Consumer drones have steadily become smaller, cheaper, and easier to use over the last few years -- thanks primarily to DJI.
The Chinese company essentially created the consumer drone with the Phantom. In 2016, they introduced the Mavic Pro -- their first foldable drone -- bringing high-end features in a more portable package. And last year’s Spark was even smaller still.
But if you wanted to buy a drone for the first time, DJI’s lineup left you with a dilemma. At under $500, the Spark was cheap -- but compromised on key features. It didn’t include a remote controller, dramatically limiting range, and can't shoot 4K video. The Mavic Pro had both -- but at $1,000, was a steep price to pay for first-time buyers.
DJI’s latest drone fills that gap. The Mavic Air slots neatly between the two, promising the portability of the Spark with the technical capability of the Mavic Pro.
IT’S REALLY SMALL
I expected the Mavic Air to be small, but seeing it in person, it’s still striking just how tiny the drone is. When folded up, it’s not just significantly smaller than the Mavic Pro -- it’s only slightly bigger than the Spark.
I do wonder how much of a difference this actually makes. The Mavic Pro is certainly bigger -- but still fits comfortably inside a bag. And unless you live in the countryside (or have a particularly scenic commute), a drone isn’t something you’d carry with you every day. Still, it’s hard to complain when something gets smaller and lighter.
A bigger factor for portability is the remote controller. It has removable thumbsticks that can be stored inside the remote itself. Aside from giving it a slimmer profile, the sharp edges of the Mavic Pro’s thumbsticks were sharp enough to tear the inside of bags, so being able to tuck them away makes the remote much easier to carry around.
The Mavic Air looks more like the Spark than the Mavic Pro. But its capabilities are closer to the pricier drone than DJI's low-end model.
Since the standard Spark package lacks a remote controller (you can buy one for an additional $120), it can’t venture more than around 30 meters away from your smartphone before it loses connection. The Spark just isn't in the same class as the two Mavics.
In flight, the Mavic Air feels very similar to the Mavic Pro. At first I worried that it wouldn’t be as stable in strong winds as the bigger Mavic Pro; at an event held by DJI last month, the Mavic Air was getting pushed around in conditions that didn't feel windy at all. But in my tests, it seemed to remain stable in a variety of conditions.
Both Mavics allow you to connect a smartphone (or tablet) to their remote controllers to view real-time video from the drone. The Mavic Pro uses DJI’s own OcuSync technology, while the company says the Mavic Air uses a form of Wi-Fi.
This ended up being one of the biggest differences between the two drones: The Mavic Air’s video transmission simply wasn’t as stable as the Mavic Pro’s. At times it was fine; at others, it stuttered, froze, and lost connection entirely in situations where the Mavic Pro worked normally. The Mavic Air seems far more prone to interference than the Mavic Pro -- perhaps because it uses a form of Wi-Fi, given how pervasive the technology is.
On the flipside, when free of interference, I was surprised by the Mavic Air’s range. I stood on the coast and flew both drones straight out over the water until they lost connection. The Mavic Pro reached almost two and a half kilometers before turning back for home. When I tested the Mavic Air, it went exactly the same distance -- a result I wasn’t expecting.
The other main issue I had with the Mavic Air was with battery life. I flew it with multiple batteries on different days, in different locations, in different conditions -- and each time, I got about 15 minutes out of the batteries. That’s far less than the 21 minutes I got with the Mavic Pro. It could be that, as a Mavic Pro owner, I simply expected the drone to last longer -- but I did feel like this was a significant difference, and that I was pushing my flights with the Mavic Air to the limit more often simply because flying time was so short.
Despite my misgivings with performance, I was impressed with the drone’s camera.
The Mavic Air can record 4K video, and the visuals are stunning. None of the pictures in this story were adjusted or given color correction, other than to compress them to make this webpage load faster.
Images were crisp and clear, displaying all of the same detail as pictures from the Mavic Pro. In the photos and video we took from the two drones, the Mavic Air looked brighter and more vibrant. I suspect this was down to the Mavic Pro’s auto-exposure rather than the capabilities of their cameras -- again, in an effort to keep it fair, I didn’t manually focus any of the shots. That the Mavic Air takes great images right out of the box only makes it better for newcomers.
The Mavic Air also includes a major improvement over the Mavic Pro: A new collision avoidance system that can fly the drone around obstacles either in front or in the rear. But I admit I didn’t get a chance to properly try it out. Even outside of the city, I struggled to find a decent obstacle course to test it without endangering anyone. (I’m going to chalk that up to living in one of the world’s most densely populated cities.)
SPARK, AIR OR PRO?
I’ve spent most of this review comparing the Mavic Air to the Mavic Pro, which is a bit unfair. After all, the Mavic Pro is more expensive -- it simply should perform better than the Mavic Air.
That this is a close contest is a testament to how good the Mavic Air is. It’s amazing how much of the Mavic Pro the company has managed to cram into a smaller size. Battery life and transmission issues are real downsides, but they’re nowhere near the limitations of the Spark. And radio interference really depends entirely on your surroundings: It may be that Hong Kong’s skies are just as crowded with signals as the streets are with people.
I started this review by explaining the dilemma first-time drone buyers used to face: Do you buy the cheap but limited Spark, or the capable but pricey Mavic Pro?
The answer is the Mavic Air.
Yes, $800 is still a fairly hefty price to pay. But given just how much you get here, the Mavic Air is worth it.