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GoPro’s first drone now flying steady
What is the GoPro Karma?
GoPro’s first foray into the world of drones, the Karma was famously originally launched back in November 2016, but was recalled due to battery issues that were causing ‘copters to drop out of the sky. The problem now fixed, GoPro has relaunched its drone.
It’s available to buy in its constituent elements or as a complete package for about £1,200. The complete Karma setup consists of the drone itself, a rechargeable battery, a charger, a remote control with a 5in 720p touchscreen, a Karma Grip gimbal mount, a GoPro Hero 5 Black camera, and the Karma Case, a sturdy padded backpack that carries the lot. We’ve already written separate reviews of the Karma Grip and Hero 5 Black, so we won’t spend too much time discussing their individual merits here.
But with rivals like DJI running (or rather flying) rampant in the market, has the Karma got what it takes to soar onto would-be aerial videographers shopping lists?
GoPro Karma – Design
The Karma Drone itself, constructed from tough plastic and weighing 1.06kg, is larger than rivals like the DJI Phantom 4 and Mavic Pro, even with its four propeller arms folded in. A lot of that is due to its low profile design: GoPro has put the gimbal and camera mount on the nose of the aircraft rather than slung it underneath, and as a consequence it’s very slim with its arms and landing gear folded.
That choice was made for two reasons: first, it helps keep the propellers out of shot when you’re shooting footage (they do creep into frame at times, but not as often as they would on, say, a Phantom 4) and second, it allows the Karma Case backpack to be similarly slim, making it easy to carry and store.
The unassuming, elegant backpack (as they say, black never goes out of fashion) has space for the Karma Drone, Karma Grip, controller, charger and some extra propellers, and is lined with foam on the lid to keep everything inside in place and well protected. It’s durable, comfortable to wear, lightweight and even features a GoPro universal mount on one of the shoulder straps; attach the Karma Grip and you’ve got yourself a stabilised body cam.
As for the other items, they’re similarly well-made. The controller opens like a clamshell to reveal a clear, sharp capacitive touchscreen and classic twin-stick setup, and it’s mainly built from a sturdy matte plastic that’s easy to grip. It also features a wheel (located for your left forefinger) to control the pitch of the camera, and buttons (located for your right forefinger) for the camera shutter and the shooting mode.
The rubber-effect Karma Grip sits similarly comfortably in your hand, with its simple controls well situated for your thumb, while unlocking and transferring the gimbal and camera across from the drone requires only a couple of twists and a few seconds.
Lastly, there’s the GoPro Hero 5 Black camera. It’s waterproof, of course – but the drone isn’t and shouldn’t be flown in rain, sleet or snow. You can also use older Hero 4 Black or Silver cameras with the Karma drone or Grip, but that’ll require investing in an optional harness for the gimbal (around £35).
All in all, it’s a well-designed, well-built collection of gear that fits into a compact, lightweight bag. It’s not as compact and lightweight as, say, the water bottle-sized DJI Mavic Pro, of course – and as we’ll see, it’s not as capable a flier, either.
GoPro Karma – Features
DJI drones come with downward- and forward-facing sensors to help them fly steadily indoors and avoid flying into obstacles, as well as DJI’s radio-based long-range communication system. The Karma Drone feels very under-equipped in comparison: a reliance on GPS for stable flight means it requires full manual control to fly indoors (I certainly wouldn’t recommend it, except inside a huge hall or hangar), and there’s no form of collision detection at all.
The Karma does feature automatic take-off and landing – just tap an icon on the touchscreen for lift-off/touchdown – and a return-to-home function that kicks in when the battery is low or the drone moves out of control range. The latter happens fairly often, because the reliance on Wi-Fi for control means that the flight range is far shorter than with DJI’s RC-controlled quadcopters.
The Mavic Pro, for instance, can be flown well over a mile from your position (DJI cites 4.3 miles as the maximum range), but the Karma usually hits its limits at around 500ft. I did once manage to fly it to about 900ft away in a wide open space with few trees or buildings, but generally it needs to stay very close to the pilot.
While in flight, the Drone transmits a live video feed to the controller’s screen, giving the pilot a “cockpit” view. At short range, the image quality of this feed is sharp and punchy, but it degrades rapidly the further away you fly. Again, it feels a step behind DJI’s transmission system.
Surprisingly, the Karma Drone lacks any kind of “follow me” mode. A lot of drones are able to engage a sort of autopilot that’ll track and film the user automatically from the air, but there’s nothing like that here – a disappointment given how useful such a feature would be for the sort of extreme sportsperson that makes up GoPro’s core market. Even a less expensive model like the DJI Spark includes such a mode.
Related: Best GoPro accessories
What it does have are four Auto Shot modes, which allow it to be set to fly automatically along a set of routes (circular, in a straight line etc.), leaving the pilot free to concentrate on the camerawork. These can be useful, but they’re really the base line of what should be expected of a drone in this price range.
Another area where it falls short of its DJI-made contemporaries is battery life. While the Karma Grip and controller have decent stamina, the drone can’t even manage the 20 minutes GoPro claims, usually requiring a return-to-home around the 17 to 18 minute mark. Fully charging the battery takes around an hour. The Mavic Pro can stay airborne for 25 minutes plus, and the battery charges slightly faster, too. Once again, it feels as though the Karma is playing catch-up.
GoPro Karma – Performance
The Karma Drone is simple and easy to fly, even if you’re new to quadcopters. The automatic take-off and landing help, as does the GPS-derived auto stabilisation, but even if you rely solely on the twin thumb sticks, the drone’s responsiveness and zip – particularly when you engage its 35mph sport mode – feel just right. As tech toys go, things don’t get much more enjoyable to use than a drone, and GoPro has succeeded in getting the basics right here.
GoPro Karma test footage
Having flown it in coastal winds, I can also attest that it’s impressively stable. It’s still susceptible to some buffeting in strong blustery conditions, but that’s to be expected with any lightweight quadcopter – these things have their physical limits.
The gimbal succeeds in keeping the camera level during flight, and combined with the pitch-wheel allows for smooth, steady pans and reveal shots – just what you’d want from a flying video camera. Neither can we complain about the quality of the Hero 5 Black’s image quality: whether it’s the 12MP stills (which can be output as JPG or RAW), the pin-sharp 4K 30fps clips, smoother 60fps Full HD material or that super slow motion 120fps or 240fps footage, it all looks as good as anything from similarly-priced rivals.
GoPro Karma test footage 2
The fact that you can unclip this camera (which costs about £400 if purchased separately) and use it in dozens of other ways is also worth remembering, as it’s a skill you won’t find on many rivals, as is the fact that the £279 Karma Grip makes for a respectable handheld gimbal, too.
Here are a few example still images:
Should I buy the GoPro Karma?
As a complete package, the Karma has definite appeal – particularly for anyone who’s already invested in the GoPro system. Every constituent part of the Karma system works together right out of the box (or bag), and the Drone itself is a joy to fly.
However, when compared to its similarly-priced contemporaries like the DJI Phantom 4 or Mavic Pro, GoPro’s effort comes off as underpowered and under-equipped. With longer battery life, longer range, more safety features and built-in follow modes, it’s clear that DJI’s drones are a long way ahead of GoPro on the technology front.
So while the Karma is a solid first effort, GoPro has some big improvements to make if it wants to receive an unabashed recommendation from us. Right now, a DJI drone is a better bet for most people.
Related: Best action cameras
A fun flier that delivers great footage, but technical limitations take the shine off the GoPro Karma
Control this drone with the force
What is the DJI Spark?
Drones are still considered by many a rather niche and specialist piece of technology. The thought of flying an expensive gadget that, it can often seem, is only used to create fancy shots for TV shows and movies. With its Spark, DJI is “democratising the market and simplifying complex technology”.
That marketing fluff translates to a load of added intelligence to make flying a much less daunting process for those new to advanced drones and also to make capturing photos and video much simpler. Altogether this makes the DJI Spark a seriously smart drone and incredibly fun to fly, even if some of the gestures can be hit and miss.
The DJI Spark is available standalone for £519/$499 or as part of a Fly More Combo pack that includes the optional remote control and other accessories for £699/$699, making the Spark a more expensive prospect in the UK.
DJI Spark – Design
While the Spark won’t fit in your pocket like the AirSelfie, it is DJI’s smallest drone – stealing the crown from the Mavic Pro – and its main body does indeed fit in the palm of your hand. This is important as the Spark can happily quick launch from your palm, making take-off much easier.
Having said that, as the arms don’t fold down like with the Mavic Pro, the Spark is about the same size as its bigger cousin when folded down.
The Spark is incredibly light, though, at about half the weight of the Mavic Pro. It’s so light I kept thinking I’d forgotten to pack it inside its case because you can barely feel the weight of it. You can happily throw it into a backpack ready for your next shot and not feel over-encumbered.
The Spark is available in a choice of colours including red, green, blue, yellow and white options. The colourful options add a bit of personality and fun. It’s solidly built, made from tough plastic that dealt with some rather rough “landings” during my testing period.
The camera and gimbal on the front are exposed and, unlike with the Mavic Pro, a clear helmet isn’t included to protect them. They don’t feel overly delicate but all the same I didn’t feel confident enough in them to try out a head-on collision.
DJI Spark – Features
Internally, there are all the sensors you would expect of an advanced drone. These include both GPS and GLONASS sensors, meaning the Spark can communicate with up to 24 satellites at the same time for precise positioning. There’s a 3D infrared sensing camera on the front for object avoidance
DJI’s vision positioning system is incorporated on the underside, which includes a downward facing camera and IR sensor, which enables it to hover indoors even when there’s no GPS or GLONASS available.
Like the Mavic Pro, the Spark will also record a video using the downward facing camera, which it then references when you use its return-to-base landing feature.
As for the camera, there’s a 1/2.3in sensor that captures 12-megapixel still images and 1080p video at 30fps rather than the 4K available on the Mavic Pro. The lens is also only 2-axis stabilised, rather than the 3-axis – the third axis is stabilised digitally.
DJI Spark – Performance and app
Making setup super-simple, the Spark can be controlled directly from your smartphone through a Wi-Fi Direct connection that has a 100m range. Using the DJI GO 4 app you can use virtual on-screen control sticks for manoeuvring as well as initiating the Spark’s many predefined Quick Shot movements.
Unless you opt for the Fly More Combo pack, you’ll only have smartphone controls at your disposal. As you might suspect, these are nowhere near as precise as having a physical control with a pair of sticks for fine adjustment. It means video can be a bit jerky as you rotate and adjust the drone’s positioning. There’s also the TapToFly mode, which works as you would expect, letting you select on screen where you want the Spark to go. It means you’re more able to concentrate on taking in the view.
Otherwise, the DJI Spark is as quick and nimble as any of DJI’s other drones and can be a real joy to fly once you adjust to the virtual sticks.
I found the 100m range possibly a little optimistic, however. The iPhone 7 I was using lost connection on a number of occasions. Fortunately, there’s a safety net in place and the Spark will use its return to home function if it loses connection for any more than a few seconds. It’s good for peace of mind.
If you have the optional remote control this unlocks the Sport mode option, which brings with it a top speed of 50km/h, which is considerably faster than the smartphone app allows. The remote control also has a range of 2km, too.
Other safety features include built-in ‘No Fly Zones’ in the app, which warns you when you’re flying in a restricted area. If you’re anywhere near an airport, the drone won’t even take off.
The app also lets you edit together your videos including adding music and effects. It’s useful if you want to quickly share to social media.
DJI Spark – Quick shots, gestures and image quality
The Quick Shots I mentioned make getting cinematic shots incredibly easy and includes motions like ‘rocket’, which has the drone ascend vertically while shooting downwards; ‘circle’ that pans around a target, and ‘helix’, which is the most cinematic and incorporates a wider range of movements around a target you define in the app.
Helix, however, was the cause of a Spark flying sideways into a tree on two separate occasions. Once during the hands-on demo day while flown by a DJI rep, and when I was flying it for review. As part of a new firmware upgrade, you’re meant to be able to set the distance of each manoeuvre in the DJI GO 4 app, but even when I set it 15m it still went way beyond and into a tree. Luckily the Spark was undamaged, but it was a heart-in-the-mouth moment.
Watch: DJI Spark Quick Shots
The target tracking would also occasionally fail, a few times the Quick Shot modes would lose track of the target, again mainly for the sweeping movements like Helix.
One of the other big appeals of the Spark is using the gesture recognition. Just launch it from your palm after enabling advanced gestures in the app, and it’ll hover in front of you. Then, with your face in view of the camera, hold an open palm in front of the lens. Green lights on the Spark will then tell you it has a lock and is then under your command.
The Spark will then follow your palm movements, so you can make it pan left and right, or up and down, lining it up for that perfect shot. Then, when you’re ready for a photo, make a ‘Y’ shape with your arms and the Spark will add some distance from you but remain locked onto you as a target. Walk around and the Spark will then follow you.
When you’re ready to take a shot, you make a frame gesture with your hands and a 3-second timer will initiate, which leaves you enough time to strike a pose. It all feels a bit Star Wars, but when it works, it’s fantastic and really makes getting a quick, impromptu shot incredibly easy. It’s also great for getting tricky group shots.
However, in testing this was also a bit hit and miss. Sometimes the camera would refuse to get a lock on my palm or it would take a long time. Also, with the drone a little further away from you, the lights can be a bit hard to see when you’re triggering a selfie. It meant I ended up with a lot of photos of me making the framing motion unsure if the camera was taking a photo or not.
There are other photography modes available, too, such as Pano mode, which stitches together 9 images into a panoramic shot. These can be either taken horizontally or vertically depending on what you want to get in the frame.
Then there’s Shallow Focus, which is great for portraits. Like many smartphone’s portrait mode, this simulates the background blur ‘bokeh’ effect by tilting the camera up and down to detect the parallax, and then the effect is applied through software.
Watch: DJI Spark test footage
I also took the DJI Spark along on holiday with me where I found the DJI GO app great for quickly editing together some footage. Only when you’ve brought a drone with you on your tropical holiday can you say your #holidayspam has reached elite levels.
Video edited using DJI GO 4 app:
Actual video and image quality isn’t a patch on the more expensive Mavic Pro, but results are still pretty great. The 12MP still images are decently sharp with vivid colours, but lacking a little in dynamic range, and the video has plenty of detail from your aerial shots.
Like the Mavic Pro, though, things suffer in lower light due to that small sensor. Images are much softer and noisier as the light fades so you’ll get best results during the day.
DJI Spark – Battery life
DJI is promising up to 16 minutes of flight time, which is under best-case-scenario flight. You can either use a charging cradle that comes with the Fly More Combo pack or the Micro USB charging port directly on the drone.
In real-world flight, I was seeing anywhere between 11 to 13 minutes of flight time, which isn’t amazing. Charging the batteries can take quite a long time, too, so it’s definitely worth investing in spare batteries. But at £55 a pop, these can be quite expensive. Again, it makes the Fly More Combo pack a more tantalising prospect.
I’ve definitely found the limited battery life a hindrance, even when I was carrying three batteries with me and it’s one of the DJI Spark’s biggest weaknesses.
Related: Best action cameras
Should I buy the DJI Spark?
The DJI Spark is incredibly good fun to fly, and the Quick Shots are a great way to achieve dramatic shots without needing being an advanced drone pilot. The palm controls, when they work, are also great. Hopefully the kinks will get ironed out in future software updates to make it more reliable.
The Spark is, however, potentially priced a little high for some at £519 for just the drone. Arguably, you would probably want to stretch for the Fly More combo pack (£700), which includes useful extra accessories including the remote control, charging cradle, case, spare propellers and propeller guards to really make the most of the Spark’s capabilities. Prices in the US are much more affordable at $499 for the drone or $699 for the combo pack.
But if you don’t want to stretch to the fantastic DJI Mavic Pro, the DJI Spark is a fantastic first advanced drone, it’s just a shame you need the more expensive bundle to really make the most of it.
An incredibly fun advanced drone with some seriously clever modes for dramatic footage