Hands-On With DJI’s Phantom 4 Pro
June 13, 2017
Spare a moment to pity the engineering and production workers at DJI. The company has been pumping out models at such a furious pace that it’s impossible to imagine anyone working there gets much sleep.
Still, their loss of bedtime hours is our gain. In the case of the Phantom 4 Pro, aerial enthusiasts gain a drone with enhanced flying smarts and a significantly improved camera as well. We turned it over to N.J. photographer and director David Patiño to take it for a spin.
The P4 Pro camera boasts a 1-inch, 20-megapixel image sensor—a nice step up from the 1.2/3-inch 12-megapixel sensor that is typically used in compact drone cameras. The sensor supports 4K recording (4096 x 2160) at 60p and can encode in both H.264 and the newer, more efficient and higher-quality H.265 codec. 4K recording is capped at 30p when shooting in H.265. It can also capture 20-megapixel still images. The top ISO setting has jumped from ISO 3200 on the P4 to ISO 6400 on the P4 Pro.
The lens is also new. Gone is the 94-degree, 20mm lens. In its place is a slightly narrower 84-degree wide-angle lens (24mm) with a user-adjustable aperture range of f/2.8-11. It also sports a mechanical shutter to minimize rolling shutter distortion.
Beyond the revamped camera, DJI also enhanced the sensors on the P4 Pro to improve obstacle avoidance and autonomous flight modes. There are now a pair of rear-vision sensors and two Time of Flight range imaging cameras on board, giving the P4 Pro a nearly complete “view” of what’s all around it—up to 30 meters away in all directions. You can also activate a new “Narrow Sensing” mode that improves maneuverability in tight spaces by narrowing the range of the sensors so that they’re more responsive to closer objects.
An HD video signal from the drone can also be beamed further—up to 4.3 miles away.
The P4 Pro’s new sensors have been joined by a few new intelligent flight modes. The TapFly mode now supports backwards flying. You can now draw out a route on your DJI Go app and the P4 Pro will fly it at a level altitude. DJI’s ActiveTrack tracking functions have also been upgraded with three new modes: Trace, Profile and Spotlight. Trace follows a subject from the front or behind; Profile follows them from the side and Spotlight keeps the camera on the subject while the drone flies in any direction.
There are new batteries that tack on about an extra two minutes worth of flight time, bringing the advertised duration to a maximum of 30 minutes.
The remote now features a built-in HD display, so you’re no longer required to use your smartphone as part of the remote. The display is attached via a hinge arm on the remote and is easy to reorient to get the best viewing position possible.
For all the changes under the hood and in the camera, DJI stuck with its conventional design for the P4 Pro. It’s compact and sleek, weighing in at 3 pounds. Having seen retractable landing gear on several other drones, we’re now hoping that future Phantoms will offer that feature as well.
The new Pro remote is now much improved with the integrated display, Patiño says. It’s easier to read in bright sunlight than a smartphone and folds down neatly so it’s not adding any ungainly bulk to the compact remote. Unfortunately, it’s still saddled with a non-removable battery.
Image Quality & Performance
Patiño tells us there’s a notable improvement in still and video quality from the P4 Pro compared to the older P4 and the Mavic Pro. “There’s no longer much of a trade-off between getting an aerial image and getting a quality one,” he says. Patiño says the camera’s performance in low light is notably much improved.
While not many camera vendors have jumped on the H.265 compression bandwagon, considerable progress has been made on both computer hardware and software support to make working with H.265 files easier. On balance, H.265 footage looked richer and more colorful than H.264 footage, but even the older codec showed considerable improvement over footage from the Mavic Pro or P4. The bit rate on the P4 Pro is higher, which unquestionably helps.
DJI’s drones have always been at the forefront of intelligent flying and the P4 Pro is unquestionably the easiest to fly of all the Phantom models. ActiveTrack can reliably lock hold of a subject (a person, in our case) and keep them in frame even if they’re moving fairly rapidly and unpredictably. We didn’t fly the P4 Pro through very tight spaces, but it passed through trees that were about 8 feet apart with no difficulty. Patiño tells that, like the P4, the camera stays remarkably steady even during fast flight—and the P4 Pro is very fast, hitting 45MPH in sport mode.
The pace of DJI’s drone launches is so frenetic, you could be forgiven for waiting out the P4 Pro to see what a P5 will bring. But if you spring for the P4 Pro, you’re getting the best image quality from the Phantom series combined with the easiest, most intuitive and arguably safest flying experience from the line yet. That’s hard to pass up.
PROS: Improved camera and lens; better low-light performance; object avoidance and autonomous flight modes more nimble.
CONS: Fixed landing gear; non-removable battery in remote.