War of the Drones: DJI Phantom 3 vs. 3DR Solo, Episode 2

by Hugh BrownstoneLeave a Comment

Welcome to Day 2 of our 5 part series this week entitled “Holy crap, now I need to learn how to do this other thing, too?” — in which I’m handed two of the hottest drones in town (the 3DR Solo vs. DJI Phantom 3)  just long enough to put them through their paces as a first-time drone operator. In this installment,  I freak out at the thought of being responsible for a pair of flying Cuisinarts; finally do unbox them and am pleasantly surprised; and seek help from people who know what they're doing.

NB: some of you were very complimentary of yesterday's piece, but some of you were critical, too, from (basically) “you're wrong, there's no problem” to “you're not comparing apples-to-apples.” If I'm wrong, my bad, and we're happy to make corrections — but so far, we haven't received confirmation that I am.  As for “why not compare the 3DR Solo with a gimbal to the Phantom 3″…we can't. The Solo gimbal is not yet available (pre-orders can and often do stay pre-orders for months by vendors). What was nice about this test combo is that it allowed me to see how necessary gimbals are, and why there is a valid use case for 4K especially with drones — though I also ask (around 9:02 in the video)  if 4K is really going to matter when most viewing will shift to mobile platforms in 2016. These two points are quite distinct from the pros and cons of comparably equipped birds, and I make state this several times (see, for example, my summary beginning at 8:06 in the video). Having written this, perhaps I don't give DJI enough credit for its gimbal when I say in the video around 9:19 “gimbals are pretty much gimbals” — after all, 3DR still hasn't been able to bring theirs to market. This is not a criticism of 3DR, but an observation.

Anyway, on to Day 2.

Remember The First Time You Got Behind the Wheel of a Car? This Is Worse (Well, It Was for Me).

The loaner units (DJI Phantom 3 and 3DR Solo) arrived the same day, but I didn’t open either box for two weeks.

Yes, I was up against deadlines for three other projects, but in hindsight, I suspect it was also because I was…afraid.

Afraid because if things went badly – and I judged there to be a reasonably high probability they might – I could end up destroying expensive gear AND possibly causing injury.

I remember the first thing my father every told me before he took me on my first driving lesson: “You have to understand the destructive power of the vehicle and treat it with respect.” Decades later, those words rang in my ears has I had visions of some terrible riff on movies like THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE or PIRANHA 3D, all my fault.

After all, if you become unnerved while driving a car, you can simply pull over, put the thing into park, open the door, and puke by the side of the road. With a remote-controlled quadcopter, no such luck: you can only afford to puke AFTER you land the thing, and you’re dealing with five additional axes of movement: pitch, yaw, roll, side-to-side, and up/down.

Oh, and lining up the shot while you’re at it.

My original thought for this review had been, “Hey, I’m new to this, most planet5D readers will be too, I’ll just wing it and share the experience.”

I was already having doubts.

A Sense of Occasion

When I finally did open the boxes, I was treated to a sense of occasion: both DJI Phantom 3 and 3DR Solo know how to make you feel special when you first lay eyes on their ‘copters. Everything fits just so in their molded packaging (make sure to keep them, and you can avoid the cost of a dedicated backpack or case – at least for a while), and they each have neat and clearly labeled little boxes for things like chargers and the rotors (DJI has a nice pouch; 3DR has a custom foam insert). It looks like they’ve both been studying Apple, with 3DR actually having a label in big block letters saying START HERE.

So far, so good.

The Setup Guides

Each machine comes with a very brief guide to tell you what’s in the box and how to get started. Simple is good!

I was relieved to find there weren’t that many pieces, there were no big surprises, and both units and controllers were very, very similar (though in a Spy vs. Spy moment, the 3DR guys decided to do all of the molded plastic – drone body, blades, controller – in black instead of aping DJI’s white).

I was also excited that both units had apps. Hey, apps! They HAVE to be simple, right?

Mistake #1: the less there is to read, the more important it is to read ALL of it.

Hold that thought.

DJI Phantom 3 4K vs 3DR Solo for Newbies: Hands-on First Impressions

The Tutorials

Both companies have videos accessible from within the apps on the basics.

I watched the DJI video tutorial first, but it made me nervous. Their spokesperson spoke especially slowly and repeated himself often, as in “you really, really need to get this.” The app looked complicated. What I retained from the video was: “You’d better know when to hit that home button in case the drone gets away from you for any of a kajillion possible reasons or the battery is about to die, but if you don’t, relax: the Phantom 3 will do it for you and return it to its home destination. Except you’d better not relax, because you need to make sure there’s nothing in the way, as the Phantom 3 doesn’t do ‘obstacle avoidance.’” I guess that is one reason why they chose a beach with no one on it to make the vid: I also remember (Was it a dream? Did I read it somewhere else?) the warning to go someplace where people…weren’t. And there was that somber calibration dance: I might have laughed if it hadn’t added to my anxiety.

The 3DR video gave me the opposite feeling. “Dude, you’ve got this, let’s party.” I’m not saying that’s what their spokesperson said, I’m telling you how much relief I felt after watching it. Then again, it didn’t tell me a bunch of things that I’d have to do – like calibration, same as for the Phantom 3 (the actual mechanisms vary a bit, but they take about the same time – 30 seconds! — and both are very easy to do), or how long I’d have to wait to achieve satellite lock for the GPS. And the fact was their spokesperson was in the middle of nowhere, too, an empty park by a lake.

I wondered if these things might explode in mid-air, which is why both companies chose to demo their units near water.

The Full Manuals…

…don’t come inside the boxes. They’re online. I didn’t even look at them until it was almost time to send both copters back. Going back after the fact, though, is not a terrible idea – I had a better sense of what to wade through first.


The combination of my anxieties mated to the thought of assembling a flying Cuisinart and having all my typing fingers sliced off before even getting the thing off the ground led me to reconsider my approach.

While my first thought had been to assemble the ‘copters and do my first test flights in my backyard, the presence of trees and overhead electrical wires put the kibosh on that immediately. The beach was two hours away, the height of the summer season. PIRANHA 3D, anyone? JAWS?

And even though assembly literally means simply screwing on the four rotors taking all of about 30 seconds total (again), I decided I needed to find an expert to protect me from myself.

Valley Forge Signal Seekers RC Club

Fortunately for me, there is a group of radio-control flying enthusiasts just minutes from my house, out by Valley Forge National Historic Park. On the Saturday after I’d opened the boxes and completed a weekly run in the park, I drove over, introduced myself to the group and asked for their help.

What nice folks!

Thank goodness they not only knew their stuff cold – VFSS has been in existence since 1959, I’m told – but they also had 14-year-old Alex, son of Rob, their treasurer and IT guy. Perfect: not only has Alex already been flying much more complicated (and much, much faster) aircraft for the last five years, but he’s young enough so that apps are like breathing – as is not worrying when something appears to be not working and trying different things until it does.

Just like that, I had the location and the expertise to get me airborne.

Stay tuned: tomorrow I actually get these suckers off the ground.

(cover photo credit: snap from the video)

Hugh Brownstone

Hugh Brownstone

Hugh is the founder of Three Blind Men and An Elephant Productions. He and the team write, direct, shoot, score, and edit web-centric films; conduct photo shoots; and write copy, white papers and blog posts. Hugh also writes screenplays (he recently optioned a TV pilot) and just published his first eBook (Apple's iPhone: The Next Video Revolution). If it's about telling stories, it's in their wheelhouse.

And always with the ambition of authenticity, humanity and wit.
Hugh Brownstone

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