Over the last few years, DJI has come to dominate the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) market. The key to the Chinese manufacturer’s success has been to make these complicated pieces of machinery affordable and usable to complete novices. Last year’s Phantom 2 Vision+ perfectly embodied this philosophy – it packaged everything you needed to capture great aerial photos and video for around £1,000 and was unsurprisingly a runaway success as a result.
The Phantom 3 Professional ups the technology considerably while costing only a little bit more money. It swaps out the Phantom 2 Vision+’s 1080p video camera for a 4K model with a 12-megapixel sensor. The remote control unit has also seen an upgrade, now accommodating tablets as well as mobiles, an upgraded 720p video preview, and a huge 2km transmission range over the previous model’s 800m. As a result, the Phantom 3 Professional is actually closer in specification to the truly professional-grade Inspire 1, which costs £2,381.
Otherwise, it’s pretty much business as usual – it’s exactly the same diagonal size as its predecessor at 350mm, only 38g heavier at 1280g, and still moves at a nippy 16m per second (around 30mph). Sadly, battery life also remains the same at a paltry 23 minutes, although overall charge time is cut in half to an hour thanks to the new, more powerful charger.
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There’s nothing else on the market right now that offers aerial 4K video for just over £1,000. If you’re a hobbyist, then you could build a 4K drone for much less than the £1,159 DJI is asking, but one of the best things about the Phantom 3 Professional is how it all just works out of the box. If you’re looking for top-of-the-range aerial photography and want it to be as simple as possible, then the DJI Phantom 3 Professional is without doubt the drone to get.
Opening the DJI Phantom 3 Professional is a joy – everything is simply and beautifully presented, and there seems to be a conscious effort to get you started as quickly as possible. There are no special tools required to assemble the drone, and the quick start guide explains everything you need to get going. In theory, you could be up and running within the hour, although we’d highly encourage you to read the manual in full, check the local flying laws, and if possible, have someone with you who’s flown one of these things before.
The setup process is very simple – four colour-coded propellers twist onto the rotors by hand, a battery slides the body, your iOS or Android phone or tablet connects to the remote control using a USB cable and you download the DJI GO app to connect everything together. From there, the remote control is used to control the drone and the camera, while a live feed from the camera is displayed on your touchscreen device.
Piloting the Phantom 3 Professional can take some practice, but it’s about as simple as flying a drone can get. On the default ‘beginner’ settings, the left stick changes the drone’s elevation and rotation, while the right stick moves it forward, backward and side-to-side. The only potentially confusing thing to wrap your head around is that the right stick controls the drone relative to where it’s facing; so if you rotate the drone 180 degrees, the right stick controls are effectively reversed. Thankfully, the control sticks are so responsive that most people will adapt pretty quickly, and once you become comfortable with the flight controls, you can go into the DJI GO software and customise the sticks however you like.
While the drone flight controls are identical to previous Phantom models, the remote control has received a radical overhaul that makes taking photos and videos much easier. In fact, while 4K video is the headline feature on the Phantom 3 Professional, we’d say the redesigned controller is the more substantial improvement. On the Phantom 2 Vision + the camera controls appeared on the phone that you’d clamp into the remote. It meant that you had to fly the drone using both thumbs on the control sticks, and then move one hand off to pivot the camera and set recordings through the phone. It worked, but it was awkward and difficult to capture natural-looking video – it was the camera-operating equivalent of trying to rub your belly while patting your head.
On the Phantom 3 Professional, everything is physically on the remote control and fully accessible without taking your thumbs off the sticks. An analogue wheel on the left shoulder allows you to move the camera up and down, another wheel on the right shoulder controls exposure, and buttons allow you to start recordings or take photos. It sounds simple and logical, but the improvement is dramatic – it’s now possible to pilot the drone while moving the camera at the same time, which was all but impossible before. There are also spare buttons on the remote that you can customise through the DJI GO software to do things such as fast-pivot the camera straight ahead or down at the ground.
On the default beginner settings, DJI does everything it can to make sure piloting the drone is as easy as possible. When you start it up, you have to rotate the drone to calibrate its compass – it uses this data to navigate home automatically if it ever goes out of range. Speaking of range, the drone can go up to 2km metres away as long as you maintain line of sight, which is a vast improvement on the 800m of the previous model. A dedicated “Return to Home” button on the remote control is another failsafe if you get into trouble – press it, and the drone will return to where it took off from (or another designated home point) and slowly descend back to the ground.
Another big improvement to the controller is that the clamp has been widened so that it will now accommodate a tablet all the way up to the size of an iPad Air. Again, it’s sounds like a small improvement, but being able to see what you’re filming on a 9.7-inch screen makes framing your shot so much easier than it is on a phone. The downside is that with an iPad Air, the remote control becomes comically big and heavy – the battery life of the drone may only be 23 mins, but that’s fine in this setup, because your arms will start to ache after 10.
The Phantom 3 Professional sends a video preview from the drone to the controller so you can see what you’re shooting, and on this model this feed has been upgraded from SD to 720p HD. Again, this makes it easier to see what you’re actually filming – the more detail you can see, the easier it is to pick out what you want to record in 4K to the memory card on board the drone. However, it means you need to connect your device to the remote control using a USB cable, which isn’t provided in the box, and is something else you need to remember when going out filming. The use of a cable has a couple of big advantages though. First, the remote control charges your device while it’s connected, which is good because it’s quite a battery-intensive activity. Second, you can use the phone’s data connection to post your photos and videos while you’re flying, and even livestream your flight to YouTube.
While manual flying is the most fun of the piloting modes, there are other ways to capture footage on the Phantom 3 Professional. Using a map on your phone, you can set waypoints to fly to (such as a route around your house), and the drone will automatically fly to them. You can control the height of each waypoint, the amount of time you want to spend there, and the speed to navigate between points. When you’re ready, you simply press “go” in the app, and the drone will take off, follow the course, and land when it’s finished.
There are a few interesting features set to come to the Phantom 3 Professional via future firmware updates. A new “Point of Interest” mode should make professional-looking video even easier, as it allows you to pick out a point on a map for the drone to focus on, and then automatically circle around it. Another feature called Follow Me looks set to compete with AirDog and Hexo+ for the attention of extreme sports fanatics, as it offers the ability to automatically follow a certain target. And finally, Home Lock mode will make flying the drone even easier for beginners, orientating the drone’s directional controls so that backwards always points to where it took off.
If it sounds like we’re gushing over the Phantom 3 Professional, it’s because we’re impressed with how much it improves on its predecessor. However, there is one key area where advances haven’t been made, and that’s battery life. Just like the previous model, the quoted battery life is 23 minutes, although the drone starts to get worried at around the 14-minute mark, after which it starts beeping and trying to bring itself back home automatically so as not to fall from the sky. To be fair to DJI, battery life on all drones is pretty limited because it takes a lot of energy to keep these things in the air – of the drone’s 1280g total weight, nearly a third is the battery at 364g.
Thankfully, big strides have been made in terms of charging the thing – the new 100W charger halves charging time to just over an hour per battery. The one charger can also be used to power up the remote control, although strangely DJI recommends that you don’t charge them both at the same time. The intelligent battery also discharges itself slowly over time, which helps it to last longer if you don’t use it for a while. Still, most people will probably want to invest in extra batteries (£124 each), especially as no car charger is available to buy at the time of review.
The DJI GO iOS and Android apps are an improvement on DJI Vision software used on the last Phantom drone, but they’re still not as slick as they should be. There are an abundance of camera settings that will confuse beginners, while simple settings and features are buried in confusing-to-navigate menus or separate apps such as Ground Station.
Updating the firmware is particularly confusing – we were incessantly told by the app to update both the drone and the controller, but we had to consult a YouTube tutorial to figure out how to actually do it. In 2015, you’d expect the Phantom 3 to update itself over the phone’s data connection, but instead you have to download the firmware file from DJI’s website through a computer, copy that file to the microSD card on the drone, then wait 20 minutes while it makes an unhealthy-sounding beeping/grinding noise as the update is applied.
DJI then says you’re supposed to check a text file on the SD card to make sure the update was performed correctly. Updating the remote control uses the same firmware file, but it’s a different process – you have to copy the file to a USB thumb drive, then insert that drive into the USB port on the back of the remote control. It’s not difficult once you know what you’re doing, but the app offers no help whatsoever and the process could easily be streamlined.
We’ve talked a lot about the improvements made to the DJI Phantom 3 Professional without even mentioning the headline feature: 4K video recording. It’s a first for a drone at this price, and it’s no surprise that image quality blows DJI’s previous models and competing drones from Parrot out of the water.
4K video is recorded at up to 30 frames per second – it will impress amateur videographers, and it’ll even be good enough for a lot of professionals. We’d stop short of saying it’s “broadcast quality” – 4K video is recorded at a maximum bitrate of 60 Mbps, just above YouTube’s recommended guidelines for 4K, but probably not good enough for the makers of Game of Thrones. However, for a drone at this price, the video quality cannot be beaten.
Just as important as the camera’s resolution bump are its improvements to the overall imaging. The f2.8 aperture means it’s much better in low light than previous DJI cameras, so you can take it out at dusk and get some great sunsets. But the big change is that the annoying fisheye lens of the Phantom 2 Vision+ has been replaced with a new film-like 20mm lens. True, the 94-degree field of view isn’t quite as wide as before, but the video looks much more cinematic, and it doesn’t need to be adjusted in video editing software to eradicate the fish-eye effect.
If you’re filming fast action, then you can drop down to 1080p or 720p resolution and record at 60 frames per second. Extreme sports fanatics might be disappointed that it doesn’t go up to 120 fps for those intense slo-mo moments, but 60 frames should be good enough for most people. Photographers will also love the 12-megapixel images – they can now be captured at the same time as video, and you can still shoot in RAW if you want to edit them afterwards. There’s a specific Phantom 3 profile in Adobe Lightroom that will automatically tidy up shots taken on the camera, and while a lot of shots did need cleaning up, this automatic fix worked well in our experience.
The main limitation you’re going to face aside from the battery life is the size of the included 16GB memory card. It’s enough space for you to record an entire 23-minute flight in 4K video, but only just. One minute of 4K 30fps footage comes out at roughly 450MB, so the bundled card only offers 32-34 mins of storage. One option is to download images and video to your touchscreen device while it’s connected to the controller, but that’s only good if your phone or tablet has a decent amount of memory. We’d suggest investing in a larger capacity microSD card – the Phantom 3’s max capacity is 64GB, but such cards can be found for under £15.
While the name ‘Phantom 3 Professional’ might suggest that this is a drone for professionals, there are a couple of performance issues that may prevent them from using it on commercial projects. The gimbal does a good job of keeping the video smooth when you’re making erratic movements, but it’s incredibly easy to bring the legs or the propellers into shot when you’re making fast movements. Another limitation is that the camera only pivots up and down and doesn’t rotate, although the legs would get in the way even if it did have this feature. Truly professional drones such as the DJI Inspire 1 have retractable legs, and allow one person to pilot the drone while another person controls the camera.
If the prospect of flying a £1,159 drone in open spaces isn’t nerve wracking enough, then you can also use it indoors and vastly increase the chances of hitting something. Ordinarily, the drone uses GPS and GLONASS (the Russian equivalent of GPS) to keep track of where it is, but indoors, DJI has implemented a new sensor that allows it to track how far it is off the ground using visual data and sonar waves. We’d still invest in DJI’s propeller guards to protect the drone from gentle bumps, and avoid using it in a house – it’ll do serious damage to anyone or anything caught in the blades. Whether you’re flying indoors or outdoors, it’s incredibly easy to hit something with the DJI Phantom 3 Professional, irreparably breaking your £1,159 investment, or worse, hurting someone.
As long as you’re responsible though, the Phantom 3 Professional is incredibly fun to use. While it’s clearly designed as a tool for aerial photographers and videographers, it’s also a total blast to play around with in the park. We wouldn’t call it a toy, mainly because of that hefty price tag, but if you’ve ever enjoyed playing with remote control cars, this takes the RC experience to a whole new awesome level.
The only accident we had during our test was a bumpy landing which caused two of the propellers to hit the ground. We didn’t need to replace the propellers, but if we did, a set of two cost £5 from DJI’s website, while stronger carbon fiber propellers cost £12. DJI’s other components can be relatively pricey, but practically everything on the drone can be replaced if the need arises. For example, you could buy the cheaper Phantom 3 Advanced with its 1080p camera, and then upgrade to the 4K camera at a later date. It’s a shame that you can’t swap the camera out for a GoPro though – their cameras are generally loved among sports photographers, and in our experience produce a slightly better image quality than DJI’s camera.
There are some really useful features in the DJI GO app once you’ve got used to piloting the drone. 720p YouTube live streaming is an incredible tool for anyone covering live events, although bear in mind the local laws if you’re filming anywhere with people around. Also helping immediacy is the ability to edit your photos and videos from within the app and then share them online, so you don’t need to wait till you get home.
The DJI Phantom 3 Professional on its own costs £1,159, and includes everything you need to get going. If you can afford it though, we’d recommend getting the £1,399 starter pack, which also includes a spare battery (usually £124) and hard-case backpack (£149), saving £73 on buying them separately. The drone itself is relatively fragile and can easily be damaged in a standard backpack or case, so it’s worth investing in something to carry it.
If you’re an aerial photographer or videographer and want something that can shoot 4K video, then the DJI Phantom 3 Professional is the cheapest way to get it in an all-in-one package. If you’re a drone fanatic then you could build something yourself using off-the-shelf drone components and a GoPro camera, but if you’re looking for ease-of-use, the DJI Phantom 3 Professional is the best option.
The Phantom 3 Professional’s 4K video looks great, even though the number of people who can enjoy video in this form is fairly limited. That’s why the drone’s many other improvements are probably more important to the majority of users. The numerous other improvements to the camera’s sensor mean that image quality is drastically improved no matter what resolution you’re viewing at, while the redesigned remote control makes high-quality aerial photography attainable for the first time on a DJI consumer-level drone.
There are some notable issues – battery life really is ridiculously short, and practically necessitates an investment in at least one spare battery. The DJI GO app could also do with an update to make it more user-friendly – the drone itself is so easy to use, it’d be great to see the app improve in this area. If we’re being honest, we’d also say that right now the 4K camera is overkill – the DJI Phantom 3 Advanced will be enough for most people. Overall though, the DJI Phantom 3 Professional is a phenomenal upgrade to an already market-leading product. If you’re in the market for a 4K drone and can justify the cost, then it’s definitely the one to buy.
The DJI Phantom 3 Professional is easily the best drone on the market at this price thanks to 4K video, a fantastic new remote control and an abundance of new flying features.