I’ve been a bit slow getting into flying serious drones, after my early experiences with nanocopters and the Parrot made me worry I’d crash an expensive piece of hardware. But with the introduction of DJI’s practically pocket-sized Mavic Pro ($ 999 at Amazon), I decided to take the plunge. At $ 1,000 plus the need for a smartphone, the unit isn’t really any less expensive than a Phantom 4. But it is impressively compact and crams most of the important features of a Phantom 4 Pro into its small chassis.
4K Video, 12MP Raw files, all on a stabilized platform
Between the Mavic Pro’s excellent flight dynamics and an impressive built-in gimbal, its 4K (30fps) video is not only excellent quality, but also remarkably smooth. Stills can be captured at resolutions up to 12MP, in either JPEG, RAW (DNG), or both. Unfortunately, the drone won’t snap a still frame while you’re recording video, so you need to pause the video, shoot your still images, and then resume the video.
You have full control over camera settings, although the Auto settings are quite good as a default. However, it’s no simple thing to both be controlling the drone and sorting through tiny icons and menus on your smartphone screen — especially in the bright sun. If you are doing any complex filming, you’ll want to consider getting a table holder at a minimum, and possibly a second controller so a colleague and you can split the tasks of flying and videography between you.
You can only move the gimbal up and down (using the left dial on the remote control). Left and right are controlled by moving the drone itself. As is typical for “prosumer” drones, there is also no optical zoom capability. You can change the aspect ratio, though.
The Mavic Pro definitely qualifies as a serious tool
Sure, like any drone, it is fun to fly and a cool toy for those who can afford it. But the Mavic Pro is also completely competent for a wide range of serious applications. For the most part, it has all the same features and many of the same capabilities as its larger, and more expensive, sibling, the Phantom 4 Pro (although DJI is pushing the Phantom’s capabilities even further with the new Advanced model). You get obstacle avoidance, over four miles of nominal control range, a variety of intelligent flying modes, and access to powerful third-party flight applications including Hangar and Litchi. For me, the ability to use a dedicated controller (bundled with the drone) was a deciding factor in going with the Mavic Pro. I have tried flying various drones using only a smartphone and have never found it satisfying.
The Mavic Pro’s stability makes it suitable for a variety of video projects. In this clip, I documented the rapid growth of wind farms in South Texas by taking a 360-degree pan around one of the ranches where we do bird photography. There is even a tripod mode for ultimate stability.
Getting started with a Mavic Pro
Similar to flying an RC plane, there is a pre-flight checklist that takes a little getting used to. Of course you want to make sure the batteries in your drone, controller, and phone are all charged. Then you need to connect your phone to the controller. There is a cute little cable and some connectors that should make that really trivial, but I found it the most annoying part of the process. Then, after you’ve unfolded and fired up the drone, controller, phone, and DJI Go 4 app, you need to make sure they’re all talking to each other. You’ll probably also want to make sure your drone is getting a GPS signal, so that it can find its way home if needed (and let you know where it is). The app will tell you if the compass needs re-calibrating. If you’re like me and often get set up in the back of your hatchback, note that the drone will complain about magnetic interference until you set it down outside.
Once you’re all set up, it’s best to start with a nice, clear area, preferably with some texture or color where the drone takes off, so it can use its down-facing cameras to find its launch point accurately. Beginner mode will keep the drone near you, and from going too fast. Then fire it up, and take off. Let it sit over the launch point for a bit, so the drone can get a good view and memorize it for its Return To Home (RTH) feature.
Rounding out your Mavic Pro kit
If you decide to take the plunge and get a Mavic Pro for yourself, there are some useful accessories. For starters, some type of case is helpful. For around $ 10 you can get a simple padded case for the drone and for the remote control, or you can spend more on carefully shaped hard cases that have cut outs for all your other accessories. You’ll probably also want at least one spare $ 90 Intelligent Flight Battery, as in practice I found the actual flight time of the drone closer to 20 minutes rather than the rated 27 (partially because you really, really don’t want to run your battery to zero by accident). Spare rotor blades are also a must have, as they’re breakable and fortunately inexpensive.
Depending on the smartphone you use with it, you may have trouble seeing the image and icons in bright light. DJI makes an expensive display you can purchase, or with an inexpensive adapter you can use your tablet. Sun shades for the remote are also available, but that certainly adds to the complexity of using the system. Fortunately, the drone has a huge range, so it’s often possible to fly the drone from the shade of a tree on sunny days — or even while sitting on the shaded tail end of a vehicle.
Finally, controlling both the camera and the drone can be challenging. Getting a second controller from DJI might also be a good investment, even at nearly $ 300. Another potential use for a second person and controller is flying with First Person View (FPV) goggles. I hooked a pair of Microoled Cinemizer goggles up to my Mavic Pro rig and enjoyed the clear view I got of the drone’s perspective and the app’s information overlay. But because the HMD didn’t have any controls, and I couldn’t see the actual smartphone, it was a little unnerving to try to do any flying that way.
Unlike some of the Phantom controllers, the Mavic Pro controller doesn’t offer native HDMI output. To use it with third party HMDs, you need to have a smartphone or tablet that can both be plugged into the remote via USB and send HDMI to the goggles. DJI has announced its own DJI Goggles, which should solve that problem and also provide some input capability, so you’ll have some control over the drone from the goggles themselves. Unfortunately, DJI didn’t have a pair for me to test in time for this review, so that will have to wait.
DJI Refresh lets you off the hook if something happens
It can be nerve-wracking to fly a thousand-dollar drone close to obstacles, or somewhere you can’t see it very well. DJI offers the Refresh program, for $ 100 per year, as a form of insurance. If you purchase it, you can have a broken Mavic Pro repaired or replaced for $ 79 once or twice. The replacement takes a few weeks, though, so if you plan on doing critical work, you might consider getting a backup drone.
Speaking of crashing drones, several of us have learned the hard way that the DJI Tutorial videos are closer to marketing than instruction. In particular, after discovering that the otherwise-excellent Return To Home (RTH) function shoots the drone straight up to 70 feet instantly — straight into an overhanging tree in my case — I found that three other friends had similar incidents with their Phantom or Mavic Pro.
Summary: It is both a great toy and a valuable tool
If you want to get started flying a photo drone, or have a project that needs one, the Mavic Pro is a great choice. If you really don’t care about portability, then the Phantom family offers more options, and higher-end versions have more features and better cameras. But the Mavic Pro packs an incredible punch for its small size, providing you can afford its $ 1K price tag. Before deciding, though, make sure you have access to areas where it is safe and legal to fly it. A zone of five miles around airports, National Parks, and some other parks are off limits, as are busy streets or places with crowds. Get your $ 5 FAA hobbyist drone pilot registration, too, and attach your number to the drone to avoid a potential fine.
Now read: The best drone picks for every budget