Every consumer product goes through three stages of life. It’s invented; it’s improved and adjusted; and, finally, it becomes a commodity. There’s not a lot of innovation anymore in microwave ovens, ceiling fans, or toilets — they’ve pretty much stopped morphing. They’ve reached the third stage, their ultimate incarnations.
Drones, love ‘em or hate ‘em, are still in the second stage: They’re rapidly changing direction, gaining features, finding out what they want to be. It’s an exciting period in this category’s life, because new models come out fast, each better and more interesting than the last.
For proof, just look at the Chinese company DJI, the 800-pound gorilla of drones. It releases a new drone or two every single year.
They’ve just introduced a drone called the Mavic Air ($800). It’s so small and smart, it makes you wonder why anyone would buy the 2016 Mavic Pro, which costs $200 more — but it’s not what you’d call perfect.
Meet the Air
The 15-ounce Mavic Air is small — and that’s huge. It folds up for travel: its four arms collapse against the body to make the whole thing small enough to fit into a coat pocket, about 6.5 inches by 3.5 inches by 2 inches. (The top two arms swing horizontally, as you’d expect. The bottom two, though, are hinged in two dimensions: They fold downward and inward, and you have to remember to do those before you do the upper arms. You’ll figure it out.)
Of course, there are plenty of small drones — but not in this league. The Mavic Air, for example, can capture gorgeous 4K video. And its camera is on a three-axis gimbal for stabilization; the video looks like it was shot from a tripod even when the drone was being buffeted by 20 mph winds, as you can see in the video above.
The box includes the drone, a remote control (it uses your smartphone as its screen), a battery, a charger, a set of propeller guards for indoor flying, and a spare set of propellers (in crashes, they’re the first to go).
The Mavic Air is also smarter than any sub-$1,000 drone DJI has ever made. It has depth-sensing cameras on three sides — forward, down, and backward (that’s new) — so that it can avoid collisions automatically in those directions.
Like most drones, this one has an automatic Return to Home feature that kicks in whenever the battery is getting low or if it loses the signal with the remote control. (You can also call it home with one button press whenever you’re just feeling anxious.) Thanks to the cameras underneath, this thing lands exactly where it took off — within a few inches.
The competitive landscape
The Mavic Air’s primary competition comes from two other DJI drones. Here’s the rundown:
Mavic Pro (2016 model, $1,000). Twice the size of the Air. Folding arms. 4K video. “27 minutes” of flight per charge (in the real world, 22 minutes). Front and bottom collision avoidance. Remote control included with built-in screen (no phone necessary). Very few palm control gestures (see below).
Mavic Air (2018 model, $800 — the new one). Folds up. 4K video. “21 minutes” per charge (more like 18). Front, bottom, and back collision avoidance. Remote control folds up tiny — even the joysticks unscrew and store inside the body, for even smaller packing. Has the most palm gestures of the three drones — and the most reliable palm gestures. 8 GB of internal storage for video and stills, so you can still record if you don’t have a micro SD card on you. Another $200 buys you a “Fly More” kit that includes two extra batteries, an ingenious folding four-battery charger, and even more spare props.
Spark (2017 model, $400). The smallest body of all, but its arms don’t fold, so it winds up being bigger for travel. 1080p video. “18 minutes” per charge (more like 11). Front and bottom collision avoidance. Remote control is an extra purchase ($120); uses your phone as a screen. Responds to hand gestures, but not reliably.
True, the Mavic Pro gets a little more flight per battery. And there’s an even more expensive model, the $1,100 Mavic Pro Platinum, that gets “30” minutes per charge.
(Do those seem like incredibly short flights? Yup. But that’s drones for you. As it is, a modern drone is basically a flying frame designed to haul its own battery around.)
But in my book, the Air’s tiny size is far more important than the marginally greater battery life. As the old saying doesn’t go, “The best drone is the drone you have with you.”
You can fly the Mavic Air in three ways.
First, you can use the included remote control. If you insert your smartphone into its grippers and connect the little cord, you get a number of perks — like actual joysticks, which make the drone much easier to fly than using the phone alone. The remote also has a dial at the outer corner for adjusting the camera’s tilt in flight, as well as a switch for Sport mode, which unlocks the drone’s top speed of 42 mph (by turning off the obstacle-avoidance features).
The remote also gives the drone a much greater range. It uses a Wi-Fi connection to the drone, instead of the proprietary radio connection of the Mavic Pro. DJI says that still gives you 2.4 miles of range, but I say baloney; even in the middle of the Texas desert, you’ll be lucky to get half that distance. It doesn’t really matter, though, since Federal Aviation Administration rules say you can’t fly a drone out of sight. (Speaking of the FAA: You don’t need a license to fly the Mavic Air as a hobby, but you do need to register the drone itself. And if you intend to fly it professionally — this means you, wedding videographers, filmmakers, construction firms, realtors, police, and farmers — you have to get permission from the FAA.)
The second way to fly the drone is using your smartphone. It works, but you get a much shorter range (about 250 feet), and it’s harder; DJI’s app has become one super-crowded, complex piece of software.
The third way: using hand gestures. The drone must be facing you at all times, and it has to remain pretty close to you, so this trick is primarily useful for positioning it for “dronies” (selfies from the air). Keep in mind that you also need the phone app with you, though, to turn on the palm-control mode.
You stand with your arm out, palm forward, in a “Stop! In the name of love!” pose. Now, you can “drag” your hand up, down, or around you; the drone follows as though connected to your palm by a magnet. It’s the next best thing to The Force.
New, two-handed gestures let you push the drone farther away or pull it closer to you. And you can now make the drone land by pointing your palm toward the ground and waiting.
In the previous model, the Spark, those palm gestures were super iffy; sometimes they worked, sometimes not. The Mavic Air makes them far more reliable, although I never got the new “take off from the ground” gesture working.
As in other DJI drones, the Mavic Air can follow you as you ski, bike, drive, or run (it tracks you optically — you don’t have to have the remote control on you). Unlike earlier ones, this one doesn’t just hover when it encounters an obstacle; it actually attempts to fly around the obstacle and keep going.
How’s it look?
“4K” may be a buzzword, but it doesn’t automatically mean “great picture”; it could refer to 4,000 pixels’ worth of ugly blotch.
The Mavic Air contains the same tiny camera sensor as the Spark and the Mavic Pro. The footage and stills generally look terrific — anything shot from the air is automatically kind of stunning, and the Air uses more data (100 Mbps) to record data than the Pro does.
Unfortunately, this sensor is still fairly disastrous when it comes to dynamic range. That is, it tends to “blow out” bright areas and “muddy up” dark areas. Alas, those are things you get a lot of when you’re shooting from the sky.
The Air can also do half-speed slow motion (in 1080p, not 4K), and take high-dynamic range photos (not videos).
All of these drones offer preprogrammed flight patterns, called QuickShots, that make great 10-second videos, incorporating flight maneuvers and camera operations that would be incredibly difficult to do yourself.
For example, the one called Circle makes the drone fly around you, keeping the camera pointed toward you the whole time; Helix makes the drone spiral out and away from you; and so on. There are two new ones: Boomerang flies a grand oval around you, up/out and back. Asteroid combines a flight up and away, with a spherical panorama. On playback, the video is reversed, so that it seems to start with a whole planet earth viewed from space, as the camera rushes down toward you. Here, have a look.
But it’s small
Like all drones in this price range, the Mavic Air is complicated and sometimes frustrating. It does a lot of beeping at you, it’s still full of options that are “not available now” for one reason or another, and it still doesn’t come with a printed instruction manual.
And yeah, someday, we’ll look back and laugh at an $800 drone that flies for only 18 minutes.
But you can’t buy a dream drone that doesn’t exist. And among the ones that do, the Mavic Air is ingeniously designed, impressively rugged, and incredibly small. Its features beat the cheaper DJI Spark in every category — and even the more expensive Mavic Pro in almost every category.
In other words, if you’re the kind of person considering a drone, the Mavic Air strikes a new sweet spot on the great spectrum of drones, somewhere between beginner and pro, between tiny and luggage-sized, between cheap and pricey. Invest as much time learning it as you’ve invested in buying it, and you’ll be flying high.
David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s email@example.com. You can sign up to get his stuff by email, here.