DJI Mavic Air 2 Review: the Drone I Was Looking For

Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo
Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

Yes, I know. Starting a blog by paraphrasing Obi Wan’s famous words isn’t very imaginative, but put down your torches and give me a few minutes to explain why, for once, this phrase is appropriate. I also didn’t know that I was looking for a Mavic Air 2…until I tried it out.

This isn’t the first time I’ve tested a drone, but I must confess that they’re not my favourite gadget. They feel too complicated to pilot, have limited battery life, limited flight range, poor cameras, and excessive prices. Over time, DJI has erased almost every single one of those problems. Now, instead of thinking that I’m not a person that can make use of a drone, I’m looking for an excuse to buy this one.

DJI Mavic Air 2

WHAT IS IT?

The latest drone from DJI and a perfect balance between a professional drone and a recreational one.

PRICE

$1,499

LIKE

So fun to use. Full of automated modes to add quality to your videos. Camera, battery life and range have indeed improved a lot.

NO LIKE

Can loose video signal quite easy when out of sight. The case and the second battery are a must, but they are not included.

The Mavic Air 2, like the majority of drones, isn’t ready to fly as soon as you take it out of the box. Before you start, you have to set up the rotors. It’s a very counterintuitive process because the four propellers are assembled in pairs diagonally across from each other and both pairs look a lot alike. The labels help make the work doable for even the truly incompetent, but it’s one of those gadgets where it’s recommended to read the manual and understand the first steps so you don’t mess up.

Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

If you follow the instructions, you won't have problems.

Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

But if you take the labels off you may find that it's very difficult to tell the propellers apart. (Hint: Some have a metal ring and others don't.)

Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

The Mavic Air 2, completely folded, with its controller.

Once it’s assembled, you’ll find that the Air 2 isn’t easy to transport. The propellers’ blades tend to spin and stick out of the body, and the entire drone is fragile and has a bad habit of getting caught in straps. It’s not a gadget that you’ll want to leave loose in your backpack, and the product box does not include a travel case. If you buy the Mavis Air 2, you’ll want to get a case so you can transport it securely.

Mavic Air 2 vs. Mavic Air

DJI has multiple drone models intended for us non-professionals. In many cases, its functions overlap, which doesn’t help when it’s time to choose one. The table below will help you differentiate the Mavic Air 2 from previous models.

You can easily compare DJI's Mavic line with this handy table. (Graphic: DJI)

The Mavic Air 2 costs $1,499. But there’s a very better option called the Fly More Combo, which includes all of the products in the standard version (basically the drone, the controller and all of the necessary charging and connection cords), but also a shoulder bag to transport it, ND filters, a battery charging hub and three batteries. All for $1,899). As a single battery starts at $199 that’s not a bad deal.

In terms of availability, the Mavic Air 2 has been in Europe, the U.S., and Latin America since mid-May. DJI has cited logistical problems associated with the covid-19 pandemic as the reason for that delay. It was available in China weeks before that date.

If you’ve flown the original Mavic Air, you’re probably familiar with its two weak points: Battery life and flight range. DJI said that the Mavic Air had 21 minutes of battery life, but in practice, it tended to be closer to between 15 and 18 minutes. On paper, the Mavic Air 2 has 34 minutes of battery life. In my time flying it, I found that it was really closer to between 28 and 30 minutes. Still a good improvement!

That being said you still need to get a second battery. It’s also probably a good idea to plan out your flights before you take off, but with two fully charged batteries, you can enjoy almost an hour of flying and recording time, something that’s currently not possible with other drones with similar capabilities and price points. The only bad thing is that the removable battery isn’t compatible with the original Mavic, which means you can’t swap batteries between the old and new drones.

The Mavic Air 2 (without propellers) and its removable battery. (Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo)

The other big problem with the original Mavic Air was flight distance. It was approximately two and a half miles provided that there wasn’t interference in the area, such as a lot of wifi networks. The more expensive Mavic Pro, for reference, has a maximum flight distance of 6 km. But the Mavic Air 2 does even better. Instead of using a Wi-Fi connection, the Mavic Air 2 uses Ocusync 2.0, which operates on the 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz bands. The new platform allows video to be transmitted seamlessly over a distance of six miles. However, there is a very important but here: There has to be a direct line of sight between the drone and the controller.

It seems like a simple requirement, but in practice, it’s very easy to get distracted and lose line of sight. When I was trying out the drone, I was piloting the Mavic from a hilltop. On some occasions, I made the drone fly so close to the ground that I briefly lost line of sight with it, which led to artifacts in the recording signal. Luckily, I didn’t lose the flight signal completely, and the video files inside the drone were unharmed, but if you’re recording you have to keep this in mind at all times because it could ruin a beautiful take.

Here’s an example of the video that the DJI can take that’s been skillfully edited by our video editor Julio Cerezo. The originals are a little less interesting. This is because, unfortunately, my flying style is very similar to that of a drunkass bat’s (which means that I move too quickly and the resulting takes are not that elegant).

When it comes to maximum range, I didn’t go beyond a little more than 2 km for two reasons. First, I was surrounded by communities and residential areas where flying isn’t allowed. The second is that there’s a moment where the Mavic Air 2 is so far away that you lose sight of it. In Germany, where I live, keeping the drone in your sight at all times is one of the requirements to fly one of these gadgets legally.

One last detail on the Mavic Air 2. After receiving a lot of complaints that the original Mavic Air was too noisy, DJI redesigned the propeller blades and gave them a slight curve. The result of this change is very noticeable: The Air 2 is much quieter. Hearing a buzz is inevitable if we fire up the propellers, but it’s not bothersome at all. You can barely hear it at all once it’s about 15.24 m away from you.

The New Controller

One of the other things DJI has examined and improved is the controller. The new controller looks like it came out of a video game console from the 90s, but there’s a reason for that. The antennas are now integrated and it’s no longer necessary to unfold them. I like it all and its retro PS1 charm.

Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

The cabin that pops up when you unfold the clamp houses the cord and the USB-C connector for your phone.

Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

The same cabin when you remove the cord. The Mavic Air 2 comes with three cords: USB-C to USB-C, USB-C to Lightning (for iPhone) and USB-C to micro USB. All of them fit perfectly in the cabin.

Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

The bottom part hides the compartments for the control levers and the USB-C charging port.

The original design of the Mavic Air controller was very weird. The retractable clamps on the bottom made connecting the drone to your phone a tedious process. The new controller flips things around with a retractable tray on the top. Pull out the tray and you can see the cabin where you store the connection cord. Connecting your phone is as simple as slotting it into the tray, connecting the cord and releasing the clamp. It’s a much less exaggerated system and is infinitely more comfortable to use.

The new DJI controller. (Gif: DJI)

Another improvement in the new controller is that your phone is now situated above the control levers, not in between your wrists. I would choose it over the other one in a heartbeat. It just seems more natural.

Video and Image Quality

The Mavic Air 2 has improved in the camera department as well. The drone’s camera sensor, a 12-megapixel CMOS with an f/2.8 aperture, has increased in size by half an inch. I haven’t had the opportunity to try the Air 2 at sunset or with bad lighting, but the few takes I’ve done in under trees in the shade lead me to believe that it’s going to be very good in this area when compared to the first Air.

In terms of video, this model is the first in the Mavic family that has 4K video at 60 fps and 120 Mbps. It also has HDR, slow motion at 4x in 1080p at 120 fps or at 8x in 1080p at 240 fps. The video recording modes can be summarized as follows:

  • 4K Ultra HD: 3840×2160 24/25/30/48/50/60 fps
  • 2.7K: 2688×1512 24/25/30/48/50/60 fps
  • FHD: 1920×1080 24/25/30/48/50/60/120/240 fps
  • 4K Ultra HD HDR: 3840×2160 24/25/30 fps
  • 2.7K HDR: 2688×1512 24/25/30 fps
  • Full HD HDR: 1920×1080 24/25/30 fps

When it comes to the timelapse or hyperlapse, the drone needs to have a lot of battery life available. For timelapse mode, the drone is going to be taking photos for ages. If you don’t have enough battery left, you’ll land before you finish. The hyperlapse 8K mode is even more restrictive because it converts the Mavic Air 2 into a flying tripod. It has to remain completely still (there’s a dedicated lever for this on the controller along with sport mode).

If you’re interested in the camera modes, there are quite a lot to choose from:

  • One single 12MP photo or one combined 48MP photo
  • Burst with 12MP in 3/5/7 frames
  • Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB): in 12MP, 3/5 frames at 0.7EV Bias
  • Photo timer available with 2/3/5/7/10/15/20/30/60 second (12MP) options
  • Vertical Panorama (3×1): 3328×8000 pixels (Width×Height)
  • Horizontal Panorama (3×3): 8000×6144 pixels (Width×Height)
  • 180° Panorama (3×7): 8192×3500 pixels
  • Sphere (3×8+1): 8192×4096 pixels

The camera takes 12MP photos with HDR (in JPG or RAW), but it has a new mode that captures and puts together four photos to save one 48MP photo. One function called hyperlight allows you to adjust the HDR to improve your takes when there is low lighting.

Flying the Mavic Air 2

One of the things I’ve liked the most about the new Mavic Air is the new version of DJI Fly, the flight app for iOS and Android. I don’t have the previous version at the moment in order to compare the app menu by menu, but it sure seems like the new version is way friendlier for users without needing a lot of experience. It’s almost like a camera app, with all the options for photography and video comfortably situated on the right near the shutter button. But you can use the right trigger on the controller if you prefer.

Screenshot: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

Screenshot: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

Using the new control app is amazing.

Screenshot: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

Screenshot: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

The video modes are complete and have the D-Cinelike colour profile.

Screenshot: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

Screenshot: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

However, less experienced users will enjoy the preset routines, called Quickshot.

Screenshot: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

Screenshot: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

To select a target to follow or use Quickshots, all you have to do is tap a person when it recognises them or draw an area on the screen if it's a static object like a tree.

The Mavic Air 2 comes with a new navigation system called Advanced Pilot Assistance System 3.0. In essence, it’s a better version of the software that ensures that we don’t crash the drone into a tree, or worse, into a person (the Air 2 does not have protectors on its rotors and its blades are sharp like knives).

It also has the ability to dodge, to a point, the objects that come towards it. I accidentally tested this feature twice. First when my wife got near the drone, and second when my daughter angrily, and with remarkable aim, threw her hat at the drone (she was mad because she couldn’t play with it.) In both cases, the Mavic Air 2 moved nimbly while a proximity alarm appeared on the screen — the same one that appears when you’re about to fly the drone into a tree. I’m very familiar with this last one because it’s appeared on my screen a few times.

It’s not an infallible system. For example, power cables are too thin for the sensors to see them. Additionally, the drone doesn’t have eyes everywhere. The Mavic Air 2 has two proximity sensors in the front, two in the back and two underneath along with an LED light to help it land when there is low light. It’s a truly powerful anti-collision repertoire, but it’s not perfect. Drone enthusiasts will note the absence of sensors on the sides and top of the gadget. Obviously, the Air 2 has to differentiate itself in some way from professional drones.

Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

The sensors in the front of the Mavic Air 2. Nice eyes.

Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

The sensors in the back, next to the air outlets and the registration plate.

Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

These are the sensors underneath the drone and the LED light to help it land in low lighting.

Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo

There are no sensors on the sides. This is a slot for the microSD cards. It can be used with cards of up to 256 GB.

The absence of these sensors means flying in sport mode or in closed spaces, like deep in a forest, reliant on the pilot’s abilities. The good news is that if you want to record yourself while you ride a bike along a path surrounded by trees, the new tracking mode does a great job of avoiding obstacles. Just remember, don’t have it follow you in parallel.

The Air 2 also inherits a very interesting function from the Pro called Spotlight 2.0. It allows you to select an interest point for the camera. It follows the object’s movements while you manoeuvre the drone in the way you see best. It sounds great, but it’s not a system that can deal with clueless people like me. In other words, don’t expect anything close to the scene of the speeder bikes on Endor in Return of the Jedi without putting in a lot of practice. For that, you need to pilot like a real Jedi.

The Mavic Air 2. (Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo)

Speaking of collisions, the Mavic Air is the first in the family to integrate a technology called AirSense. What it does, in essence, is link the drone to the Automatic dependent surveillance–broadcast (ADS–B) network that planes use. This means that it detects planes in the drone’s airspace and lets the pilot (the drone pilot, obviously) know so that you can change your course to a secure zone. It’s a very good system, although drones have a very limited maximum altitude established by law in many countries.

Verdict

This is the first time that I’ve tried out a drone and haven’t come away thinking, “It’s ok, but I wouldn’t buy one.” Instead, I’m trying to figure out how I can convince my wife to let me get one for weekend trips.

DJI has solved many issues in the original Air in the Mavic Air 2, but its best achievement by far has been making this new drone easy to use. Once you begin to fly it, you’ll fall in love. Then, of course, you’ll go back home, check out the video, and find out that you fly like a drunken bat, but that is also part of its appeal. The Air 2 is such a darn fun toy that is easy to learn how to use, but difficult to master. Someone with experience in video and drones can create truly marvellous things with it at a very reasonable price.

The Mavic Air 2. (Photo: Carlos Zahumenszky, Gizmodo)

README

  • The half-hour battery life is marvellous. It really makes the difference and allows you to have more fun.
  • The 10 km range is brutal, but I’m not sure when you could take advantage of it because…
  • …Recording video is very sensitive to losing the line of sight between the controller and the drone. If you’re not careful, your videos will end up with a lot of artifacts and cuts.
  • The new version of the app is a lot friendlier for users. It allows you to take decent videos with zero experience in very little time.
  • The tracking system and the fast video modes are fantastic.
  • Getting the drone with extra batteries and a case will set you back 200 extra bucks (ouch).

This review originally appeared in Gizmodo en Español. You can read it in Spanish here.