Our first love at Insider Perks has always been filming great video. For the last six years we have traveled around the United States filming museums, restaurants, hotels, campgrounds and so much more. It is a quest that continues to this day, a seemingly endless quest to share the world with you. What began back in 2009 has been a constantly evolving machine, a journey that has changed so many of our perspectives and so many of our opinions.
It is only fitting then, that our first review on our new website focuses on one of those evolutions. In the world of video things are constantly changing. New technologies are constantly being introduced and what once was a race to become the smallest has turned into a race to become the most advanced. New form factors, higher resolution recording options, lenses that allow more light into the camera and a host of automated tech that claims to allow anyone to be a great filmmaker.
Those in the business know that it takes more than digital toys to make you a filmmaker, more than an editing suite on an iPhone to get you noticed. To us, technology is a stepping stone that leads toward the perfect shot. A new angle that few have dared to shoot, a risk that others refuse to take, a position that will push our bodies to the limit.
Naturally then, we had to be the first in line to buy a drone. Only, we never made it there for a variety of reasons. As we watched the aerial drone industry evolve, we sat patiently on the sidelines waiting for an aircraft that was advanced enough to justify spending our money. Drones were either too hard to fly, didn’t have a good enough camera or shot footage that shook like an earthquake when you tried to edit with it. Until now.
We believed that the DJI Phantom 3 was the drone that would overcome the downsides that plagued other models. It boasted the ability to fly indoors without a GPS signal, a gimbal that allowed for completely smooth filming from the sky and an ease of use that gave us confidence we wouldn’t crash it right after take-off. We need to see it in person though, before we committed to such a large purchase. Not because we doubted it, but because we needed to see the size of it since we travel in a Jeep Wrangler all year long.
After unboxing one at an Apple Store on our travels, we took it home the same day. The DJI Phantom 3 has roughly four major pieces you need to be concerned with before you set out to fly. First is the drone itself which comes fully assembled with the battery already inserted. The second largest piece is the remote control which is about the size used to operate one of the more expensive radio controlled cars that hobbyists will purchase. Also included in the box are a cloth bag with eight rotors and the charger along with some accessories.
The single most important thing you need to know before flying the DJI Phantom 3 for the first time is not printed anywhere in the instructions. In a way it is common sense, but not the least bit difficult to overlook when you have no idea how to use an aerial drone. What is the most important thing you might ask? How to attach the rotors properly of course.
It seemed like common sense to us because we didn’t pay close enough attention. Four of the eight rotors that came with the DJI Phantom 3 had grey knobs in the center and the other four rotors had black knobs in the center. We incorrectly assumed that there were two sets of blades and that either all black or all grey went on at the same time. Look a little closer and there are directional arrows on each blade along with alternating angles that show you which way to twist them. If you turn in the appropriate direction, you will find that two grey colored blades and two black colored blades are required with the same colors being diagonal of each other.
Should you make the same mistake we did, your drone will instantly flip on take off and your brand new drone will have chewed up rotors and a scuffed up body. A tough lesson learned perhaps but how DJI does not include such a basic warning in their quick start manual is beyond us. There are literally no instructions at all on how to attach the rotors. Could it have been that hard to print a sentence warning that if you attach the rotors incorrectly that the drone will not fly?
Beyond that pesky annoyance, we soon had the DJI Phantom 3 in the air. Once you master which button does what, it takes five minutes to get comfortable flying. Provided you don’t want to do anything stupid with your expensive new toy, you will likely want to leave it in beginner mode out of the box. You will also want to pay special attention to the home location that automatically sets each time the drone is turned on. This home point is where the drone will return if it runs low on battery or loses connection with your remote.
GPS signals will be affected by the presence of metal buildings so be careful when flying in areas where they might cause interference. We had one instance where our drone almost returned to home in the middle of a swimming pool, offering up proof of how metal can wreak havoc if you don’t pay attention. There are also instructions on how to manually land your drone but we think you should ignore these. Instead, just gently lower the drone down until it lands and keep pressing down until the rotors shut down.
We recommend making sure that you install the latest firmware before flying for an extended period of time as well. Naturally you can update the iPhone app easily but the Phantom itself requires that you copy the firmware to a microSD card and perform a special boot that can take a few minutes. While this might seem difficult for an average user, it does seem much more user friendly than other manual firmware updates we have performed on other types of equipment. Please be aware that you will likely need to purchase an adapter that will turn the microSD card into a regular size SD card before it will fit in most computers.
The iPhone app we used to fly the drone was not hard to learn, but it does have quite a few options that will take some practice to master. Most of these are not necessary to fly the drone but will be useful later on when you need to configure the type of photos or videos you are taking as well as a host of other options. Remember that you will also need a USB cord for your device that will attach directly to the remote control and allow you to operate it effectively. I’m sure they could have done this wirelessly but the signal is probably much more reliable with an actual cord attached and it doesn’t seem to get in the way or be an annoyance.
Battery life continues to be an issue for drones but we are comfortable with the advertised 23 minute lifespan on the DJI Phantom 3 model. Realistically I would plan for about 15 minutes of actual recording time while the drone is in the air, since you will have to position it first and it will automatically return home at 15% battery level. We have already purchased two additional batteries but please be aware that this will not be an option for everyone. These batteries are quite expensive at $150 each.
Some of the other accessories we opted to purchase include the hardshell backpack, the carbon fiber version of the rotors that are billed as being slightly more durable, the battery charging hub that allows us to refuel more than one battery at a time and finally the 100 watt version of the standard charger for quicker recharging sessions. All told we spent just under $2,000 dollars for our entire setup but we felt this was acceptable to have what we consider a highly reliable system.
A couple notes on the accessories though. First of all, we really wish DJI would have stepped up to the plate and included the 100 watt charger by default. Instead there is a lower 57 watt model that comes with the DJI Phantom 3 Advanced. I find it hard to believe that manufacturing costs would have been that much higher with the wattage change and when you are paying over $1,000 dollars for a drone, you have the right to expect a powerful enough charger.
Secondly, even with that more powerful charger, the battery hub only charges one battery at a time. Yes, you can hook up four batteries to the hub at once but it will intelligently rotate the charging between batteries, fully charging one then another than another until all of them are done. It is still very convenient to walk away and not change batteries manually but it is a little misleading as we did expect that it would charge them all at the same time. Maybe we missed a description somewhere.
Overall we were satisfied with our purchase and look forward to capturing great footage. Remember that certain rules apply to those wishing to fly drones for commercial purposes so please pay attention to both local and national laws before flying one. There is no doubt that this process will become easier in the future, but for now it can be extremely cumbersome for most people as you need an exception from the FAA to fly one for business use inside the United States.
Be respectful, follow the rules and pay attention. If you can master those three things then you are well on your way to capturing great footage.
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