Pro Tips, Reviews

Phantom 4: Everything You Need to Know Before You Buy

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Having flown almost 200 flights on the DJI Phantom 3 drone, there are some things I got used to doing — like flying backwards or cruising at 30 MPH. As I’ll discuss below, the new Phantom 4 requires an equally new approach to flying, but promises some great features in return. My first six flights with the P4 have been a bit of a rocky road, but a little learning curve can be expected with each new iteration of technology.

That said, the Phantom 4 flies faster, longer, and produces better images than all other Phantoms to date. Having flown the top three quads in this class, I think it stands out as a clear winner on dependability, image quality, and ease of use. Let’s dive right in to why the Phantom 4 is worth your while, with side-by-side comparisons between the Phantom 3 Professional and the Phantom 4. Whether you’re a current Phantom owner or completely new to the space, this should give you a clear picture of what’s new.
 

Flight Time

DJI claims that the Phantom 4 will deliver a 28-minute flight time; on paper, the Phantom 3 promised 23. In the real world, this shakes out closer to 24 minutes and 15, respectively. Of course, battery life is heavily dependent on your flying style, flying conditions, and the number of flights on your particular battery, but undisputedly, the Phantom 4 can stay in the air longer than its predecessor.

DJI Phantom 3 and 4 Side-by-Side
DJI Phantom 3 (right) and 4 (left) side-by-side

I rarely fly my aircraft to below 30% battery, so the total flight time I’ll see is always going to be lower than what’s published. If there are particularly compelling situations unfolding that I’m shooting, I’ll push to 10% or 20% capacity, but I think this is dangerous — a lot of things can go wrong when the voltage on the battery dips too low, so I don’t recommend it. Regardless, with the overall flight time extended on the P4, you’re going to get some additional air time over the P3. The batteries take about an hour to charge with the included charger.
 

Design

The extra flight time comes at a bit of a cost, with the overall weight of the aircraft up 0.22 pounds, mostly due to an increase in battery size. If you’re used to handling the Phantom 3, this extra weight is immediately noticeable. In the air, the P4 also looks a bit more marshmallowy than the P3, but this could be due in part to it’s shiny new hull.

CasePro Phantom 4 Case
The gleaming hull of the Phantom 4

I’ve found the battery on the Phantom 4 a bit more difficult to remove from the aircraft — the buttons are harder to grasp than on the Phantom 3 — but this is a minor annoyance. The landing gear on the P4 is set a bit wider; the gimbal is tucked in a little closer to the body; and the rubber shock-absorbing grommets are gone, so overall the aircraft looks a bit sleeker than the P3. Add to that the new Phantom logo design and the gray-on-white coloring, and this craft is definitely in line with modern tech aesthetics. The props remain the same size on the P4 as on the P3, 24×12.7 cm; the overall size of the aircraft is close to the P3.

Phantom 4 Over the Pier
The Phantom 4 watches the sunrise
 

Image Quality

I’m not going to dive deep into specs, because at first glance the specs between the P3 Professional and the P4 are basically the same, although the P4 actually has slightly fewer effective megapixels than the P3 — 12.0 on the P4 vs. 12.76 on the P3. However, I will say that the P4’s sensor represents apparent gains in sharpness and dynamic range, and overall the image stability from the new gimbal is significantly improved over the P3, at least as far as I can tell in my initial testing. Moving side-to-side is also much improved on the P4 over the P3. You can now employ Inspire 1-like motion with the P4 and get consistently stable video, which wasn’t always possible before.

The first photo here was taken with the basic camera function of the P4 using full auto. I edited the photo in Lightroom a bit — when shooting RAW with the P4, you get an impressive amount of working latitude in the image. You can compare the images before and after editing below.

AEB HDR Image Taken Using the Phantom 4
Edited Phantom 4 RAW image

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Unedited Phantom 4 RAW image

The next image was taken using the Phantom 4’s auto-exposure bracketing function. This is a good example of the most you could hope to pull, in terms of dynamic range, from a typical HDR setup. Below the edited photo are the three original photos, so you can see the details behind this fairly dramatic photo unfold every step of the way.

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Edited Phantom 4 AEB HDR image

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Unedited Phantom 4 AEB image 1/3 (overexposure)

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Unedited Phantom 4 AEB image 2/3

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Unedited Phantom 4 AEB image 3/3 (underexposure)
 

Flight Modes

Now the good stuff: The P4 features new flight modes, including Sport mode, which has quickly become my favorite. In “P” mode, which is where most flying is done (as all sensors are active in this mode), the P4 flies slower than the P3. I’d imagine this is part of the strategy for smoother footage overall. In Sport mode, however, the P4 can hit a blazing 45 MPH and still capture great, stable footage.

While the P4’s props are set higher off the body of the aircraft to help make sure they’re not in shots, I’ve found that this remains an issue at high speeds, as it was in the past with the P3. Historically, in order to address props in the shot, I had gotten into the habit of flying backwards with the P3. I’ve found that this strategy doesn’t work with the P4 — the P4’s gimbal shudders when traveling backwards at high speeds. You win some, you lose some. Atti mode is still an option, as it was on the P3, which switches off the GPS and allows you more independent control of the aircraft. In Atti mode, however, the aircraft doesn’t hold itself in place, so if a breeze is blowing the drone will drift with it. The old intelligent flight modes, like Home-lock and Orbit, are still present as well.

Phantom 4 in Flight
Looking up at the Phantom 4

One of the most important new features introduced with the Phantom 4 is the forward obstacle-sensing radar. This feature is considered one of the Holy Grails of UAV technology, and works at speeds of up to 22 MPH. I haven’t worked up the courage to fly my drone full speed at a wall as some reviewers have done, probably because I had to purchase mine, but suffice to say it appears to work as advertised. However, I have found that when coming in to land to someone hand-catching, the forward sensors don’t appear to see them. Further testing is needed, but for the time being the sensors do see walls and telephone poles, so I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with my P4 if I wanted to, and that’s a good thing.
 

Intelligent Flight Modes

Newly introduced with the P4 are intelligent flight modes, including ActiveTrack and Tap to Fly. Of all of the improvements that were introduced with the Phantom 4, for those new to flying, or those who enjoy using drones as world’s most advanced selfie sticks, they’re cutting edge additions that will make flying all the more fun.

ActiveTrack

ActiveTrack enables you to tap on a subject in the frame and track with it. Below is a screen shot showing what active track looks like when it’s enabled (the box turns green when the subject is in range). In the past I’ve used Vertical Studio to accomplish the task of tracking with subjects. So far, I find that Vertical is still superior in terms of being able to lock and and track with objects in the frame.

IMG_0453

In my testing with ActiveTrack, I found that it works better for tracking a person than anything else — and this is probably principally what it’s designed to do. There are a few caveats to how it works, though. The P4 has to be close enough to identify its subject, but not too close, and the subject can’t pass directly underneath, or it will lose the lock. I have to say, it’s a bit weird to have your P4 autonomously follow you — its basically what I always feared my Roomba would do. I’ve read that the intelligent sensing is based largely on color, but this is about where my knowledge ends on the technology. I was able to run around a field and be consistently tracked. Once you’re successfully locked on, you can initiate an auto-orbit that will send the P4 orbiting while tracking with your subject, a feature that had previously been only possibly in specialty apps like Vertical or Litchi.

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A successful ActiveTrack moment

Undoubtedly the effectiveness of the feature will be improved as updates are released, but for the time being, I’ll be doing my tracking with Vertical. I tried tracking another Phantom and a series of boats in the harbor with the P4, but ActiveTrack wasn’t able to lock on to many of them, or in some cases to identify them at all.

IntelliTrack on the Phantom 4

When this bit of technology works, it frees the pilot from having to handle some aspects of flying and enables you to get highly sophisticated shots that otherwise wouldn’t be possible with a single operator. My favorite shot is tracking a moving subject while orbiting and changing elevation; recently I did this at sea with large ships and produced some great shots.

TapFly

In the TapFly mode, you can tap on your screen to send your drone in a direction of your choosing, hands-free. While traveling, you can modify the air speed, and use the horizontal slider to strafe left or right. In this screen shot, you can also see the heads-up display of the forward obstacle sensors telling me that the drone senses us 11 feet in front of it — kind of like parking assistance in a car.

Phantom 4 TapFly
Obstacle avoidance

In TapFly, the P4 will determine whether you’ve tapped a spot above or below its current altitude and will ascend or descend as necessary. As you can see, the horizon issue haunts me even in TapFly.

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The DJI Go app in TapFly mode
 

Accessories

I rejoiced when I learned that the thread size on the Phantom 4’s camera is the same as on the Phantom 3. That means that the same filters that were sold for the P3 also work on the P4. My personal favorites are those from PolarPro, which I have in each of my kits.

There aren’t a ton of cases available yet, but I was happy to see that the company that makes one of the only carry-on sized cases for the Phantom 3, CasePro, is already shipping a carry-on-sized case for the Phantom 4. I use their cases for my Phantom 3s and have found them sturdy and well-thought-out; you can even leave your props on, which is a major plus for me. The sturdy foam box the P4 ships in doesn’t allow for the props to stay on when packed; the box also isn’t waterproof or lockable, and doesn’t allow for storage of a tablet or additional batteries, so it’s fairly limited in use by my standards.

Phantom 4 CasePro Case
Phantom 4 CasePro case

Another moment of rejoicing was when I learned that my favorite P3 long-range antenna from DBS Mods is compatible with the Phantom 4. For batteries, though, you’re going to need all-new chargers — again, you win some, you lose some. I haven’t seen any aftermarket gimbal savers or gimbal guards available yet, but I’m eager to find one, because the one that ships with the P4 — a piece of semi-translucent plastic that locks the gimbal to the landing gear — is a little finicky to attach.
 

Known Issues

On the P3, on most flights I had uneven-horizon issues, but I’m often taking off from ships, which are rolling around and don’t give the IMU a decent chance at calibration. I’ve been backwards and forwards through troubleshooting this issue without much resolution. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, no matter how many times I reset my IMU or a host of other sensors. However, whether on land or sea, it’s looking like this issue remains a problem with the Phantom 4. The P4 employs a new dual-IMU setup that allows the aircraft to calculate even more precise flight data. I thought the new setup would help with uneven-horizon issues, but as you’ll see below, level horizons come and go.

Correcting horizon issues manually
Correcting horizon issues manually

In the new DJI Go app, you can now adjust the gimbal manually, which will work in a pinch. In testing this feature, the gimbal shuddered when making big moves, presumably because it was hitting its maximums. There are dozens of forum pages discussing fixes to this horizon issue — some suggest chilling your Phantom overnight and then running the IMU and gimbal calibrations on an even surface in the morning. If this doesn’t work for you, pending a firmware update, a manual adjustment is your best solution.

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The Phantom 4 in flight

Another known issue being reported is early signal loss and total signal loss, as mentioned above. I’ve experienced this issue on almost every flight; on my third flight the signal cut out completely and the P4 initiated the return-to-home sequence while the DJI Go app said it was “Disconnected.” I’m not sure why this is happening; when flown side-by-side after the P3 in the same environment, the same problems aren’t present on the P3, though I’m sure these issues will be addressed in future firmware updates. From my flights, I noticed that the issue is far more pronounced on an Android device, as in, the video signal drops out more often and for longer periods of time.

When flying with a Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge Plus, the lag and signal degradation was so bad that I gave up after two flights and switched back to an iOS device. There are many pages of discussion on drone forums on how to improve issues like these with Android devices, but even when implementing things that are supposed to help, like removing all bloatware or repeatedly killing all tasks, the feed from my P4 to my Android device made POV flying all but impossible. On an iPad, the lag isn’t an issue, though I still experienced signal loss more often than I was comfortable with. As an added bonus on iPad, while in Sport mode, you get a fun tachometer in the bottom left of your screen that tells you the global output of your motors, which is pretty cool.

RPM Tachometer in Sport Mode
The tachometer appears in sport mode
 

The Bottom Line

On image quality alone, the P4 stands out as my new favorite go-to travel drone. Granted, it’s a new product with a few software quirks to iron out, but as an early adopter, I’m used to this, and am confident that most issues will be addressed in upcoming firmware updates from DJI. If you’re a Phantom 3 owner, should you upgrade? For the time being, I’m going to keep my P3s because they’re dependable and battle tested. For me, the P4 is going to have to prove itself over the next couple of months before I give up my P3s, but with overall improvements to the platform, I think an upgrade is inevitable.

Flying the Phantom 4
Phantom 4 on approach

Gavin Garrison recently returned from shooting six-months’ worth of drone footage on the high seas in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. He has produced two seasons of the Emmy-nominated reality show Whale Wars, as well as Whale Wars: A Commander Rises (Discovery). Gavin received his master’s degree in film production from the University of Southern California; he is a Samsung Imagelogger and Pond5 Ambassador. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @gavingarrison and check out his new IG @dronefortwo.