DJI Spark (Review)

When DJI released the Spark in May last year, it surprised many. Prior to its release, DJI was a brand known for producing much larger aerial photography drones. In other words, nothing less than a diagonal motor size of 350mm so the decision to come up with a palm-size drone was quite unexpected although much welcomed by the market which was then flooded with low quality toy-grade drones that didn’t quite make the cut when it came to taking good aerial videos.

Fast forward seven months and the Spark is now DJI’s volume seller for drones. It’s not surprising why — the base kit for the Spark costs just $377; it is highly compact and portable and has many of the intelligent flight features found on bigger and more expensive DJI drones such as the Phantom 4. It even has a 2-axis camera gimbal system — a key selling point.

The Spark became so popular that almost every electronic or camera store today has at least one unit in stock. And although a few competitors such as Yuneec, Zerotech and Hover have all released their own models to compete against it, the Spark still remains the most sought after consumer selfie drone to date by a very large margin.

Product Highlights
  • Platform: Quadcopter
  • Diagonal motor distance: 175mm
  • GPS/GLONASS and Vision Positioning System (VPS)
  • Intelligent Flight Modes:
    • QuickShot (Rocket, Dronie, Circle, Helix)
    • TapFly (Coordinate, Direction)
    • ActiveTrack (Trace, Profile)
    • Gesture:
      • Palm Launch
      • Away and Follow
      • Selfie
      • PalmControl
      • Beckon
      • Record
  • Camera: 2-axis camera gimbal system
  • Lens: F2/6 wide angle (25mm focal length)
  • Image sensor: 1/2.3″ CMOS
  • Camera resolution: HD 1080P (30fps) videos / 12MP photos
  • Maximum speed: 50km/h
  • Control range:
    • 2km (with remote controller)
    • 100m (with smartphone)
  • Flight time: 16 minutes (approximate)
  • GPS features:
    • Return to Home
    • Flight Protection
    • Position Hold
  • Propulsion: brushless motors / 120mm 2-blade propellers (foldable)
  • Weight: 300g (with battery)
  • File format: JPEG/MP4
  • Battery: 11.4V 1480mAh Li Po

The kit featured in this review is the $599 DJI Spark Fly More Combo (pictured below) which comes with an extra battery, shoulder bag, battery charging hub, an extra set of propellers and an RC remote controller. If you’re planning to fly the Spark seriously and capture some semi-pro footage and images, then I would recommend getting the Fly More Combo instead of the base kit.

This is because the base kit does not come with an RC remote controller which gives you extended control range for your Spark. With the base kit, the only way to pilot the Spark is by using the DJI GO 4 app on a smartphone or tablet.

Plus, that extra battery is a must considering that the Spark has a rather short flight time of about 15 minutes only. Imagine travelling all the way to a certain location for some aerial photography only to have 15 minutes of flight time once you’re there.

Such a short flight time just doesn’t justify all that effort in travelling to the location. In fact, I actually felt two batteries were barely enough so I purchased a third battery which gave a total of 45 minutes of flight time for all three batteries.

Build Quality and Design

The Spark may have the size and look of a toy drone but it is far from being one. The build quality on it is exceptionally good and makes other toy drones look like, well, toy drones. It may be small, but the Spark has the same quality you’d find on any other DJI product.

There is one exception though and that is the battery latch mechanism which many feel need improvement. A number of Spark owners have reported that some of their batteries do not latch securely and have popped out during flights causing crashes. Although none of my three batteries have this problem, I do feel that the latching mechanism needs some beefing up.

Since the battery is secured onto the body by two tiny spring-loaded latches each measuring a few mm wide, it is not surprising why some owners have had issues with their batteries. A slight variation in manufacturing quality of certain batteries could result in these latches not working properly.

To make sure your battery does not dislodge itself in mid flight, be sure to double check if it is firmly secured after you’ve installed it by tugging it backwards a few times.

Besides the supplied charger, the Spark has a micro USB port at the rear that allows you to charge the battery while it is installed on the drone. This means you can charge the battery on the go with a power bank.

Flight Performance

Like any other DJI drone, the Spark’s flight performance is one of the best in its class. Its 120mm 2-blade foldable propellers and brushless motors provide excellent propulsion for its 300g weight (without prop guards). With the Spark, DJI has aimed to get the best propulsion-to-weight ratio possible and its propellers, when aligned parallel to the fuselage are just 2mm from touching each other. In other words, DJI has put the largest possible motor and propeller combination on the Spark and the biggest possible battery it can.

The result is a drone that flies very well even in windy conditions. And when assisted by GPS and its Vision Positioning System (VPS), the Spark is very easy to fly and stable. The Spark’s forward-facing sensors allow it to avoid flying into obstacles (when not flown too fast). Although the feature works fine most of the time, it does struggle in detecting fine obstacles such as power lines and thin tree branches.

Intelligent Flight Modes

One thing that sets the Spark apart from its rivals are its intelligent flight modes and the Spark has plenty of these. These modes are only available via the DJI GO 4 app and cannot be accessed from the RC remote controller. With intelligent flight modes, it is possible to take professional aerial videos at the press of a button.

For example, the Spark’s Quickshot modes allow you to perform flight maneuvers such as Circle and Dronie automatically. If done manually, such flight maneuvers would require expert piloting skills and experience. I have tested all these modes and found them to be fairly reliable. They certainly are a lot more accurate than my own manual piloting skills when it comes to performing complex aerial maneuvers.

One feature conspicuously missing on the Spark is waypoint navigation which is available on other DJI drones such as the Phantom 4. Although this feature is not available on the DJI GO 4 app for the Spark, you can always install 3rd party apps such as Autopilot that have it although this could void your drone’s warranty should you crash it while using a non-DJI app.

Gesture Control

The Spark’s Gesture Control made heads turn when it was unveiled last year and it was probably the first consumer drone to feature it. For example, you can gesture the drone to move left or right. You can even gesture for it to take a photo or video. Gesture Control is a great feature to use when you find it inconvenient to get your smartphone or remote controller out for a quick photo or video.

In fact, the Spark can be flown exclusively using Gesture Control although this is something that I don’t recommend since it can sometimes fail to recognize gestures. Without a smartphone or remote controller, it is possible for the Spark to stray a few meters above ground in certain situations and when that happens, trying to get it to land is going to be very tricky. In one such situation, I have found that turning the remote controller on solved the problem. With the RC connected to the Spark, you’ll be able to land it safely.

In another case, my  Spark was hovering about 2 meters above ground when it simply stopped responding to gestures. When that happened, I had no other choice but to land it on my palm and restart it. With that said, Gesture Control should be used only if you’re very familiar with it and already have plenty of practice. If you do find yourself in situations when you can’t get your Spark to land if it has risen up a few meters beyond your reach, it will eventually land when battery level is critically low. The only problem is — you’ll have to sit around and wait until that happens.

Gesture Control works best in good lighting conditions. When lighting is inadequate, the Spark will struggle to see and identify your gestures. In my early tests, I found that it can sometimes fail to recognize gestures even in broad daylight when I’m standing 5 meters in front of it. Certain gestures seem to have a higher failure rate than others.

After hours of testing, I discovered a way to get Gesture Control to work with less failure. What I discovered was that when I perform any gesture while moving towards the Spark or away from it (roughly 2 or 3 feet of movement), the Spark seems to have a higher chance of correctly identifying the gesture. It seems that such forward or backward movements gives the camera a better sense of 3D space.

If you have problems trying to get Gesture Control to work properly, trying this trick might help you.

GPS and VPS

Two key features on the Spark that make it very easy to fly are GPS and VPS (Vision Positioning System). Without GPS, features such as QuickShot and FlightAutonomy will not work. I have done a few dozen flights with GPS and have not encountered any issues so far.

Thanks to VPS, flying the Spark indoors is so easy. The two downward-facing infrared sensors and single optical sensor allow the Spark to accurately hold its position and altitude. These sensors work up to a height of 8 meters and they’ve always worked well whenever the surface below are optimal for sensor tracking (reflective or transparent surfaces tend to confuse the sensors and can cause VPS to fail). So far, I’ve not faced any serious issues with the Spark’s VPS.

The combination of GPS and VPS makes the Spark very easy to fly both indoors and outdoors as long as you’re flying in optimal conditions.

Camera Gimbal System

The Spark comes with a 2-axis camera gimbal system that is probably one of the best you can find on a compact selfie drone. When it was first released, it became the world’s smallest camera gimbal system on a drone. Videos are buttery smooth as long as you’re not flying in terribly windy conditions or in conditions that cause a lot of movement on the yaw axis (Z axis). Some may see the lack of stabilization on the yaw axis as a big handicap on the Spark’s camera but for those who merely want to shoot videos for personal use and social media, it is not really a big issue.

In fact, I’d go as far to say that the camera is good enough for semi-pro use if you’re willing to put in a little bit of post processing or if you have a client who has a low project budget and is okay with the HD 1080P video quality.

The Spark’s camera has a 1/2.3″ CMOS sensor which is slightly larger than the image sensor on the iPhone 7. This means the image quality is very similar to what you’d get on the iPhone 7. In good lighting conditions, the camera is capable of producing very good image quality. And like smartphones, it struggles in low lighting conditions when image noise becomes a lot more obvious. The camera also has a focal length of 25mm which means you’re not going to get that fisheye distortion commonly found on ultra-wide angle lenses.

Above is a gallery of sample images that have been downsized taken using the camera’s default settings. When used with the DJI GO 4 app, the Spark is capable of taking a variety of panoramic shots and this truly makes it a formidable aerial photography platform made for the masses. Below is a 180 degree panoramic image taken using the Spark.

Another interesting camera feature that was added to the Spark some time at the end of last year is the Sphere Mode which allows you to take 360 panoramas that can then be viewed in the DJI GO 4 app as a 360 VR panorama. The image can also be viewed using other VR apps on your smart devices or desktop computer.

When viewed without a VR app, the 360 panoramas can be viewed as a single JPEG image similar to the sample shown above. The only flaw I find in the app’s panorama modes is that panoramas are not stitched as high res / high quality JPEGs. Panoramas are saved at not so high resolutions (no more than 4100px at their widest) and JPEG compression has been bumped up to produce file sizes that are no larger than 1MB.

Clearly, DJI has designed these modes to suit 99% of users out there who probably only need medium resolution JPEGs no larger than 1MB for uploading to social media and other similar platforms. If you’re a professional photographer or graphic designer looking to print high resolution images at 300dpi, the DJI GO 4 app is going to disappoint as it does not allow you to manually choose your own image resolution and JPEG compression.

The good news is, the Spark stores all individual images taken to produce panoramas in their own folders. This means you can stitch your own panoramas using any app of your choice that allow you to manually set your own image resolutions and JPEG compression values.

RC Remote Controller

The RC Remote Controller is a great device to have if you want extended control range out of your Spark. It comes included in the Fly More Combo and can also be bought separately. Design and ergonomics are great and the RC comes with a built-in battery that can be charged using a micro USB port. This, I feel, is the only major flaw of the RC.

Since it doesn’t have a removable battery, how long you can fly your Spark really depends on how long the battery on the RC lasts. This means it doesn’t matter how many batteries you have for your drone, if the RC runs out of battery you have no choice but to stop flying and charge it unless you have an extra RC at hand to use. Of course, you can still use Gesture Control and your smartphone as replacement but … they are just not the same.

When fully folded, the RC is so compact you can even keep it in your pocket. It has two foldable hand grips that extend below and double as a smartphone holder. One big issue that I find when using my smartphone with the RC outdoors is that screen visibility gets really bad, especially under broad daylight. To solve this issue, there are various third party sun shades that were designed for the RC.

One thing to check when piloting the Spark using the RC or your smartphone is the radio control frequency that you’re using. By default, the Spark’s radio frequency setting is set to Auto which almost certainly means it will be selecting a frequency from the 5.8GHz band since the 2.4GHz band is mostly crowded in urban or residential areas. I will not go into the details of the differences between the two bands but suffice to say reading up on the differences between these two frequency bands is important if you want to safely fly your Spark.

When flying near office or commercial buildings using 2.4G, I noticed a lot of interference resulting in regular signal loss. This can happen when my drone is just 50m to 80m away. When switching to 5.8G, I was able to fly much further. When flying in sparsely populated areas with no other 2.4G transmitters nearby, I’m able to use 2.4G without seeing any signal loss.

At the end of the day, choosing the right frequency really depends on which environment you’re flying in.

DJI GO 4

The DJI GO 4 app is where you conjure all the magic on the Spark. With that said, your smartphone or tablet is an indispensable component of your Spark system if you want to get the best out of it. Although the app was plagued with some issues last year, it has improved and now works quite well with the Spark. So far I’ve faced no serious issues with it.

The interface design is great and displays all important telemetry data you need when flying. Information such as the drone’s altitude, distance from you and battery level are all displayed clearly. Due to the somewhat crowded UI, using it on a smartphone with a 5.5″ display can be a bit challenging. To get the most out of it, I suggest using a tablet instead with a screen size of at least 7″.

The Spark’s remote controller will not fit tablets but there are tablet holders that fit onto it that are available for less than $50.

Conclusion

The DJI Spark is no doubt the best lifestyle selfie drone that you can buy for less than $400. Although a number of rival brands have come up with their own Spark-alternatives, they all pale in comparison to the Spark. DJI has done an excellent job in bringing many of its intelligent flight features into its smallest drone and volume seller. The Spark’s 2-axis camera gimbal system and HD 1080P camera may seem inadequate to professional aerial photographers but for the casual consumer or tourist, they’re great features to have.

Like anything else, the Spark isn’t perfect and it does have a few flaws. Gesture Control does not work all the time and is still far from perfect and the Spark has a less-than-average flight time of about 13 to 16 minutes. Then there is the battery latching mechanism that can fail as reported by some owners. And finally, the Spark’s $377 price tag is something that puts it beyond the reach of some potential buyers.

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But is it really worth that lofty price tag? After a few dozen flights with it, I’m glad to say that it is worth it. Despite its flaws, the Spark has a level of quality and reliability that inspires confidence in me each time I bring it out for a flight. I do not have the same nervousness that I get when flying cheaper drones that cost $200 or less because with the Spark, there are just so many fail-safe features and countermeasures to prevent flyaways or crashes.

If you have $377 to spend and want a decent selfie drone to capture your next family vacation, outing or sports meet, the DJI Spark is something that I would highly recommend. The DJI Spark can be purchased at Amazon and is available in a variety of canopy colors. Click here for more details.

The Spark can also be purchased at GearBest, Banggood and the official DJI Store.



DJI Spark

DJI Spark
8.1

Affordability

5.0 /10

Reliabilty

9.6 /10

Features and Performance

9.5 /10

Flight Time

7.0 /10

Build Quality

9.4 /10

Pros

  • Class-leading Intelligent flight features
  • Excellent 2-axis camera gimbal system
  • GPS and VPS work very well
  • Excellent RC remote controller
  • Compact and portable

Cons

  • Pricey
  • Short flight times
  • No yaw axis video stabilization or 4K video
  • Battery latching mechanism needs improvement
  • Gesture Control does not work sometimes

Adrin Sham

Adrin Sham is a designer and photographer turned drone enthusiast. Since buying a drone for aerial photography some years ago, he has since developed a passion for UAVs and all things related.

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