Since being announced on January 23, 2018, the DJI Mavic Air has been all the rage in the drone community. The “Adventure Unfolds” launch event unveiled this new drone to the world and it has been flying off the shelves since. I ordered the Mavic Air shortly after the release date and have now been flying for a little over a month. This is my first drone. Since the Mavic Air seemed to fit all the criteria that I would want in a drone, I decided to take the leap. After having it in my hands – and in the air – for a few weeks now, I wanted to tell you what I think about it. What has my flying experience been like? How is the image quality? Is it worth the money? Read on to find out the answers to these questions, and more!
Simply put, the DJI Mavic Air is an amazing little drone. It hits the sweet spot of great portability, good image quality, and advanced technological features only found in much more expensive drones. It is also easy to fly, even for the first time user, and in experienced hands is capable of capturing professional quality video footage. The icing on the cake is that this thing is a blast to fly!
The Mavic Air fits right in between the entry-level DJI Spark and the more expensive Mavic Pro in the DJI line-up. Although it borrows features from each platform, it seems to be more closely related to the Mavic Pro. That makes sense, given the name. Before its announcement, there was speculation that this was going to be the long-awaited Mavic Pro 2. However, DJI found a way to squeeze a totally new drone into their impressive product line. They shuffled the cards a bit and took a gamble that consumers would find away to “need” this new drone. It worked. By the way, the Mavic Pro 2 will likely be announced in the not-to-distant future, giving drone enthusiasts an all new case of gear acquisition syndrome (GAS).
Mavic Air – By the Numbers
The DJI Mavic Air takes many of the features and characteristics of the Spark and the Mavic Pro, and improves on many of them. It falls between those two drones in terms of size, weight, battery life, range, and price. The table below shows a comparison of the three drones.
|Spark||Mavic Air||Mavic Pro|
|Folded Size (L x W x H)||NA||168 x 83 x 49 mm |
(6.6 x 3.3 x 1.9 in)
|198 x 83 x 83 mm
(7.8 x 3.3 x 3.3 in)
|Open Size||143 x 143 x 55 mm|
(5.6 x 5.6 x 2.2 in)
|168 x 184 x 64 mm|
(6.6 x 7.2 x 2.5 in)
|305 x 244 x 85 mm
12 x 9.6 x 3.3 in)
|Weight||300 g (0.66 lbs)||430 g (0.95 lbs)||734 g (1.6 lbs)|
|Top Speed (Sport Mode)||50 kph (31.1 mph)||68.4 kph (42.5 mph)||65 kph (40.4 mph)|
|Range||2 km (1.2 mi)||4 km (2.5 mi)||7 km (4.3 mi)|
|Battery Life||16 min||21 min||27 min|
As you can see, when folded, the Mavic Air is smaller even than the Spark, at least in two dimensions. (Note that the DJI Spark does not have folding arms). When unfolded, the Air is only slightly larger than the Spark, but significantly smaller than the Mavic Pro in the open position.
The Mavic Air weighs in at just 430 grams, which is just under a pound. That is less than some camera bodies and much less than some lenses. While slightly heavier than the Spark (300 grams), it is quite a bit lighter than the Mavic Pro (734 grams). All three drones exceed the 250 gram weight limit requiring them to be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
With smaller overall size comes smaller battery size. A smaller battery means less run time. At 21 minutes, the Mavic Air sits right in between the Spark's 16 minutes and Mavic Pro's 27 minutes.
The Mavic Air has a range of about 2.5 miles, which is roughly twice that of the Spark. However, the Mavic Pro can reach much further, with a range of 4.3 miles. Some would say this is where the Mavic Air falls short. Seriously, though, there is no way you can fly this tiny drone that far and maintain line-of-sight, as required by the FAA. Anywhere close to 2.5 miles is far plenty far enough for me.
Like the Spark and Mavic Pro, the Mavic Air has a Sport Mode that can be used in conjunction with the remote controller. Switching into the Sport makes the drone behave very differently. It becomes much more responsive to controller movements and zips around like a mad hornet. This thing is fast, flying at max speeds up to 42.5 mph. A word of caution, though: the obstacle avoidance system does not work when flying in Sport mode, so do so only after you become very familiar with the aircraft's controls.
More About Pricing
At the time of this article's publishing date (March 2018), the DJI Mavic Air retails for $799. That price includes the drone, a carrying case, remote controller, one battery, two sets of propellers, one set of propeller guards, a battery charger, an extra set of control sticks for the controller, and the necessary cables to connect your phone or tablet to the controller. For an additional $200, the Fly More Combo includes two extra batteries, a battery charging hub, a battery to power bank adapter, another extra set of propellers, and a travel bag. That seems like a good deal and is the kit that I chose. Extra batteries alone cost $79 each.
With the release of the Mavic Air, the Spark and Mavic Pro prices have decreased somewhat. The DJI Spark can be purchased now for $399 (without the remote controller). The Mavic Pro base kit and fly more combo can be purchased for about the same price as their Mavic Air counterparts right now. That may also be a sign that the Mavic Pro 2 release is imminent.
Let's get to the part the majority of people reading this care most about: the camera. First off, the camera uses a 1/2.3″ CMOS sensor. To put it into perspective, that is only slightly larger than the sensor in my iPhone 7 Plus (and most other smartphones, for that matter). It is significantly smaller than the 1-inch sensors used in the Phantom 4 Series. A smaller sensor size means there are fewer light-gathering photo sites, which effects image quality and low-light capabilities. Some of the other camera specs are as follows:
- Resolution – 12 megapixels
- Lens – 24 mm (35 mm equivalent) with fixed f/2.8 aperture
- Shutter speed – 8 seconds to 1/8000 of a second
- ISO range – 100 to 1600 for video; 100 to 3200 for still photos (in manual mode)
- Still photography modes – single shot; HDR; burst shooting; auto-exposure bracketing (AEB); intervalometer; panorama
- Video resolution – 4K @ 24/25/30p; 2.7K @ 24 up to 60p; HD from 24 up to 120p
- Max video bitrate – 100Mbps
- Photo format – JPEG or DNG (RAW)
- Video format – MP4 or MOV
In the limited shooting I have done in the past few weeks, I have found the camera to perform well. There are limitations, especially in low light conditions. It is best to keep the ISO at the lowest setting as much as possible. Even a modest jump up to ISO 400 will show a fair amount of noise in the image. The first image below was shot at ISO 400, about 30 minutes after sunset. The second image is a 100% crop of the first, showing the noise in the shadow areas. This is not the best use case for this camera.
While capturing still photos from a drone produces some cool images, video is where this drone really shines. It is capable of shooting in 4K at a bitrate of 100Mbps. Those were numbers found only in the higher-end (and much larger) Phantom 4 Series drones and above prior to this. The higher resolution and bitrate results is footage with much greater latitude to work with in post-production. Additionally, the Mavic Air has the ability to shoot at 1080p up to 120 frames per second, giving it the capability of producing smooth, slow-motion video. I have a lot to learn to produce high-quality, cinematic shots, but the DJI Mavic Air has the necessary tools to do it.
The DJI Mavic Air is packed full of other features that make it easier, safer, and more fun to fly. Some of these features are new to this drone segment; some are new to DJI drones. This is not an exhaustive list of all DJI Mavic Air features, but these are some of my favorites.
DJI GO 4 App
This is nothing new, other than updates to include bug fixes and new drones. This app is the control center for the Mavic Air, and it seems to work really well. With your smartphone or tablet connected to the remote controller, and the remote controller connected to the drone, you are able to control all the settings and features from within the application. Through the app, you can see what the camera is seeing, right on your smartphone or tablet. The status of the drone is displayed, including flight time, remaining battery life, height, speed, and much more.
The app is also where the camera is controlled including shutter speed, ISO, white balance, and vertical gimbal orientation. It is even possible to fly the drone using only a smartphone or tablet with this app, but I have not tried that. For me, the tactile feel of the control sticks on the controller seems more natural.
The 3-axis gimbal keeps the camera smooth and steady as the drone moves up and down, left and right, or rotates in the air. If you don't understand exactly how this works, that's OK. I don't either. Just know that it works well without really thinking about it. It's pretty amazing how smooth video footage is, even when there is lots of wind and the drone is moving around a lot.
The set of features built into the Mavic Air to help you fly it more safely are amazing. There are forward, downward, and even backward vision sensors to help you maneuver around obstacles. The Advanced Pilot Assistance System (APAS) even directs the aircraft to actively bypass objects in front of and behind it, without your input. I should mention that the APAS feature can be turned off, so make sure you have it on in the app if you want to use it. Also, obstacle avoidance doesn't work in Sport mode, so it is certainly still possible to crash.
The DJI Mavic Air has six QuickShots built in to the app: Dronie, Circle, Helix, Rocket, Boomerang, and Asteroid. QuickShots are basically preset flight patterns for the drone to follow while capturing video footage. By selecting the QuickShot mode in the app, selecting yourself on the screen, then pressing go, the aircraft will automatically follow a predetermined path. This is a great way to capture cinematic shots that would be very difficult to do manually. The last two QuickShots – Boomerang and Asteroid – are new additions to the firmware for the Mavic Air. Boomerang sends the drone in an elliptical orbit around you, slowing down at its furthest point. Asteroid sends to drone straight up, where it captures a sequence of images that are stitched into a “tiny planet”. Both of these create very cool shots and are a lot of fun to play with.
The DJI Mavic Air has four different panorama options: horizontal, vertical, 180 degree, and sphere. The horizontal and vertical options produce normal panoramic images, stitched together from 3 shots each. The 180 degree option is an ultra-wide panoramic shot. The Sphere mode is definitely the most impressive. After selecting this mode and pressing the shutter button, the drone maneuvers around while the camera captures a total of 25 images. This process takes about 8 seconds. The images are then stitched together to create a 32 megapixel spherical panorama.
This is the first DJI drone to have internal storage for video and still photos. It is only 8 GB, but it does come in handy if you happen to forget an SD card.
Removable Control Sticks
The two control sticks on the remote controller unscrew from their mounts and can be stored in small, rubberized slots inside the foldable arms of the controller. This is a nice touch, giving the controller a much lower profile that is easier to transport and prevents potential damage to the control sticks. Just be aware that they are very small and could be easily lost. That's probably why DJI includes an extra set with the drone kit.
Things I Don't Like
This is a pretty short list, but there are a few things that could use improvement on the DJI Mavic Air. Here is a list of my gripes:
- The micro SD card is difficult to insert and remove. There is a small door on the rear of the drone that contains the micro SD card slot and a USB-C connection. The card slot is recessed in the small door and is difficult to access. Micro SD cards are small and easy to lose. Fiddling with the tiny door and recessed slot increases the chances of that happening.
- A small adapter is needed to charge the remote controller. The controller charging port is a micro-USB connection. The charging cable is a USB to USB-C cable, so a USB-C to micro-USB adapter is needed to make the conversion and charge the controller. That adapter is another small part that could easily get lost. It seems there would be an easier way to make the necessary connections.
- The battery charging hub. This is by far my biggest gripe. When I purchased the Fly More combo, I got two extra batteries. It also came with a charging hub for connecting up to four batteries at once. One would think that all four batteries are charging while connected, but only one battery charges at a time. This seems to defeat the purpose of a charging hub in my opinion, since only one battery is charging at any one time anyway.
Flying the DJI Mavic Air has been a lot of fun. Once everything is charged, connected, and the firmware is updated, flying the drone is pretty simple. It does take some getting used to the controls, and I still occasionally use the wrong control stick for the move that I'm trying to make. The trickiest part for me, however, has been capturing good video shots while at the same time controlling the drone. That's going to take some more practice on my part.
Flipping the switch on the controller into Sport mode is like changing the drone from a Cessna 172 to an F-16 Viper. OK, maybe not quite that dramatic, but it does become a different drone. Not only is it fast, but it maneuvers very quickly and becomes a thrill to fly. I trust myself to only use this mode in wide open spaces thus far.
Just to reiterate, this is my very first drone, and I'm very happy with my decision. The DJI Mavic Air offers good image quality in a drone that is a ton of fun to fly. To top it off, it can easily fit into a camera bag or backpack – or even into a jacket pocket – to be taken anywhere. That's the biggest upside for me. Some of the larger drones may have a better camera, but I fear that they would be left behind more often than not because of their size. That's a no-go for me…at least for now. It will be interesting what the Mavic Pro 2 specs look like when that drone is finally released. I have a feeling that a hefty case of GAS will kick in at that point.
The DJI Mavic Air is an awesome little drone. It's ultra portable, it's fun to fly, and it packs some really good still photo and video quality in such a small package. There are a few little things that I think could be better, and I'm sure they will be on the next iteration. The question is, should you buy it? That's a tough call. Drones technology is moving along at such a rapid pace right now. Kind of like computers, as soon as you buy one, there will be something better.
Personally, if I didn't already have a drone and was seriously looking to jump into to buying one, I would wait to see what the DJI Mavic Pro 2 has to offer. There are rumors that it will sport a camera with a 1-inch sensor, which would be a huge improvement in image quality. I also suspect it will have a more robust gimbal (a complaint of many with the current model) and include – and improve upon – the features in the Mavic Air. It will certainly cost more, but it may be worth breaking open the piggy bank to cover the extra cost. Time will tell.
If you can't wait, the Mavic Air is a perfectly fine choice. I would choose it over the current version of the Mavic Pro, but that's just me. There are some who would disagree, but for roughly the same price, I think the portability and more advanced tech in the Mavic Air is worthy.