The DJI Mavic Pro. The Ultimate Drone? Or Flawed Genius?

There has been more interest from new and existing customers around the launch of the Mavic Pro than we have experienced with the launch of any DJI drone, ever. The excitement has been mixed with an increasing amount of frustration, as delivery date promises have been broken, timelines have slipped, and only tiny quantities of the Mavic Pro have shipped.

So you can imagine how happy we were when our first Mavic Pro arrived here at the end of last week (2 December). But I was so busy with the UK Drone Show and then flying lessons that today (8 December) was my first opportunity to actually fly it.

So how was the Mavic Pro to fly? In a word – AMAZING.

The Mavic Pro certainly looks the part. In your hand it is compact, solid, and beautifully constructed. But it is once you take off that the magic really begins.

It is almost silent. As steady as a rock in the air.  And the flight controls are beautiful.  Even better than the Phantom 4 and the Inspire.  The way it responds to stick inputs is sublime.  It picks up speed very rapidly, and with no fluster.  It maintains altitude no matter what you do in terms of pitch and yaw, perfectly.  I felt more in control of the flight path with the Mavic Pro than with any other drone I have flown.  Half way through the flight, I found myself flying fast, much closer to the ground than I would feel comfortable with my Phantom 4 or Inspire 1, with a broad grin on my face.  Oops Proto – playing catch with an expensive camera!

Even Sport Mode is not the “monster raving looney party” experience that it sometimes feels like with the Phantom 4. Just a very fast way of getting around the sky.  And because of its dark colour, I was able to keep it in sight when flying all the way out to 300 metres from where I was standing – about the same distance where I start to struggle to spot my Phantom.  Battery life was every bit as good as we have been led to expect.  Landing it is a doddle, because the VPS system keeps it locked on as you reduce height.  And interestingly, in a new innovation, with the left joystick pulled only part of the way down, the Mavic stops about 30cms above the ground.  Then, when you pull the joystick all the way back, there is a small “click”, and the Mavic auto-lands and switches itself off.  Very neat.

As a flying experience, this was a Spinal Tap moment. It definitely scored 11 out of 10.

So it is the Ultimate Drone then? Well, sadly, no. 

Unfortunately, I have some issues with the Mavic Pro. One set of problem has to do with the compromises inevitable in miniaturising a full-featured drone.  And there is another class of problem where DJI appear to have made life more difficult than it needs to be.

Miniaturisation issues:

  • Obviously, everything about the Mavic and its transmitter is mini. That means it is also fiddly. Perhaps I have butchers fingers (alright, I know I have butchers fingers), but everything to do with the transmitter is just a bit smaller than I would like it to be for ease of use
  • The gimbal lock is a nightmare to put on and take off. Not the large plastic cowl designed to protect the camera when the drone is in your backpack rubbing shoulders with your sandwich lunch, which works fine. The tiny sliver of plastic that slots down behind the camera to keep it secure in transit. Makes the Phantom 3 gimbal lock (for those of you who remember it) look like a doddle by comparison. And I just know I am going to lose it. Probably soon
  • Because of its small size, it sits very close to the ground when you put it down. So its downward facing sensors are just millimetres off the deck. Because the props are so close to the underside of the body, hand launching and catching are out of the question. That means you need a very smooth, flat surface, to take off from. So although the drone is tiny, you are going to have to take some kind of launch pad with you wherever you go
  • The image quality you can capture with the camera just isn’t as good as on the Phantom. I will be putting some photos and video up on Vimeo soon to show people. But for now, trust me on this. If you have never looked at any other aerial imagery, the results look spectacular. But compared against the results I get every day with my other drones, they fall short. Colours look a bit artificial. Solar flare when pointing the camera at the sun appears as an annoying green dot, rather than as an attractive “line of beads”. Etc.
  • Finally, I don’t like flying using an iPhone (even an iPhone 6+). I prefer flying with my iPad mini. I know there are ways and means of making the transmitter work with an iPad mini, but it is awkward.

Shoot yourself in the foot, why don’t you DJI:

  • It is really hard to turn the transmitter on and off. Even after five days, it is still taking me several goes to achieve this
  • Once you have your iPhone in the clamp under the transmitter, it is almost impossible to reach the “home” button on the phone. Which is as annoying as hell
  • The User Manual is very light in some areas. Especially on the vital importance of focusing the camera manually in order to get good results. Whereas with the Phantom 3 & 4, and the Inspire 1, leaving the camera in “auto” is a sure-fire way to great results, focusing the camera on the Mavic Pro is essential to get results that aren’t unusably blurry. Yet there are just two lines on this in the manual. Not good
  • The DJI Go 4 app (required for the Mavic Pro) appears to be even more power hungry than the vanilla DJI Go app. My iPhone dropped 25% in one, fifteen minute flight
  • Worst of all, the DJI Go 4 app in its present form appears glitch-ridden. I wonder whether this is why DJI have been holding back on shipping the Mavic Pro? It took me several attempts to do the initial firmware update. If you think about the number of these I have done over the last two years, I worry that new drone owners might fall completely at this hurdle. And when I was flying, nothing I tried could persuade the compass in the bottom left hand corner of the screen to point in the direction the drone was pointing. I’m okay with that, because I was flying somewhere I am very familiar with, and I know how to fly without this information. But flying somewhere new, or flying very far from me, I need the compass to work. As do people just starting out on their drone adventure.

My Personal Conclusion

For me, at the moment, the DJI Mavic Pro is therefore a Flawed Genius, not the Ultimate Drone. Some of the problems, with the app, with the auto-focus, will be fixed by DJI in forthcoming firmware updates, I am sure. But the compromises DJI have had to make to get the Mavic down to its tiny size we are stuck with. At least until a Mavic Pro 2 arrives.

So if I could only have one drone, it wouldn’t be the Mavic Pro. It would be the Phantom 4, or if I could stretch to it, the formidable Phantom 4 Pro.

As a second drone, or if portability is the only thing that matters to you, then the DJI Mavic Pro is a tour de force. I know I will be taking one with me if / when I go away on holiday. It is so compact, taking it on tour becomes a no-brainer. And I know that like everything with DJI, it will simply get better and better as time goes on. The speed at which DJI innovates continues to take my breath away.

Alan Proto 8 December 2016

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