DJI Mavic Air review: An amazingly compact flying machine
Drones like the new DJI Mavic Air are the Marmite of the tech world. On the one hand, they’re a high-level demonstration of how amazing modern technology has become, combining miniaturisation with powerful processing and advancements in digital cameras in one incredible flying machine.
On the other hand, they’re controversial, potentially dangerous and constantly in the news for all the wrong reasons. It’s got so bad that the UK has recently stiffened up its laws covering drones, one of the new stipulations being that, from 30 November 2019 you’ll have to register if you want to fly a drone weighing 250g or more.
Me? I’m a Marmite lover and the DJI Mavic Air only feeds that addiction. Let me tell you why.
The Mavic Air is a folding drone much like the superb DJI Mavic Pro I reviewed back in 2016. Back then, it was a compact marvel and DJI followed that up with the even more backpackable Spark in 2017. But the professional applications of that drone were limited with only 1080p video available and a 2-axis gimbal.
The Mavic Air takes the features of the Mavic Pro, adds in some of the features of the Spark – namely, remote-free gesture control – and shrinks them down to a package half the size of the former. In fact, with its rotor arms folded, Peregrine-like, flat against its flanks, the Mavic Air is smaller than the Spark, measuring a tiny 168 x 184 x 64mm.
Mavic Air review: Camera
It’s so small it looks almost like a toy but, at a cost of £769, it’s far from that. The Air is, in fact, a serious piece of kit, aimed at videographers and drone enthusiasts, rather than keen amateurs. It’s beautifully built (despite a couple of minor irritations, which I’ll get onto below) and packs a serious punch in the image quality department, offering improved features and video quality over its predecessor, the Mavic Pro.
What’s perhaps most impressive about the Air is that, despite the size shrinkage, it’s actually superior to its large predecessor in most ways, and that starts with the camera.
Unlike the Spark, the Mavic Air’s camera is mounted in a three-axis gimbal, ensuring smooth, fluid shots, that are unaffected by gusts of wind. It has the same sized sensor (1/2.3in) and the optics are identical, too, with a field of view of 85-degrees and an aperture of f/2.8.
But it is better, the key difference is that the Air’s camera encodes its footage at a higher bitrate – up to an impressive 100Mbits/sec, where the Mavic Pro is limited to 60Mbits/sec – and this translates to more detail-rich video, especially if you’re shooting areas of greenery or water where there are a lot of areas of similar colour.
There’s no improvement to frame rate over the Pro, so you’re limited to 30fps at 4k, but you can shoot 120fps slow-motion footage at 1080p, which looks pretty awesome.
As for stills, there’s not a huge amount of change on that front. The Air still captures 12-megapixel stills in either JPEG or RAW format and quality is pretty decent, especially if you employ bracketing and merge later on in Photoshop. While quality is decent, it’s a long way off what you might achieve with a flagship smartphone, for instance, with darker areas of bright scenes appearing quite rough and grainy.
What’s great, though, is the sheer number of different modes you have available for capture. I love, in particular, the Air’s new photo mode: sphere panorama. In this mode, the drone hangs in the air, rotates itself to capture a 32-megapixel, 360-degree spherical panorama and then stitches it back together for you so you can zoom in and pan around in the DJI Go app. It’s genius and adds to an already-broad selection of interesting photo modes. These are too numerous to list in full here but include HDR, multi-exposure bracketing, and vertical and horizontal panorama shots.
Mavic Air review: Design and flight
Perhaps most impressively, the Mavic Air is just as competent a flying machine as the larger Mavic Pro. It’s about as quiet as you’d expect a small drone to be, responsive and speedy and it’s packed with different ways to fly.
In fact, there are three ways to fly the Air. First, you can fly it with your smartphone alone, although I’d only use this method in a moment of absolute need. Touchscreen controls just don’t give you the accuracy you need for accurate flight.
Then there’s gesture control, which kind of falls into the same category. You can use your arms and hands to perform a series of rudimentary flight and image capture tasks, including the new 360 panorama mode, which is all kinds of awesome.
DJI calls this mode Smart Capture and it works in a similar way to the gesture mode I first saw on the DJI Spark. It’s a little different here: you can’t get the drone to take off from your palm or land on it like the Spark – although a recent update enables controller-free take off from the ground.
The range of things you can do in this mode is pretty similar otherwise. Make a V for victory to take a selfie, form a rectangle with the thumb and index fingers of both hands to start and stop video, and wave your hand left, right up and down with the palm held up to move it around.
I wouldn’t recommend using gesture flight in an area where you might encounter trees or bushes or any kind of large structure – it’s not a particularly precise way of controlling a drone – but it works well enough if all you want to do is grab a quick group selfie. Plus, range is limited in this mode so you can be sure it isn’t going to fly off into the to sunset never to be seen again.
My preferred method of flying the Mavic Air is with the newly redesigned remote control as it’s much, much easier to fly this way. The remote doesn’t have the screen of the Mavic Pro’s remote but new removable joysticks do make it easier to carry around and stow in a bag. It also doesn’t have quite the range of the Mavic’s remote – the maximum distance you can control the drone is 4km compared to 7km for the Mavic Pro – but since the law dictates you always need to have the drone in line of sight, it’s going to disappear from view a long time before you hit that limit anyway.
With the remote, not only does the Mavic Air become more precisely controllable, it also gets faster. Flick the mode switch in the centre over to Sport and you’ll get top speeds of up to 42.5mph, which is pretty scary, let me tell you. It’s best to leave it in standard mode if you’re not a pro pilot – unless you want your drone to end up in a thousand pieces spread all over the countryside.
Even in that standard mode, though, the Mavic Pro is brilliantly solid in the air and supremely flyable, even in moderate wind. It comes with a veritable battery of sensors: two front-facing cameras, two at the rear and two facing down, accompanied by a couple of downward-facing sonar sensors to help it stay steady at low speed and low altitude.
The Air uses these sensors for its APAS object avoidance system and, importantly, it does so while flying both forwards and backwards, which is is an improvement over the Mavic Pro, which was only able to detect objects in front of itself. I carried out my usual test of flying the drone directly at myself to see if it worked and, sure enough, in both backwards and forwards flight, the drone steadfastly refused to hit me. Which is reassuring.
There are a couple of gripes from a practical perspective and, to be frank, these are pretty small. The gimbal cover, which is designed to protect the fragile 3-axis stabiliser, is a touch fiddly to put back in place once you’ve finished flying and, if you’re using an iPhone X, the arms that clamp your phone into place below the remote obscure the Face ID camera.
Switching between Wi-Fi and remote control mode is also a little unintuitive and, until you get the hang of it, you’ll spend ages scratching your head wondering why the darned thing won’t connect. For reference, though, you hold down the rear button to switch to phone control mode, and double tap the button to switch to jump back to remote control mode. Also, the battery life is a little shorter than it is with the Mavic Pro, with the Mavic Air rated at 21 minutes and the Pro at 27 minutes.
Mavic Air review: Verdict
To be honest, though, it feels a little mean saying anything negative at all about the DJI Mavic Air because it’s absolutely amazing. It’s a drone that you can fold up and slip into a small bag or large pocket. It can be flown with your phone or by traditional remote control, even just your hands. It flies beautifully, shoots fantastically good quality, stable video and stills and – let me say it again – it’s small enough to fit in your pocket.
So, yes, it is expensive, but just look at what you’re getting for your £769. A device that will capture absolutely incredible, never to be forgotten photos and video of scenery you simply couldn’t capture any other way and a one that you can have some fun with flying along the way. In fact, considering how much a GoPro Hero 6 costs these days, I reckon £769 is a bargain. My favourite drone, ever.