And it's because of idiots like the author that the use of drones in public places will eventually be banned.

      Tom99,
      I'm the newbie Adam said shouldn't purchase the Phantom 4, except that I did and it arrived today. I've never flown a drone before but I can certainly see the value for a newbie like me if in fact the Phantom 4 does what it is advertised.
      I purchased it because I'm getting married in Maui and didn't want to spend $4 to $5 grand to have a videographer follow us around for a couple of days. After reading Adams review it sounds like I made a huge mistake. Nevertheless, I'm an owner now and in it to win it. I only have two weeks to learn how to use it. Can that be done? I've read that it doesn't sync up well with android, and be it as it may, all I own is androids. What OS do you recommend and how large of a screen should I use?
      Signed, scared shipless!

    Agreed, Tom. The author knew OA didn't work in sport mode, but flew it directly into an object anyways... If you can't take the time to get to know your equipment and are irresponsible enough to not at last check what mode you are in before flying, you shouldn't be flying something that can cause serious damage to persons or property.

    The P4 is a great consumer drone, it is by no means a professional drone. It takes decent pictures, but is far from the "best", for a number of reasons.

    Fly smart and keep everyone safe.

      Topher ,
      I'm the newbie Adam said shouldn't purchase the Phantom 4, except that I did and it arrived today. I've never flown a drone before but I can certainly see the value for a newbie like me if in fact the Phantom 4 does what it is advertised.
      I purchased it because I'm getting married in Maui and didn't want to spend $4 to $5 grand to have a videographer follow us around for a couple of days. After reading Adams review it sounds like I made a huge mistake. Nevertheless, I'm an owner now and in it to win it. I only have two weeks to learn how to use it. Can that be done? I've read that it doesn't sync up well with android, and be it as it may, all I own is androids. What OS do you recommend and how large of a screen should I use?
      Signed, scared shipless!

    They are not too complicated if you have some RC Heli experience (buy a little cheap drone first and practice) I have never crashed my old DJI Phantom 3, but i have previous RC experience (planes and helis). I would NOT recommend someone with zero quadcopter experience fly a $2500 one first up. If you MUST do it, make sure you fly it with LOTS of room to make errors, if you are in a 200x200m field with ONE tree in it, you WILL hit that one tree. Go to a very large area with nothing around to hit and go through at least 3-5 batteries to get the hang of it before you try flying with anyone or anything nearby. Once you have 5 batteries (a few hours) under your belt they you should be OK with flying near a tree or other objects. Just trust me on this.

    Last edited 14/05/16 6:22 pm

    It is the people that buy the big, fast, powerful quadcopter and then proceed to fly them near people and objects, all with zero experience that will get them banned for all of us.

    You can get little cheap ones for $150 that fly well and you can practice how they fly. It is INCREDIBLY easy to get disoriented flying one if you haven't had quite a bit of practice.

    A little $150 quad will not hurt someone if you hit them (maybe hurt, but not injure) but these large heavy DJI Phantoms can do serious damage, imagine being hit by a thrown brick, but with spinning blades on it.......

    Last edited 14/05/16 7:03 pm

    seems self induced.

    Was the damaged drone a write-off? Looks like damage to the plastic case, I understand it has a metal frame or skeleton.

    Author looks like someone who didn't spend time to properly go through the instruction manual before flying his expensive gadget. I bought the phantom 4, I too didn't have prior drone experience. What I did in the first whole day was to read the instruction manual and practise the manoeuvring in the DJI app's simulation mode.

    End of the day, It boils down to one thing. I think it's that how valuable is a product for you and how rich you are..When you are insanely rich and doesn't care about few grands here and there :), you don't wanna invest time on properly following instructions, you break it you buy a new one. !

    "Collision avoidance is not in sports mode" it's the first thing you see if you read the manual. :)

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