“DJI has cherry-picked all the best features and stuffed them into the Mavic Air.”
- Dedicated joystick controller
- Gimbal stabilized 4K camera
- Robust obstacle avoidance
- Plentiful intelligent flight modes
- Touchy camera controls, unless you’re in Cinematic mode
In late January, DJI pulled the curtain back on yet another addition to its growing fleet of drones. The Mavic Air, as it’s called, is a smaller, lighter, and smarter version of the company’s widely-lauded Mavic Pro. On paper, the two drones look extremely similar — but which one is better? We took it out for an extended test to find out.
All the bells and whistles
In a lot of ways, the Mavic Air is the hybrid offspring of the Mavic Pro and DJI’s Spark drone. It has the best features from each of its parents, resulting in an attractive, smart drone that will be highly sought after for years to come.
From its predecessor the Mavic Pro, the Air inherits many aspects of its physique. Most notably, it features the Mavic line’s signature hinged arm design that allows it to fold up for easy transport. However, thanks to some Spark DNA, it’s also considerably smaller and lighter than the original Mavic — making it arguably the most portable drone in DJI’s lineup to date. When packed, it’s not much bigger than a stick of deodorant, which is amazing when you consider the features it has. The Air is undoubtedly the most portable drone in this price range.
The Mavic Air is the hybrid offspring of the Mavic Pro and DJI’s Spark.
Much like the Pro, the Mavic Air also sports a 4K camera capable of shooting UHD video and 12 megapixel stills. In addition to the same 1/ 2.3” CMOS image sensor, the Air sports a redesigned gimbal for stabilization — something that, judging from the look of it, was inherited from the Spark.
Other features passed down from the Mavic bloodline? Sporty flight capabilities, obstacle avoidance, and a collapsible joystick controller. With this drone, you’re not limited to smartphone-based piloting or gesture controls — you get physical sticks and dedicated antennas that can transmit video up to 2.5 miles. It’s not quite as robust as the Mavic Pro’s controller, and doesn’t feature a built-in telemetry display, but it’s certainly better than having no controller at all.
The Mavic Air has also learned some software tricks from the Spark. These include DJI’s standard suite of Quickshot flight modes (Rocket, Dronie, Circle, Helix), as well as a few new additions, like Spherical Panorama, Asteroid, and Boomerang. We’ll spare you an attempt to describe them — it’s easiest if you just check them out on YouTube. Also present is DJI’s new-and-improved Active Track software, as well as its next-generation Gesture mode — both of which are faster and more responsive than before. Since these upgrades are software based, it’s likely they’ll be added to DJI’s existing drone lineup in a forthcoming update.
Finally, there’s the Mavic Air’s obstacle avoidance system which, surprisingly, is superior to both the Spark and the more expensive Mavic Pro. It sports a seven-sensor environmental sensing system which not only allows it to “see” obstacles, but also intelligently avoid those obstacles with or without input from the pilot. It’s rare to see obstacle avoidance in a drone priced around $800, and none that have it come close to the Mavic Air’s excellent system.
That’s a lot of kit, which is why we’re so impressed. The Mavic Air isn’t DJI’s flagship, at least in terms of size, price, and raw flight performance, but it knows tricks that rival or exceed much more expensive competitors, and even DJI’s own drones.
Easy to pilot, stays where you fly it
The Mavic Air is the culmination of everything DJI has learned from building and selling drones for the past 12 years. As such, it boasts a very polished flying experience that’s likely to satisfy beginner and pro pilots alike. You’ll be able to start flying this sucker like a UAV veteran within just a few minutes of unboxing it, regardless of your skill level.
Just like the company’s Phantom, Spark, and Inspire drones, the Mavic air feels tight and responsive in the sky. It’s every bit as quick and nimble as the Mavic Pro, despite being considerably smaller. It’s also impressively stable for a drone of its size. Most drones this small are relatively squirrely, and generally can’t maintain a stationary hover very well. The Mavic Air, however, will stop dead in its tracks when you let off the joysticks. When you do, it uses a symphony of sensors and positioning systems to keep it bolted in midair — so even in windy conditions, you won’t have to worry about it drifting away or blowing into a nearby obstacle. It only goes where you tell it to go, which is arguably one of the most important features a drone can have.
The Mavic Air is just as good as the Mavic Pro in flight performance — if not a little bit better.
The Air’s obstacle avoidance system also helps. DJI’s new software uses the data gathered from these cameras to build a virtual map of the surrounding area, which allows the drone to steer clear of things that aren’t currently above, below, or in front of it. This allows you to fly with confidence, even if you’re zipping through a thicket full of trees. That’s important. You’ll have less fun flying a drone if you’re constantly worried about slamming it into a tree.
To round out the package, the Mavic Air sports a full suite of DJI’s intelligent flight modes. Most notably, DJI’s new-and-improved Active Track can now track multiple subjects simultaneously, while improved gesture recognition allows you to reposition the drone via gestures — now with barely any latency.
After flying it around for a few days, we can confidently proclaim that the Mavic Air is just as good as the Mavic Pro when it comes to flight performance, if not a little bit better. It’s just as fast, just as maneuverable, and boasts an identical maximum range; but the Air has an edge when it comes to environmental awareness. All that, and it’s still $200 cheaper than the Pro.
Rough and tumble
The Mavic Air seems to have inherited the strong bones of its forebears as well. We called the Mavic Pro “a sturdy little beast with one of the toughest hulls we’ve ever encountered,” and said the Spark “might actually be the toughest drone the company has ever produced.” The Mavic Air continues this legacy of outstanding build quality.
It’s admittedly not quite as bomb-proof as the Spark (those hinged arms make it a little bit more breakable), but it improves on the Mavic Pro’s design with a more recessed, protected gimbal. The drone wouldn’t survive a long fall onto rock or pavement — but an encounter with tree branches, bushes, and tall grass? Mavic Air should come out fine.
The controller is also quite sturdy and well-built. It’s essentially the same controller that comes with the Mavic Pro, but more portable, and without a built-in telemetry display. We say more portable because the Mavic Air’s joysticks can be unscrewed and stowed inside the controller itself, giving it a lower profile, and making it easier to transport. It’s a small adjustment in terms of overall design, but you’ll appreciate it when stuffing the controller in a backpack.
Small battery, but flight time hardly suffers
Considering its diminutive size, the Mavic Air boasts impressively long average flight time. DJI’s official specs say a fully-charged battery will get you a maximum of 21 minutes in the air, which is technically less than the 25 minutes quoted by, say, the Parrot Bebop. Of course, real-world performance is almost always a different story.
To put that spec to the test, we fired up a stopwatch app, sent the Mavic Air into the sky, and let it hover in place until it had to come down for an emergency landing. From takeoff to touchdown, the drone got 19 minutes and 23 seconds of airtime — which is quite good for a battery as small as the Mavic’s. This puts its squarely between the Mavic Pro and the Spark in terms of flight time, as the former will get you around 25 minutes of flight per charge, while the latter only provides about 13.
In normal flight tests (in which we flew it around and made use of the drone’s various flight modes), the Mavic averaged around 17 minutes 50 seconds. As usual, the battery drains a bit faster if you fly in Sport mode, or you make use of DJI’s Active Track or Obstacle Avoidance abilities, which require a bit more computing power. Parrot’s Bebop managed between 15 and 20 minutes in our tests, so the Mavic Air is competitive. The 3DR Solo lasted a bit longer, at 22 minutes.
After you run out of juice, it’ll take about 50 minutes on the charger to bring a battery up to 100% — which seems to be the standard for DJI’s drone. Thankfully, DJI’s snappy new charger dock allows you to charge multiple batteries simultaneously.
A great 4K camera, with a sturdy gimbal
In terms of specs, the camera on the Mavic Air is nearly identical to that of the Mavic Pro — but it does have a few minor differences. Both drones carry the same 1/2.3” CMOS sensor, however the Air’s ISO range is slightly lower than that of the Pro, meaning it doesn’t perform quite as well in low light.
Both Mavics still suffer from touchy gimbal controls.
The Mavic Air’s maximum video resolution is 3,840 × 2,160 (4K UHD) at 30 FPS, while the Mavic Pro can squeeze out up to 4,096 × 2,160 (Cinematic 4K) at 30 FPS. It’s a minor difference, but a difference nonetheless. If your main concern is video quality, then you might be wise to stick with the Pro.
The real differentiator between the Pro and the Air isn’t the camera — it’s the gimbal that holds the camera. The Mavic Pro’s fragile gimbal assembly is arguably its biggest flaw, but the Air sports a newer, more thoughtful gimbal design that’s less prone to damage. This new gimbal also gives the camera a slightly wider range of motion. It’s worth mentioning, however, that both Mavics still suffer from touchy gimbal controls, so you’ll need to film in Cinematic Mode if you’re after smooth panning/tilting.
All things considered, the Mavic Pro’s camera is slightly better in terms of raw specs, but the Mavic Air isn’t far behind, and mostly makes up for its shortcomings with a superior stabilizer rig. It’s a close race, but we’d say the Mavic Air wins by a narrow margin.
The Mavic Air might be DJI’s best drone to date. It’s certainly not perfect, but it checks all the right boxes. It’s super compact and portable, has a dedicated controller, shoots video in 4K, has an advanced obstacle avoidance system, and boasts a range of over 2.5 miles. It even comes with 8GB of onboard storage. What more could you ask for?
Is there a better alternative?
The Mavic Air’s closest competitor is its predecessor, the Mavic Pro. Deciding which one is right for you will vary depending on what features you value most.
If your main concern is the camera, go with the Mavic Pro. It has a slightly higher resolution, and performs better in low light. That said, both the Mavic Air and Pro suffer from touchy camera controls, so if you want to capture beautiful, pro-level cinematic shots, you’d probably be better off with a more videography-oriented drone like the Phantom 4 Pro or the
Yuneec Typhoon H Mavic 2 Pro. Both are a bit more expensive, but provide smoother, more refined camera controls that’ll help you get that perfect shot.
Another one worth considering is the Anafi drone from Parrot. It’s $100 cheaper, but boasts a superior camera rig compared to the one that DJI’s Mavic drones do. Anafi can shoot in Cinematic 4K (4,096 x 2,160) at 24fps, an is also equipped with HDR mode, which boosts the camera’s contrast and allows you to capture good-looking footage even if the scene you’re shooting contains both bright and dark areas. It’s also worth noting that Anafi’s camera can swivel up or down with 180 degrees of freedom, which allows you to capture upward-facing shots — something the Mavic drones can’t do.
If what you’re after is a simple selfie drone, the Spark might be a better choice. It isn’t nearly as feature-packed as the Mavic Air, but it’s better suited for quick takeoffs and controller-free operation. It’s also a few hundred dollars cheaper.
But if what you’re after is a jack-of-all-trades that can go anywhere and handle any situation, then look no further. The Mavic Air is the one you want.
How long will it last?
DJI has a solid track record for pushing out regular firmware updates for its drones, and there’s no reason to think Mavic Air would be an exception. Barring any catastrophic crashes, this drone will probably last for upwards of five years. Maybe more.
Should you buy it?
Yes. This is
the best all-around drone you can buy right now one of the best drones on the market. (Update: You should really check out the new Mavic 2 line before you make your decision!)
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