DJI Mavic Air First Impressions: Strengths and Weaknesses

DJI Mavic Air First Impressions: Strengths and Weaknesses

The highly-anticipated Mavic Air finally landed at Fstoppers a few days ago. This tiny quadcopter comes with an impressive set of features but everything is not perfect. Here is short preview of what I like and dislike about this drone.

Pros

Portability and Size

After years of traveling with bulky drones that take all the space in my carry-on bag, the Mavic Air is a pure joy. Small and light, it fits in a single lens slot inside my camera bag.

The Mavic Air is smaller and lighter than most lenses. It's the perfect travel drone.

Three-Axis Gimbal and Stability of the Video

Despite its size, the Mavic Air can handle a great deal of wind. I flew with 16 mph of wind and the video came out great. The overall stability of the drone and gimbal is impressive. I haven’t noticed any “jello” in the video footage (wobble on the video when the rolling shutter enters in resonance with the drone’s vibration) but I had a ND filter on the camera lens. There is very little horizon tilt due to IMU drift, much less than the Mavic Pro. The wider focal probably helps.

Build Quality of the Drone

Everything seems to be well made on the hardware side. The gimbal design is much better than the original Mavic Pro. The camera is less exposed and is well protected by the frame. There is no fragile rubber band attachment here. The gimbal lock mechanism is easier to deal with. Finally, the battery is firmly secured by the locking mechanism (e.g., no Spark or Karma crash because of a loose battery).

Adequate Video Bitrate

The 60 Mbps bitrate was the main issue of the Mavic Pro and DJI addressed the problem on the Mavic Air. The video bitrate now reaches up to 100 Mbps in 4K recording.

Speed and Agility

In sports mode, the indicated GPS speed reached 40 mph (65 kph) as advertised by DJI. This drone is fast and it won’t struggle to fly back home even with strong headwind conditions.

Cons

Poor Range and Radio Signal Quality

DJI didn’t implement the Lightbridge and OcuSync radio link technology on the Mavic Air. Instead, the drone comes with a so called “enhanced” Wi-Fi link. Marketing aside, the range is similar to the DJI Spark which is not so great. On the country side free of any radio interference, a quick range test gave me more than a mile. However, the situation is considerably worst in urban and suburban neighborhoods where you may struggle to reach as little as 1,000 feet. Switching between 5.8 GHz and 2.4 GHz band won’t help much. In any case, remember that the FAA regulation requires to fly the drone within visual line-of-sight. On the side note, lags on the DJI Go application and on the video feed may come from an under-powered smartphone or tablet. Make sure to use a recent device to handle the load.

Short Battery Life

As usual with most drones, the 21 minutes of flight time advertised by DJI is very optimistic to say the least. In real life on planet earth, expect to fly for about 15-16 minutes before reaching 20 percent of battery (normal cruising, no sport mode). You may drain the battery down to critical level for another two minutes or so but don’t expect to fly more than that.

No Log Curve

Unlike what was said in certain early announcements, there is no log curve on the Mavic Air. Instead, DJI offers a Cinelike-D profile that can be customized with the usual picture settings such as sharpness, contrast, and saturation to create a flat mode. Unfortunately, the dynamic range of the sensor is limited and noise appears in the shadow very quickly if you lower the contract too much (even at 100 ISO). As for sharpness, the “plastic lens” is soft on the image corners.

Video Crop

That’s another bad habit among camera manufacturers: the complete omission of the crop factor on the specification sheet. First, you’ll notice a little bit of horizontal crop when switching from still to video mode. But the main crop comes from high frame-rate video formats. Anything above 30 fps will crop significantly both in 2.7K and 1080. Strangely, the 1080 at 120 fps doesn’t crop but the video quality is so bad that I would never use this setting. Finally, the video is not recorded in 120 fps but converted to 30 fps (like the Variable Frame Rate on the GH5).

Image captured in photo mode and converted in 16/9. The photo mode offers the widest field of view.

Frame captured in 4K video. Notice the slight crop compared to the photo mode (image above)

Frame captured in 2.7K video at 60 fps. Everything higher than 30 fps in 2.7K and 1080 resolution will crop like this. Except for the 1080/120fps (but the image quality is very bad).

The Controller

The Mavic Air inherited from the controller of the Spark. The phone grip is still too small for most tablets and the cable attachment on the side is not very practical. Only slim smartphones fit in the grip and you must remove the protective case on your phone. Personally, I installed an extra holder on my controller. Like the Spark, the controller only features a single control wheel on the top to adjust the tilt of the camera. The second wheel to control the shutter speed is missing. Thus, the exposure must be set by taping the screen in the camera settings menu which is not very convenient. However, the controller has two customizable buttons. I assigned one to open the camera settings menu and control the EV and one to lock the exposure.

Preliminary Conclusion

After a few days of use, I must admit that I have mixed feelings about the Mavic Air. The size and portability are incredible. The level of technology packed in this tiny frame is impressive. The video is stable even in windy condition and the footage looks nice as far as I can tell from my basic observations.  

On the other side, the poor quality of the Wi-Fi radio link is disappointing, especially for people living in countries were the 2.4 GHz band is disabled, leaving them with 5.8 GHz to deal with radio interferences. I didn’t have time to check the image quality, automatic flight modes, and collision avoidance sensors. I'll take a closer look in the full review. Stay tuned.

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13 Comments

Alex Armitage's picture

The use of WiFi for the Air is exactly why I'm hesitant to purchase this over the PRO. I'm hoping they update the Pro with the new bit rates as the size difference is minimal for me. I cans till pack both in a backpack pretty easily and would much prefer OccuSync etc

I have a Mavic Air and the poor Wi-Fi signal is a dealbreaker for me. Otherwise I think it’s a great little drone. I’ll probably end up keeping it until the Mavic Pro 2 comes out.

Mark Richardson's picture

I'm in the same position. I can't believe how poor the signal is. Sometimes I can't even get an image transmission from 4 feet away. Other times it will go about a mile in the same location. It's just not reliable enough to be useful.

Mark Holtze's picture

DJI releases drones so quick, an updated Mavic with better specs expected soon. I would say summer or late spring based on their pace of release. Wonder if s firmware update can fix the range...the portability of this thing is highly attractive. It won’t be anywhere I’m not which I can’t say the same with my phantom 4.

Oliver Kmia's picture

It's hardware related. Can't add OcuSync or Ligtbridge with firmware even though DJI can polish the signal algorithm and open more channels with the firmware (actually they close some in the past due to FCC regulation):
I think that DJI has two issues:
1. Doing some market segmentation with the future Mavic Pro 2
2. Hardware limitation: the Air is very small and there is a loud fan inside that turn on right after you power on the unit. Perhaps implementing Ocusync or Lightbridge was too complicated on this small frame.

Mark Holtze's picture

Ya makes sense...although I will admit to knowing next to nothing about drone tech ;). Thanks for your incite! Going to hold off temptation and the massive marketing campaign (it's in EVERY ad on ALL of my web pages and social media) and see what comes with the Mavic upgrades. I also need a three axis gimbal. But it's winter here and I don't fly much.

Oliver Kmia's picture

Makes sense, I would wait for the Mavic Pro 2 to make a decision, especially since you don't really need it right away. I flew the Air today under Florida sunshine and it's a fine drone. I'm reviewing the footage now. Not perfect but for the size and price I might actually keep it. And because I'm weak I may also buy the Mavic Pro II...

Mark Holtze's picture

Well the two would have different uses so having both just opens up more possibilities ;)

Oliver Kmia's picture

Mark Richardson
Regarding the range:
1. Turn your cell phone or tablet in airplane mode otherwise it's going to blast radio interference right next to the controller's antenna. Not good
2. Use a recent device, my Galaxy S7 and Iphone 5S struggled with the DJI go app (lag, lot of latency). The Ipad was fine
3. You can get one of there little "range extender" for $15 onlike. Just clip them on the controller's antenna to focus the radio beam and get better reception/transmission power (higher gain actually).
It won't double the range but you can get +20-50% with that.

Mark Richardson's picture

I've tried #1. On #2 - I have an iphone 8+ - should be modern enough right? #3 - Not going to waste the money. I'll just wait for Mavic Pro II.

A friend got a Mavic Air upon release and ended up returning it as the distortion in the centre of the frame was severe. He showed me photos of his house where the straight lines *in the centre of the frame* were very noticeably wavy. This was not a barrel or even mustache distortion on the edges, this was right smack in the middle of the frame. I wonder if this was a one-off or pherhaps a more widespread issue. Difficult to tell from the photos in the article but the horizon doesn't seem entirely right to me there either.

Overall I'm happy with my Pro and hope they release the Mavic Pro II with a noticeably better camera. Not that the one in the Pro is bad but the sensor size does show its limitations and there is a clear room for improvement.

Edit: I haven't tried the holder mentioned in the article but I can recommentd https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B074PQK6PH (Rantow Aluminum-Alloy Foldable Smartphone Tablet Mount Holder for DJI Mavic Pro / Mavic Air / Spark) as the only holder I tried that is stable enough *and* foldable.

Oliver Kmia's picture

I haven't noticed much distortion at this point beside the usual DJI mustache effect but I need to double check.

Anthony Cayetano's picture

I believe this Mavic essentially is marketed as the pro version of the Spark. Rumors are now pointing to an actual Mavic pro 2 with a 1" sensor.