There’s no group of gadgets out there more exciting than drones right now. Thanks to their ever-improving camera specs, ever-shrinking size, and ever-expanding roster of aerial abilities, they’re a blessing for tech fans bored of the same-old, same-old in the smartphone world. And no dronemaker is as interesting as DJI, the Shenzhen-based firm that’s quickly earning the “Apple of drones” moniker.
DJI’s latest effort is the $799 Mavic Air, a foldable drone designed to be stuffed into a backpack and taken on all manner of adventures without sacrificing image and video quality. Unlike the cheaper and smaller DJI Spark, the Mavic Air can shoot 4K video and RAW images, stabilized by a three-axis gimbal. It’s also more portable than the Mavic Pro, making it an ideal choice for hikers, travelers and others who want top-notch results without a cumbersome setup. And 8GB of on-board storage means you’re not screwed if you forget your memory card at home.
After taking the Mavic Air for a spin on a recent Sunday morning, I came away impressed with how much punch it packs. Among the best features are a couple of new “QuickShot” modes, which offer Hollywood-quality video shots at the touch of a button. One mode, “Boomerang,” commands the drone to swing around a subject in grand fashion; it’s best used for selfie shots of you looking out towards an epic view. Another, “Asteroid,” tells the drone to pull back from a subject, shoot into the sky and create a wild multi-image panorama stitched together like a tiny planet. These QuickShot modes are the highlight of DJI’s drones, letting even rookie drone pilots create top-notch video results.
But newbies aren’t the only ones who will find something to like here. Racers will Mavic Air’s “sport mode” too. Toggling a switch on the controller turns on this setting and unleashes a speed demon drone capable of zipping along at about 42 miles per hour. That might not sound like much in car terms, but it’s an absolute blast with something this small. Most people will probably use the Mavic Air to capture photos and videos, but it’s a real joy just to fly around for a while, burning through batteries like an aerial madman. It put a smile on my face to be sure.
Those among us who have unintentionally led their drones to an untimely death will appreciate the Mavic Air’s “Advanced Pilot Assistance Systems,” or “APAS,” which uses the drone’s onboard sensors to detect obstacles in its flight path and chart a course around them without a pilot’s input. Since it worked flawlessly in guiding the Mavic Air around some trees, feeling cocky and confident, I very slowly flew the drone at my own head. Sure enough, APAS guided the Mavic safely around my noggin. Don’t try that at home, folks. (DJI was careful to point out that APAS works best when the drone’s flying slowly enough to find a safe route around a hazard.)
When it came to the Mavic Air’s hardware design, DJI also made some big improvements. On other drones, the battery is partially exposed. But on the Mavic Air it’s tucked safely into the heart of the fuselage, giving it more protection. The antennae are embedded inside the landing gear, a move that should improve connectivity between the aircraft and the remote control. That remote control, meanwhile, has a built-in cable for connecting your smartphone, as well as removable joysticks for easier transportation. And the camera cover also snaps on and off more easily, a small but welcome change. These are little tweaks on their own, but they add up to a more refined experience than on models past.
Is the DJI Mavic Air right for you? That depends. If you were already considering the Mavic Pro, it’s worth giving the Air a very close look — it’s got comparable specs, it’s easier to pack, and it’s got some hardware improvements to boot. But if you don’t need to shoot 4K video or RAW images, going with the Spark could help you save some money. If you do get the Mavic Air, don’t forget extra batteries. In my testing, the drone stayed airborne for about the advertised 21 minutes of battery life. But it’s so fun to use, you’re going to want to keep flying a whole lot longer than that.