It's been well over a year since I first reviewed DJI Phantom 2 Vision+, an aerial drone that served as my introduction to this exciting, nerve-wracking, always-evolving industry. Since then, a flurry of new and improved models have debuted from both DJI and up-and-coming competitors, such as Yuneec and 3DR.
Both DJI and Yuneec were kind enough to send me review units to try for the purpose of this comparison. The DJI Phantom 3 4K and the Yuneec Typhoon Q500 4K are not the companies' top-of-the-line models, but they offer incredible bang-for-buck that will give most consumers exactly what they're looking for from an aerial drone. Ready to take off?
Out of the box
The difference in size between the Q500 and the Phantom 3.4K (P3) is dramatic. In fact, when I first lined them up for a photo together, I was instantly reminded of this scene from 2013's "Star Trek Into Darkness" when the USS Enterprise goes up against the much larger USS Vengeance.
Upon opening, the Q500 surprised with its bundled hard case, extra battery, screen shade, car charger, SteadyGrip handheld camera mount and controller with integrated touchscreen. It lacks nothing in the way of accessories. The P3, as with previous models, comes elegantly packaged in a cardboard box with its accompanying remote control, SD card, battery and charger. Accessories, while notably of a higher quality than what the Q500 includes, will cost you extra. To get the most out of your Phantom, you'll also need a separate smartphone and/or tablet.
While the Q500's carbon fiber design is impressive, almost alien-esque, its size is its greatest weakness. DJI's Phantom series has won praise not just for its flight prowess, but also for its portability. Even with its 13-inch props removed, the Q500 is still large and would not fit easily in a backpack. The P3 in comparison retains its portable potential from early generations.
Getting the units ready for flight is extremely easy as both DJI and Yuneec lay out the process in welcome detail. The manufacturers have made every effort, from training videos included on SD cards to online "how-tos," to make flight training as painless as possible. And while both units also have quick-start guides, I'd recommend any buyer, no matter your familiarity with the technology, patiently read and/or watch the recommended materials.
DJI's batteries and controller are known for their quick charge times, a standard not deviated with the P3. I also appreciate the integrated battery level on each, allowing you to simply touch a button to choose a cell with the most juice. The Q500 batteries, on the other hand, take about two hours to attain full power. Its larger controller also needs a longer charge time, likely due to the integration of the touchscreen Android tablet.
Once ready, getting the P3 and Q500 into the air was a welcome shift from the previous generation. The P3 includes an "auto takeoff/auto landing" button on its accompanying app that will start the rotors and place the unit about 10 feet in the air. The Q500 has a big red button to star/stop the rotors, requiring you to gently shift the throttle to guide it above you. Both units, with GPS lock turned on, impressively hovered in place to await my next move.
The biggest deviation between the two units came during flight. Whereas the P3 was nimble and responsive, the Q500 felt sluggish and "heavy" in the air. I also noticed it had more trouble negotiating wind gusts than the P3 — maybe because it's bigger. Another knock against the Q500 is its operating range: 800 meters to the P3's 1200 meters. You can clearly see all of these factors at play in this excellent video comparison between the two models:
Flight times were similar for both, right around 20 to 23 minutes depending on conditions and use. I didn't bother using the Q500's "Smart" toggle (which configures the drone to fly in directions from your perspective), but I can see how that would be useful to beginner pilots. I welcomed the inclusion of integrated, large touchscreen on the Q500 controller. Not having to use my cellphone to view the drone's field of vision and accompanying flight data was fantastic. The controller's layout and buttons also felt a bit more polished than the P3.
Speaking of the layout, the P3's phone app was fine but oddly cluttered compared to the one for my Phantom 2 Vision+. It could be my iPhone 5s' small screen, but I feel like a smartphone with a larger screen or even an iPad mini would be more beneficial to pilots.
Both cameras for my purposes were excellent, with out-of-the-box auto and a multitude of manual options available. If I had to choose, I'd likely prefer the P3 as the images appeared a tad sharper. The gimbals on both are solid and do a remarkable job of keeping the images steady. I did find, however, that the pan and tilt on the Q500 was slower than the P3. I should also note that the integrated screen on the Q500's controller was extremely dim in bright sunlight. Yuneec appears to have anticipated this by including the bundled sunshade, but it's no match for the brightness of an iPad mini or other tablet device.
In terms of image capture, the Q500 camera features a very wide 115-degree field of view compared to the P3's narrower 94-degree view. I appreciated the extra real estate, especially in eliminating the "fish eye" effect that's more common with the Phantoms.
Video on both was excellent, with the edge once again going to the P3 in terms of color and overall quality. I also noticed the propellers of the Q500 would sometimes show at the edges of the frame during flight; likely because of the camera's much larger field of view. These being 4K drones, you'll be duly impressed by either one in terms of the video and photos. With each generation, the ability to capture the world in even greater detail from hundreds of feet above continues to get better and better.
Both drones, in my opinion, offer tremendous value, especially when you look at how far the industry has come from only a few years ago. My personal preference in terms of responsive, nimble flight and overall picture quality would go to the Phantom 3 4K. At $599 from DJI, it's also the most affordable 4K-ready drone available.
There's no denying, however, the tremendous value offered by Yuneec. For $799, you can pick up the bundle described above, complete with extra battery, hard case, and SteadyGrip Camera mount, which would cost much more purchased separately. I would encourage any prospective aerial photographer or hobbyist to research both models and, if possible, take them out for a test flight to get a feel for their handling. Regardless of what you choose, you'll likely be smiling the entire flight.