While the Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Transportation wrestle with how to cope with a sky buzzing with drones, manufacturers keep pumping out flying cameras as if there’s not a hint of regulatory turbulence on the horizon. One of the latest is the Horizon Hobby Chroma 4K drone, an integrated quadcopter/camera combo manufactured by Yuneec. At $1,200, the Chroma 4K is geared as much towards advanced amateurs and professional photographers as it is towards curious consumers (Horizon sells less expensive camera drones for that crowd). Together with New Jersey-based photographer David Patiño, we put the Chroma 4K to the test to see how it fares in the friendly skies.
The Chroma has a pair of basic flying modes, which you set by flipping a switch on the controller. The first is a Smart Mode designed for beginners. Here, the drone obeys a “Safe Circle” perimeter so it won’t fly closer than 16 feet from the operator and the drone will auto-hold its position/altitude whenever you release the control sticks. Smart Mode also engages Stick Relativity, so that the drone moves in the direction the controller sticks are pushed regardless of where its nose is pointed. When you’re ready to take the proverbial training wheels off, there’s AP mode, which disengages Stick Relativity and Safe Circle.
The drone also offers several “smart” flying options, including a tracking mode whereby the drone follows and keeps the camera locked on whoever is holding the controller. In tracking mode, you can set the altitude and distance the drone keeps. You can also program altitude and distance limits to keep the Chroma geo-fenced within a certain area.
The Chroma’s 4K camera (model CG03) is mounted to a 3-axis gimbal. The camera records 3840x2160p30 video with options for 2560x1440p30/25 as well. Drop into 1920×1080 recording and you can enjoy frame rates as fast as 120 fps, in addition to 60, 30 and 25 fps modes. It snaps 12-megapixel stills and saves all your files to a microSD card. According to Horizon, you’ll be able to view a live feed from the camera up to about 600 meters from the controller. The gimbal can tilt down to 90 degrees, but for any horizontal movements you’ll need to rotate the drone to properly position the camera.
There are three other versions of the Chroma drone as well: one with a fixed 1080p camera, the other with a 3-axis gimbal and GoPro mount, and the entry-level model with a fixed GoPro mount.
The drone ships with the ST-10+ controller which includes a built-in 5.5-inch Android-based touch screen interface alongside tactile controls for flying the quadcopter and orienting the camera. A set of replacement propellers, a battery for the drone and controller, and a charger are also included.
Unlike DJI’s Phantom line, the Chroma controller has an Android-based touchscreen display built in. We just wish it were on top.
At roughly 2.8 pounds, the Chroma weighs about as much as DJI’s Phantom 3 Professional—which is to say, it’s quite light. Its plastic frame isn’t collapsible, although the propellers and legs can be removed and the GPS mast can be folded down. Storing and transporting the drone will require a fairly large hard case or roomy backpack.
The Chroma is easy to assemble. Out of the box, you’ll screw on the propellers, slide in a battery and perform a simple compass calibration by executing a series of rotations of the drone while facing North, and you’re ready to fly. The drone has large LED lights under each motor to provide a visual indicator of performance (or trouble, if it’s brewing). While the drone’s plastic frame is not going to hold up under violent abuse, our craft did take a few bumps and the propellers once clipped a hemlock tree without suffering any noticeable damage.
The ST-10+ controller is nice and light as well, though aside from rubber bumpers where your hands rest, its mostly plastic build may not be super durable. The built-in Android touch screen is large enough to afford a good preview of the drone’s camera while keeping vital telemetry settings such as altitude, ground speed, GPS lock and remaining battery life visible. We did think the line of touch sensitive keys for home, back, menu, etc. were a bit too small—you have to take care to hit them with the edge of your finger to navigate the menu.
Building the touch screen into the controller makes it larger than, say, DJI’s Phantom controller, which uses your mobile device and the DJI app as the primary interface and viewfinder. Users with smaller hands will definitely have a tougher time with the Chroma controller. Patiño told us he preferred to have the display at the top of the controller vs. the bottom, so it’s easy to view while simultaneously flying the drone. That said, he preferred having the display built into the controller vs. using a mobile device.
Flight controls consist of the familiar pair of joysticks for controlling vertical and horizontal flight plus slider switches on either side to control camera tilt and drone speed. Our only other beef with the controller was that it starts with a blaring tone that can’t be disabled.
With a 1/2.3-inch image sensor, the Chroma’s image quality is on par with an action camera. We found stills to be sharper than video at 1920x1080p30 but 4K clips were nicely detailed. Color reproduction was mostly consistent, though we did notice a tendency to over-saturate blues in the sky. Highlight clipping was also an issue in bright sun. Even so, you could definitely feel comfortable using the Chroma’s video footage for short clips to be intercut with footage from other cameras, for weddings or corporate videos. The display feed from the drone isn’t super sharp, so it can be very difficult to really inspect your footage as you’re taking it.
The CG03 camera comes with a fixed 14mm f/2.8 lens, with a 115-degree field of view but with very little wide-angle distortion, which is nice. You’ll have fairly limited ability to adjust exposure parameters, including shutter speed, ISO, exposure compensation and a series of picture profiles like “gorgeous” and “natural.” We found that in the box and in videos at the www.knowchroma.com site, there was far more documentation for flight controls and tips on how to operate the drone than there was guidance on using the camera and adjusting exposure settings. Our DNG stills looked nice after some light processing, but quickly lost detail as we zoomed in.
The Chroma 4K drone offers several intelligent flying modes to keep the drone on target, freeing you to take high-quality videos and stills.
In flight the Chroma proved reliable, never flying away on us and maintaining a consistent video link to the ST-10+ controller, though we never let the drone stray beyond about 100 meters from us and at roughly 50 meters high. Patiño appreciated the fact that the drone had speed controls so that it could move more slowly if need be. He also liked the fact that the LEDs under the motors were larger than the Phantom’s, making them easier to see at a distance.
The ST-10+ controller proved similarly straightforward to operate and you’ll have a choice of four joystick configurations for flying and steering the Chroma, so there’s room to tailor flight controls to your liking. The touchscreen was responsive, though difficult to see in brighter light and impossible to view at any sharp angle. It was also prone to gathering smudges, which made the screen even tougher to see under the glare of the sun.
Flight time is rated for up to 30 minutes, depending on conditions and how you’re flying. In a relatively calm day but with active piloting, we heard a battery warning at roughly 20 minutes and decided discretion was the better part of valor and landed it without fully seeing how long it would stay aloft. We didn’t have much of an opportunity to take it out into the wind, though what wind we did encounter batted the drone around significantly (that’s not uncommon, given its size). We found the gimbal very impressively keep footage steady even as the drone swooped and swayed.
The battery takes a little over an hour to recharge. Extras cost $120 and you’ll definitely want at least one extra if you plan on doing any significant amount of filming. The controller charges via USB.
With a list price of $1,200, the Chroma 4K competes closely with the $1,295 DJI Phantom 3 Professional. Unlike the Chroma, the Phantom 3 has “Visual Positioning” sensors that allow for safer indoor flight. The Phantom 3’s camera also has a narrower field of view (94 degrees vs. 114) but with roughly the same set of features, albeit slightly higher resolution 4K video. On the other hand, the Chroma has slightly better flying time and cheaper batteries—about $30 less than what DJI charges for Phantom batteries.
We think the Chroma is a great flying platform for both first-timers and more experienced pilots. From set up to operation, the drone is easy to use and performed well in the air. The camera performs adequately for quick-cut video and on a clear day delivers good image quality for the price, though if you require more fine tuning over exposure parameters we’d suggest opting for the Chroma with the GoPro gimbal instead.
PROS: Easy to assemble and operate; good features for the price; excellent handling and flight time.
CONS: Bulky remote can be tough to operate with small hands; screen placement makes live view difficult; display difficult to read in bright light; images and videos can be overexposed in highlights; poor low-light image quality.