Ask Adrian: Our technology editor tackles your trickiest tech problems
Question: I’m looking to get a drone for my husband for Christmas. I don’t have a massive budget. Could you recommend the best one to go for?
– Patricia McGrenra
Answer: I’d advise DJI’s Spark (€499 by itself or €650 for the recommended ‘Fly More Combo’ pack).
I own the Spark myself, so can testify as to its pros and cons. I’ve tried DJI’s slightly more upscale Mavic Air. It’s a bit better than the Spark, due to its better battery life, higher resolution and internal storage memory.
However, as it starts at €849 (and the version I’d recommend costs €1,049), I’m going to assume that when you say you don’t have a “massive budget” that this price level might be pushing it. (If I’m wrong about that, by all means get the Mavic Air.)
Know also that there are several drones that are cheaper than the Spark, but I can’t recommend any of them as, in my experience, they are more akin to toys than proper enthusiast devices. They don’t fly as steadily and they definitely don’t capture imagery or video that compares to the Spark and other more premium models.
The basic selling point of any decent drone is its ability to fly smoothly, be easily controlled and capture good, smooth camera and video footage.
Typically, your phone or tablet connects to the remote controller, which itself is wirelessly connected to the drone up to quite a long distance away (generally 1km to 4km, depending on the model).
So you can see what your drone is flying past or flying over as you look at your phone or tablet. You can then choose to take a photo or a video (stored on to a memory card you put into the drone).
It’s all guided by GPS technology, meaning that the drone knows exactly where it is relative to where it took off: if it suddenly runs low on power or loses contact with your remote control, it stops whatever its doing and starts heading back to the point from which it originally took off (probably where you’re standing).
These are the common technical traits of the drones I’m referring to.
One advantage that DJI’s Spark has is that it manages all of this while still being utterly portable. Even though it’s no bigger than a man’s hand, you still get stunningly crisp, stabilised video (albeit in 1080p high definition as opposed to 4K, which isn’t a disadvantage in my opinion). Some of the footage is genuinely astounding for such a small device. I’ve sent it off cliffs on the wild north Mayo coast, the Great Blasket Island and into the forests of rural Minnesota and Maine (you can see examples of this on my Instagram or YouTube channels or the Independent.ie video section). The clarity and resolution of the video it has recorded, whether of churning waves, gushing waterfalls or sun-kissed pine trees, is absolutely stellar. In decent lighting conditions, its footage would not look immediately out of place in a BBC-style nature documentary.
And it all fits into a small, light carry bag. Because of its portability, I have brought it places I’d never consider lugging any of the bigger Phantom drones to. Like on small ferries to islands off Ireland’s west coast, or deep into woodland hikes in the Appalachian mountains or the forests around Lake Superior.
For flights, I was able to simply pack it into my carry-on bag – the entire apparatus (drone, case, charger, remote controller, spare batteries) took up about the same amount of space as two chunky hardback books.
Before I get to the pitfalls, a word of advice about what accessories to get if you’re buying this. In my view, the optional remote control that comes with the premium ‘Combo’ pack is absolutely essential. Not only because it makes it easier to control the drone (and its camera), but because it gives the drone a proper range of up to a kilometre away. Without this, the Spark works just using your smartphone. But doing it this way limits its reach to around 75 yards from you, nowhere near flexible enough to capture things that will wow you. For this reason, it’s strongly advised to go for the ‘Combo’ pack, which includes the remote control plus an extra battery, a convenient multi-battery charger and some extra blades. It’s €150 extra but without it, the Spark has about 50pc less functionality.
The Spark isn’t perfect. Its biggest downside is that its battery life is really, really short -about half that of larger drones that generally last around 25 minutes per charge. The Spark gets you around 13 or 14 minutes of usable flight time per charge.
This means you really need to have at least one spare battery. (I got two with the Combo pack but bought another one. I usually use all three when I bring it out with me.)
There are other compromises brought about by its titchy size. It’s slower than its bigger drone counterparts. This is especially noticeable at altitudes of 100m or so, as the landscape seems to go by really slowly.
It is also less stable in breezy conditions than its larger kin. This is completely understandable as it’s physically so much smaller and lighter. And to be fair, I’ve often flown it in light to moderate wind and the drone handles it quite well. But in a country like Ireland, it’s a material consideration.
Nevertheless, for what you suggest your budget might be, this is probably the best option on the market.
Recommendation: DJI Spark Flymore Combo Edition (€650 from Harvey Norman)
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