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Hands on: GoPro Karma

Sleek and easy to fly, GoPro's Karma is a drone for the masses

GoPro’s long-awaited Karma drone is an incredibly fun and easy-to-fly drone.

The Karma drone is the biggest launch GoPro has had since the Hero camera first debuted. Yes, the new Hero5 cams are also exciting, but the Karma is what we’ve been looking forward to all year, when GoPro announced last December it was working on building its first drone.

Founder and CEO Nick Woodman reiterated that Karma is much more than a drone during GoPro’s launch event in Squaw Valley, California. The company’s decision earlier this year to delay Karma’s release, only perpetuated the high expectations further. Everyone expected it to be something incredibly impressive, and it definitely was.

A drone in a backpack

Does the Karma fulfill Woodman’s vision? Yes and no, depends on who you ask, but let’s tackle the “yes” answer first. For existing GoPro users, people looking to purchase their first drone, or folks who have never considered buying one, the Karma is sleek and one of the easiest, yet still comprehensive, drones we’ve flown to date. That’s intentional. Woodman said the company wanted to build a drone with an awesome out-of-the-box experience.

GoPro’s Karma is the professional drone for the rest of us.

The Karma is a ready-to-go drone that fits neatly inside a specially designed backpack, although GoPro says it’s compact enough to fit inside most bags. That might be a stretch – it’s bigger than the word “compact” would suggest, but it’s in-line with many quadcopters, in terms of size. At 2.2 pounds (it’s roughly four pounds when you include the battery, controller, stabilizing gimbal, and accessories), it’s relatively light – we held it comfortably in one hand – so hauling it isn’t an issue.

True to its word, the Karma is ready to go when you are. There are no parts to attach: Just flip out the foldable propeller arms and landing gear, and it’s ready to fly. Should an accident damage these parts, they are user replaceable. Overall, the Karma has a solid construction that, while not as rugged as the Hero cameras, can take a light beating. During an attempted landing in strong windy conditions by another journalist, we witnessed the Karma crash and break one of its propellers. A GoPro engineer didn’t seem concerned, and said the propeller is easy to fix.

Related: GoPro takes off with a new foldable Karma drone

So how is Karma more than a drone? It actually consists of multiple components, aside from the flying unit. At the front is a detachable (just twist and pull out) three-axis gimbal system called the Karma Stabilizer. With either a Hero5 or Hero4 mounted to the harness and connected via the Mini USB or USB Type-C port, the Stabilizer keeps the camera relatively steady, which is what we noticed during use. Its position at the very front allows the camera to capture wide-angle video without the propellers in the picture.

GoPro Karma
Les Shu/Digital Trends

Unlike the gimbals in other drones, the Stabilizer can be removed and used for handheld shots, using an attachment accessory called the Karma Grip. The battery-powered Grip has controls for turning on/off the Stabilizer and the camera, starting/stopping recording, bringing the camera back to the center, and tagging cool moments during recording. The Grip can also be attached to other GoPro mounts for hands-free operation.

Flying the Karma is intuitive, using the videogame-style controller with two joysticks. If you’ve played with an Xbox or PlayStation Dual Shock controller, it should come easy to you. GoPro said the gaming approach is intentional because it’s something most people are familiar with. Although we had a GoPro engineer guide us, it doesn’t take much effort. Plus, the Karma Controller offers a pre-flight tutorial that trains new users on the basics.

The Karma is sleek and one of the easiest drones we’ve flown to date.

The controller itself is large and bulky, but has a good firm feel to it. You flip it open to reveal a bright, 900-nit five-inch touchscreen color display with a 720p resolution. It’s brighter than the latest iPhone displays, which is key for using outdoors, and it’s why we suspect GoPro went with a built-in display instead of using a tablet or phone, as it’s done with other drones. Despite facing a bright setting sun, we had no issues viewing the display at arm’s length.

The left joystick handles ascend, descend, and rotation, while the right stick is to pitch the drone left, right, forward, and backward. During our flight, Karma was very responsive to our controls. A hard push on the right joystick sent Karma zooming away, while delicate right push on the left joystick had the drone slowly rotate clockwise. On the left and right shoulders are controls for the camera. The left button is used to manipulate the gimbal, while the right buttons initiate start/stop recording and tagging cool moments for easy editing.

The manual controls are fun if you’re just flying around, but if you’re shooting video, it’s best to use the Karma Controller’s Auto Shot Paths feature. These presets let you create smooth, professional-looking shots. You only need to tell Karma how to set up the shot, and the drone takes it from there. For example, in Cable Cam mode, Karma travels along a line, back and forth; the user just needs to set points A and B. There’s an Orbit mode where Karma circles the user; Reveal mode, where the camera pitches downward and slowly tilts up to present a “reveal” of what’s ahead; and Dronie, where Karma shoots a selfie of the user.

With the videos we shot using a Hero5 Black, we noticed the Stabilizer did a very good job at keeping things steady (although YouTube detected shakiness after we uploaded the videos, we thought it looked fine, except for instances of jolts we attribute to our computer’s processor). Controlling the gimbal manually resulted in jarring motion, but using one of the Auto Shot Paths will create smoother-looking shots. Depending on the Hero camera you’re using, you can shoot up to 2K or 4K.

Karma will have a companion smartphone app called Passenger (it was yet not available during our hands-on time). It lets a co-pilot view the flight and control the camera and gimbal. This is ideal for when you want to focus on flying while a friend plays cameraman or alert you about obstacles ahead. The passenger, as the name suggests, cannot control the drone itself.

Specs wise, Karma can travel at 35 miles per hour, and has a max operating distance of 3,280 feet, altitude of 14,500 feet, and can handle wind resistance of 22 miles per hour. During a demo on the peak of Squaw Valley, the winds were relatively strong, but the Karma was able to handle it; despite some calls for the Karmas to be powered down, GoPro’s engineers didn’t seem too worried and carried on with flights.

On a full charge, Karma has a flight time of 20 minutes – shorter if it’s windy. The battery takes two hours to recharge the drone and controller, using an included charger. A spare can be had for $100 each. The Karma Controller display battery life and how much flight time is left, and will alert the user when battery is low. If battery life becomes critical, the drone automatically returns home, although the user can override (you don’t want to do this unless you can see where the drone is, so you can go fetch it should it initiate an emergency landing).

Great for everyone, limiting for experts

GoPro has created a drone that’s easy to use, right out of the box. CEO Woodman said GoPro is about helping people capture and share experiences, and in that sense, Karma does achieve that.

However, there are many new drone technologies that Karma lacks, like subject tracking, auto-follow, and object avoidance – features you can find in DJI’s Phantom 4, which also offers other advanced features and longer flight time. Update on September 22, 2016: The Karma Controller has “No-Fly Zones” info that lets you know if an area is restricted, using GPS; we originally reported incorrectly that it didn’t have such a capability.

GoPro Karma
Les Shu/Digital Trends

The Karma is certainly enjoyable if you’re a first-timer or casual user (which, admittedly, I am), but advanced hobbyists and professionals may find it limiting. However, those looking for a no-brainer drone that’s capable of shooting professional-quality videos may be willing to overlook the Karma’s shortcomings.

According to Woodman, GoPro intentionally left out those features because the company doesn’t feel those advanced technologies are ready for ordinary users (we’re sure DJI would disagree). He stressed that Karma (or any GoPro product) needs to deliver a great out-of-the-box experience, and adding unreliable features may turn regular people off. He does believe that drones are very much in their infancy, so while Karma may not have those advanced features now, it’s clearly on GoPro’s roadmap. And, the GoPro name carries a lot of weight.

Pricing, and what comes in the box

Karma itself will sell for $800, on October 23, which includes the Karma Stabilizer and Grip. GoPro will also bundle the drone with a Hero5 Black, for $1,100. Early next year, there will be a second bundle with a Hero5 Session, for $1,000. For comparison, DJI’s Phantom 4 starts at $1,199, which includes a built-in camera.

The Karma base package comes with the drone, Karma Controller, Karma Stabilizer and harness, battery and charger, six propellers, Karma Grip for handheld use, mounting ring to attach to GoPro mounts, and a backpack.

Should you be excited?

GoPro’s Karma is the professional drone for the rest of us. In our hands-on time with the Karma, we found the drone to deliver what GoPro intended: a stable, fun, and easy-to-control drone that anybody can perform. The removable 3-axis Stabilizer is worth buying the full Karma package, and with a Hero4 or Hero5 camera, you’re now able to create a variety of smooth, high-resolution videos in the air and on the ground. It’s not the most advanced drone out there, but we think the Karma will appeal to many users.

The Karma does require a Hero4 or Hero5 camera. For existing Hero4 owners, that shouldn’t be an issue. Everyone else will need to consider buying the Hero5 Black or Hero5 Session, so factor in an extra cost.

Highs

  • Really easy to fly
  • Removable three-axis gimbal
  • Ready out-of-the-backpack experience
  • Intuitive controller
  • Sturdy build

Lows

  • Hero camera not included
  • No advanced features like follow me, obstacle avoidance
  • Short flying time