For years now, the best drones have been large and unwieldy to transport. If you wanted great camera quality, a solid build and a reputable name, you’d be looking at a heavy, cumbersome drone like the DJI Phantom 4 or the Yuneec Q500 Typhoon 4K. Until now, that is.
When my boss handed me this small angular grey device yesterday, it took me a few seconds to realise what I’d been given. This futuristic box with hard lines and a charcoal grey finish looked like it could spring into life at any moment. Nestled neatly in my palm was a compact, sleek, finely tuned drone – the DJI Mavic.
The most striking aspect of the Mavic is its size. It is comparable in size to the average DSLR and can easily slot into a lens bag or small backpack. The propellers fold in compactly, and shouldn’t run any risk of getting snagged against other objects in a satchel.
Unlike the Phantom 4 or GoPro’s Karma, both of which require separate carrying cases, the Mavic can happily nestle in with the rest of your photography kit. I can easily imagine tossing a Mavic into a backpack alongside my Sony a6300, a mini tripod and a couple of spare lenses without breaking a sweat (or any of my gear).
The Mavic is equipped with a miniature version of the camera found on DJI’s Phantom 4. Fixed on a three-axis gimbal, the camera shoots up to 4k at 30fps and 12 megapixel stills. The 3830mAh battery is significantly smaller than the one found on the Phantom 4, but flight time is still a solid 27 minutes thanks to reduced weight.
During setup, the Mavic’s propellers fold outwards (two horizontally, two vertically) to give the drone a comfortable wingspan of 30cm across. Even with its blades fully extended, the Mavic looks small, but its size doesn’t diminish the premium feel of the product. It has an air of confidence, of capability, similarly to the Phantom 4. It feels ready, even eager to fly.
Gone is the Apple-esque glossy white finish, replaced by a hardshell plastic that looks akin to carbon fiber, coupled with a brushed gunmetal bottom plate.
Weighing in at 734g, the Mavic is 50% lighter than the Phantom 4 (1.4kg) and significantly lighter than the GoPro Karma (over 1kg). In fact, the Mavic is almost as heavy as the Karma controller, which weighs 625g alone.
Speaking of controllers, the Mavic’s one is also a delight. Like the drone itself, the controller folds into a neat little package that can be used by itself or in conjunction with a smartphone running the DJI Go app. If you’re happy to fly blind, so to speak, you can forego the phone and navigate purely by line of sight, or you can pass the camera responsibilities to a friend, using the controller to steer the drone and the app to guide the camera.
There’s also the option to fly using just the app, although we found this a little tricky when using a beta version of the software. We’d recommend using the bundled controller for an optimum experience, although it’s great to know that you won’t be entirely stuck if you happen to lose or forget the controller.
Getting it into the air was one area where I experienced some initial teething problems. This isn’t uncommon for drones, but the Mavic seemed particularly fussy about where it would take off from. I tried a few times to lift off from the floor of our office, and presumably the drone detected too many obstacles in its immediate vicinity and refused to budge. We did finally manage to get it into the air in a less enclosed space, and once it was oriented, the Mavic sprung into life, taking off quickly and hanging steadily in the air, awaiting instructions. Do note however that both DJI and our team highly recommend using it outdoors – we mainly just flew it inside to test out the obstacle detection.
Similarly to the Phantom 4, the drone is incredibly steady while hovering, even outdoors. DJI has spent years perfecting both its hardware and software, and the Mavic is a natural evolution of the Phantom line in that regard. It boasts the same obstacle avoidance technology, a similar battery life and the same camera tech as the Phantom 4. If you attempt to fly directly into a wall or other obstacle, the Mavic will instinctively pull backwards a few feet shy of the obstacle.
The Mavic will be available soon for preorder, and there are a number of different packages to choose from. Without the controller, a Mavic will retail for US$749, with the controller it’ll cost US$999, and the ‘professional bundle’ (including the controller, 2 spare batteries, a car charger and a charging hub) will be available for $1299.
The pricing is extremely aggressive, particularly without the controller. There’s no doubt that the Mavic is setting out to conquer the consumer drone industry, and this pricing reflects that. The base price is even cheaper than the very affordable GoPro Karma (US$799 without a camera) and force competitors to lower prices just to keep pace with DJI.
In truth, it’s hard to see the business sense in the Mavic, from DJI’s perspective. Here is a drone that appears to be similar to the Phantom 4 in many ways (battery life, obstacle avoidance, camera quality) and significantly better in a number of other areas (size, portability, design). Given the spec sheet and the pricing structure, it’s hard to see why anyone would opt for a Phantom 4 over a Mavic, and that would appear to indicate that DJI is willing to cannibalise its own sales of the Phantom, which is only six months old.
It appears then that the Mavic is a direct response to GoPro’s Karma, which was released just one week ago. DJI seemed to have been holding this ace in their sleeves for the Karma, which GoPro most likely will be depending on heavily to succeed. Depending on which bundle you opt for, both cost around US$1,000, both are ultra-portable UAVs with flight time of around 20 minutes and 4k capability.
The Karma wins out on modularity and versatility, but the Mavic certainly beats the Karma on portability. Additionally, DJI has been in this game for years, whereas GoPro is a newcomer. Experience counts for a lot, but I’m sure we can expect an aggressive and effective ad campaign from GoPro, the king of viral marketing.
The battle between the Mavic and the Karma will be a fascinating one to watch, but it will also be interesting to see what happens to the Phantom line, DJI’s initial breakout hit. Will it be forgotten as we move into a new era of drones, or will there still be a place for the faithful old Phantom as consumer drones become smaller, faster and more agile?
In any case, the Mavic heralds a new era of innovation in consumer drones and a clear leap forward for the industry as a whole. No longer are the best UAVs cumbersome beasts that require an unwieldy carrying case to tote them around; they are small, sleek and undeniably impressive. Here is a drone for 2016, light and small enough to carry in the palm of your hand while capable of shooting stunning 4k footage even in tough conditions. Drone enthusiasts – welcome to the future.