Should you upgrade from Phantom 3 to Phantom 4?

DJI released their new flagship drone this week, the Phantom 4. This has prompted the widely asked question from existing loyal Phantom owners “Should I upgrade?”.

If you want to buy a Phantom 4 – click here

The answer is unfortunately not as simple as it might seem, it depends largely on what you’re currently flying as well as your level of flying skill, commitment and confidence.

If you are a Phantom 2 owner and ready to upgrade then either the P3 Professional or the P4 are an obvious choice, but for current Phantom 3 (P3) owners, the decision is a little more complex, in this article we’ll explain why.

Phantom 4 Camera…

The 4K improved camera of the Phantom 4.
The 4K improved camera of the Phantom 4.

The all important part of a sophisticated drone is the camera as that is the reason for which most of us purchase a ‘drone’ in the first place. The Phantom 4 offers a slightly improved camera, retaining it’s f2.8 aperture but featuring a redesigned lens glass architecture, this gives a slight increase in photo and video clarity.

The new lens design also reduces distortion (chromatic aberration) at the far extents of the picture frame. The focal distance has also been reduced to 3ft meaning that objects closer to the P4 will retain detail. For the professional videographer/photographer these differences may be key, but for the average user they’ll be subtle.

The camera offers a maximum resolution of 4K which matches that of the P3 Professional but exceeds the 2.7K cap of the P3 Advanced. The P4 also introduces a bonus ‘slow-motion’ capability for the 1080p resolution mode, providing 60fps and 120fps. This feature alone will prove particularly popular to those capturing sport and other fast paced video opportunities.

Phantom 4's 4K camera and redesigned gimbal.
Phantom 4’s 4K camera and redesigned gimbal.

Interestingly DJI removed the mention of ‘Sony’ under the camera sensor specification from their official Phantom Comparison page, yet the camera specifications remain the same, there is consequently a little confusion around whether the sensor is still indeed Sony or otherwise.

On a final note, the P4 permits the attachment of custom filters as per the P3 Professional and Advanced, unlike the P3 Standard which has a fixed/non-removable clear filter.

Conclusion: The Phantom 4 camera is without question an upgrade in comparison to the camera shipped with the P3 Standard or Advanced in terms of resolution and lens, however these changes equate to only a minor/subtle step-up for existing owners of the P3 Professional where the difference in quality may not be obvious. One key difference are the new slow-motion frame-rates which will appeal to some users.

Flight time and battery

The Phantom 4 battery, increased mAh size and flight time.
The Phantom 4 battery, increased mAh size and flight time.

The Phantom 3 has generally provided their owners with around 22 minutes of flight time, which is close to the accurately quoted “23 minutes” (P3 Pro/Advanced) and “25 minutes” (P3 Standard) on the DJI website. On that basis it is fair to assume that the flight time given for the P4 is accurate, quoted at an impressive 28 minutes.

This equates to a 3 minute boost in flight time for P3 Standard pilots and a substantial 5 minute increase compared to the Professional and Advanced.

However, the technical specification, size and fitment of the batteries has changed dramatically rendering your P3 batteries incompatible with the new P4. Whilst the P3 batteries were a mere 4480mAh, the new P4 batteries pack in a whopping 5350mAh, both in 4S configuration.

As we all know well, the DJI ‘Intelligent Batteries” are not cheap, retailing at around £120 ($180) and they generally do not retain economical second-hand value, as a consequence the extended flight time of the P4 is essentially irrelevant to P3 owners whom have built a collection of spare power packs.

Conclusion: If you have two or more batteries for your P3 then you are already capable of flights of around 44 minutes between the two packs, per outing. In addition you have already invested significantly in batteries which will see uneconomical loss if sold second-hand.

As a consequence the extended flight time of the P4 is of minimal gain, nice of course for a new buyer but less of a benefit to existing consumers of any of the P3 models.

Performance and Speed…

Phantom 4 Sports Mode.
Phantom 4 Sports Mode.

The P4 ships with a new ‘Sports Mode’ allowing it too shift along at an impressive 20m/s (metres per second) which is about 45mph, compared to the maximum 16m/s of the P3 models. I is a little like the ‘Sport’ button on most modern cars, unlocking the full power/tilt of the Phantom and it’s brushless motors.

There have been reports that the propellers can still end up in shot when flying in Sports Mode at full speed, despite the new raised design of the motors, but this is yet to be fully proven.

Conclusion: The relevance of the speed at which your Phantom travels is entirely dependent on your use of the quadcopter. If you’re an adrenaline junkie and have bought the Phantom to fly it around as a sporty RC aircraft alone, or to track and film fast paced sports, then the increased speed and power capabilities will appeal.

For the majority of Phantom owners whom simply wish to ‘cruise the sky’, happy to just take in the scenery, the speed and performance of the P3 is more than adequate.

Design…

The newly designed Phantom 4 Quadcopter.
The newly designed Phantom 4 Quadcopter.

A noticeable change made to the look of the Phantom is the increased height of the motors. By raising the height of the four brushless motors and also moving the camera further forward (to help accommodate the larger battery), DJI have reduced the potential for props to appear in footage (unless in Sport Mode).

This enhancement could be valuable to professional videographers although even with the P3 the props are generally only visible in footage if flying on a windy day or when travelling at speed, neither of which conditions make for good footage anyway.

The new raised motors/props of the Phantom 4.
The new raised motors/props of the Phantom 4.

In addition, the ‘Quick Attach/Release Props’ from the Inspire now also feature on the P4, this ensures that props are attached correctly and of course the new mechanism also gets you into the air and packed-up after a little quicker.

Conclusion: The raising of the motors clearly lowers the chance of props spoiling your key shot, this should appeal to owners of all P3 models although the scale of this issue really depends on what kind of shots you’re capturing and the associated speeds. The newer prop attachment mechanism is indeed nice but not a profound reason to upgrade.

Lightbridge and FPV…

Phantom 4 Lightbridge 2
Phantom 4 Lightbridge 2

The proprietary system designed by DJI for transmitting live video between controller and aircraft is known as ‘Lightbridge’. The system shipped with the P4 is the same as found in the P3 Advanced and Professional, providing live FPV video at 720p to around 5km (and much further according to reports).

The exception is the P3 Standard which does not include Lightbridge and instead uses the conventional and slightly clunky 2.4ghz WiFi protocol to deliver a live stream, limited to a range of 500m-1km.

The maximum bitrate for video transmission on the P4 matches that of the P3 Professional at 10Mbps, however both exceed the cap applied to the P3 Advanced and Standard of 2Mbps, consequently the live preview may be of higher quality and less latency on the P4 and P3 Professional when compared to the two inferior models.

Conclusion: For P3 Professional and P3 Advanced owners, there’s no advantage or gain as they are equipped with the same version as the P4’s Lightbridge. However, for P3 Standard owners the increased range of all other models (P3 Pro/Adv and P4) is a bonus but with no specific advantage to upgrading to the P4.

Autonomous flight…

Phantom 4's new 'SmartTrack' feature.
Phantom 4’s new ‘SmartTrack’ feature.

The new Phantom 4 incorporates a few impressive enhancements to the well respected ‘Intelligent Flight Mode’ line-up. The two new modes named ‘ActiveTrack’ and ‘TapFly’ will appeal to different types of pilot and so we will evaluate each separately.

ActiveTrack

This impressive feature leverages the enhanced computing power of the P4 to allow the pilot to draw a box around an object to track, the P4 will then autonomously follow that object/person/vehicle to keep them in the centre of the frame at all times, even controlling the gimbal tilt automatically.

The big advantage of this feature when compared to the basic ‘Follow Me’ mode of the P3 is that the object being tracked does not need to be carrying the transmitter around, therefore the pilot can track the flight and manipulate the position of the drone whilst the P4 focuses on the complex task of keeping a specific object in view.

In the last few weeks, third-party app developers (Litchi) have been able to demonstrate similar functionality using the P3 with a fairly good degree of success, however the P4 has a major hardware processing advantage due to its dual front-facing optical flow cameras which provide 3D spacial data to the P4 processor, consequently it is better equipped for tracking an object and retaining an accurate lock.

TapFly

This feature is without question designed to appeal to the novice and allows flight of the P4 simply by tapping on a part of the live-view image feed, the P4 will then fly autonomously to that location. Upon tapping the next location, the P4 will smoothly change it’s direction to ensure that footage captured is not jerky.

I personally struggle to believe that general or experienced pilots would utilise this feature, it promotes a passive or ‘care-free’ flying style, I do however see the logic of introducing this feature as it helps to enable the ‘new pilot’.

This new feature can be easily ported to the P3 models, but with the absence of ‘Obstacle Avoidance’ third-party app developers may wish to avoid the risk of incorporating such a feature into their suite.

Conclusion: ActiveTrack is a stunning feature of the P4, supported by its optical flow cameras and spacial-data. Third-party apps may provide a very similar result using the P3 but the stability and reliability of such apps may struggle to match that of the 3D-model based P4 computing.

TapFly is a nice idea with ‘newbie’ appeal but nothing more. Existing P3 owners should not upgrade on the basis of this feature as a consideration.

Obstacle Avoidance…

Phantom 4's Optical Sensors.
Phantom 4’s Optical Sensors.

Perhaps THE most impressive feature of the Phantom 4 is its Obstacle Avoidance. Two new front facing cameras track the path of the P4 and provide not only visual alerts but also allow it to ‘take control’ with evasive manoeuvres if the aircraft feels that a collision is imminent.

This feature is also said to be RTH (Return To Home) compatible. The video count of endless P3’s colliding with objects during RTH demonstrates the need for this feature which prompts the P4 to autonomously increase its altitude during its journey home if it encounters an obstacle in its path.

The obvious downside to this feature relates to the positioning of the sensors/cameras. Instead of looking sideways as well or even at diagonals, they are instead focused directly and only forwards. In general Phantom pilots are flying forwards, but the ‘Intelligent Flight Modes’ are rising in popularity and for sideways panning shots or circular ‘POI’ shots, the P4 is blind of objects to the left and right of its movements.

Conclusion: This is an impressive start, a positive first-generation effort by DJI, but it is not a fully rounded solution, yet. Pilots should fly responsibly and avoid scenarios where an impact is possible or likely, a reliance/dependency on Obstacle Avoidance is unhealthy and similar to TapFly where a passive flying mentality becomes the norm.

For a new pilot with a P4 as their first drone/quadcopter, this is a valuable feature, but for the seasoned, responsible and competent P3 pilot, the real-world appeal is gimmick only. An exception (perhaps) is the usefulness is Obstacle Avoidance during RTH, but in mitigation, a responsible pilot will always avoid flying behind obstacles (resulting in lost signal) and would have set an appropriate RTH altitude regardless.

Controller/transmitter…

Phantom 4 Remote Control/Transmitter.
Phantom 4 Remote Control/Transmitter.

The transmitter was given a minor facelift with the P4 release with the addition of a new ‘Intelligent Flight Pause Button’, pressing this whilst the P4 is flying autonomously will cause it to hover in its current location, paused from automated flight. This is a useful button, added for safety.

DJI chose to remove the ‘Playback Button’ from the P4 controller, although this button was always redundant due to the DJI app featuring an easily accessible playback button of it’s own.

Besides the above differences, the P4 and P3 Professional/Advanced controllers are the same, incorporating the two useful programmable buttons on the underside. The P3 Standard controller is far more basic and excludes a number of useful buttons including ‘Video’ and ‘Photo’, but more importantly the vital ‘Return To Home’ button.

Finally the Smart-Device mount has been re-engineered in CNC aluminium, this gives a much more stable support for your device.

Conclusion: A controller alone is not a reason to upgrade from any of the P3 models, there is no real gain or advantage for P3 Professional or P3 Advanced owners. P3 Standard owners would benefit partially by upgrading to any of these more superior models due to their fully-featured controllers but the controller improvements alone are not justification.

VPS Positioning Module…

Phantom 4 VPS (Vision Positioning System).
Phantom 4 VPS (Vision Positioning System).

The P4 includes the VPS (Vision Positioning System) feature also found on the P3 Professional and Advanced (not included on the P3 Standard), but there have been improvements made in the P4 version as the height range of this sensor is increased from only 10ft to a whopping 33ft. This means that the P4 can now hold its hover position up to 3x higher when flying at low altitude or indoors where a GPS lock is not possible.

Over the years, some P3 pilots have disabled VPS on their P3’s claiming that it can cause the Phantom to behave oddly when passing obstacles underneath, therefore the usefulness of the VPS module is questionable, unless flying indoors which is a rare occasion for most.

Conclusion: The VPS module on the P3 Professional/Advanced is beneficial for indoors flight but there are very few public requests for increased height and so the driver for this change is unclear. If you fly largely indoors within warehouses then the enhanced VPS may be a benefit, but otherwise this feature does not have wide appeal.

Safety and failsafe…

Phantom 4 Return To Home
Phantom 4 Return To Home

Scroll through any Phantom group or forum and you’ll find reports of ‘flyaways’ or ‘compass errors’, normally attributed to bad calibration of the IMU or compass. The Phantom 4 introduces a method to reduce such occurrences by incorporating dual IMUs (Inertial Measurement Unit) and compasses.

At this stage it is unclear quite how the new resilient system will work but it is assumed that the two systems will communicate so that errors are detected and resolved before the issue results in a crash or flyaway.

Conclusion: The biggest concern for a responsible pilot is losing control of their aircraft. The RTH gives a little peace of mind to a degree, but is even this fail-safe is rendered pointless if a compass or IMU issue arises in a ‘single’ non-redundant architecture, the P4 solves that.

Safety should be of key concern to all Phantom pilots, therefore we suggest that regardless of which P3 model you currently own, this feature alone should be considered as a real benefit.

What’s in the box…

Phantom 4 - What's in the box.
Phantom 4 – What’s in the box.

The P4 includes all accessories that you’d expect from a Phantom, such as spare props, USB cable etc. As with the P3 Professional, the P4 includes a 100w charger rather than the 55w charger supplied with the P3 Advanced and Standard, however due to the larger battery of the P4, charging times will increase from those of the P3 Professional.

Looking at the P4 marketing brochures, you might think that the inclusion in of a ‘Carry Box’ is quite a nice touch, however initial reports from new P4 owners are anything but positive, one stating that the included case is “nothing more than a cheaply made freezer box”, one new owner had a broken clasp within only one day of ownership.

Conclusion: The accessories included with the P4 are no different to those included with any model of the P4. sadly the bundled carry case is not quite the perk that it had looked to be.

Cost…

phantom4_ports

The P4 currently details at around £1250 ($1800), no longer are there less featured models in the line-up besides the P3 models which are still being sold as they fit nicely into the range. The P3 Professional can be bought direct from DJI with an extra battery, delivered for a mere £900 ($1300), £350 less and yet with a longer flight time (two batteries equates to around 44 minutes flight time).

The Phantom 3 Advanced is now as low as £699 ($1000) but of course lacks the 4K camera of the P4 and P3 Professional. Finally the basic but impressive Phantom 3 Standard clocks in at only £449 ($640).

The second hand market is not kind to old Phantoms, fear around flight hours, historic crashes and crack-prone arms lead to flooded market where prices are pushed lower and lower. In general, expect to get back just less than half of your initial investment from your P3, although more can be recouped if you can prove lower flight hours and include additional batteries.

Conclusion: The Phantom 4 sits proportionately priced at the top of the tree, justified considering it’s additional features. The question is how much those additional elements are worth to you as an existing P3 owner, considering that the money recouped from sale of your previous P3 will not be substantial. Will your enjoyment of the Phantom be substantially increased through those additional features? Will you utilise all of the additional features on a regular basis? Are you happy to wait a short time for app developers to provide similar proven functionality for then P3?

Overall summary…

Phantom 4 VPS (Vision Positioning System).
Phantom 4 VPS (Vision Positioning System).

Based on our assessment within this article, only the following features of the P4 are truly worthwhile of an upgrade if you’re a current P3 owner:

  • Improved camera and lens optics.
  • Obstacle Avoidance.
  • Dual IMU.
  • Raised motors.
  • ActiveTrack.
  • Increased flight time.
  • Sports mode/speed increase.

The decision for whether or not to upgrade depends on what you currently own and so we have split this section accordingly and will highlight the key considerations based on owning each of the predecessors, we’ll even include the Phantom 2 Vision+ too.

Phantom 4 upgrade from Phantom 2 Vision+

Phantom 2 Vision+
Phantom 2 Vision+

Owners of the Phantom 2 have generally achieved their moneys worth from their P2, this old but very capable Phantom legacy model can even now be picked up new for less than £250 ($350) and is still unquestionably worthy of stunning aerial shots. However the quadcopter/drone enthusiasts always seek to own the ‘latest and greatest’, consequently progressing through the range, also the age and wear/tear factor will be key.

Jumping from the P2 to the P4 is quite a leap, whether the features summarised above justify that move is really dependent on the pilot’s intended use. This article has specifically focused on the comparison between the P4 to the P3, as a consequence there are many features of the P3 which would be deemed highly desirable to P2 owners.

We recommend that you question whether you would be content with a drone as capable as the P3 Professional, and would you miss the additional elements of the P4 summarised above.

Phantom 4 upgrade from Phantom 3 Standard

Phantom 3 Standard
Phantom 3 Standard

In general, the upgrade from a P3 Standard to the P4 is the most logical and justified upgrade. The P3 Standard is, like the P2, a very capable modern drone, but it lacks the range, image quality and flexibility of the superior models above it.

Launched in late 2015, this model is still fairly new but with second hand values of a P3 Standard at an all time low, we recommended that owners make the most of what they have. We suggest learning how to competently pilot their quadcopter and to leverage it’s features. Standard owners are generally new to high-level drones and so take the opportunity to improve confidence and manual flight skills before considering an upgrade.

The P4 may be an upgrade too far for some Standard pilots, in which case the P3 Professional is a better and more economical alternative.

Phantom 4 upgrade from Phantom 3 Professional

Phantom 3 Professional
Phantom 3 Professional

With the P3 Professional the 4K camera capabilities are already present along with a highly featured drone and a variety of flight modes, as well as those which will be introduced via third-party apps.

The key question is the value to you of the enhancements that the P4 provides (detailed above) and whether the cost of depreciation of your P3 Professional in addition to the supplementary cost of paying for a new P4 can be justified. I personally considered whether or not I would make full use of ‘Obstacle Avoidance’ and ‘ActiveTrack’ (the only two features which really appeal) and I concluded that I wouldn’t.

In addition, I hear on the grapevine that suppliers are already constructing value-add packages to reduce the overall cost of the P4, consequently rushing out now to buy one would not be wise.

Most important of all, would you be able to shoot better videos with a P4 than you can already shoot with your P3 Professional, the answer is probably no.

Phantom 3 Advanced
Phantom 3 Advanced

Phantom 4 upgrade from Phantom 3 Advanced

Little brother to the P3 Professional, the P3 Advanced incorporates almost all of its features besides the 4K camera resolution (despite being the same physical camera) and the higher wattage charger (100w vs 55w). Therefore the question around upgrading is virtually the same but with the additional consideration of the 4K resolution boost.

If you want to buy a Phantom 4 – click here

We want to hear from you on your thoughts, join the discussion and comment below. Also visit our Facebook group ‘DroningOn‘.

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