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DJI has continued to push the capabilities of its drones forward, announcing the Phantom 4 Pro ($1,499) and Pro+ only months after dropping the superb Phantom 4 on the world. The Pro has a 1-inch image sensor with four times the surface area of the Phantom 4’s camera. It captures 4K footage at up to 60fps, and shoots 20MP Raw and JPG photos. It’s also our Editors’ Choice, as the more expensive Pro+ configuration shows that an integrated tablet can have as many drawbacks as advantages.
All new 1-inch sensor camera with 24mm f/2.8 lens and mechanical shutter. 4K video. 20MP still images. Four-way obstacle avoidance. Remote control with integrated tablet. High-quality Lightbridge video feed.
Smaller, very capable drones now available.
Bottom Line: The DJI Phantom 4 Pro adds additional obstacle sensors and a vastly improved camera to the already-stellar Phantom 4.
The Phantom 4 Pro’s body is essentially identical to the standard Phantom 4. It’s a white quadcopter with sleek lines and a glossy finish. It measures about 7.0 by 11.5 by 11.5 inches and weighs 3.1 pounds, so you will need to register with the FAA before taking it up into the air.
Like the Phantom 4, the Pro’s packaging doubles as a carrying case. It’s compact and certainly a practical stowing solution if you frequently work out of a vehicle, but it only has a small handle for carrying. I’d recommend investing in a backpack or a similar case if you’re going to hike or travel with the drone. It fits fine in the Think Tank Airport Helipak, a sturdy backpack that meets international and domestic carry-on requirements.
Likewise, the remote that ships with the Pro is essentially the same that comes with the standard Phantom 4. It includes a clip that holds a smartphone or tablet, dual control sticks, camera control dials, customizable rear buttons, and buttons to pause automated flight and bring the Phantom back to its launch point—either of which can prevent an accident.
Sensors All Around
The Phantom 4 was the first DJI drone with forward-facing obstacle avoidance sensors, and those same sensors carried over to the svelte Mavic Pro. The Phantom 4 Pro adds identical sensors on the rear, preventing it from backing into objects.
There are also downward-facing sensors, as seen in the Mavic Pro, which work with the existing Vision Positioning System to better stabilize low-altitude flight. The Phantom 4 Pro supports the Terrain Follow flight mode, which hugs the ground and maintains a safe altitude, even when flying over hilly land.
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There are infrared sensors on the left and right sides. These aren’t as capable as the front and rear obstacle sensors, and don’t work in every flight mode, so don’t think you can fly the Phantom 4 Pro in any direction with reckless abandon—flying it sideways into a wall is a real danger in most situations.
If you want to take advantage of obstacle recognition on all four sides, you need to fly in either Beginner or Tripod mode. Both slow down the maximum operating speed, and Tripod mode makes it possible for very, very fine adjustments to position using the control sticks.
Forward and rear obstacle avoidance works when flying the Phantom 4 Pro at its top standard speed, 31mph. And it works well: Fly right up to an object at full throttle and the Phantom stops in its tracks.
The drone also has a Sport mode, which increases the maximum speed to 45mph, but absolutely no obstacle detection is enabled. It can go faster with help from the wind—the app told me that my Phantom 4 Pro was flying around 50mph in Sport mode for a good stretch of distance during one of my test flights.
Getting Ready to Fly
If this is your first drone, you should spend some time in the virtual flight simulator before actually flying. Included in the DJI Go smartphone app (a free download for Android and iOS), the simulator allows you to fly your Phantom through a virtual world. It’s a solid resource for getting used to the controls.
For your first real flight, you’ll want to make sure you’ve picked a location in which it’s legal to fly. DJI has no-fly zones built into the control app, and while you can override them in most situations, it’s only something you should consider doing if you’ve got a lot of flight time and have taken the necessary steps to make sure you’re actually authorized to fly in the restricted area. In the case of flights near airports, that involves contacting the control tower and making them aware of your flight plan. If you want to see if an area is open for flight before you head to a location, check Airmap.io.
Once you’ve got your location set, make sure that the Pro’s firmware is up to date, and ensure that both the flight battery and remote control are fully charged. In the field you’ll want to attach propellers—they twist and lock on with ease. Black-ringed props work with the two motors marked by three black dots, with the silver-ringed props going on the other two engines.
Once it’s powered on, give the Phantom a minute to ensure that it’s locked onto GPS satellites, and to make sure that the home point is correct. Satellite status is displayed in the DJI Go app, as is the home point. if you’re using a smartphone, you’ll see a world map as a small embedded window in the live feed. Double tapping switches between it and the camera view. Tablet owners without LTE access won’t get the map. That’s unfortunate, as it is a very useful resource when flying.
If you’re flying indoors, or in an area without GPS coverage, you can switch the remote control from the standard P flight mode to the A setting. This enables you to fly without GPS stabilization, but it’s a feature that only seasoned pilots should tackle.
The Phantom 4 Pro ships with a big, comfortable remote control. Learn to use it. The left stick controls the altitude and spins the aircraft about its axis. The left stick flies forward, backward, to the left, and to the right. Takeoff and landing are automated via the app.
The drone has automated and semi-automated flight modes as well, controlled via the app, but you should be comfortable with manual control before using them. Even with all of its sensors and safety features, you never know when you’ll need to take control of the drone in order to avoid an accident.
First, you get tried-and-true options, including Point of Interest, Waypoint, Follow, Course Lock, and Home Lock. Point of Interest flies perfectly circular orbits about a point in space, keeping the camera honed at the center the entire time. Waypoint reproduces a flight between a number of points in space repeatedly, but you have to fly the path manually first. Follow tracks the position of the remote control and flies the drone to keep up with it as it moves.
Course Lock and Home Lock change the way the Phantom responds to the control sticks. Course Lock keeps the drone flying in a certain direction based on the orientation of the aircraft’s nose when activated—this lets you rotate the body and camera while maintaining flight in a specific direction. Home Lock adjusts controls based on the position of the aircraft relative to the remote control. When it’s turned on, pulling the right stick toward you will always bring the drone back in closer, and pushing it up will always fly away from you, regardless of the position of the nose.
Active Track carries over from the Phantom 4. It allows you to draw a box around a subject, which the drone will in turn recognize and follow as it moves. It works pretty well, as long as your subject isn’t too small and doesn’t blend into the background. I was able to get it to follow me around with no problems when I wore a tan coat while standing on a green athletic field. But when our family dog moved from grass to a fallow field that was close to his coloring, the Phantom lost track of his movements.
TapFly, which lets you move the Phantom to a point in space by tapping on it in the Live View feed, is joined by Draw. Draw works in a similar manner, but lets you draw a flight path on your screen. The drone will fly along the path, avoiding obstacles using its forward and rear sensors along the way.
The Phantom 4 Pro manages a top speed of about 30mph in its GPS-assisted flight mode, with forward and rear obstacle avoidance in full effect. When flying in this mode, you won’t see the rotors in your video, even if the camera is pointed straight forward.
Sport mode is available for faster flight. Obstacle avoidance is disabled in this mode, and you will certainly see the rotors in the shot when flying at full speed ahead. DJI rates Sport mode at up to 45mph, and with some help from the wind I saw speeds of around 48mph in my flight logs. Both are in line with the standard Phantom 4, which uses the same flight hardware, and put up similar top speeds in our field testing.
Operating range is very strong. In a rural environment I flew the drone 4,250 feet away from my position before getting any sort of choppiness in the live video feed, at which point I turned it around and brought it home. In a suburban setting, crowded with homes and Wi-Fi signals, the Phantom flew 2,600 feet away from the launch point before the video signal became spotty. Both figures are in line with our Phantom 4 tests—it flew 4,500 feet in a rural test spot and 1,800 feet in suburbia before the video signal began to cut out. The only drone that’s done better in our rural test is DJI’s tiny Mavic Pro, which flew a full mile away from launch without a stutter—I didn’t try to fly it any further than that.
The internal hardware—dual inertial measurement units (IMUs), along with satellite stabilization that utilizes both GPS and GLONASS—are the same as you get with the Phantom 4. The result is an aircraft that hovers perfectly in place. Indoor flight, without the aid of GPS, utilizes the downward-facing Vision Positioning System (VPS) sensors. They examine the ground below the drone and keep it steady, though they are ineffective when flying over reflective surfaces.
Battery life is solid. DJI rates the Phantom 4 Pro for 30 minutes of flight time, which is a figure calculated under ideal conditions. In more normal use, I found myself getting about 25 minutes of actual time in the air—landing with about 8 percent battery left, which is cutting things close. It’s a modest improvement from the Phantom 4, which is rated for 28 minutes and netted about 23 minutes of flight time in our tests.
Video and Image Quality
Extra obstacle sensors are nothing to sneeze at, but the real reason to opt for the Phantom 4 Pro over the standard Phantom 4 is the camera. The Pro uses an all-new video camera with a 1-inch image sensor, 4K video recording at up to 60p, and 20MP Raw and JPG image capture. The 1-inch sensor size has proven to be a very capable format in compact cameras like the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 III.
The reason is simple—surface area. The 1-inch sensor is about four times the size of the more typical 1/2.3-inch class used by most drones (including the Phantom 3 series and the Phantom 4), flagship smartphones, and point-and-shoot cameras. You can pack more pixels onto the sensor—20MP has been the standard for some time—while maintaining solid image and video quality at higher ISOs, and capturing more detail in images than you can with a smaller imager.
In addition to the larger sensor, the camera adds aperture control and a mechanical shutter. Its field of view (24mm equivalent) is slightly narrower than the 20mm lens used by the Phantom 4, but you aren’t stuck shooting at f/2.8 all the time—you can stop down all the way to f/11. This reduces to reach for neutral density filters to balance shutter speed and frame rate to maintain proper shutter angles and exposure.
The mechanical shutter is there to eliminate the rolling shutter effect—if you do get a propeller in a shot, it won’t show the jello-like effect that you get with many cameras that use electronic shutters for video capture. You still have to contend with the Phantom’s propellers creating a flickering effect when approaching the sun at a certain angle—slowing down your shutter speed can help to ameliorate the effect.
Video recording options are vast. If you want to capture the highest resolution 4K DCI, typically used for cinema productions due to its 2:1 aspect ratio, video can be shot at 24, 25, or 30fps. If you shoot at UHD, 4K in a 16:9 format, you can choose from 24, 25, 30, or 60fps. All 4K footage is compressed at a 100Mbps bit rate, using H.264 compression. You can also use the more modern, efficient H.265 codec, but you’ll lose the ability to record 4K footage at 60fps if you do.
If 4K is too much for your system to handle, you can shoot at 2.7K (1530p) at standard frame rates up to 30fps at 65Mbps, or at 48, 50, or 60fps at 80Mbps. 1080p footage is compressed at 50Mbps up to 30fps, at 65Mbps up to 60fps, and at 100Mbps at 120fps. You also have a 720p option, at 25Mbps up to 30fps, 35Mbps up to 60fps, and 60Mbps up to 120fps. All of these settings are available in H.264 or H.265, and you have your choice of MOV or MP4 container formats.
The larger sensor, coupled with the higher bit rate—the Phantom 4 tops out at 60Mbps for 4K footage—come together for video that’s crisper and shows more detail than you get from the Phantom 4 or the Phantom 3 Professional. Just as in compact cameras, the 1-inch sensor proves to be a solid upgrade over 1/2.3-inch. It’s not quite as good as Micro Four Thirds, another format used by drones like the huge Yuneec H920 and the DJI Inspire 2, but it’s also quite compact.
Likewise, still images show more detail. It’s not just the increase in resolution—the Phantom 3 series captures images at 12MP—but also the larger image sensor. Whether you’re shooting in JPG or Raw format, the 20MP resolution and extra surface area deliver results that are palpably better, especially at higher ISO sensitivities.
When I reviewed the Phantom 4, I was so blown away by how big of an improvement it was over the Phantom 3 Professional, and how much further ahead of the game DJI was versus everyone else making drones, that I awarded it a 5-star rating. That’s not something I do often.
I’m not going quite as high with the Phantom 4 Pro. It’s still an Editors’ Choice winner, and it greatly improves on the Phantom 4’s imaging and video capture capabilities, while adding modest improvements in obstacle avoidance and flight time. It’s just not the jaw-dropping standout the Phantom 4 was at launch. But like the Phantom 4, we’re naming the Phantom 4 Pro our Editors’ Choice.
At press time the Phantom 4 is selling for about $300 less than the Pro, and remains a superb option for videographers who are happy with the excellent video quality it delivers. If you have the budget, though, and you’re serious about aerial videography, the Pro’s extra cost is justified. There’s a third, more expensive option, the Phantom 4 Pro+, at $1,799. It has an integrated tablet, which means you don’t have to connect your own smartphone to the remote controller.