IT’S EASY TO get lost in the great pantheon of consumer drones. Even just looking at industry leader DJI’s options, there are enough choices to set your head spinning faster than a quadcopter blade. Today we’ll focus on one choice: the DJI Phantom 4 Pro+. Coming in at a cool $1,800, this marks the top end of what could be considered DJI’s consumer line, with the next level up being the $3,000 pro-level Inspire 2.
At a casual glance, the Phantom 4 Pro+ (P4P+, if you will) looks exactly like the regular Phantom 4 (which we loved) or the Phantom 4 Advanced. Four propellers, white body, fixed legs, and a camera on a gimbal dangling from its undercarriage. Ho hum. But there’s an obvious difference here: the remote control that comes with it. It’s the first DJI remote with a built-in screen—a 5.5-incher with a 1080p resolution, and it’s bright. Fantastically bright. Too many times have I exhausted my eye-muscles squinting at the screen of a phone or tablet in the bright sunlight while trying not to crash a drone. Despite being smaller than an iPad, this is the best screen I’ve used for flying on sunny days.
The screen is really a small tablet, running a somewhat hobbled version of Android (version 5.1.1 Lollipop, with no Google apps or Play Store), and generally it works very well. It boots up and is ready to go in 24 seconds when you power on the remote, making the Phantom 4 Pro+ DJI’s quickest drone to launch. The touchscreen is quite responsive and all of the automated “smartmodes” that were introduced with the P4 are included here. Unfortunately, there isn’t a slot for a SIM card, so if you want to stream your flight via Facebook Live, or another streaming app, you have to connect to a Wi-Fi network. Most likely, this means using your phone as a hotspot. The remote has 16GB of built-in storage, a micro SD card slot if you want some more, and a full-sized HDMI port so you can watch your flight on an external monitor.
The drone itself has some real improvements, too. The 1-inch image sensor on its camera can shoot 20-megapixel stills, and it has an impressive 11.6 stops of dynamic range. Its 84-degree field of view comes in noticeably narrower than the P4’s 94 degrees, which is disappointing. I’d rather have a wider shot that captures more of the landscape which I can then crop later if I want to (easy when shooting 4K), but the image quality is undeniable.
Take a look at the comparison toward the end of this video. While the regular Phantom 4 looks great, the P4P+ is sharper, handles backlighting slightly better, and retains more detail in the shadows.
The Phantom 4 was the first DJI drone to offer obstacle avoidance, but it only worked when flying forward. The P4P+ has visual obstacle avoidance going forward, backward, as well as downward. I found that it worked extremely well in all three directions. Actually there were times when I wished it would let me get closer to an object (when swooping under a bridge, for example), but I suppose it’s best that it errs on the side of caution. When it flies close to an object the drone slows itself down or stops all together, giving you an audible alert via the remote control. It has some lateral obstacle avoidance, too, but it only works in beginner and tripod modes and it isn’t as robust as the forward/backward avoidance. Overall it felt like the safest drone I’ve ever flown.
I spent some time exploring those smartmodes, which let you send the drone through different automated flight paths. Orbit mode lets you set a center point and fly circles around it, with a variety of options for speed, distance, and altitude, and it worked extremely well. Tripod mode will net you an extremely stable shot, as if the camera were sitting on an aerial tripod. The modes I was most interested in were the active track modes where you tap a subject on the screen and the drone follows it. It did extremely well in flat, clear environments, but it gets confused easily by other objects, such as large rocks. The “profile follow” mode is designed to fly alongside you and it produces some great visuals, but if you hit the brakes too quickly it’ll fly right by you. At one point in this mode, it just stopped and followed me with the camera but refused to move, like a petulant toddler.
My biggest gripe with the tracking mode is that the drone won’t change altitude to maintain a relative distance, so if you’re going downhill you’ll just keep shrinking further and further away until it loses you. Tracking me through an altitude change, of course, exactly what I want in a follow-me mode: when I’m mountain biking down a hillside or snowboarding in a remote area. It seems that DJI is close to making this a reality (and it will be a real breakthrough when it does), but it’s going to take all of the sensors working together, and possibly being able to inspect the terrain it’s heading toward from a greater distance. Maybe in the Phantom 5.
The P4P+ has a 4.3 mile signal range (up from 3 miles on the regular P4), which is way further than I was willing to let it fly. It also has a larger 5,870 mAh battery (up from 5,350 mAh), which gives it 30 minutes of flying time per charge (up from 28), despite all the additional sensors. It has indoor flight sensors that work at distances up to 100 feet away (up from 50), giving you very stable hovering, even where there’s no GPS to tell it where to pin itself. It broadcasts on both 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz for better Wi-Fi image reliability (the regular P4 only used 2.4GHz).
I did have some bugginess when trying to stream to Facebook. I streamed four minutes of flying in an area with solid 4G reception (for my Verizon Mi-Fi which was broadcasting Wi-Fi for the remote), but the video was truncated to just 34 seconds of extremely glitchy footage. Friends who were watching live reported that the video kept freezing. I got similar, though not quite as bad, results on a home Wi-Fi network. What’s worse is that it’s supposed to record audio from the remote control so you can talk though your flight for the live video, but once the drone launched all it recorded was a loud clicking sound. This isn’t generally a problem when using the DJI Go app on iOS or Android, so I suspect there’s some work still to be done on the remote’s software. Other apps on the remote (Facebook, for example) are extremely wonky, too.
Overall, however, the Phantom 4 Pro+ is the best drone I’ve ever flown. It lacks the compact portability of the new DJI Spark or last year’s DJI Mavic Pro, but image quality on the P4P+ really blows those out of the water. If you already have the P4 it’s probably not worth upgrading, but if you have an older drone and some extra cash in your pocket, it’s definitely worth a step up.
There are plenty of ways it could continue to improve, but for now it’s the gold-standard. For $1,800, it had better be.