This is the smallest 4k drone we have ever flown. Buy it if you need a tiny but capable drone. Don't buy it if you're looking for a low light monster.
The Mavic Air is the follow up to the wildly popular Mavic Pro — a drone that I claimed was the best I have ever flown. The Pro is still being sold however, so the Air can be considered a sibling rather than a complete replacement. It’s also $200 cheaper than it’s Pro sibling.
Join me as I see what this drone is made of!
It’s HOW small?!
The Air is astonishingly tiny. Just like the Pro, all its support arms fold out, providing a strong and stable chassis in a small and compact body.
Measuring 168×83×49 mm when folded, and 168×184×64 mm when unfolded, the Air easily fits into bags such as the Peak Design Everyday Sling, and even some coat pockets. One of the biggest limitations of drones used to be their size. This little machine makes even the Mavic Pro look huge!
The included controller is nearly bigger than the drone itself, and is the same design we’ve seen on the Spark and Pro. There’s no screen on this, however. While the fact that you get a controller is wonderful, it would be nice to see the premium controller that’s included with the Pro — although the Pro does cost $200 more than the $800 price point of the Air.
This controller also houses some different features to the Pro. The Air uses Enhanced WiFi, whereas the Pro uses a technology called Occusync. In real terms, this means you can expect to get about 1.5 miles out of the Air, compared to the 4.5 mile range of the Pro.
Inside the box you’ll find a carry case, charging cable, battery and charger. This battery is also diminutive, but this size comes at a cost. DJI claim the Air battery will last up to 21 minutes, but realistically you can expect about 16 minutes of flight time.
Finally, the Air sports a camera with a 3-axis stabilised gimbal. This can shoot at 4k (UHD) at 30 frames per second (FPS), or 1080p at up to 120FPS. The built in 8GB memory is not large enough to record a full flight in 4k, though. You’ll need to purchase a larger microSD card, or just be selective about pressing the capture button.
Flying the Air is a surprisingly familiar experience. Just like the Pro and the Spark (with optional controller), you’ll need to install the DJI Go app (iOS/Android), and mount your device into the cradle below the controller. It’s possible to fly the Air with just your phone alone, but I don’t recommend this. Not only is it more difficult, but connecting to the controller also charges your device!
One very cool controller feature is the flight sticks. These unscrew, and mount neatly into the base of the controller. This may seem insignificant, but this feature alone prevents the sticks from breaking in transit, and further reduces the footprint of the controller.
Once you’ve installed the app, updated your drone and registered if necessary, you can go fly! You’ll need to preform what I call the “drone dance”. A simply calibration routine that consists of rotating the drone a few times. Every drone requires this, and a it’s a simple enough process.
Once calibrated, you can either press a button and have the Air handle lift-off for you, or you can take off yourself by pointing both sticks to the bottom corners.
Upon flying, you’ll probably be greeted with a series of beeps from the controller. This is the obstacle avoidance. The Air is equipped with forward and rear facing sensors, and these work much like parking assist in a modern car. The camera feed on your mobile phone shows green, yellow, or red lines, showing the proximity of nearby obstacles. Like the other drones in the DJI range, this works very well, but can be a bit annoying if you’re looking to achieve a complex shot. It’s easily disabled, however.
While the vast majority of the settings are set with the app, the controller does have a few buttons. There are buttons to start/stop recording, take a photo, and adjust the gimbal. On the front there’s a function button, which you can assign to anything you like, along with a return to home button. Right in the middle is a dedicated sport mode switch. Sport mode transforms the drone from a rather lethargic bee to an angry hornet.
Top speed is increased to a maximum of 42.5 mph, which is insane, quite frankly. You’ll want to ensure you’ve had sufficient practice and are in a wide open space before you try this out.
Image quality is surprisingly good. 4k video looks stunning, as does 1080p and photos. You’ll probably want to shoot in manual mode however. Like many cameras, shooting into bright light does mean the camera will underexpose any shadows, for example.
The Air has a bitrate of 100 mbps. This solves many issues that the Pro struggles with, dues to its 40 mbps bitrate. Often the Pro would lose detail in busy or fast moving scenes, and I’m pleased to report that this is no longer the case with the Air.
If you’re not too sure on your bitrates, then check out our guide to bitrates article!
While this increased bitrate really helps with the video quality, you’ll need very fast microSD cards to utilise it.
As expected, the 4k footage is breathtaking, and 1080p footage is pretty good as well! Slow motion 60FPS in 1080p is ok, but 120FPS is pretty terrible. All the quality goes, and the footage becomes soft and generally much lower quality. The Air clearly struggles with slow motion, just like the Pro does.
If you’re going for that cinematic look, you’ll definitely want to pick up a set of drone filters, which will really help you to reduce your shutter speed in bright daylight.
Low light video, however, is a different story. Anything above 200 ISO is asking for trouble, and even high triple digit settings such as ISO 800 are incredibly noisy. Clearly, dusk flights are not its strong suit. Again, many of these drawbacks are similar to those of the Pro. While digital noise is a little finer on the Air, it’s still there, and really starts to degrade the image quality.
Should You Buy the Mavic Air?
It’s no secret that here at MakeUseOf we’re big fans of drones. Last year alone we reviewed the DJI Spark, Yuneec Breeze, GoPro Karma, and the DJI Phantom 4. Be sure to check those reviews out before making a final decision.
If you’re looking for a tiny drone, that also happens to shoot some incredible 4k video as well, then you won’t be disappointed with the Mavic Air. From its tiny size, to the camera, this is one epic little drone.
If you can afford the extra money however, and space isn’t an issue, you should probably buy the Mavic Pro. Just $200 more gets you much further range, a quieter drone, a better controller, and many more features.
Sure, the Air does a lot of things better than the Pro, but considering DJI are continuing to produce the Pro says a lot about their market and products.