DJI Mavic Air hands-on review

Clear a space in your backpack for DJI’s best drone yet…

28 January 2018
by Stuff Staff

PRICE: US$799

Like a drone-obsessed Terminator, it seems DJI will not stop until everyone owns one of its flying cameras.

We’re certainly not complaining. The latest model to be sent on a mission to hunt down your expendable income is the Mavic Air – an exciting cross between the 4K-shooting Mavic Pro and the more beginner-friendly Spark.

Why exciting? Because like those two flying machines, the Mavic Pro isn’t a niche model for filmmakers and beardy UAV enthusiasts (that’s the Phantom range). Instead, it’s a tiny, approachable drone for shooting epic travel videos, even if you have less-than-awesome piloting skills.

At least, that’s the Spark-like side of its split personality. If you do discover a penchant for flying incredibly nimble drones for the hell of it, the Air can also perform staggering, seagull-bothering acrobatics at 42mph in Sport mode.

So is it the breakthrough drone that will glide effortlessly into the gadget mainstream? I took one for a spin in Monte Carlo to find out…

DESIGN: MICRO MACHINE

Take the Mavic Pro’s brilliant folding design, sprinkle it with the Spark’s colourful charm, and what do you get? The best-looking drone yet.

As you can see, the Mavic Air has almost pocketable dimensions when folded up, and slips into a backpack faster than us dashing into a pub during a downpour. At 430g, it weighs less than a pint too.

It might look like a toy (particularly in its Flame Red paint job), but the Air is incredibly well built and has a few subtle improvements over the Mavic Pro. Its hot-swappable battery mechanism is more decisive and secure, the controller’s joysticks unscrew to give it extra portability, and new dampeners on the three-axis mechanical gimbal create video that’s so buttery smooth it should come with a cholesterol warning.

That main 4K camera is far from the only one on board too. The Mavic Air is packed to the rafters with infrared sensors: two on the front, two on the back, and two more underneath. These give it a Lionel Messi-like spacial awareness that ensure it’s super-stable when hovering or flying.

They also, thanks to a new Advanced Pilot Assistant System (APAS), help it automatically fly around obstacles like trees and concerned faces. Clearly, the Mavic Air has seen videos of my piloting skills.

While it’s a natural evolution of the Magic Pro and Spark, the Air feels like another healthy step forward for drone design.

It reminds me a little of the first compact system cameras – while there are no interchangeable lenses here (just a fixed f/2.8 one), it packs pro-level features into an unprecedented, travel-friendly form factor. And that’s to be applauded (yes, even by you, slow-clapping GoPro).

FEATURES: PANORAMIC APPEAL

The Mavic Air’s killer combination is shooting 4K video from a three-axis gimbal, which is something we just haven’t seen from a drone of this size.

But there’s more to gadgets than spec sheets, and DJI has put in some software graft to make sure the Air is a genuinely practical travel camera, for both stills and video.

Firstly, that video. Like the Spark, the Mavic Air packs a ton of autonomous skills that are the equivalent of your camera’s ‘auto’ mode. There are two new Quickshots, which are short, one-button cinematic special moves.

‘Asteroid’ zooms out from your target, and by stitching together a spherical panorama, combines this with a ‘tiny planet’ effect. ‘Boomerang’, meanwhile, sees the Air circle around you in an arc – perfect for dramatic wedding souvenirs.

If you don’t want to press any buttons at all, there are also improved SmartCapture gesture controls (see below) and a new Advanced Pilot Assistant System (APAS) – flick this on and the Air will attempt to fly around any obstacle in its path.

Looking to shoot longer videos or fly it further? While the Air’s max range using Wi-Fi from your smartphone is 80m away (or 50m high), the range stretches to 4km if you use the bundled controller. Although, according to UK laws, you technically still need to keep it in your line of sight.

Buying a Mavic Pro for stills photography would be a bit like getting a PS4 for Netflix, but it is now a very capable sky-based compact camera too. You can shoot 12MP photos, flick on HDR mode to bring out some extra detail from murky scenes, and shoot 32MP sphere panoramas alongside the usual 180-degree ones.

Two final bits of good news are the 8GB internal storage and the 21-minute battery life. That might not sound long, but it’s a big improvement on the Spark and not far off the 27 minutes promised by the larger Mavic Pro.

As ever with drones, it’s best to pack one or two spare batteries, lest your film short gets downgraded to a 20-second gif.

PERFORMANCE: SMOOTH OPERATOR, ROUGH EDGES

My brief time with the Mavic Air taught me two things: it almost certainly shoots the best quality video we’ve seen from a non-professional drone, but it’s still a little way off being the breakthrough that’ll take aerial photography mainstream.

That’s mainly down to some software rough edges on its more autonomous, beginner-friendly modes. This isn’t to say you can’t take some incredible videos while barely touching a button – you can, as these examples show.

The gesture control does also seem to be more consistent and flexible too, with new options like waving your hands outwards to shoo the Mavic Air away a little further.

But it’s not infallible and neither were the new obstacle-avoiding Advanced Pilot Assistant System (which sometimes failed to spot trees), DJI Go 4 app (this seemed particularly unstable on Android) or the Quickshots, some of which had processing issues or were just foiled mid-flight by surrounding branches.

Still, none of this takes away from the Mavic Air’s core talent – shooting incredibly crisp, smooth, crisp 4K videos.

The three-axis gimbal and new FlightAutonomy 2.0 software certainly kept it very stable during our breezy conditions. And the Air actually shoots at a high 100Mbps bit-rate (compared to the Mavic Pro’s 60Mbps), meaning the quality should particularly stand out when watched back on a 4K telly.

The flipside of this is that you’ll quickly burn through storage – one of my one-minute videos took up 1GB. Good job, then, that DJI has added 8GB internal storage to the Mavic Pro, though carrying a bundle of microSD cards is still a must.

DJI MAVIC AIR EARLY VERDICT

You can’t fault DJI for ambition and the Mavic Air feels like its most impressive drone yet.

By combining the best bits from the Spark and Mavic Pro, it’s made a cracking gadget for both beginners who want stunning, hands-free travel videos and those who just want to fly a nimble drone full pelt around the local park.

Some practical hurdles do, though, hold it back from being the leap forward it clearly wants to be. Firstly, $799 is not cheap. Sure, you might spend that on a compact system camera, but then a Fujifilm X-T20 isn’t restricted to areas that are away from buildings or crowds of people.

Like its siblings, the Mavic Air is also pretty noisy. Landing it after an extended flying session gives you the same wave of relief you get from turning off a loud extractor fan. This is something else to bear in mind if you’re planning to take it to public areas like the beach. And lastly, there are also those software niggles in the newer modes to iron out.

But like the spectacular views the Mavic Air gives you, some perspective is needed. This is a flying, autonomous 4K camera that fits into a hiking backpack and can shoot videos that would have, until recently, required some serious flying skills and a film studio budget.

That’s to be applauded – so much so, that GoPro seemingly pre-emptively left the drone business rather than attempt to compete. We’ll bring you our full verdict very soon.

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