I don’t usually do pure tech reviews. Mostly because by the time I decide to buy anything I have done loads and loads of research and generally am half way to being in love with it already so am generally biased towards being positive. I think the same is true about the DJI Spark that I recently purchased but it hasn’t been all positive for a change so I decided to write it up on here.
I have been following Casey Neistat after a friend brought his channel to my attention late last year. He was sent a prototype version so I had the first view of the smallest drone in the DJI line up months before it even became available here in South Africa. Then he got the real version and his review was just brilliant (with an apology to his wife at the end but that’s Casey for you!). So after doing more research, speaking to the guys at ODP and much advertising hype I decided that come September I will be getting one. And I was going to pay full price for it and everything, then the white fly more combo went on special and a quickly grabbed it up! That’s why people like Casey are social media influencers I guess, they influence you into buying what they get sent…although his reviews are not sponsored.
I went through to ODP last Saturday morning to have a look at the spark and get a flavour of what it could do. Unfortunately they don’t have a demo unit, which is an absolute pity on the one hand but also a bit of a boon on the other because one of the salesman on the floor actually has a DJI Mavic, the Spark’s marginally bigger brother. If the Mavic and Spark were actual siblings they would be the two young brats of the DJI family, with the Phantom being the demure teenage sister and the Inspire being the stately sibling already complete with university and already in a full time job. Until the Spark the Mavic was the smallest DJI drone but was still serious equipment. The it got usurped by the Spark which even in the advertising is meant to be more fun. And like any other siblings these two drone scrap it out with each other. For the most part I think the Mavic bullies the Spark but the little guy comes back with shot and runs away again. Well that’s how I see it anyway. Seeing the Mavic in action was quite amazing but in the end the pricing point made the decision easier. In the US the Spark sells for $499 and $699 for the fly more combo. The Mavic for $999, so the decision is much more difficult to make over there. Here in SA the Spark alone usually costs R8699 and the fly more combo R13899 while the Mavic is closer to R20000 for just the drone. Because this is my first drone and I felt I still have a lot of learning to do, the Spark made more sense. So on Monday I ordered the drone and eagerly awaited delivery.
The Spark arrived at home on Tuesday and after supper I unboxed it and opened up a world of frustration for the best part of the next three evenings:
Finding the battery charger
The fly more combo comes with a battery charger that can simultaneously charge up to 3 batteries at a time. The combo also comes with a bag (which I shall speak off later), extra propellers, propeller guards, the wifi remote amplifier and the USB cables and charger cables required. All the accessories, except the charging dock itself were in the main body of the bag and the drone in a second snug case. So I unpacked it all and then kept looking for the charging dock for a good 15 to 20 minutes. Almost at the point of emailing the sales rep at ODP, I decided to do one last look through and decided to check the 3 pockets on the bag, just in case. And tucked neatly into the front pocket, almost flat because it is so thin, was the charging dock! Why it was packed separate from all the other accessories eludes me.
Fitting the Propeller guards
The fly more combo comes with propeller guards. I had a drone that I have tried to fly for the better part of the last year and a half. I say tried because it was one of those CX-10 mini drones that seemingly went everywhere except where you wanted it to. Built in drift meant that it would move forward and sideways and hit something before you had time to react. So the prop guards I felt were necessary and were therefore the first things I tried to fit while the batteries charged. Only there is a specific order to install them in. The instruction booklet said to install guards marked with white on propellers marked with white. Only all the propellers have white marking on the edge. Two of them have smaller white markings on the prop-shaft itself which I eventually managed to locate and then the drone was ready to fly. Physically. Mentally it wasn’t in the right space apparently…
DJI Go 4 App and Firmware Updates
So I eventually got the batteries for the drone charging and waited for the full charge which is surprisingly quick. From almost dead to full takes about 50 mins. So while I waited I decided to download the DJI Go 4 app. To fly any of the DJI drones you will need the app. I purchased the app and it downloaded but then almost immediately needed an update. Not unlike many other apps I guess so not really a surprise. I then turned the Spark on having noted the wifi connection details under the battery slot and tried connecting. Nothing. My phone does not pick up the drone’s wifi signal straight off the drone for some reason. So then I decide to try to scan the QR code. There are a few, on the box, on the drone case and then also under the battery as mentioned. Tried scanning all but they were so small that my iPhone 5s camera could not pick up any of the codes. So after much frustration I decided to call it a night and go to bed an try again on Wednesday.
Wednesday evening and I decide to try again. QR codes still not scanning and I put it down to poor indoor lights. Search the internet and everyone says this is a common error so try connecting to the wifi. But my phone is still not seeing the drone’s wifi. Then I turn the remote control over and see that on another small sticker is a wifi name and password. Ah finally! I make that connection and suddenly the app seemingly works. First things first though, the remote controller needs a firmware update. 100mb but the remote needs to be on and connected to the phone. Through the wifi. Which means internet wifi is off. Ok then, cellular data (which btw is kak expensive still) it is.
Remote controller firmware updated meant the controller could be paired with the drone. Luckily this was already done before delivery so I didn’t have to complete the pairing, which the app later told me can be done. Unfortunately you can only access the tutorial videos for the spark once you have connected to the Spark (or it won’t know which videos to load it seems). But once the connection is made the first thing that pops up is another firmware update – this time for the drone itself. Ah well another download on cellular data and another wait for the update and eventually I can access the drone on the app. Right I’m ready to fly. Almost. Compass on the drone needs calibration and home point needs to be updated. Ok now we are ready surely. Change the battery on the drone because more than 50% has been used sitting and updating on the runway it seemed. One last update for the no fly zones now that you have entered the home position. And finally the green light comes on and the spark can take-off!
It was way too dark outside because it was closer to 9pm so I decided to try an indoor take off. And let me tell you it was nerve wracking. The app allows take off and then the drone is meant to hover at 1.2m while it waits for the next instruction. Only I think it needs to find its bearings and balance on the first flight because mine got up and started to drift almost immediately. After just a few seconds I got scared and decided to land and go watch the tutorial videos on the app and leave the flying for Thursday afternoon.
Watching the tutorials helped. And Casey again gave me additional inspiration and courage. So Thursday evening I got home and got the drone outside ready to fly. The security guard looked at me strangely asking me what I was doing and the neighbour kids were all thinking I was playing around with a toy I’m sure. They all waited with anticipation to watch the old man fly his new drone. Only it did not take off – the battery needed a firmware update!
Micro SD Card
Somewhere on Wednesday evening I realised that the drone only takes micro sd memory cards. Which is all well and good if you have a few lying around, in your phone perhaps, that you can quickly swap into the drone. If you like me and only have normal SD and CF memory cards then you have to buy a couple new cards not compatible with any other gear you may be using. And because the Spark shoots HD video the card has to be fast and large. And therefore costly. And its always a good idea to get a spare as well…
The bag and carry case
The last point of frustration came on Saturday morning. I arranged to go out to learn at least some basic controls with my pal Herbie at a local park. It was then I realised that the design teams at DJI working on the drone and on the bag that comes with the Spark in the fly more combo did not speak to each other. Because the bag is too small to house the Spark and the controller together. And the black carry case that fits the Spark so snugly, protecting it from coming to any harm cannot fit into the bag either. Now I take it that the carry case was meant to house the Spark during travel – it comes with 2 slots for the spare batteries as well as slots for spare propellers. But it has no handle to carry it by. And with it not fitting into the bag you are literally carrying a bag with the one controller and a couple cables and maybe the battery charging station in one hand and the Spark, spare batteries and propellers in the carry case in the other. For something that has the advantage of being small and portable, having to carry two bags/cases around does not make for easy travelling. But I guess its something I will have to get used to. The propeller guards will need to come off before the drone is slotted back into the carry case – just in case you don’t see that.
After all of the frustration (which continues by the way because it’s almost Tuesday and I still can’t figure out how to connect the phone directly to the Spark) flying out in the open of James and Ethel on Saturday and then at Zoo lake on Monday was a pleasure. The drone gets up quickly and responsive to the remote – definitely worth getting the fly more combo for almost on it’s own (R2999 out of bundle) and is simple enough to learn. The obstacle sensor seems to work well and I have not hit anything yet – I have been flying cautiously though. I have had a chance to try out some of the different shooting modes and now am playing around with editing the footage I got. The first week had its ups and downs, mostly downs but hopefully it only gets better from here! Stay tuned for more to come:)