TDC and RICK SMITH
This partnership is a significant step forward in the evolution of The Digital Circuit as a trusted website. Drawing upon Rick’s incredible expertise as an engineer and impartial reviewer, we have created a scoring grid for entry level, beginner, consumer/prosumer and professional drones.
Today, we present Rick’s first review, accompanied by an extensive video where he explains – in tremendous detail – why he has scored this quad (the DJI Phantom 4 Pro) the way he has. Over time, The Digital Circuit will create an easy-to-access database, complete with infographics, allowing you to quickly compare features and scores of products you may be considering.
For our first review, Rick selected the DJI Phantom 4 Professional.
Rick is not paid to do these reviews, but receives product to review from manufacturers. Sometimes those products are on short-term loan; sometimes Rick is permitted to keep them. Regardless of the circumstances or the manufacturer, Rick Smith and TDC pledge to provide neutral and unbiased reviews. If a product is great, we’ll tell you so. If it has some problems, we’ll tell you that as well.
We hope you share in our excitement over this new step forward. It is, trust us, the first of many.
And with that – we hand things over to Rick Smith of Drone Valley, who wrote the review below:
OUR MISSION – by Rick Smith
Finding the right drone for your needs that also fits your budget can be a daunting exercise for even the most tech-savvy consumer. With the number of companies flooding the market with similar products, all claiming to be the next big thing, it’s hard to tell fact from fiction. We are trying to help simplify that process for you by applying a scoring template to the quads we evaluate so you can fairly and easily compare one model to another. These reviews will include both a direct evaluation of the features provided as well as commentary based on actually flying the quad we’re reviewing. We hope this helps you to cut through the noise and find the perfect quad to get you up in the air without busting your budget.
THE QUAD: 40 POSSIBLE POINTS
The Phantom 4 Pro is an evolutionary drone that is built upon three previous generations of Phantom products and thousands of engineering hours of development. It provides all of the leading-edge features you’ve come to expect from the Phantom line and raises the bar even higher by adding some incredibly advanced features to its familiar frame. When evaluating the quad, we settled on 10 categories of criteria that are essential to understanding how a quad you’re considering will stack up against the competition. Each of these 10 categories is worth four points apiece for a total of 40 points possible for the quad itself.
- Range (4/4) – The Phantom 4 Pro boasts an incredible 4.3-mile range, the longest of any quad in this market segment. This is due to the proprietary DJI LightBridge HD connection that ensures a rock-solid signal for telemetry and video streaming.
- Flight Time (4/4) – The quad provides a class-leading 30 minutes of flight time with its upgraded battery. The new removable cell is rated at 5870 mAh compared to the older Phantom 4 which employed a 5350 mAh battery. The older Phantom 4 cells can still be used with the new Phantom 4 Pro but won’t provide as long of a flight time.
- Build Quality (4/4) – The build quality of the Phantom 4 Pro is incredible with its sleek white design and titanium alloy/ magnesium alloy enhanced frame. A great attention to detail was applied to the creation of this airframe, right down to the internal wire management and design tolerances that allow connection seams in the frame to almost disappear before your eyes. This quad is built to last.
- Portability (3/4) – While it’s the same size as the previous Phantom 4, we were hoping DJI might have made some changes that allow the quad to pack up smaller. Traveling with this quad requires a larger hard or soft case and may cause you to leave it home on longer trips since it’s not as travel-sized as its smaller brother the Mavic Pro.
- Weight (4/4) – The quad weighs around 3 pounds, which is actually lighter than most quads in this category. This helps it to squeeze out a little extra flight time that can come in handy.
- Stability (4/4) – Because of its dual IMU’s and dual Compasses, the Phantom 4 Pro is pinpoint accurate when flying. Take your thumbs off of the control sticks and it sits in a perfectly still hover, awaiting your next command. Unlike most quads that drift in the wind, this quad is constantly correcting it position to maintain its location.
- Obstacle Avoidance (4/4) – The Phantom 4 Pro provides the most advanced obstacle avoidance on the planet with 5-direction detection and 4-direction avoidance. It sports a dual set of cameras in the front, rear and bottom that work together to keep you out of harm’s way. It’s also watching obstacles on either side with a pair of infrared sensors that “paint” a 3-D image of your surroundings to help you avoid an unfortunate crash.
- Return to Home (RTF) (4/4) – While many quads tout their ability to return to their home point when issues arise, the P4P takes this feature to a whole new level with its intelligent RTH. The quad is memorizing the path you’re flying and if it’s called back to its home position it will follow this path to ensure a safe return. It also employs its incredible obstacle avoidance smarts to help dodge hazards along the way and will land within inches of its starting position.
- Connection Topology (4/4) – The lifeline of connection between your controller and your quad is the only thing keeping this amazing technology tethered to your commands. Unlike a lot of other drones that rely on spotty Wi-Fi connections, the engineers at DJI have developed their LightBridge HD topology to ensure this solid connection for up to 4.3 miles. When the quad first wakes up, it scans the available ISL frequencies to find the most reliable one in the area you’re flying and makes the connection for you. You also have the choice of selecting this manually between the 2.5 GHz and 5.8GHz band.
- Aerial Positioning (4/4) – Because the Phantom 4 utilizes both GPS and GLONASS, it always knows precisely where it is in the 3-D world it occupies. When the Vision Positioning System kicks in it can maintain a hovering accuracy of 0.3 meters horizontal and 0.1 meters vertical. Coupled with the dual IMS’s and dual compasses it provides a rock solid positioning to ensure you never have to worry about parking it in a nearby tree.
THE CONTROLLER: 20 POSSIBLE POINTS
The controller for any quad you’re considering is an essential piece of kit that not only determines how well you can control the quad in flight, but also how much critical information you’re provided about the performance and position of the quad. While you may not have a choice of selecting a controller separately, since most quads in this category are married to a particular tech, you need to understand what the controller provides to help you in your decision. This section of the evaluation explores five categories of features that need to be considered to ensure you have the most enjoyable flights possible. Each of these evaluation criteria is worth four points for a total of 20 points for the entire section.
- Monitor (4/4) – The Phantom 4 Pro offers two styles of controllers. The standard one provides a cradle for your favorite phone/tablet and the Plus model includes a 5.5” display with an insane brightness (1000 nits) that can easily be seen in broad daylight. Having the choice between these allows you to select the best option for your needs and your budget.
- External Ports (3/4) – While the Plus version of the controller features an external HDMI connection, you’ll have to add a board to the standard controller if you want to connect it to an external display or FPV goggles. This earned a demerit since HDMI is easy and inexpensive to build into these devices and we feel should have been included in both controllers.
- Transmitter (4/4) – The controller proves a dual connection over both the 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz bands and employs an advanced TDM technology to ensure a reliable connection and solid video streaming. The best frequency for connection is chosen at boot-up by the controller and is also user selectable.
- Streaming Video (4/4) – The Phantom 4 Pro offers streaming video at 1080p quality to show you exactly what the camera is viewing. This video stream is stable with almost nonexistent lag-time when flying. This is due in large part to the LightBridge HD technology previously mentioned.
- Power (4/4) – The internal rechargeable Lipo battery provides a full 5 hours of flight time for the quad. It also powers the internal monitor or any phone/tablet you may want to use with the quad.
THE CAMERA: 20 POSSIBLE POINTS
One of the main reasons people love flying quads is to capture breathtaking vistas through pictures and video. Making sure any quad you’re considering has a quality camera and stabilized gimbal will help you shoot the best pictures and video possible. This category has five essential criteria that are worth 4 points each that will help you to compare the photographic capabilities of a particular drone.
- Sensor (4/4) – The P4P features a 1-inch Sensor, which is like having a DSLR camera strapped to your quad. It also provides either single shot or burst mode for stills up to 14fps.
- Resolution (4/4) – This amazing camera provides a resolution of 20 Megapixels for a crisp picture from any angle. This is further refined through a DJI-designed 8 element lensing system and mechanical shutter.
- Gimbal (2/4) – This quad has an incredibly robust 3-axis gimbal that does an awesome job of image stabilization, even under harsh and windy conditions. Where it falls a little short is that the gimbal is permanently fixed to the quad, which limits your ability to use it on other devices like some of the competitors provide. The gimbal is also only forward looking and doesn’t provide a full 360 degree rotation, which cost it another point.
- Camera Adjustments (4/4) – The camera provides a wide range of adjustments that include ISO, Focus and Aperture. Similar to many conventional DSLR cameras, it allows you to tap the screen to focus your shot.
- Video Quality (3/4) – The video quality the new Phantom 4 Pro provides is amazing and it can record in both H.264 and H.265. You have a choice of resolutions all the way up to Cinema 4K, 60fps at 100 Mbps. As impressive as these options are, the system lacks an auto-focus for the video recording, which cost it one point in this rating.
SOFTWARE: 20 POSSIBLE POINTS
Modern quads are very sophisticated flying platforms that are essentially slaves to the software provided by the manufacturer. Beyond simply flying the drone, this software is a critical part of your user experience with the quad since it’s your interface to the technology. In recent years many manufacturers have included automation and intelligence to their software that provides a much richer flying experience. This section of the evaluation includes five categories worth four points each to help you compare the advanced features one quad may provide over another.
- Platform (4/4) – The DJI GO 4 software is available for both iOS and Android and provides the same features and functions for both.
- Smart Features (4/4) – In addition to the basic flying functions, the DJI GO 4 application provides a range of selectable “smart” flying choices that include Tap to Fly, Draw, Follow and Gestures. Many of these also allow you to still move the position of the camera while the drone executes the flight requested.
- Autonomous Features (2/2) – Being able to design and fly a mission with programmed waypoints is becoming common in most quads these days. Unfortunately, it can’t be done natively in the DJI GO 4 application and cost the quad a point for this omission. You can use the companion application called DJI Ground Station to accomplish this but it would have been nice to have it all in one place. We had to deduct another point for the lack of FPV support in the software. FPV flying is becoming quite popular and not including this option in the DJO GO application we feel is an oversight.
- Software Kit Available (4/4) – DJI has done an excellent job of publishing an SDK (Software Developer Kit) so that other companies can create an application to fly the quad. There is a number of these on the market already for surveying and other specialized applications.
- Updates and Upgrades (4/4) – DJI regularly issues updates to their software that both eliminate bugs they have discovered and enhanced the functionality of the application. This is also a great way for DJI to introduce new features to the quad through a simple update.
BONUS SECTION: FOUR POSSIBLE POINTS
Because this is a vibrant marketplace with amazing innovation occurring every year, not all quads are created equal. In this section, we call out special features or aspects of the quad we’re reviewing that set it apart from the crowd. If we feel there is something special about a particular drone, we’ll award one point for each cool thing that rocks us back on our heels.
- Safety (+1 Point) – Because of the advanced Return to Home function and their amazing obstacle avoidance technology, the Phantom 4 Pro is the safest quad ever released. This attention to safety is something that many companies overlook in favor of a lower price. DJI should be commended for including these features in the quad.
- Range (+1 Point) – The range on the P4P is unbelievable and far beyond what any competitor can offer today. While you may never want to fly that far, knowing you have a strong and stable signal provides the confidence you’ll need to fly at closer distanced reliably.
- Gimbal (+1 Point) – There is a hidden feature in the software settings that allow you to scroll the gimbal up 30 degrees beyond the horizon that most other quads can handle. This may seem like a small thing unless you’ve ever tried to capture a tall tree or interesting cloud formation. Scrolling the gimbal up that little extra bit allows you to capture more exciting shots.
- Price (+1 Point) – The Phantom 4 Pro is a steal for the features it provides at its current price. This quad could have easily justified a price point a thousand dollars higher when you add up all the technology it includes. While it’s still on the high end of the prosumer quad price range, it’s worth every penny, especially when compared to other drones in this class.
Considering all of the advanced features packed into the new Phantom 4 Pro, it’s hard not to love it. Their latest flagship prosumer quad sports a bevy of mind-bending upgrades including five-direction crash detection, DSLR-level camera with a 1″ sensor, Lightbridge HD connection for a 4.3-mile flight range and brand new controller with an optional high-brightness screen.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a quad with this list of features at this price anywhere else. It almost feels like DJI is making a statement by releasing this as an upgrade to the Phantom 4 instead of an entirely new product. This is a clear shot across the bow of their competitors, letting them know once again why DJI intends to own this market.
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