If you want to buy a drone, your best bet has long been DJI. But even while it apparently has the market cornered, DJI seems intent on filling it up with incrementally better models so that no one else can squeeze in.
The introduction of the Mavic Air today gives DJI an even tighter hold on the sub-$1,000 space. As of last year, DJI’s drone lineup started at $500 (since reduced to $400) with the Spark. But now, instead of forcing you to jump straight up to $1,000 for something more capable like the Mavic Pro, it has the Mavic Air between them, at $800.
While DJI is mostly absent in the huge space below $500, the drones in that price range — at least so far — typically don’t have a lot of the safety and ease of flying features built into DJI’s models. More importantly, their video quality leaves a whole lot to be desired. That means if you’re in the market and even remotely serious about flying and capturing footage, your budget pretty much has to be around $500.
The question after that is which model to get, and the Mavic Air actually complicates things a bit. Here’s a condensed look at the specs of several DJI drones. It shows how the company has been releasing them more-or-less along $300 price increments, but it also starts to get at how the distinction blurs between the Mavic Air and the Mavic Pro.
|/||Spark||Mavic Air||Mavic Pro Platinum||Phantom 4 Pro|
|Max video capture||1080p||4K at 30 fps||4K at 30 fps||4K at 60 fps|
|Weight||0.66 pounds||0.95 pounds||1.6 pounds||3 pounds|
|Flight time||16 minutes||21 minutes||30 minutes||30 minutes|
|Max speed||31 mph||42.5 mph||40.3 mph||44.7 mph|
The Mavic Air is supposed to sit in between the Spark and the Pro, but in reality, it kind of drags the Pro down and twists things up a bit. The Air is decidedly better than the Spark. It has better video quality, longer flight time, and includes a controller, but it’s also better than the Pro in some ways too: it’s lighter and more portable, and it’s supposed to have even better video quality, which is a critical feature for a product that’s often used by filmmakers.
In fact, the Mavic Pro’s advantages are mostly limited to flying. It’s faster, it can stay in the air longer, and it has more flight modes. But since you’re likely buying extra batteries for these things, the additional minutes of flight may not be worth the added price. And the Mavic Air is better than the Pro in a number of other ways; DJI told us as much at the event, likening it to newer, slimmer MacBooks that beat out their bigger predecessors on specs.
This blurring between the two product lines suggests that DJI is likely working on a successor to or a replacement for the Mavic Pro, something that’ll clarify why you should spend an extra few hundred dollars on a drone. It’s also possible that DJI plans to leave the Mavic Air as the top-of-the-line model eventually and bring in a foldable version of the Phantom — the start of its pro line — to fill in the more expensive slot the Mavic used to occupy.
The reality right now is that there aren’t a whole lot of alternatives outside of DJI’s own lineup. Yuneec, another Chinese drone manufacturer, has also been building out a diverse line of drones, but its cheaper models haven’t been as well received as DJI’s. And other companies, like Parrot, tried to compete in the cheaper drone space, but haven’t fared well. So for the foreseeable future, drone buyers are largely stuck with whatever options DJI gives them. Fortunately, so far, they’ve been quite good.