The smart controller merges a CrystalSky monitor with a regular controller to offer an all-in-one package. This solution is effective and comes with interesting features.
Disclosure: DJI provided a smart controller for this review. I used it intensively for several months before writing this independent review. Here is my honest feedback, but feel free to add your remarks in the comment section.
Inside the Box
As usual with DJI, the packaging is nicely done, and the box contains the following items:
- A smart controller
- A USB charger adapter with 12 V/2 A output port
- An USB-to-USB C cable
- An extra set of joysticks (one set is already attached on the controller)
- A quick start guide booklet
Compared to the regular controller, this one looks and feel massive. At 1.4 pounds (630 grams), the smart controller is quite heavy, but the two side grips fit nicely in hands. Unfortunately, there is no ring on the front panel (or anywhere else) to attach a neck strap.
The bright 1,000 cd/m^2, 5.5-inch 1080p touchscreen is located in the middle of the controller, and the entire system runs Android. The two antennae unfold from the back to give access to the joysticks hidden underneath. DJI specifies that the smart controller can work from -4 to 104°F (-20 to 40°C). I didn’t get close to the freezing temperature during my tests, but I can confirm that this controller performs well at 104°F and beyond. Past 71°F (20°C) or so, the internal fan will kick in to cool down the electronics.
The controller is very responsive, and the system takes about 20 seconds to boot. The connection to the drone is almost immediate, and you can be in the air in less than 30 seconds, a great difference compared to the regular controller with a smart phone. This is probably what I like the most about the smart controller: no need to pull a phone, mess with a loose cable, and wait for the app to synchronize with the drone. The setup is extremely fast, and I don’t need to worry about the state of discharge of my phone before flying.
The smart controller is based on the Ocusync 2 technology. Therefore, the compatibility is limited to the Mavic 2 drones (Pro and Zoom). Other DJI drones aren’t compatible with this controller. The DJI Spark and Mavic Air use a standard Wifi connection, while the first version of the Mavic Pro relies on the older Ocusync link (version 1). Finally, the Phantom and Inspire series connect over Lightbridge links.
The pairing procedure is simple and takes a few seconds. Initially, the controller could only be bound to a single drone, but DJI corrected the issue with a recent firmware update. I now have my Mavic 2 Pro and Mavic 2 Zoom paired to the smart controller. The drone selection takes place on the home menu before opening the DJI Go App.
Screen and Brightness
Essentially, DJI inserted a CrystalSky display on this controller. The specifications are identical with the standalone monitor: 5.5 inches wide, 1080p resolution, and 1,000 cd/m^2 brightness.
In real life, the screen is comfortable to use, and the brightness is enough to fly in good conditions, even under bright daylight hours. I’ve used this controller in very bright environments in Miami,on the Caribbean islands, and the Mediterranean coast without any issue. Of course, I had to remove my sunglasses and hold the controller at the right angle to avoid the reflections on the glossy display. I wish that DJI would have implemented a matte finish on this controller in order to avoid reflections, but that’s not a dealbreaker. Furthermore, there isn’t any system or point of attachment to mount a sunshade cover. Third part manufacturers will have to be creative.
The device connects to the internet by Wi-fi and the connection can be turned off past the initial setup and firmware update phase. The real difference over the regular controller is the presence of an HDMI output (type A). This port allows you to stream the video feed over a second screen, goggles, or the internet. However, the image displayed over HDMI suffers from a high latency. This lags complicates the use of the HDMI video feed for piloting.
The top USB port (type A) is designed to plug in additional accessories, such as a hard drive (powered by the connector), flash drive, keyboard, and mouse. Therefore, you can easily transfer the files from the controller to an external storage device. The bottom USB C connector can also connect accessories, but is not compatible with video output. This port is used to recharge the controller via the USB power supply (the charger and cable are included in the box).
Finally, the microSD slot supports cards with a capacity of up to 128 GB. This slot can be used in several ways:
- As a reader, to play the video from the microSD card of the drone. The hardware can decode h.264 and h.265 video up to 60 fps.
- To automatically copy the pictures in high resolution from the drone over the air (check the “Auto Sync HD Photos” option).
- To record the video cache instead of using the internal 16 GB memory of the controller (check the “Cache to SD Card” option).
- To copy the content of the SD card to an external storage device.
DJI announced a life of 2.5 hours thanks to the massive 5,000 mAh battery integrated in the controller. My tests shows that a fully recharged battery will give enough juice to conduct five or six flights with the Mavic 2 drone (screen brightness set to the maximum and Wi-Fi turned off). Therefore, the life is not bad, but not exceptional either. However, the smart controller can be powered via the USB C connector, even during flight. This features really helps to extend the life with an external power bank.
It takes about two hours to recharge the controller with the powerful 12V/2A charger included in the kit. The recharge cycle will take much longer with traditional low voltage USB chargers such as the ones from smartphones (eg. 5V/1A)
Radio Link and Range
I haven’t noticed any difference in terms of range and image quality whether I flew the drone in FCC or CE mode. Overall, the OcuSync 2 radio transmission technology is extremely robust and gives plenty of range.
Keeping the System Airtight, Free of Mandatory Firmware Updates
“If it ain't broke, don't fix it,” is my motto when it comes to most systems, and DJI is not different. Unfortunately, this company tends to force users to install mandatory firmware updates over time, and some updates tend to bring more problems and restrictions than necessary. Because the regular controller is paired with a smartphone, the DJI Go App is always connected and automatically pulls the firmware update from the internet. Personally, I turned off the Wi-Fi connection past the initial setup phase and kept my system entirely airtight for months: no more updates and annoying pop-up messages mid-flight prompting me to install the latest update or load another no-fly zone.
- Excellent integration, all in one device, fast and responsive
- Fast setup time, can be in the air in 30 seconds from cold start
- No need for smartphone and cables
- Acceptable brightness level of the screen, even in bright conditions
- Able to maintain the system airtight after turning off the Wi-Fi connection (no unwanted firmware updates)
- Decent battery life
- USB C charging even with the unit turned on
- Ability to read and copy the content of the microSD card to an external drive without a laptop
- Possibility to pair several drones to the controller
- Expensive as a standalone purchase, especially since the latest price increase ($750 from $650)
- Only compatible with DJI Mavic 2 Pro and Zoom drone (OcuSync 2 technology)
- Lack of ring to attach a neck strap
- No attachment system for sunshade cover (hood)
Conclusion: A Great but Expensive Controller
I really enjoyed using the DJI Smart Controller; the device is nicely designed and fits well in hands. The screen could be brighter, but I never had any issue piloting my drone, even in bright condition. This all-in-one controller spares you the trouble of installing a smartphone on the controller, finding the cable, and worrying about the DJI Go App connection. It also permits you to keep the system airtight and away from the mandatory firmware updates. The battery life is acceptable, and the autonomy can be easily extended with the help of a USB power pack so the controller can be recharged during use.
But should you buy the DJI Smart Controller? This is a personal question, and it will depend on your need and budget. Professionals can justify the expense, as this tool speeds up the entire setup time and allows you to be in the air in less than 30 seconds. But the $750 price tag of the standalone version may deter regular users, especially after the recent price increase. Initially, the smart controller was introduced at $650, but DJI recently raised the price to $750. Is it a consequence of the ongoing trade war between USA and China? In any case, this price reflects the value of purchasing a regular controller and adding the DJI CrystalSky 5.5” monitor. However, the acquisition is more interesting for new customers seeking to purchase the entire drone kit. Indeed, the Mavic 2 Pro and Zoom drones bundled with the smart controller cost $400 more than the standard kit with the regular controller.