DJI Spark review: A delightful little drone weighed down by an abysmally unstable Android app

 

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Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending a few days with DJI’s latest, and smallest, drone, the Spark. The Spark is a remarkable piece of engineering. Weighing in at just 300 grams it’s diminutive and dare I say, rather adorable.  Everywhere I took it during our long weekend together people stopped to gawk at it, most with stupid grins on their faces. No one was intimidated by its small form or its bee swarm-like sounds, and everyone was astonished that such a small drone could fly so fast and stable and take such clear, sharp videos.

I have seldom had as much fun, or experienced as much stress, testing a new product. If I were to declare the nature of my relationship with the Spark on Facebook I would have to choose the final option. It’s complicated.

Key Specs

Hardware

The Spark is an amazing device. The fact that a drone of this size can be this agile, stable, and so incredibly feature packed is remarkable. It weighs in at just 300 grams, but feels incredibly solid in hand. Every part of the drone, from battery, to rotors, to the controller, exudes quality. Comparing it to any of the litany of imported hobby level drones on the market, it stands head and shoulders above the crowd. Although it may look like one, this is not a toy, it’s a serious drone.

The engineers have crammed so much into the drone’s chubby little body it’s rather mind-blowing. A 2 axis gimbal at the front cradles a 12 MP camera, capable of shooting 1080p videos at 30 frames a second. Impact prevention sensors are found at the front and bottom of the drone. The twist-to-remove rotors above maximize the space they are allotted, with just a couple of centimeters of clearance between their spinning blades. GPS and Glonass track the Spark, Wi-Fi beams live video and flight information to a connected smart phone, and the intelligent battery initiates auto return to home when it nears depletion.

The underside of the drone is dark grey, making it easy to spot in a sunny or cloudy sky. The front and rear of the drone are denoted by bright red and green LED lights that are visible even a couple hundred feet away, making it easy to tell from the from the ground which way the Spark is facing.

Nubby little silicone feet also sit at the base of the drone, providing some protection to the Spark from hard impacts with the ground and give the camera a bit of extra clearance from dirt and dust when then drone lands.

Controller

One of my biggest complaints with the Spark is that the controller is not included with the drone in the basic package. That’s a travesty bordering on false advertisement. Yes, it’s true that you can fly the Spark with just a connection to your smart phone. However, I would not recommend it, especially if you are using an Android device. Why? Well, there are a couple of reasons. First off, flying the Spark with your phone limits its performance – drastically. The top speed is reduced from 50kph to a pokey 14kph. The max range of 80m and a ceiling of 50m are both minuscule when compared to the range of 2km and top altitude of 500m when using the optional controller.

Setting all that aside, the main reason I can’t recommend this drone sans controller is that the DJI Go 4 Android app crashes often, or at least it did at the time of my testing (there have been updates since I returned the drone). Loss of live video and total disconnects were both issues I dealt with in many flights. With it’s 2.7 star rating on the app store, I don’t think I’m the only one having issues. When you have the drone paired with the controller, if the app crashes you still maintain a connection, you just lose live video and tracking. If your only connection to the drone is a smartphone, when the app crashes, you lose your connection entirely. Scary. Now, the drone is programmed to stop, and return to home if the connection in interrupted, and it always reconnected quickly after relaunching the app, but it’s still terrifying to drop your connection with a $ 500 device flying through the air.

Rant over, let’s talk about that $ 150 ‘optional controller’. The controller is made out of high quality plastics and feels very solid in hand. The antennas and phone holder both fold into the body of the controller making it compact and travel friendly. The control sticks are metal and have great tactile feel and grip thanks to some raised wedge shaped nubs. The device has no screen, unlike the one that comes with the Mavic, so you’ll need to wireless pair it with your phone to adjust most of the setting and to see in-flight data and video.

There are dedicated buttons on the controller for photo and video capture as well as an emergency pause button, and a return to home button. Most importantly, there’s a flight mode switch. That switch takes the drone out of standard mode and into Sport mode allowing the user fly it at its maximum speed of 31mph (50 kph). The boost in speed and maneuverability is exhilarating, but it comes at a cost. The forward collision sensor can’t sense obstacles when flying that fast, so it’s disabled, which makes the drone more of a danger to itself and other objects (or people).

The downward facing sensor still works though, and it should help you avoid crashing into the ground. The dramatic changes in pitch and angle are also too much for the gimbal to keep up with, so video quality in Sport mode is not great unless you are flying perfectly straight. That’s ok, you probably will be too distracted by the fun you are having doing high speed fly overs to remember to take many video anyways. Just be sure you have plenty of room to maneuver when you engage sport mode, because this little guy can scoot.

The phone holder at the bottom of the controller was just wide enough to hold the S8+ I used for testing. It’ll hold just about any phone, but it’s not big enough to hold a tablet. Battery life on the controller is advertised at 2.5 hours, which sounds about right as I only had to charge it twice while logging five hours of flight time with the Spark. The amplified WiFi transmission system is powerful enough to maintain control and a 720p video connection at distances up to 1.2 mi (2 km), far enough away that you may lose sight of the spark entirely (that’s kind of unsettling). While the app crashed plenty of times, but I never lost connection with the controller. It’s well worth the $ 150, and you absolutely should not buy the Spark without it.

Battery Life

Besides the lousy app stability, the biggest disappointment for me is the short battery life. I know, it’s a little drone doing a lot, and I can’t expect miracles in terms of longevity, but 10-12 minutes of flight time per battery is just not enough. That time flies by (pun very much intended) and it feels like you’ve barely started exploring with the Spark when the low battery indicator goes off. Even with two additional batteries, I spent more time driving back and forth to the destinations where I tested the drone than I did actually flying the Spark.

Additionally, the battery gets very hot when it is in use. Hot enough that it’s uncomfortable to touch. That’s concerning to me because high heat tends to affect a batteries longevity. The 10-12 minutes from a new battery could possibly drop even lower after a battery has been through a few dozen power cycles.

Application

The DJI Go 4 application is well laid out, beautiful, and incredibly feature rich. It also has more stability problems than a game of Jenga at a preschool, but we’ll set that complaint aside for now and discuss what it does well. It serves three main functions. First, it provides in-flight controls, live videos, and access to settings while it is connected to the drone. Second, it organizes all your captured images and videos and also lets you edit videos on the fly. The third component is a DJI social media sharing thing called Skypixel for photo and video sharing which I didn’t really play with at all.

When the Spark is connected directly to an Android device, sans controller, on screen joysticks appear in the middle of the live video feed. A capture button on the right can be set to photo or video, and in-flight information like height, distance, velocity, battery life, connections, and heading on a map are all visible and easy to read at all times. Annoyingly, adjusting the gimbal’s pitch has to be done in a separate menu, which makes certain kinds of shots impossible.

Flying the drone with virtual joysticks is better than I thought it would be, but still not great. As discussed previously, the speed, distance, and altitude are all limited when flying the drone with only a smartphone connection. That’s probably for the best, as I never felt half as confident with my flying skills when using the virtual thumb-sticks as I did when flying the Spark with a controller.

As Android users, I don’t need to harp on the difference between using virtual and real controls. I imagine most of you have tried an FPS on your phone with virtual thumbs, and likely learned that it’s nowhere close to playing with a real game controller. It’s nice to have it as a backup in the instance that your controller battery dies while you are out flying the Spark, but I would not recommend it as the primary means of control.

I, stupidly, forgot to take a screenshot with the virtual thumb-sticks, so just imagine them.

In addition to flight controls, there are a number of other functions in the flight portion of the DJI app. A single button press can signal the device to return to its point of origin, or land immediately in its current location. A tap will also take you to the flight mode screen, where you can change shooting/flight modes. I’ll discuss more later.

The album/media editor portion of the DJI app is clean and well laid out. Low-res preview files of all the drone’s photos and videos are automatically downloaded to the connected device as they are taken and full-res copies can also be added when connected to the drone. You can view the videos and images you’ve captured by date, or organize them into albums. Icons at the bottom of each thumbnail indicate the shooting mode used to capture the media and the length of the video file. It’s really everything I could ask for in a gallery.

The video editing portion of the app is also a great idea, on paper. You can create your own films by manually selecting and editing your shots and adding pre-loaded music available in the app with a rather basic, but decent video editor. You can also let the app auto-edit selected clips into a video that uses algorithms to recognize highlights from your videos and combines them into a short movie.

  

I wanted to edit all the videos I captured in the app for this article so I could review that portion of the app fully. However, nearly every attempt I made to edit a video ended with the app crashing, or portions of the video files becoming corrupted while creating the finished product. I eventually gave up and did the video editing on my computer instead, which is a shame.

The app is the single most frustrating issue the Spark has. It’s a really great application, very useful, and feature rich, but the stability issues both while flying and editing are infuriating. Perhaps those problems have been fixed in the weeks since I had the Spark on loan, or will be resolved in the future, but they should have been taken care of before the product ever shipped. This is embarrassing DJI, get your crap together on the software front.

Photos and video

The Spark is outfitted with a 2-axis gimbal and 12mp camera capable of capturing video at 1080p at 30fps. Compared to the Mavic’s 4K capabilities and and 3-axis gimbal that doesn’t sound all that impressive, but don’t let the number fool you. The camera on the Spark is no slouch, particularly when it comes to capturing video. Image quality is great, it’s the gimbal that’s slightly disappointing.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the gimbal does a great job of maintaining a steady shot when the drone is shooting in standard flight mode. With only 2-axis control, its impossible to adjust the camera’s pitch smoothly while making other adjustments. This causes certain complex shots to be impossible. The gimbal also has a more limited tilt range of -85 degrees to 0 degrees, compared to the -90 degrees to +30 degrees on the one mounted on the Mavic. You can’t quite look straight down, and you can’t angle up past the horizon. Without that third axis the gimbal also has no ability to rotate left and right, so any rotation you do must be done by maneuvering the drone itself, which is less fluid than moving just the camera.

With those limitations understood, the camera can still capture pretty decent photos and stunning video. Let’s take a look at some of the pictures I took with the spark first.

Those are some pretty good looking pictures. An HDR mode could help a couple of the shots, and they lose some sharpness at the edges, but for images captured by a drone hovering in the air, they look great. If you are wondering what happened to my shoes in the second to last shot, I included that to show you what happens when you are concentrating more on your drone in the air than on where you are walking. They call wetlands wet for a reason. Man, and those were my nice shoes.

The camera has a couple of cool tricks up its sleeve beyond just basic image capturing. It can also take images in bursts and intervals, which both work just as you’d expect. They could be really fun tools for creating a time lapse flight video, but I didn’t test them all that much as they are both shooting modes found on almost any camera.

The shallow focus mode captures a series of images taken from one vantage point at variable depths, allowing the user to select the object of focus and create a bokeh affect in the application later. I moslty forgot about this mode and only used it a couple of times, and neither shot had enough objects at different depths to demonstrate the effect well, so I’ll refrain from giving any opinion on its effectiveness.

The last image mode is panorama. There are two different types of panoramas the camera can capture, one that stitches three images together vertically into a tall, portrait shot, and another that takes nine images in a three by three grid then stitches them all together, kinda like the expanded panoramas in the Google camera app. The second mode is very impressive, creating much more expansive images than those that could be captured in a single shot. Stitching is also excellent as long as there isn’t too much movement in the objects being captured. Take a look at this series of images to see the difference for yourself.

Note: This set of images are not at their full resolutions

Photography is solid on the Spark, but video is where the drone really shines. No, it can’t capture 4k video like its more expensive brothers, but it still is able to take beautiful video at 1080p. Here’s a sample for some of my favorite shots that I stitched together. I haven’t modified the videos in any way, other than some slight tweaks to the fps in a couple of the shots. You can judge for yourself how well it performs.

Not bad, eh? Great detail, beautiful color, punchy contrast. I love it. These shots were all taken in an area with direct sunlight and without a lot of shadows. Take a look at how video holds up in a more challenging environment, the forest, with lots of mixed colors and lighting.

That’s still very good. There were a couple times in the forest that the white balance went a bit too cool, and it does struggle a touch in areas with heavily contrasting light and shadow, but overall, I am very pleased with the video capture of the Spark.

Intelligent flight and video capture modes

One of the many things that sets the DJI line of drone’s apart from competitors is their impressive list of intelligent flight and video capture modes. I’ve tested the bulk of these features and here are my thoughts.

Gesture mode

If you’ve seen any of DJI’s promotional materials, you know that gesture mode is one of the principle selling points for the Spark. Admittedly, it was one of the features I was most excited to try. I sounded like a lot of fun to be able to command the drone to perform certain basic tasks, like following me, or capturing a picture, all by just waving my arms around like a Jedi. With gestures you can make the Spark follow your palm, track your movements, fly a short distance away from you, and capture a selfie.

Frankly, after a very frustrating afternoon experimenting with gesture mode, I found it to be hardly more than a gimmick. After carefully reading the rather complicated instructions, I was able to get the drone to take off from my palm and got all the gestures to work at least once. However, it took multiple tries and two full battery cycles for me to able to get all five gestures to work. It seems that for every command the drone recognizes it fails to recognize two-three others.

Ain’t nobody impressed with gesture mode. Not me, not my kid, not my Grandpa. 

The appeal of gesture control is that you can launch the drone quickly without having to fiddle with connecting to a smartphone or controller. That appeal is killed by the difficulty of getting the Spark to recognize commands. Even if it recognized all the commands perfectly, there’s just not a whole lot you can command the Spark to do with gestures. It’s also kinda disconcerting to not have any way of calling the drone back to Earth, except by using a gesture, which might not be recognized. Unless you are really into selfies that you can’t preview, you will probably try gestures once, and never use them again, like I did.

Quickshot Mode

Quickshot mode is a pretty sweet way for a person, with no video editing or drone piloting skills, to make a dramatic video in just a couple of minutes. There are four different quick shot modes, here’s a screen shot from the DJI Spark page to give you a quick idea of how they work.

Essentially, you pick your shot on the app, select your subject by drawing a box around the person, or object of interest, and hit start. The Spark flies away, performs its maneuvers, then returns. After a couple of minutes of processing on your smartphone, you get a custom made video clip complete with music (you can pick from several different clips), and some speed effects that you can immediately share or download. Here’s an example:

It’s pretty slick, and a great way for a novice user to make some sweet videos to share on social media. It’s also a great way to crash or lose your drone. Yup, you read that right. The front impact sensors are turned off in Quickshot Mode, not that they would do much good as the drone flies upwards or backwards for all these shots. Be warned, you need A LOT of open space if you don’t want to worry about colliding with trees, or power lines, giraffes, or other tall obstacles. Living in heavily wooded western Washington, I had a heck of a time trying to find open areas large enough to test the shooting mode.

Even being careful, I still managed to crash the drone twice while taking Quickshots. The first time it was due to a slight dip in altitude (thanks wind) that sent it careening into a large bush’s branch that the drone looked like it was going to clear. The second time I saw it coming hundreds of feet before the collision occurred, but the app crashed and I couldn’t cancel the flight (in retrospect, I could have hit the return to home button on the controller, but I was too busy trying to relaunch the app to remember that).

It hit a tree about 60 feet in the air, and hundreds of feet away for me, and tumbled to the ground in a mass of blackberry bushes and dense brush. After a tense 30 minute battle with the brambles I retrieved it, but my legs (and emotions) are still scarred from that experience. The effects are really cool, just be sure to use Quickshot mode in an area without ANY obstacles within a couple hundred yards of the flight path.

On a side note, the Spark is a tough little drone, and besides having to replace a couple damaged rotors, survived the couple crashes I had just fine. Being able to pinpoint the drones location on a map is also very helpful.

Activetrack

This is perhaps my favorite smart shooting mode on the Spark. Enable active track, outline a subject, and off it goes, following whatever you’ve highlighted. As long as there was enough distance, the drone did a great job keeping track of the subject. Sudden direction changes, or turning around only fooled the Spark a couple of times. I didn’t get to try tracking a bicycle, or, car, but I tested it on myself and my son several times. Take a look for yourself:

Easy. Fun. Accurate. I like this shooting mode. The only times I had issues with it was when I tried testing it on some forest trails. There were too many trees and branches and the Spark would freak out every few feet as it saw an impending collision ahead. That’s ok, no biggie. It works well in the open, and that’s really the only place I should have tested the Activetrack mode anyways.

Conclusion

Time for the big question. If you are in the market for a compact drone, is the DJI Spark one you should consider buying? If the app worked as it should, my answer would be a resounding yes. However, with all its issues, my answer is a more hesitant maybe, and even that maybe comes with an asterisks. There is no other drone that I know of that is this small and feature rich. It is a delight to fly, takes gorgeous photos and videos, and is easy to carry in a backpack or even a large purse thanks to the protective foam case.

Now, the asterisks. The only way I can recommend the drone is with one, non-negotiable, stipulation. You absolutely should not buy the base package that includes just the drone and a single battery. The controller ($ 150) and at least one, but preferably two, spare batteries ($ 50), and the battery charging hub ($ 69) are not optional accessories, they are really mandatory.

Without the controller, the drone is significantly limited in its flight abilities, and relies solely on a very unstable app for flight controls. Without spare batteries you’ll only have 10-12 minutes of flight time which, trust me, is probably not enough, even for the most casual user. The Fly More kit includes the controller, charging hub, and one spare battery, along with a couple more spare blades and propeller guards. It’s $ 200 more than the base package, raising the price to $ 699, or $ 749 if you add on a third battery. You should also heavily consider insuring the drone.

Without that package, the drone is little more than a novelty, or a toy. Sure, the drone will be fun for a couple days, but you’ll likely soon be frustrated by the Spark’s limited range, short battery life, and slow speeds. Even if those are limitations you could live with, with the stability issues of the Android app, you really need the stable connection to the controller to have peace of mind while piloting the Spark.

I am very conflicted with this conclusion. I don’t really want to reward DJI with even a tepid recommendation due to the terrible problems they have with their Android software. On the other hand, flying the Spark was a total blast, and I was very sad to send it back. If DJI can get their software sorted out then I can give my full endorsement, until then, buy one if you’d like, but do so knowing that you will encounter some frustrations along with the fun.

If you are intrigued enough to consider buying one, check out the Spark at DJI, or, for a better price, Amazon. Just don’t forget to pick one of the packages that includes a controller and a spare battery or two.

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