GoPro's new flying camera system, Karma, looks surprisingly awesome. It's not your average quadcopter, thanks to a clever folding design and a removable stabilizer you can use on its own. But is it enough to dethrone the best-selling DJI Phantom 4? That totally depends on who's flying it.
All images: Gizmodo / GoPro / DJI
There's so much about the Karma system that just screams GoPro. Its big selling point is versatility. You can fly it over the shoreline to scope out waves, and then, after it lands, pull out the stabilizer and film your friends playing on the beach. And then, you can strap the stabilizer onto your chest and capture some rad surfing videos. At the end of the day, the whole contraption folds up and fits neatly into a backpack. This is a very appealing package for some adrenaline junkies — especially at the relatively low price of $1195.95 without a GoPro, or $1649.95 with the new 4K-ready GoPro Hero 5 Black. (Obviously, the type of GoPro you install on the Karma will define your video resolution.) The DJI Phantom 4 with a 4K camera is currently on sale for $2099.
The GoPro Hero 5 Black with Karma stabilizer and handle
In a sense, GoPro's Karma design addresses the most annoying problems with the DJI Phantom 4: portability, versatility, and simplicity. The Phantom 4 is smaller than its predecessors, but you'll need to shell out an extra $349 for DJI's clunky multifunctional backpack if you want to port it around conveniently. The Phantom 4 comes with an excellent 4K camera, but it's bolted to the drone so you can't really use it on the ground. To put it bluntly, flying the Phantom 4 requires a lot of moving parts, while the Karma is supposed to be as easy as pushing a button and playing a video game.
The Phantom 4 is loaded with features, which is part of why it's sometimes a pain to use. The drone has an obstacle avoidance system, which I learned the hard way doesn't work in every scenario. The Phantom 4 also has a plethora of flight modes, which can be confusing to inexperienced pilots. And the Phantom 4 requires that you to clamp your smartphone or tablet to the controller — and plug it in — every time you fly. That's just plain annoying.
The DJI Phantom 4 controller with iPad and cable
None of this is to say that the Phantom 4 sucks. It's actually a great gadget! It's fast! With a top speed of 72km-per-hour, the Phantom 4 would smoke the Karma and its top speed of 56km-per-hour in a race.
More to the point, in experienced hands, the Phantom 4 appears to be a lot more capable. For example, the Karma surprisingly doesn't ave a follow me feature. Even though rumour mongers were positive that follow me would be central to the Karma system, GoPro didn't even mention the idea in its announcement. As for pre-programmed flight paths, GoPro offers exactly four, which seem simpler to use than DJI's, even if they don't offer quite the versatility of programmed movement.
The GoPro Karma controller with touchscreen display
Without having flown the Karma, it's impossible to make an apples-to-apples comparison between GoPro's new drone and the celebrated Phantom 4. And maybe an apples-to-apples comparison is the wrong way to consider which drone you should buy. The Karma and the Phantom 4 are actually pretty different gadgets, when you really think about it. The Karma is clearly designed for adventurers who want a drone that's easy to fly and even easier to carry around. The Phantom 4 is for people who are willing to sacrifice simplicity and portability in favour of fancy features like follow me and obstacle avoidance.
In a way, the difference between the Karma and the Phantom 4 is a bit like the difference between a point-and-shoot camera and a DSLR. Each have their pros and cons as well as their own captive audiences. If you already own a GoPro and love taking it on adventures, the Karma is a pretty cheap way to get it airborne. If you're hoping to earn extra money by getting professional aerial footage of homes for sale, the Phantom 4 might be a better option.
Of course, it will take a true head-to-head flight test with the Karma and the Phantom 4 to determine which is the best. We hope to get our hands on each drone in the coming weeks so that we can put them through the paces. And since GoPro loves to brag about its commitment to making rugged gadgets, we'll probably crash the Karma to see how it holds up. (We've already crashed the Phantom 4.) Ahead of those stress tests, though, it sure looks like GoPro has managed to build a truly unique drone. Or at least it will be unique for a few days, until DJI releases its rumoured folding drone for beginners.