DJI’s Phantom 2 Vision+ really upped the ante for a consumer-friendly all-in-one aerial photography drone. It shot solid 1080p video, and its built-in stabilized camera kept the shot super smooth. Well, the Phantom 3 is here—and while it isn’t perfect, it blows the doors off the 2 Vision+. It’s a mighty sweet birdie.

What Is It?

It’s DJI’s (that’s China’s Da-Jiang Innovations) latest consumer-facing aerial photography quadcopter, not to be confused with the more impressive (and more expensive) prosumer Inspire 1. It has the same tried and true body as the previous Phantom drones and it doesn’t go any faster than the last version. So what’s the difference? It’s way more accessible for beginners, and takes way better video. It’s got a wonderfully sharp, three-axis gimbal stabilized 4K UHD camera and vastly improved controls.

Plus a new lower price, depending on the model. The Phantom 3 comes in two styles: the $1000 Advanced and the $1260 Professional. They’re very similar but the Professional shoots glorious 4K video at up to 30fps, while the Advanced is limited to 1080p video at 60fps. The Professional version is the one we tested and will be writing about here.

Why Does It Matter?

Because they took the best consumer drone and made it significantly better.

Design

At first glance you’d think the Phantom 3 is just the Phantom 2 Vision+. Look underneath it, though, and you’ll see a trio of new sensors on the tail, which let the drone see the ground. This means that the drone should remain stable, even if it doesn’t have GPS lock. Like if you’re flying it indoors. More on that in a sec.

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You can’t see it on the outside, but the GPS has also been improved. In addition to standard GPS satellites it now works with GLONASS satellites (Russia’s version of GPS). More satellites means faster signal acquisition and that it will more reliably stay locked during flight.

And then there’s the camera. It looks just like the camera on the Phantom 2 Vision+, but it ain’t. It’s now capable of shooting 4K video. The lens is f/2.8 and has a 94 degree field of view, with very little lens distortion. It uses the same three-axis gimbal as the previous camera. This all adds up to gorgeous video.

Remote for its predecessor, the Phantom 2 Vision+

The biggest and best overhaul, though, is the remote control. With the Phantom 2 Vision+ (above) you had a very basic remote. In addition to the two main joysticks, it had a pair of three-position switches up top, which were confusing to use unless you memorized the minutiae of the advanced section of the instruction manual. You also had an annoying little box attached to the top, which acted as the wireless bridge between the drone’s camera and your phone. You had to connect your phone to the box’s Wi-Fi, which then pulled photo and info from the camera. It was a pain in the ass.

The Phantom 3 remote control.

The control for the Phantom 3 is all integrated. The Wi-Fi stuff is all built in now. You just attach the your phone or tablet directly to the remote via USB. The remote has done away with replaceable batteries, too, and now houses an internal rechargeable battery. The charger that comes with the Phantom 3 allows you to charge the drone’s battery and the remote at the same time, and it’s been upgraded to charge the batteries faster. I was able to get the drone’s battery from 10 percent back to full in just over an hour.

Possibly the best part, though, is that the remote now has a bunch of buttons that control the camera’s functionality. You used to have to do everything by tapping tiny icons on your phone’s screen while you were flying. Now there are dedicated buttons for start/stop recording, a shutter button for stills, and a pair of wheels to adjust the camera’s angle and even the exposure. This is just so much easier.

The remote also has a prominent new button next to the power button: Return to Home. Lose sight of the drone, or just want it to come back and don’t want to do it yourself? Press and hold that button and it will fly over to where you launched it, and then slowly descend and land itself. It’s very convenient. There are also two easily accessible trigger-style buttons that advanced users can customize to do things like reset the gimbal angle, switch between map view and camera view on your screen, display battery info, etc.

Using It

It’s hard to understate just how much easier it is to fly and shoot with the Phantom 3. The 2 Vision+ wasn’t hard, but with the 3 it’s just so much more intuitive that it removes a layer of stress, and you can enjoy flying and focus on what you’re shooting.

It’s just so much fun to fly. When it takes off near you and you feel this tremendous wind pushing down, you really get a sense of how powerful this drone really easy. And yet, the controls are really pretty simple to learn. On the left stick, up and down controls your elevation while left and right control your rotation. The right stick moves the drone on the XY axis—forward, backwards, and side to side. You’l want to start out flying slowly, because it’s easy enough to get turned around, but once you’ve spent some time with it, you’ll feel confident enough to push it to its limits. It’s generally very user friendly. But be careful. This thing moves at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour and those plastic propellor blades will slice through a person’s skin.

The integrated camera controls on the controller are fantastic. I really hated taking a hand off the controls to tap my phone’s screen when I wanted to get anything done. With the Phantom 3 I can tilt the camera up and down, start and stop recording, and even adjust the exposure compensation without ever removing my thumbs from the joysticks.

So maybe you’ve seen that episode of The Big Bang Theory that makes fun of how hard it is to calibrate a DJI drone? It used to be true. On the older models you had to take the right-hand three-way switch and flip it up and down five times in order to put the drone into calibration mode... pick up the drone and rotate 360 degrees around one axis... then twist it and rotate it 360 degrees around another axis to get GPS to work properly. This was incredibly annoying.

With the Phantom 3 you don’t have to do that any more. You turn it on, plug the remote into your phone or tablet via USB, and you’re ready to go within seconds. I even flew it a few times without a screen attached and everything still worked perfectly. I definitely noticed the difference with GLONASS, too. It used to take a minute or so for decent satellite acquisition. With the Phantom 3 it’s about 5 to 10 seconds. You probably should still do the weird twisty dance just to calibrate the compass (which you start within the app), and DJI recommends it, but honestly, I never did—and the drone never got disoriented.

The Return to Home button works like a charm, mostly. On several occasions (in several different environments) I took it to the very edge of the remote control’s range, and then hit the button. Every time it came back. That said, it didn’t always come back exactly to the place where it launched. Usually it landed within a few feet of the spot. Other times it landed about 8 feet away. A couple of time it was closer to 12 or 15 feet. This is exactly why you shouldn’t launch it off a dock (or a boat) unless you really know what you’re doing. That said, once it gets back within range you can just use the joysticks and you’re flying again.

Yesterday I decided to test the Phantom 3’s range, which DJI claims is 1.2 miles. I was dubious. So I took it to a large body of water, brought it up to 300 feet, and then hit the gas, sending it flying away. I lost visual on it after just a few hundred feet, but I could still see the video feed and the drone’s distance on my attached tablet. It was pretty amazing. I was able to send it out 8,000 feet before it lost contact with the remote. 8,000! That’s over 1.5 miles (or 2.4 kilometers). The video feed got choppy at about 6,500 feet, though, which is the 1.2 miles DJI claims.

Once the drone loses contact with the remote (for whatever reason) it activates its Failsafe mode, which turns it around and lands it at the spot where it first took off. I found that this generally worked perfectly, except during that 8,000 foot flight. It was on its way back to me when I noticed a small plane overhead. I was sure it was a long ways away, but just to be safe I decided to lower the drone from 300 feet to 100 feet. Suddenly, poof, no signal. What the hell just happened? I looked closer at the screen and this is what I saw.

Uhhh, that’s not good. But luckily it was on land! I was able to use the map view to meander my way over to it, and there it was.

One prop was still spinning. Apparently it was still trying to finish its mission. Poor little guy.

Nothing near the crash site was anywhere near 100 feet tall. The signal wasn’t the strongest on its way back, so maybe as I was bringing it down it became disconnected with the remote and just kept heading down. Or maybe a seagull swooped and knocked it out of the sky? Seagulls hate this thing. Unfortunately, I wasn’t recording video, so I’ll never know what happened. I picked it up, cleaned some grass out of the props, and then zzzzzzp it started up again like nothing had ever happened. This things are really tough. I once crashed the first Phantom 2 Vision into a tree at about 35 feet, and it fell straight to the ground and survived.

Anyway, where was I?

I can’t prove this because I don’t have an earlier Phantom with me, but I’m almost certain that the Phantom 3 is quieter. I’m not sure if the blades are shaped slightly differently or what, but it seems to me (and my friends who have flown a lot of these) that the Phantom 3 produces lower-pitched whirring sounds than the previous generations, which had a higher whine. This makes it less obnoxious to be around. Again, I can’t be sure of this, but I think it’s true. It’s definitely still plenty loud, but if memory serves it’s not quite as grating as previous models.

Still image shot by the Phantom 3.

Okay, let’s talk image quality: It’s great. Especially on a bright day. The footage I brought back from the coast in Santa Cruz, CA (see top video) just blew me away. It was sharp, colors were bold, motion was smooth, and the dynamic range was very good. I couldn’t believe that some of that footage had come off this little flying toy thing. It’s really impressive. It does struggle a bit in low light, however. There’s a very noticeable graininess, especially in the darker portions of the picture. It’s not a dealbreaker, but if you’re shooting at night you might want to consider some serious post-production editing software. For most of us, though, where this thing shines is when something else is shining for it.

I did a quick comparison with a GoPro Hero4 Black, and while the Phantom 3 looks good, I have to say the GoPro looks better. The biggest difference is that the GoPro just has way more dynamic range. Details don’t get lost in the shadows so much and highlights are less likely to blow out. I think colors are a bit more lively on the GoPro, too. That said, when you’re shooting in 4K on the Hero4 Black you are limited to the camera’s wide field of view setting, which is roughly 170 degrees. I think the Phantom’s 94 degree field of is better for aerial photography. Another advantage the Phantom has is that it can shoot stills in RAW, so you have a bit more flexibility in post.

So, the Phantom 3 has that trio of ultrasonic sensors so it can fly stably indoors. The first time I tested it, it really did not go well. It just had all kinds of drift, and not just front/back/side/side, but also up and down. Turns out this was my fault, because I was flying over carpet. Ultrasonic sensors need a hard surface to ping off of—so keep that in mind before you buy it for indoor video. Before I figured that out I crashed it into a wall several times while trying to navigate it down a hallway and thought I broke it. It ended up upside down and I could hear all the engines struggling to move. Then it went silent. I picked it up, not looking forward to explaining how I had killed DJI’s latest drone.

Turns out it was just playing possum. I picked it up to switch it off, and the motor roared back to life and took a chunk of my hand as retribution. It was not dead, just pissed off. Lesson learned.

Anyway, over a hardwood floor the drone held very steadily. It was really pretty impressive. So yeah, avoid carpet.

DJI as also redesigned its Pilot app for mobile. It finally has the layer of polish that’s always been missing. There are little bits of animation here and there (just enough to make it feel fluid) and they’ve made it really easy to quickly adjust settings. Honestly, though, most people won’t ever want or need to touch that stuff. The basic controls are very accessible, but if you start going deeper into menus you’ll wish you had an engineering degree. That’s part of what makes this drone so compelling, though. Advanced users can customize the hell out of it, and beginners can just get up and flying (and shooting amazing video) without having to mess with anything.

It does still have advanced midair orientation features like Home Lock and Course Lock, but now you activate them through the app. Home Lock lets you record a home point and then the forward/back controls will always move the drone further or closer from it regardless of what its orientation or position is. Course Lock will keep the drone pointed in direction it was facing when you set it. Course lock doesn’t work with GPS, though, so you have to have to switch the flight controller to the F mode, instead of P (where the GPS goodness is).

At the Phantom 3’s launch there was some talk about a Follow Me mode, which basically lets you establish an angle and perspective for the drone, and then it will follow you wherever you go, assuming your phone’s GPS is going. This sounds great for stuff like biking and skateboarding, but unfortunately it’s not builtright in. DJI has made this kind of stuff available to developers, so people can build their own apps that utilize it, but it’s not in DJI’s own app yet. Hopefully that will change soon. In the meantime, there area a couple third-party apps available.

I did have a few compatibility problems with the Android app. DJI has said that it only supports a handful of devices at this point. Using an HTC One M9 went flawlessly. Trying to use an LG G4 didn’t work at all for some reason. Using a Google Nexus 9 tablet was the best. Not only did it work quickly (you just have to turn on USB debugging mode), but you’ll really appreciate all that screen real-estate when you’re trying to fly by the drone’s point of view. The iOS version of the app has an integrated flight simulator, so you can learn without crashing your actual expensive toy. Good idea, and hopefully it comes to Android soon, too.

Like

Image quality is phenomenal as long as there’s decent light. The new remote control is fantastic, especially the camera controls, the integrated wireless radio, and the Return to Home button. Flying this thing is just super fun. Also really like the new beefed-up charger which fills up the drone’s battery faster and charges the remote at the same time. The drone seems quieter and less annoying than previous iterations.

No Like

Low-light still has a ways to go as there’s a lot of grain and noise. Not being able to swap batteries on the remote control could be problematic on long shoot days (after all, you can do it for the drone itself). I’m sure it would be loud, but I kind of wish this thing recorded audio, because while the sound would mostly be annoying, I think sound adds more dimension to a video. Especially during a crash.

Lastly, just remember this thing really isn’t a toy—you could definitely hurt someone with it.

Should You Buy It?

Do you want a photography/videography drone that’s really fun to fly? Are you willing to spend $1,300 to get it? Then yes, go for it, because you’re not going to find a better drone for the money. At least not yet. The Phantom 3 Professional just shoots amazing video and it’s so easy to get it. If you don’t want/care about 4K video (it does chew through SD cards at roughly half a gigabyte per minute) then you could just get the Phantom 3 Advanced for an even $1,000. That’s really a good deal for a drone that solid, and you can do a lot with 1080p 60 video. Aerial slow-motion surf shots? Why not.

For me, though, I’d probably fork over the extra $300 for the 4K camera. It just looks absurdly good at times. You’ll score a shot and find yourself shocked, thinking “A: I can’t believe that came out of this little drone, and B: I can’t believe I actually shot that!” It gives you such a unique perspective on things you’ve seen thousands of times, and you’ll be able to crop in later if you so desire. To me that’s worth it.

I’ll be sending the Phantom 3 back to DJI in a couple days because I’m done reviewing it. Normally I can’t wait to send back all the digital crap I get. This one I’ll be sending back begrudgingly. I had so much fun with the Phantom 3, and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. [Phantom 3 Professional]