I have to admit that I’m a bit of a tech hipster in some very specific cases, while being a dummy early adopter in others.
When it comes to televisions, I’ve been clinging to my 720p plasma TV for far longer than it was designed to last. Even today, I can’t quite get behind the lack of true blacks and relatively washed-out colors that come with LCD technology. Naively, I was hoping that trusty plasma would last until OLED TVs of a similar size became affordable.
Alas this was not to be and after long and honorable service the old plasma is starting to give up the ghost. Since you can’t buy new plasma TVs anymore, I resigned myself to buying a modern LCD TV. Really, the technology has come along in leaps and bounds. Thanks to better panel technology and advanced local backlight dimming, these TVs are pretty great.
What I wasn’t looking for was a UHD or “4K” TV. I just wanted a simple FHD TV in a large format. After all, I thought, there still isn’t much 4K content out there and my internet isn’t fast enough to live stream it yet. However, when I actually tried to find an FHD LCD in my price range I was surprised to see that UHD have started to supplant FHD models.
So, to make a long story short, I am now the owner of a 55” 4K HDR TV. Which means I now suddenly have a reason to care about drones with 4K cameras on them.
So which are the Best 4K Drones on the market today?
And what should you be looking out for? I put on my investigation hat and proceeded to comb the interwebs for some answers.
What Exactly is 4K and HDR?
In case you haven’t been keeping up, what does it actually mean if a drone has a 4K or HDR camera? The simplest way to explain it is by comparing 4K with the standard it’s meant to replace: Full High Definition.
A FHD picture is made up of a grid of pixels. 1920 of them in the horizontal axis and 1080 on the vertical. The more pixels there are in the image, the crisper and more detailed it is. DVDs only have 720×480 pixels, so the jump to FHD is quite dramatic.
An Ultra HD 4K image has 3840×2160 pixels. So if you multiply those numbers, it comes to 8 294 400 pixels in total. FHD’s 1920×1080 yields 2 073 600 pixels. So UHD images have exactly four times the total number of pixels compared to UHD. Hence the “4K” label. That’s four times the visual detail! Incredibly, 8K cameras and displays are on the horizon too. Which further doubles what 4K can do today.
There’s more to the latest generation of 4K displays than just very fine levels of detail. Most decent 4K TVs also have a feature known as HDR or high dynamic range. Screens that are HDR compatible have much wider range of colour and contrast. Colour and contrast are far more important than the resolution when it comes to how attractive an image looks.
To experience the benefits of HDR you need to film the source material with a camera that captures the extra information needed to make it all work. However, plenty of modern 4K TVs have a pseudo-HDR mode where it analyses the picture and guesses what the HDR should have looked like if it was filmed with a compatible camera.
Should You Get a 4K Drone?
This is the most important question, since 4K drones cost significantly more and can come with some drawbacks that a 720p or 1080p camera wouldn’t. You need to consider what you are going to do with the footage and whether splurging on 4K gear is a good idea or not. After all, 4K drones (and eventually 8K) will become the standard at some point. But is now the right time to start making 4K content or should you wait until camera prices come down?
I’d say that 2018 has been a bit of a turning point. Most mid- to high- end TVs are now 4K HDR units. Which means your next TV is likely to be a 4K model. If you’re thinking about replacing your current set soon then your next drone purchase might justifiably include 4K capability or at least an upgrade path towards it.
Just bear in mind that if you are looking for something that will give you a live 4K image for FPV, that technology doesn’t exist. At least not at the sorts of ranges that would be useful for practical purposes. So only consider a 4K drone if you want the final product to be in that resolution.
What to Look for in a 4K Drone
It’s important to remember that when we talk about the best 4K drones, we are really talking about their cameras. If you already own a high-end camera drone, it may be possible to simply swap out its HD camera and replace it with a 4K drone model. That’s obviously much cheaper than buying a whole new drone.
The general guidelines about picking something with the right endurance, weight and size for your needs. So I don’t have much to say about the drones themselves.
In terms of the camera, not all of them will support HDR and it’s up to you whether you care about that or not. It makes a dramatic difference to contrast and color, so it’s nice to have.
Some of the smaller 4K drones don’t have a 3-axis gimbal and use the drone’s body to simulate it. It’s not a solution that’s as good obviously, so don’t buy a 2-axis 4K drone if you have any professional aspirations.
Finally, the compact 4K drones usually have similarly tiny cameras, which makes their low-light performance questionable. Keep that in mind when picking the right one for you.
The Mavic Air: Budget 4K Drone Perfection?
DJI really has a good thing going with its Mavic Line. The Mavic Pro gave the world an incredibly capable drone in a tiny package, but at quite a steep price. The Mavic Air on the other hand gave us prosumer specs while taking some cost-saving tips from its cousin the DJI Spark.
The result is arguably the most compact 4K camera drone you can buy today. One with surprisingly few compromises given the form factor and price.
When folded up, the Air is almost pocketable and certainly compact enough to fit in the typical shoulder bag or backpack. It’s not just small either, the Air weight 41% less than the Mavic Pro.
For the purposes of this roundup we mainly care about the onboard camera itself and the Mavic Air delivers exactly what we want. The sensor and lens combination in the Air provides us with the digital equivalent of 35mm film, which is the cinematic standard.
The camera is capable of 4K recording at 30 frames per second. Although 60 frames per second is becoming more popular for action sports, 4K at 30fps is perfect for getting that cinematic feel. If you can live with a “mere” 1080p picture then the camera can handle 120 fps, but what wants to slum it at those resolutions, right? It’s also the smallest drone to have a proper 3-axis gimbal. The Spark, for example, as a 2-axis model and has to fake the third axis by actually moving the drone’s body. Not ideal for decent shots.
The Air comes with its own version of DJI’s lovely foldable remote, with a phone holder built right in. Thanks to the latest generation video transmission tech, you get a 1080p live stream while in flight. Making it a littler easier to see what’s going on.
The Air is fast, maxing out just shy of 70 kph. With 21 minutes of flight time and a range of about 4 kilometers, it’s surprisingly capable. It’s a smart cookie too, with a sophisticated multi-camera obstacle avoidance feature and tracking technology capable of keeping tabs of 16 subjects at once. While it’s about half again as expensive as the Spark, there is no contest in terms of capabilities. Really, the asking price for the Air seems a little cheap to be honest.
Unless you are a real professional, this is one of the best 4K drone deals today.
Some aspects of the Air are less interesting or impressive. The gesture controls still feel like a gimmick and is still apparently a little janky now and then. The automated shooting modes like circle and boomering are fun and great for beginners, but I doubt more serious users are going to play around with them for long. On balance however, there’s nothing at this price in the 4K market that’s better.
DJI Mavic Pro: Long in the Tooth?
I really love the DJI Spark, which revolutionized compact entry-level drones. But it often felt like there were just too many compromises made to get it down to that low price. The Mavic Air basically solved this issue by asking for more money and then applying it to the areas that really matter. The result is a drone that still has plenty of compromises, but ones you can easily live with.
The Mavic Pro is the main reason the Air could achieve this at all. This is the drone that has the fewest compromises in a compact 4K model, but is significantly heavier and more expensive than the Air. At least at the time it was released.
There are some perks to going with the bigger brother in the lineup. For one thing, it will stay in the air for about six minutes longer than the Air. Despite weighing 41% more. Although it is physically bigger and heavier compared to the Air, in absolute terms it’s hardly humongous.
The camera is capable of 4K at 30fps and stream live imagery at 720p. It’s size and weight give it a little more stability than the Air, but nothing that would make a significant difference to most people.
It has a obstacle avoidance system that’s much less sophisticated than the Air. It only uses four cameras rather than seven and can’t see things coming from as many directions. The transmission range and flight endurance of the Mavic Pro is significantly more than the Air. The range is nearly twice as much in comparison at 6.9 kilometers. It’s a touch slower than the Air too.
Overall the Mavic Pro is a frankly excellent drone, but it has some serious problems that didn’t exist at launch. Those problems have names: the Mavic 2 and Mavic Air.
The Air, which you can buy right now, is better than the Pro in some ways and not as good as others. It’s a mighty enticing drone given it’s lower price and specs. I would not be surprised if the Air hasn’t already cannibalized a ton of Pro sales.
DJI Phantom 4 4K Drone: Old Dog, Very New Tricks
The Mavic and Inspire drones have been stealing all the attention over at DJI that it’s easy to forget that the Phantom product line still exists. The original DJI Phantom was the drone that put DJI on the map. Its design can now be thought of as the “classic” camera drone design and has been copied ad nauseum by competitors.
Looking at the latest Phantom model, you’d be forgiven for thinking that not much has changed. Put them side-by-side however, and it’s obvious that DJI have made numerous changes, ranging from subtle to dramatic.
Looks aside, the original Phantom might as well have been from the stone age, because there’s nothing “classic” about the internals this drone comes with.
While the Mavics have been obsessive about making everything as small as possible, the Phantom lets it all hang out. DJI understands this form factor inside and out, so you aren’t paying for cutting edge R&D as with the Mavics. Nothing here folds and the drone is as big as it needs to be. This is the sensible person’s 4K drone. The dependable pickup truck or the average Joe, not the sleek sports car of the Mavics.
The Phantom 4 has a beastly 28 minute flight time along with a 5 kilometer range. The frame is made from magnesium, which makes it lighter and stronger than before. DJI also says they have shifted the center of gravity to improve flight performance.
The camera is held by an integrated 3-axis gimbal and is capable of 4K at 30fps. DJI have also replaced the lens with one that favours sharpness.
Contixo F17+: Rock Bottom 4K
It always amazes me how low some manufacturers can go when it comes to a given market segment. It helps that certain electronic components fall in price so quickly.
When it comes to image sensors, there are plenty of no-name Chinese products that offer 4K resolutions. Of course it’s one thing to achieve a 4K resolution, but another to tick all the other quality marks.
Luckily the Contixo F17 doesn’t saddle you with a bad camera, unless you choose one yourself. It’s only being sold as an affordable platform for the 4K GoPro Hero cameras. Of course, the many GoPro clones that fit the same mounts will also work, with varying levels of success. It does however come with aContixo camera in the box if you don’t want to spend any additional money.
The main problem with a setup like this is that getting live video is a challenge. The range offered by various action cams is comparatively limited if they do support a live feed. They also tend to have high latency.
So we can’t evaluate the F17+ as a 4K drone, because we have no idea what camera each customer will use. However, as a platform for a 4K camera we can make a few observations and I’ll make the assumption that you’ll just stick with the included camera.
Starting with the camera, the first important issue to note is that the camera only has a WiFi range of 30 ft. That’s only about 9 meters. Not particularly useful. It does however offer 4K 30fps video.
There’s also no gimbal, not that it would be useful for a drone that doesn’t offer a usable video signal range.
At this price, you really get what you pay for. It’s a pretty average drone with a camera mount attached. However, if you need a rock bottom price on a drone that technically produces 4K footage, then this seems like a sensible choice. This is the cheapest 4k drone on our list.
The Parrot Anafi 4K Drone: The Real Contender
Parrot is one of the oldest name in hi-tech consumer camera drones. The company hasn’t been much of a player since DJI began dominating with the Phantom drones, but the Anafi is a return to form for the company. Seeing the success that the Mavic Pro and Air have been, Parrot threw their hat in the ring with a competing product.
This is however no late attempt at copying something better. Parrot have really thought their own contribution to the compact, fordable 4K drone market through.
First and foremost, the 4K HDR camera that comes with the package can do something completely unique. It has 180-degree vertical tilt function for the main camera. Even better, it comes with 2.8x optical zoom. Most drones offer no optical zoom at all, much less in a compact form factor like this.
It folds quickly and down to almost pocket size. Well, if you have big pockets. A bag is no problem at all.
Like the Mavics, the Anafi comes with a foldable remote control too. The frame is made from carbon and also contains the ingenious antenna system. That’s one way the Anafi 4K drone is more advanced than the competition.
The best advancements are all internal however. Specifically, the powerful quad core processor and custom software brings a lot of new capability to the platform. This is also DJI’s main selling point and the competition can only be good for us as a whole. Thanks to that carbon frame and very efficient motors, the Anafi can hit 33 mph and fly in winds of 31 mph.
The Freeflight 6 application is another high point. It’s right up there with DJIs software and shows that Parrot is ready to compete in the creative intellectual property market. Parrot have also done a great job balancing the energy requirements of the drone. Resulting in a very respectable 25 minute flight time.
The fact is, the Anafi can get shots no other drone in this class can. You can film from below, create low-angle shots and generally show up the stiff-necked competition.
The last small detail worth mentioning, but with major impact, is that you can charge the Anafi with a USB-C cable. That means a plain old power bank or laptop can be used to juice up. Incredibly convenient. If I were in the market for the Mavic Air or this right now, I’d be incredibly torn.
The Finer Things in Life
Some good argument have been made that 4K drones are pretty much a gimmick, given the limits of human vision.
However, if you’ve had a chance to see good 4K footage on a TV or monitor that can do it justice, then you’ll probably agree it’s worth it. Moreover, massive 20+ megapixel photos are uniquely suited for aerial still. So if all the stars are aligning for you when it comes to the 4K drone ecosystem, now is a great time for retail therapy.
Editors Comment: These are 5 of the best 4K quadcopters on the market right now. At the time of writing the Mavic 2 Pro or Zoom had not yet been released, but by the time we published this article it had been released already. So if you have the budget for the beast that is Mavic 2, that is the top of the line right now.
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- Parrot’s Anafi FPV Brings a New Perspective to the Product Line - November 1, 2019
- Ran’s Dragon Shows Just How Diverse Drone Technology Can Be - October 31, 2019