Video / Hands-on Review

DJI Spark: The Best Mini Drone on the Market

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Years from now, it's likely we'll look back at the DJI Spark and remember it as the quadcopter that signaled a fundamental change in the way we think about camera drones. Like some of consumer tech’s other landmark devices—the MP3 player, the smartphone, the tablet—Spark represents a level of performance and capability previously unheard of in a device so compact. And while it’s true that Spark isn’t the first pocket-sized camera drone to hit the market, it’s also true that never has a drone this small been able to do this much and do it this well. I had the chance to try Spark for a few weeks and, somewhere in between my first takeoff and the last, I realized I was dealing with the best mini-drone I’d ever flown. To understand why, read on.

Its Compactness Cannot Be Overstated

The first thing you notice about Spark is its design. Easily DJI’s smallest drone to date, Spark is roughly half the size and weight of the already sleek-and-slim Mavic Pro. This miniaturized form factor makes portability a total non-issue, as you can toss Spark into your backpack or purse and be on your way. The convenience of this cannot be overstated. For those of us living in New York, or who travel primarily by mass transit, lugging your drone to and fro is rarely a pain-free exercise, and often involves more shouldering and “excuse mes” than I’m spiritually comfortable with. But I could drop Spark into my commuter bag and comfortably be on my way—no muss, no fuss, no “look out, I’m carrying a $500 flying robot here.”

Despite that welcomed convenience, what really makes Spark’s smaller stature so shocking is when you learn what it’s hiding beneath the hood.

Let's start with the camera: Spark features a two-axis gimbal-stabilized shooter that’s backed by a 1.2/3" CMOS sensor. This setup allows you to capture up to 12MP still photos and record 1080p video. Now, the naysayers will point out that some of Spark’s alleged “peers” offer higher camera resolutions. This is true. Currently, there are mini drones available that offer higher video and still-photo resolution. However, what those good-on-paper specs don’t tell you is that those higher resolutions are completely offset by Spark's superior 2-axis gimbal, which delivers stabilized footage no other pocket drone can match.

DJI Spark Quadcopter

The camera setup isn’t the only thing to be excited about, either. Spark also features several advanced sensors you’d expect to see in drones twice its size, including built-in GPS/GLONASS, dual-band Wi-Fi, and a state-of-the-art Vision Processing Unit, known as the Myriad 2.

The VPU is particularly noteworthy, because it comes from the Movidius team at Intel®, who are industry leaders in embedded artificial intelligence and deep-learning technology, and the brains behind some of Spark’s most advanced capabilities, including object detection, 3D mapping, and contextual awareness.

Now, if all of this sounds like a bunch of market-y mumbo jumbo, just know that the result is a series of incredible features and modes I’ll discuss in detail, down below.

Obey My Commands

There are three methods for controlling Spark: with a remote, using the DJI GO 4 app, or through advanced gesture controls. Of the three, the advanced gesture controls have generated the most buzz, because they allow you to operate Spark simply by moving your hands. With a few simple gestures, you can tell Spark where to fly, make it shoot selfies, even lift off from the palm of your hand.

Now, as cool and novel as advanced gesture controls were, I personally favored using the DJI GO 4 app to control Spark. Setup and pairing of the app was easy—I downloaded it and was in the air in less than five minutes. Menus and controls were intuitive and precise, and through the app you could adjust settings on the fly, including camera modes, gimbal position, flight pattern, and more.

Plus, the response of Spark through the app was really something to behold. For a pocket drone, Spark flat-out moves (faster than 31 mph in Sport mode). At those kinds of speeds, you need quick hands, quick reflexes, and a connection and response time that keeps up. Using the DJI GO 4 app, I could maneuver tight spaces indoors and out, zip through tunnels and narrow passageways, and even buzz through the hallways in our office (please don't mention this to my boss).

Modes, Modes, Modes

Beyond control and maneuverability, what really impressed me about Spark was its many video and flight modes. ActiveTrack, for example, is one of the features that relies on Movidius technology. In this mode, you instruct Spark to lock onto a person or thing, then track that target from a user-defined position: the front, behind, around in a circular pattern, or from a fixed perspective. This is a fun feature that’s great for shooting action footage; everything from sport events to dogs playing in the park.

Using that same ActiveTrack technology, Spark can also perform a “Quickshot.” In this mode, you lock Spark onto a subject, and then tell it to perform any of four pre-programmed flight patterns, or Quickshots, while filming. These patterns include a circular pattern, a helix motion, a vertical "rocket" ascension, and a slow pull fly-away, all which can deliver some great, dramatic footage.

TapFly, perhaps, was the coolest and most pilot-friendly mode of all. When enabled, you’re presented with a map of the surrounding area and you can literally just tap the screen and Spark will fly to the area you selected. It’s that easy. You can adjust the flight path en route, simply by tapping on a different location, or call Spark home with another simple button press. Along the way, you’re able to control the camera and gimbal, so as Spark flies toward its destination, you can pan around and take shots.

There are, of course, more modes and features—too many to list, in fact. But if you're like me, these are the ones you'll spend the most time with, at least early on.

Final Verdict

It’s hard to overstate how impressed I was with Spark. Flying it was a total joy, and in terms of capability, it really feels like the next step in the evolution of the camera drone. It handles wonderfully, can shoot quality footage, and is loaded with cutting-edge modes and features. Yes, it has its limitations: battery life is still not what you want (it never will be)—but at 16 minutes, you get significantly more flight time than all Spark's serious competitors. Picture quality, too, is good, but nowhere near the footage you'd see in the much larger and much more expensive Phantom-series drones or the Mavic Pro. Again, though, you're talking about pocket-sized versus professional, and when it comes to Spark's peers, there’s really no comparison.

Currently, there are two purchase options for Spark: a standard package that includes everything you need to get into the air, along with a spare set of props, and the Fly More Combo, which includes an additional flight battery (yes, please), spare accessories, and an optional remote controller. Personally, I would opt for the Fly More Combo, simply because Spark is so much fun, you're going to want as much extra battery as you can get.

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