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DJI Spark review

You know how Apple sometimes seems to be behind its competition in performance, design or features, only to eventually leapfrog them and take the lead? That’s what DJI did with the Spark.

While the company was concentrating on making higher-end camera drones for prosumers and professionals, other drone makers — established and startup — were creating highly portable drones for people who wanted cool aerial selfies (aka “dronies”) without having to be an expert pilot.

DJI’s $999 Mavic Pro seemed as close as the company would get to the category, with its compact folding design and intelligent subject tracking that let you capture selfies with a hand gesture. But then the Spark arrived in May and pretty much made everyone forget about all the selfie drones that came before it. It offers many of the Mavic’s same features in a body that’s roughly the size of a soda can.

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The Spark is aimed at the dronie crowd, but shares tech from the Mavic such as obstacle detection, dual-band GPS and a visual positioning system that lets it hover in place up to 98 feet (30 m) above the ground — indoors or outside. Also, while the competition relies on electronic image stabilization alone, DJI put the Spark’s full HD video camera on a two-axis motorized gimbal for smooth results without sacrificing image quality. And DJI took its gesture controls to the next level with the drone, too.

Priced at $499 in the US, AU$859 in Australia and £519 in the UK, you don’t get much more than the drone and a single battery. For $699 (AU$1,199, £699), DJI bundles the Spark, extra props and a set of prop guards, two batteries and a charging hub for refreshing three batteries at once, a remote controller and a carry bag — a savings of $154, according to DJI’s site.

The bundle is a good value and worth getting if you think you might want to do more than quick flights for selfies. Then again, the Mavic Pro is pretty close in price and can be flown farther, faster and for longer, it has a better camera and stabilization and folds up to a very travel-friendly size as well. Basically, if you’re really interested in learning to fly a drone immediately for capturing spectacular photos and video, save up for the Mavic. The Spark is a great choice if your main goal is to get cool dronies, without limiting your opportunities to do more down the road.

You’re gonna fly it in an instant

With its brightly colored shell — white, blue, green, red or yellow — and tiny frame, the Spark greatly lowers the intimidation factor. For new pilots, having something small that, out of the box, you can fly without having to learn any real controls whatsoever is a big deal. The Hover Camera Passport made a big splash at CES 2017 with its Owner Mode, which uses face detection for smartphone-free flying, and DJI does something similar here with its Gesture Mode.

Fire up the quad, hold it out in front of you facing the camera and double-tap the power button. The camera gives a quick scan, locks onto your face and spins up its propellers (watch your fingers). Let go and the drone just hovers in front of you.

To move the drone around, you hold up your palm to the camera and wait for the drone’s front lights to turn green. Then you can move your hand up and down to raise and lower it and move your hand left or right to move it side to side. Give your hand a wave and the Spark will fly backwards away from you and then start tracking your movements. Make a frame shape with your thumbs and forefingers and it will snap a photo (sadly, there’s no video options in Gesture Mode). Put your hands in the air in a Y shape and it will return to you. Put your hand underneath it and it will land in your palm (again, watch your fingers).

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Although all of these gestures take practice, it’s nothing compared to learning how to use physical controls just to take a selfie. Worth noting, too, is that a couple firmware updates have improved the gesture control performance since the Spark was announced — so you might want to check out the timestamp of early user reviews before taking them to heart.

Limitations, it has a few

The gesture controls were the hyped feature when the Spark was announced because, well, it’s really very cool. It is, however, pretty limited in what it can do at the moment. It’s fine if you want to take a quick selfie, but it’s photos only — no video clips or animations.

If you want to do more, you can; you just have to connect your iPhone or Android device to the drone’s Wi-Fi signal and open up the DJI Go 4 app. With the app you can do much of the stuff you can do with the company’s Phantom drones and the Mavic Pro($999.00 at Amazon.com), but you’ll be flying with virtual sticks. The thing is, there is so much going on onscreen that it can be tough to fly this way, especially if you’re on a smaller phone like an iPhone 7($826.00 at Amazon Marketplace).

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What you’re better off sticking to are the new QuickShot Intelligent Flight Modes. Select one of the modes — Rocket, Dronie, Circle and Helix — and it will automatically perform the camera move and capture a quick video clip in the process. That clip can then be downloaded to your phone with music added to it and ready for sharing.

There are other Intelligent Flight Modes including TapFly, which lets you send the drone to a specific spot or coordinate with a tap on your screen, and ActiveTrack that sets the drone to follow you or another subject that you select onscreen. However, since you’re flying by phone, you’re limited by its wireless range that maxes out at 100 meters (328 feet) away and 50 meters (164 feet) high, unobstructed and free of interference.

To break free of these restrictions, you’ll have to buy the Spark’s $149 remote controller. Pair the controller to the Spark and your phone to the controller and you’ll have full control of the drone and a 720p-resolution view from its camera from up to 1.2 miles (2 km) away. If you’re already familiar with how to fly a quadcopter, this makes piloting the Spark much more enjoyable. Plus, it leaves your whole screen for flight data and framing your shots and adds physical controls for controlling the camera. It also gives you access to the drone’s Sport mode that lets you fly at up to 31 mph (50 kph).

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Unfortunately, the value of the controller has to be weighed against another limitation: Battery life. According to DJI, flying in windless conditions at a constant speed of 12.4 mph (20 kph) you’ll be able to get 16 minutes of flight. It’s more likely you’ll get somewhere between 10 to 14 minutes before you’ll be forced to land. Now, considering the drone’s size and weight, that’s not a bad flight time, but it makes the extra range of the controller less useful.

Extra batteries will run you about $50 each, and you’ll probably want to buy at least one just as a backup. The Spark is the first DJI you can charge by USB cable (there’s a Micro-USB port on the back with the microSD card slot), which is nice for traveling and means you can use a portable power bank to top off your battery between flights.

One to grow with

The DJI Spark puts some of the company’s category-leading technologies into a small, approachable camera drone at a more affordable price. Its camera is excellent, too, especially against its current competition. However, part of the reason it is cheaper is because you basically get the drone and nothing else. It’s something to keep in mind if you’re thinking you might eventually want to do more than take selfies or short-range scenic shots controlled with your phone. The controller does make a huge difference and is certainly worth the investment if you want the increased range and control. But really, if that’s your main goal along with better photo and video quality, save up and buy the Mavic Pro.

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