It's Day 4 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. Today, I go into detail about how they're similar and how they're different — again, from the perspective of a first-time drone operator — and reverse myself on which one I like better.
It’s astounding to me that I got any footage at all in so little time. I imagine that with perhaps five hours of flight time under one’s belt it would be possible to capture beautifully smooth and sophisticated shots unobtainable any other way.
With either machine.
The fact is, however, that as a newbie I needed the promise of the Solo’s Smart Shot and the more casual vibe of their video to get me across the threshold. It’s excellent marketing and Smart Shot works. At the end of the first day, Rob, Alex and I preferred it to the Phantom 3.
By the end of the second day, however, I’d reversed myself: the Phantom 3 was smoother; it locked on to satellites much faster (I assume because it can now access GLONASS, the Russian satellite network, as well); it needed to be calibrated less frequently; it was more responsive in flight; the footage was superior (this is directly attributable to the gimbal and 4K — the HERO3+ only does 1080 at anything above 15fps, so I can't draw conclusions on an apples-to-apples basis about the cameras per se); and I also suffered downlink problems with the Solo which I thought were related to the micro-HDMI connection – but this turned out to be as simple as setting the HERO3+ to 1080/60p medium (I never would have figured this out on my own, yet this was the very first suggestion made by 3DR tech support in my short phone call with them, and it worked).
DJI Phantom 3 4K vs 3DR Solo for Newbies: Hands-on First Impressions
By the end of the third day, I had a more nuanced view of both machines. Let’s start with the similarities [NB: this list is by no means exhaustive, but instead only what I picked up in three separate outings over a few days].
· Both machines were impressive in their ability to hold position in wind, the Phantom 3 a little more so.
· Both use artificial speech to provide verbal status updates including warnings, a very helpful thing.
· Both have spring-loaded smartphone/tablet holders that work in similar fashion.
· Both have good “fly home” functionality and battery level warning, more good things.
· Both – yes, the Phantom, too – have a beginner or “safe” flying mode which limits certain parameters (e.g., altitude) while insisting upon others (e.g., GPS on).
· Both have auto take-off and landing – good the first couple of times you fly, then you won’t need them.
· Both have one extra set of rotors (though the Phantom comes with a full set of four, while the Solo comes with one spare for each direction (a four rotor copter spins two rotors clockwise and two rotors counter-clockwise).
· Neither has obstacle avoidance, and this, to me, is a big issue.
· Their controllers use the two joysticks the same way, a good thing.
· I had difficulty getting a smooth pan my first day out with both ‘copters, but by the last day I was getting the hang of it. And then I learned – you have to wade through a lot of detail in the online manuals to get to it — that each one allows you to tune responsiveness of the flight and gimbal controls with just a couple of taps. Sigh. Phantom 3 gimbal speed is accessible from the main menu as is “expo,” the latter which allows you to move from linear to exponential control of rudder and throttle. The Solo app has a slider for panning speed, simple as can be.
· Speaking of which: both ‘copters check for software and firmware updates each time they’re turned on. On the one hand I like this, as bug fixes and enhanced functionality are even more important when things are flying through the air. On the other hand, if you’re finally on location and ready to go and there’s no phone signal, this can be disconcerting, especially when you delete the app and replace it altogether with a new one (see yesterday's episode about the DJI GO app experience).
· Neither has dual operator control, something I believe to be very helpful especially as long as sophisticated waypoint capabilities are not readily accessible and obstacle avoidance doesn’t exist (this also explains why there’s no gimbal panning – you turn the entire vehicle instead).
· Battery life is very limited on both, about 20 minutes. You should have at least two batteries.
· As I've already written (and more generally) smartphone and tablet screens are not designed for outdoor viewing (as opposed to Amazon’s Kindle). I’d suggest that sun hoods and anti-glare screens be part of both packaging.
· Both were noisy. Physics is physics (Is “physics” plural or singular? I’m going with singular.). Get over it.
On the other hand, there were clear differences which matter if you’re considering buying either unit now or whether or not you consider yourself a DIY/hobbyist kind of person. This list, like the one above, is limited.
· The Solo has Smart Shot, and it’s a lovely innovation that lets you get great shots your first time out as long as you take the time to read the setup guide thoroughly, know your GoPro, and the micro-HDMI connection doesn’t cause a problem. I’d like to see Smart Shot evolve quickly to have more sophisticated yet user-friendly waypoint functionality to create more complex shots (waypoint functionality is not natively available on the Phantom 3, even though DJI has an app called Ground Station for other DJI quadcopters).
· The Phantom 3’s Vision Positioning System uses sonar and optical sensors for indoor and GPS- deprived flying, and this is particularly interesting for filmmakers (3DR promises to make this kind of functionality available). The Phantom 3 manual warns, however, that there are a number of situations where it may not work well, including monochrome surfaces and highly reflective surfaces (including things like water) – and surfaces that can absorb sound waves (like carpet). Be sure to check the manual for the full list, because it seems that a filmmaker would likely find himself in several situations where DJI urges caution.
· The Solo uses WiFi to connect to your smartphone or tablet; the Phantom uses a USB cable (in the case of iOS 8, to the Lightning port). I’m not sure which one is better: on the one hand I like fewer things to plug in, while on the other a wired connection is likely faster and more robust. In practical use, I didn’t see much difference – latency was good on both.
· The Solo iOS 8 interface is simpler, more legible and less intimidating than the Phantom 3’s, but the Phantom 3 also has more information. For the first two days I preferred the Solo app, but I wasn’t as sure on day three — I was already adjusting to the Phantom. In either case this is primarily a matter of personal preference: either one can work well.
· On the other hand, I know I prefer the integration of camera with ‘copter, and in the short time I had the two birds, I felt I had more camera control directly in the Phantom app than the Solo app. This may not reflect what is, but it certainly reflects what I felt in the timeframe.
· As of this moment, I understand that only the native Solo allows you to record directly via wireless downlink to your smartphone or tablet: DJI GO does not.
· While the controllers are similar, there are differences. The Solo controller has a built-in LCD status screen; A/B option buttons for setting way points or accessing advance flight modes; a camera angle lever that looks and feels to me like it might allow finer control of the pitch angle when equipped with a gimbal; a pause button which will stop the Solo dead in its tracks (I like this – it’s like a panic button when you realize you’re heading toward a wall); haptic feedback (the thing vibrates when status changes which I live very much); angle presets (which I didn’t figure out during the time I had it); and what I’ll call an anchor to which you can attach a lanyard just like a sax player (or many other RC flight controllers).
· Optimal positioning of the Phantom antennae is 0° and 0° (upright, parallel); for the Solo it’s 160° and 200° (pointing downward, angled away from each other).
Well, you already know how I feel after three days: to my surprise, I ended up preferring the Phantom 3. But my preference is not necessarily the same thing as a recommendation. For that, you'll have to stay tuned for tomorrow's episode.
(cover photo credit: snap from the video)
And always with the ambition of authenticity, humanity and wit.
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