It wasn’t too long ago that the smallest drone that had the word “professional” attached to it was the classic DJI Phantom. If you really wanted something serious it was going to be bigger and much more daunting than the already bulky prosumer quadcopters.
These days the size and shape of a drone don’t always tell you what sorts of capabilities it’s packing and DJI has had a large role in the changing perception around drones and size.
While it’s great that many compact drones are now also very well specced out it can also make it hard to decide which one to invest in. In the case of the DJI range a newcomer might look at the Spark, Mavic Pro and Mavic Air and think they are very similar based on looks.
What really matters however is how they compare under the hood, which is exactly what we’ll be doing today. Here is a comparison of the DJI Mavic Air vs Mavic Pro vs Spark.
All three drones definitely look as if they speak the same design language. When it comes to the Spark and the Mavic Air you really have to look twice at a photo to make sure you’re looking at the right one. Of course, if you put them side-by-side their size and design difference become perfectly apparent, but they’re all comparable in the looks department.
The Mavic Pro is the most distinct of the three thanks to that prominent clear camera shield. It’s a feature that lets you throw the Pro in a backpack after folding it up .
Oh yes, that’s the other dividing factor here. The Spark is the only one of the three drones that doesn’t fold up. So ironically you need some sort of case that bulks up this rather tiny drone to something perhaps even larger than either of the Mavics. Speaking of which, lets put them on the scale and see how they measure up.
Size and Weight
As you’d probably expect, the Spark is the lightest of the bunch (not) tipping the scale at a mere 300g. The Air is only slightly heavier at 430g with the Pro coming in at a relatively ponderous 743g if you leave the gimbal cover on.
For the most part these weight differences come from battery size differences, but of course uprated motors, larger props and (to a lesser extent) more advances cameras and electronics all add up.
Since the Spark does not fold there’s only one set of dimensions to worry about. It measures 170mm diagonally, with total measurements of 143x143x55 millimeters. It is honestly palm-sized .
The Air is quite a bit larger with a diagonal measurement of 213mm. That translates to unfolded measurements of 168x184x64 millimeters. Folding it up doesn’t make it any shorter, but the width goes down by more than half to 83mm and the height also reduces itself to 49mm.
The Pro is a whopping 335mm diagonally, but when folded up it’s actually comparable to the Air at 83x83x198 millimeters. That’s the same folded width as the Air and only 30mm extra in length and 36mm extra in height. In terms of portability and fitting into a bag both are actually not that far off, despite the Pro being twice the weight.
The DJI Spark unsurprisingly has the least-sophisticated camera system here. Before we even get to the question of camera sensor you should know that the Spark does not have a true 3-axis gimbal. Instead there’s pitch and roll support, but to yaw you need to move the entire craft. It’s workable, but means that this drone could never have an independent camera operator.
In terms of the camera itself the Spark comes with only one choice. It’s a 1/2.3” sensor with an effective 12 megapixel resolution. You get a field of view equivalent to 35mm film and a max resolution of 1080p at 30 frames per second. The maximum still size is a very healthy 3968×2976 pixels.
Both the Mavic Air and Pro have full-fat 3-axis gimbals as standard, but their cameras are significantly different.
The Air can record 4K footage at 30 fps. It can do HD footage all the way up to 120 fps, if you have a screen that goes that high.
The Mavic Pro has Cinema 4K support, which is 4096×2160 at 24 fps. That’s a killer feature for a certain class of filmmaker at this price point . Unlike the Air however, the Pro can only do 120 fps with 720p footage. 1080p footage can only be captured at 96 fps at most.
The Spark’s camera is definitely nothing to sniff at, but it’s definitely not for pros to consider. It’s a decent sports action camera and can capture some very nice holiday vistas or social media shots. If you’re a documentary maker on a very tight budget you can certainly finagle something useful out of it.
For professional users who are looking at either the Air or the Pro the choice seems to be the pro at first glance. It has much more choice when it comes to resolution and frame rate. The Cinema 4K option is very enticing too.
Although when it comes to ISO and shutter speed the on-paper specifications are the same. Add to this that the Air has a much higher maximum video bitrate and it’s not such a clear cut choice. Having a good look at raw footage from both drones might be the only way to make up your mind.
Mavic Pro vs Mavic Air vs Spark Raw Footage:
These are all small machines, which makes for interesting flight endurance decisions. The Spark claims a max flight time of 16 minutes, while the Air says it will stay up for 21 minutes if there’s no wind. The Pro has the biggest claim of all, with 27 minutes under ideal conditions. Of course you should shave about 10% off all three claims in most cases. Your actual demands of each drone will also have an impact along with wind-speeds and other hazards.
Before we talk about range, you should know that the standard Spark package does not come with a dedicated remote controller. You’ll have to buy one if you want it and the cheapest way to do this is by getting it as part of the Spark’s “Fly More” combo. Using just your phone, the range is rather limited.
You can’t go higher than 50m or further than 100m when just using the phone. Given that this is marketed as a selfie or closeup action drone those ranges are just fine. However the drone is capable of much more. If you hook it up to a DJI transmitter you can get up to 2 kilometers under FCC spec. The ranges are limited in other regions to comply with more restrictive rules in Europe and China.
The Mavic Air provides 4 km under FCC rules, 2 km under other regimes when it comes to the 2.4 Ghz band. That’s shortened to 500m under CE rules and increased to 2500m under SRRC rules when using the 5Ghz band.
The Mavic Pro provides a whopping 7 km range under FCC regulations at 2.4 Ghz. It goes down to 4 km for other regions.
The Spark is actually pretty fast given how small it is. You’re looking at a top speed of 50 km/h in sport mode. It can also climb at three meters per second and has a service ceiling of 4 km above sea level. Wind resistance tops out at 28 km/h.
The Mavic Air is quite a bit faster and will hit 68.4 km/h in sport mode . The service ceiling is also higher at 5 km. It can also resist winds up to 38 km/h depending on conditions. It can ascend at 4 meters per second.
The Mavic Pro is actually a tad slower than the Air at 65 km/h, but has an ascent speed of 5 meters per second at maximum. The service ceiling is the same at 5 km.
Once of the best things about modern drones is that they aren’t just dumb, noisy machines that need you to baby them anymore. The days of crashing your new expensive drone into a wall through pilot error are all but over.
They now have sensors and vision software to help them process the environment. They can stop themselves from running into objects and land safely if something is going wrong.
Even better, they can now pull of shots and flight maneuvers that used to be something only skilled pilots could do. So now people without much flight experience can get great footage without much trouble.
When the Spark first launched it wowed us with flight intelligence features that were previously reserved for drones such as the Mavic Pro. It has a machine-vision system that lets it easily track subjects and follow them . It literally just takes a tap or two and you’re ready to record yourself doing, well, whatever it is you people do in your free time.
The Spark however only has a downward- and forward- facing sensor array. That raises worries about it backing into things. Additionally, while it will stop itself from flying into things in front of it, it doesn’t actually alter its flight path to avoid them. You’ll have to manually move it into the clear and then start again. A bit disappointing for those who hoped to get true avoidance at this price point.
The Mavic Air on the other hand has some really amazing tricks up its sleeve. ActiveTrack let’s it monitor and keep in frame up to 16 objects. It’s six QuickShots presets are a little gimmicky but can provide some really amazing footage as the drone swoops around with precision to create effects around the subject. There are many other examples if its advanced flight abilities. TapFly is very cool. Just tap a location on the video feed and it will fly there. It’s like a video game.
FlightAutonomy 2.0 on the Mavic Air provides the avoidance features we really want. The gimbal camera also feeds this system along with forward-, down- and backwards- facing sensors. Best of all, it can actively bypass obstacles and keep filming.
The Pro has a less advanced, earlier version of FlightAutonomy, but still it has the bells and whistles, such as active avoidance, that the Spark lacks . The Pro is also set apart by the fact that it has two independent and redundant sets of flight sensors, which means it’s very unlikely that sensor failure will down this drone.
Price & Final Opinion
None of these drones are considered “professional” by DJI. However, looking at the footage and specs of the two Mavics and it seems the goalpost must have shifted, because these would certainly have put professional drones to shame just a short few years ago.
Regardless, they are priced much lower than the latest Phantom or monsters such as the Inspire 2. The Spark can be had for only $399 and at that price it’s basically the best drone money can buy . Just remember that this price does NOT include a remote. It’s the perfect casual drone and can act as a great step up to more serious hardware.
The Air costs twice as much with a base price of $799. However, I personally feel that it offers more than twice the value of the Spark and in many ways this is a better choice than the Pro. It’s not controversial to say that the Air is the best consumer-grade drone that DJI makes at the moment.
If you do want a Pro then you’ll have to fork out $999 for it. Just a little more and if flight endurance and C4K footage really matter to you, it might be worth it. Otherwise it’s clear that the smart money is going to the Air.
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