DJI is known for drones, like the Phantom 3 Professional ($709.00 at DJI) and the Phantom 3 Advanced ($559.00 at DJI) , both of which are serious flying machines, but also carry serious price tags. The Phantom 3 Standard ($499) is an entry-level model that isn’t as polished as our all-time faovrite drone, the Editors’ Choice Phantom 4 ($1,199.00 at DJI) . It doesn’t have the impressive operating range, collision avoidance system, or 4K recording offered by the Phantom 4, but it does include DJI’s slate of safety features, automated flight modes, and is no slouch when it comes to video capture, nabbing crisp footage at 2.7K resolution. It’s the best drone you can get for $500 or less, and is our Editors’ Choice for aspiring pilots who need to stick to a tight budget.
DesignThe Phantom 3 Standard ($499.00 at DJI) uses the same flight body and battery as other models in the Phantom 3 family, with a few key differences. The quadcopter omits the Vision Positioning system found in the more expensive models, so you’ll have to use caution when flying close to the ground. Its camera is also a bit different—the lens is the same 20mm (full-frame equivalent) wide-angle prime, but the microSD memory card slot has been moved to the camera unit itself, rather than at the base of the gimbal mount as it has been with previous Phantom models.
The Standard keeps the same trademark four-pylon white design that has made the Phantom series a recognizable piece of technology in popular culture. Metallic red decals adorn the drone—the DJI logo is at the top center of the chassis, and two red strips sit at each of the fore pylons. The propellers are color-coded; there’s a black dot on the motors that use the props with the black center.
The Phantom weighs about 2.7 pounds and measures 23 inches from wingtip to wingtip. Landing struts sit underneath its body, with the gimbal and camera mounted on the undercarriage. The lightweight and compact design is a boon for aerial videographers transporting the Phantom to different locations. When packed in a backpack like the Think Tank Photo Airport Helipak ( at Amazon) , you can comfortably take the drone with you on a hike, or stow it in the trunk or backseat of a compact sedan with plenty of room to spare.
Like other Phantom models, the camera records stable video from the air. It always faces forward, with a little bit of left and right rotation. If you’re interested in something with a camera that can freely rotate 360 degrees, you’ll need to move up to the Inspire 1 ($1,999.00 at DJI) , which is a pro-grade model. The Inspire uses carbon fiber construction for its body, while the Phantom series is mostly plastic.
The remote control reminds me of a scaled-down version of the one that shipped with the Phantom 2 Vision+. It’s streamlined, so there’s no need for a separate Wi-Fi extension module, and the AA batteries are replaced by an internal rechargeable battery. A micro USB port sits at the bottom to recharge. Four LED lights indicate the charge level, and a single power switch turns it on. A clamp sits on a metal rail to hold your smartphone—it’s big enough to hold an iPhone 6 Plus , but it can’t handle a tablet like the remote for other Phantom 3 models can. The clamp is also not that stable; my phone noticeably wobbled, whereas it was held in place with complete steadiness with the better-engineered clamp on the remote control for the Professional and Advanced models.
PreflightIf you haven’t flown before, you should take some precautions before your first go-round. The DJI Go app—formerly named DJI Pilot—includes a flight simulator mode. It’s available for Android and iOS devices. You’ll need to power on the Phantom in order to use it, but it’s worthwhile to spend some time flying virtually before attempting to do so in the real world.
Once that’s out of the way, you’ll want to give the Phantom a good look to make sure everything’s in working order. Charge the battery fully—it takes about an hour and a half to go from empty to full—and make sure the rotors are securely attached and show no signs of damage. It’s also a good idea to power on the drone and connect it to the app before going to a location to see if a firmware update is available. It is possible to download a firmware update over cellular data and apply the update in the field, but it’s not ideal. I went through that process before my first flight; the update process took about 20 minutes and drained about 10 percent of the battery.
The remote control broadcasts its own Wi-Fi network. Its SSID and password are printed on a sticker on its back, and you’ll need to connect your phone to that network in order to communicate with the app. It’s an extra step that’s not required with the Phantom 3 Advanced and Professional, both of which use a USB connection to work with your phone. You’ll need to calibrate the Phantom’s compass before your first fight—you need to rotate the aircraft along two separate axes to do so, but it’s a quick process—and you’ll want to make sure that a GPS lock has been acquired before taking off. If there’s any issue with the compass or GPS, the copter’s stability is compromised and it can move erratically. The remote sometimes needs calibration as well, which requires you to tilt it along its axis, moving a virtual ball around a circle on your phone’s screen.
In FlightThe Standard supports automated takeoff—pressing the up arrow icon at the left of the DJI Go app display powers up its engines and raises it a few feet into the air. From there you use the dual sticks on the remote to control its movement. Pushing the left stick forward raises the altitude and pulling it toward you lowers it. Moving the stick to the left or right rotates the Phantom along its central axis. The right stick moves the drone forward, backward, left, and right through the air.
It’s an intuitive control system, and one that’s fairly easy to master. It’s easy enough to fly forward while ascending or descending, or rotate the drone slowly along its axis to capture a panoramic view of its surrounding landscape.
A control wheel sits at the top left of the remote and controls the tilt of the camera. There are also two toggle switches—S1 and S2—located at the two top corners. Pushing the S2 switch up and down several times will initiate return-to-home, and doing the same with S1 will cancel the request. You can also use the DJI Go app to do this—just tap the H icon. The Phantom will fly home automatically if communication is lost.
We initially tested a pre-production unit, which had issues with operating range. DJI sent a production model over and it fared better. In my standard suburban range test I managed a 1,250-foot distance between the remote and aircraft before the signal was lost and the Phantom started to return home automatically. In a rural environment, I was able to eke out a bit more distance—about 1,800 feet. That’s in the same ballpark as the Phantom 3 4K (850 feet suburban, 2,000 feet rural), but not nearly as good as the Phantom 4. The top model in the Phantom family maintained communication with the remote at a distance of 1,800 feet in our suburban test and 4,500 feet in a rural environment.
I did notice that the Live View feed from the drone isn’t as crisp as the Phantom 3 Professional version. There are a lot more compression artifacts visible in streamed footage, and the feed is not quite as smooth. It’s certainly adequate as a framing guide (and an aid to help you avoid crashing into things), but it makes the in-app video editing tools less effective unless you take the time to sync files from the Phantom’s memory card to your phone or tablet.
When you’re flying in the US, the FAA limits altitude to 400 feet (and there are no-fly zones around commercial airports). That’s the default limit set in the DJI Go app, but you can set it as high as the aforementioned 500 meters (1,640 feet) for those times when you’re flying in an area with less restrictive regulations. On a relatively still day I was able to get the drone up to 22mph, but it can certainly move a bit faster if you find a tailwind.
The Standard is just as steady as the Professional when flying high through the air, which is a good thing. But as I touched on earlier, it does omit the Vision Positioning System. That sensor makes the Advanced and Professional models a bit safer to fly close to the ground by analyzing terrain so you have more precise control when flying low. The Standard is unsteady when flying low; it varies its altitude enough while simply hovering to make you worry about crashes and collisions. If hugging terrain is something you’re interested it, it’s worth moving up to the Advanced or Professional models. The Parrot Bebop ($299.99 at Amazon) is another option that excels at low altitudes, although it lags behind the Phantom in many other areas.
The Phantom 3 Standard supports all of DJI’s intelligent flight modes. These include Follow Me, in which the Phantom tracks the movement of the remote control; Point of Interest, in which you can orbit around a point in space, keeping the camera fixed perfectly upon it; and Waypoint flight, which allows you to automatically fly along the same route again and again—the only catch is that you’ll need to fly it manually first. There are also Course Lock and Home Lock functions, which change the way the control stick operates. If you engage Course Lock, the original direction of the nose of the aircraft will be the forward setting, even if you spin the Phantom around during flight. Home Lock adjusts the controls so they are relative to your position—pushing the right stick forward moves the drone away from you and pulling it back moves it toward you, regardless of direction the nose is pointing.
One neat aspect of the DJI Go app is a flight log function. It automatically tracks flights and logs telemetry data, including your maximum altitude, distance traveled, and takeoff location. It’s a useful way of keeping track of how much time you’ve spent in the air, and the path you flew during the flight. To get the same information with Phantom 2 models you were required to buy and install an add-on module like the Flytrex Live 3G .
DJI rates the Phantom for 25 minutes of flight per charge, which is just a little bit optimistic. My first test flight netted 21 minutes of video. I took off with a 90-percent charge, and landed with 10 percent left. It’s unwise to let it get any lower than that, so you’re really looking at between 22 and 23 minutes of footage per flight. This will vary a bit based on how fast you’re flying, how high you take the Phantom, and wind conditions.
Return-to-home is initiated automatically when the battery power is low; just how low the battery will get before the drone makes a beeline for home depends on its distance and altitude relative to its takeoff position. When you get down to 10 percent it will start to make an automated landing, so be mindful of that battery indicator.
Video and Image QualityAll four versions of the Phantom 3 use similar cameras, but offer different maximum video resolution, frame rates, and bit rates. The Standard records footage at 2.7K (1520p) resolution at 30fps or 24fps with a 40Mbps bit rate. The Standard tops out at 48fps when shooting at 1080p, but can shoot at 50fps or 60fps at 720p. All standard lower frame rates—24fps, 25fps, and 30fps—are supported for those resolutions.
I shot my test footage at 30fps at 2.7K resolution to see just how much detail the camera can resolve, but there are some options at lower resolutions that are intriguing. If you capture footage at 1080p48, for example, you can slow it down to play back at 24fps, which delivers a half-speed slow motion effect with the cinematic look that 24fps footage provides.
Overall, I found the 2.7K footage to be pretty good, but not the best video I’ve seen from a drone camera. It’s obviously not as crisp as the 4K video captured by the Phantom 3 Professional—in terms of pure pixel count, 2.7K footage captures 4 megapixels of data in every frame, about half that of 4K footage. And I did notice that the 40Mbps bit rate took a slight toll; there’s some evidence of compression artifacts in the dense foliage that covers the wetlands where I shot my initial test footage. I took some video with the Phantom 3 Professional at the same location (albeit on a different day and with sunlight that was a bit less harsh) and the video was stronger in quality, although not without issue.
Shooting dense greenery from the air is a stressful test for a video compression algorithm. The footage I shot with the Standard was quite good. Houses, streets, and cars are crisp, and while there’s certainly trees in my footage, they don’t overwhelm the frame and fare much better than the older Vision+ in terms of detail. Shooting straight into the sun creates a bit of a halo flare around the star itself, but you don’t get serious lens flare until you move the camera so that the sun is hitting it from an angle.
The lens is a fairly wide-angle design, covering a 94-degree field of view—roughly equal to a 20mm lens on a full-frame camera. Its aperture is fixed at f/2.8 and its focus is also fixed so that anything beyond a few inches away is crisp. It’s free of the fish-eye distortion that some drones show, but it does stretch objects at the edges of the frame a bit, which can be evident when capturing shots with the Phantom rotating about its axis. Propellers are visible at the top of the frame when moving forward at full speed, but easing back on the throttle just a little bit keeps them out of view.
One thing I really love about the Phantom 3 Professional is the ability to dial in exposure compensation via a control wheel on the remote. A quick turn can brighten or darken a scene on the fly, which is a boon for recording video around sunrise or sunset. You can adjust EV with the Standard, but there’s no wheel on the remote to do so. Instead you’ll need to adjust it via the app. Unfortunately the control that allows you to do this, a series of sliders marked with a P in the bottom right corner, needs to be activated before you start recording. It’s not a big deal if you know that you’ll want to adjust exposure before you start recording your flight, but if you’re working in automatic exposure mode and want to dial in an adjustment you’ll need to stop the clip, launch the control panel, and start recording again. The major downside to simply leaving this active all the time is that the app doesn’t show flight data—if you’re exerting manual control over video, you won’t have real-time status on altitude, distance, or airspeed.
Full manual control is also an option from this menu. You can adjust the ISO and shutter speed to get the exposure you want. Another plus in terms of video over Phantom 2 models is the ability to change the color output. A flat color profile, Log, is available if you want to have the most room to color grade footage, and there’s a Normal setting for videographers who don’t want to do a lot of fine-tuning. There are also a number of Instagram-like filters: Vivid, B&W, Art, Film, Beach, Dream, Classic, and Nostalgia.
Image quality is on par with the Phantom 3 Professional and Advanced. The 1/2.3-inch sensor captures 12-megapixel JPG or Raw DNG images at a 4:3 aspect ratio. Image quality is similar to a point-and-shoot camera with Raw support. I’m always happy to see Raw capture as an option, as it allows you to fine-tune color and exposure in Lightroom CC ($9.99/Month at Adobe) or another Raw developer to suit your tastes.
If you’re less serious about video editing, you can cut together short clips using the DJI Go app. It’s an easy interface and automatically adds music to the silent footage you’ve captured. If you use the video from the Live View feed that’s buffered from your phone you’ll have to live with low-quality footage, but you can copy footage from the Phantom’s memory card to the app to edit in full quality. Desktop editing software isn’t included, but you can cut together clips in Windows Movie Maker, iMovie, Adobe Premiere Pro, or Apple Final Cut Pro, depending on your level of editing experience.
ConclusionsYou’re not going to find a better drone for $500 than the Phantom 3 Standard. It delivers the stability, reliability, and safety features that you expect from a Phantom, and all of the same automated flight modes as its more expensive siblings. There are certainly some trade-offs to be made, considering the price point. It doesn’t support 4K—the Phantom 3 4K is the least expensive model with that recording option—and it doesn’t have the Vision Positioning System and Lightbridge transmission system for long distance operation that you get with the pricier Phantom 3 Advanced or Phantom 3 Professional. If you have the budget, you should look at the Phantom 3 Professional or Phantom 4, both of which were named Editors’ Choice when we reviewed them. But if those are out of your budget, rest assured that the Phantom 3 Standard is a very solid aircraft, and certainly the best you’ll find for $500, so it earns Editors’ Choice marks in the budget segment.
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