Is it Worth Upgrading to the Mavic 3?

DJI just launched a new drone. Perhaps you have seen one of the 14,284 post-embargo videos extolling the Mavic 3's virtues on YouTube. There's been a fair bit of interest in the latest model because DJI's consumer drones are after all the most popular quadcopter range on the planet by some margin. I must admit that I'm always confused by the frenzy surrounding the release of a new DJI drone and by people's apparent willingness to take a substantial financial hit on selling their current drone for the latest model. I say apparent willingness because a lot of it might just be just talk, but the fact that there's an uptick in second hand drones on Craigslist and eBay would suggest that a substantial number of folks do regularly switch drones.

I guess there are several reasons why people do upgrade their drones, some perfectly logical, some not so much. The most obvious one is that some people just have to have the current model of whatever consumer device they own. So they stand in line for the latest Google Pixel or Apple iPhone, they switch out the graphics cards in their PCs like Chinese Bitcoin miners and they put their current DJI drone on eBay the second the release date of a new model is announced.

I don't understand this behaviour, but it's their money and if they want to bleed a few grand every year, that's their choice I suppose. And actually if you think about it, they're almost functioning as a kind of charitable enterprise. Folks who regularly update their devices (whether they need to or not) lower the cost of entry into drone ownership. People who aren't bothered about owning the very latest DJI drone and might not able to afford a new one snap up their old, perfectly good ones for a bargain price.

Another reason people upgrade their drones more regularly than they really need to is our old friend FOMO - fear of missing out. Global technology companies like Apple, DJI, Sony and Samsung are masters at seducing us all with the amazing new features that can only be found on their latest device. More memory! Faster! Smaller! We then start worrying that our perfectly good existing device is somehow lacking, when it almost certainly isn't.

These days the legion of photography and film-making YouTubers do most of the hard work for companies like DJI and those channels loyal subscribers eagerly watch their visually splendid but often unreliable reviews. And I'm certainly not taking the high ground here or suggesting that I'm immune to the marketing efforts of these companies - I feel that FOMO pang every time DJI release a new drone or Apple a new iPhone.

There are of course plenty of perfectly valid reasons to upgrade your drone. I think my reasoning for switching from Phantom 4 to Mavic 2 Pro was a sensible and measured one. I was shooting a lot of photography and video out in the national parks and it was a royal pain in the arse lugging that bloody huge suitcase sized Phantom 4 case with me. I did get a P4 backpack but there was no room for the rest of my kit, so I reverted to lugging that foam case around with me. When I got my Mavic, I could put it inside my main camera backpack with everything else and it was convenient and practical. I've made some dubious decisions over the years but upgrading from Phantom to Mavic certainly wasn't one of them.

Three Is the Magic Number?

All of which brings me round to the recently released Mavic 3. I was interested to see what exactly DJI would come up with this time around and what new features and improved technology they'd add to the Mavic range. I am in no way dissatisfied by the quality of the images and video my Mavic 2 Pro produces and I knew that DJI would have to do something particularly innovative to have me even considering upgrading.

And fortunately for my bank account and for the on-going harmonious relationship with my good lady wife 'er indoors, there was absolutely nothing in the Mavic 3 that had me checking the prices online. This is probably just as well as I when I did find out what DJI are charging this time around I felt a painful tightening in my chest.

When I was looking at the specs of the Mavic 3 I wondered to myself how far we've actually come in terms of the technology. Now I should preface this by saying that my interest in drones relates purely to the photos and the videos they produce, not to the speed, the range, the various feature modes or the styling. But did you know that that the Phantom 3 had 4K video, a stabilised three axis gimbal, collision sensors and 25 minutes of flight time, back in 2015? Have a look at this video - remember to watch it in 4K. Gorgeous right?

That was shot on Phantom 3 Pro nearly 7 years ago. Is the footage produced on the Mavic 3 really that much better? Sure dynamic range might be better and there may be better low light performance but the vast majority of people, the folks who sit at home and watch videos on YouTube are highly unlikely to notice any difference whatsoever - particularly since far and away the most popular resolution on YouTube is 1080p and also since the vast majority of people watch those videos on their smartphones. Us camera dorks and drone geeks might buy into DJI's bullshit about Hassleblad colour science, but nobody else gives a flying fuck. All the punters care about is content.

Out of Sight

The Mavic 3 has a claimed 45 minutes of flight time, but the real-world tests I've seen would suggest it's actually not substantially better than the Air 2s. It also has a claimed range of 15km - but so what? If I fly legally here in Australia then I'm supposed to keep drone in my line of sight at all times. So the range I can legally use it is actually about 200 metres at best. If you have a full licence and a beyond-visual-line-of-site certification, then you could legally use it, but otherwise it's all a bit pointless if you're a law-abiding drone flyer.

Of course I'm taking the piss a bit - we all know full well that most drone owners fly beyond visual line of sight pretty much every time they put the drone in the air - you know it, I know it, DJI know it and you can guarantee that CASA (or the airspace regulator in your country) knows it too. And me? Oh I always keep my drone within visual line of sight … always …

I'm a pretty nervous flyer anyway but if I was legally able to fly beyond visual line of sight then, purely theoretically speaking, the maximum I'd ever have the nerve to send my drone would be about 2 kilometres. Over the ocean. Probably only about a kilometre over land. Theoretically speaking. In all honesty, it seems to me that the massive transmission ranges on drones are good for just two things - for farmers checking on their cattle and for gadget-heads making range videos on YouTube.

So the Mavic's got improved range most people can't legally use and better colours nobody will notice, what else is there?

Well, it can shoot 4K at 120fps. This is a nice feature for sure and definitely useful for filming action stuff like surfing or moody b-roll footage. My Mavic 2 Pro can do 4k at 30fps, 2.7k at 60fps and 1080p at 120fps all in 10-bit. And you know what - the only video mode I've ever used on my drone is 4k at 24fps. I dare say I'm not alone in that regard either - slow motion's great for producing wank-tastic marketing footage for drones - and maybe for rap videos - but other than that I suspect most people just shoot at 24, 25 or 30. While we're on the subject, that DJI fan-favourite - the Mavic Air 2S can do 5.4K at 30 fps, 4K Ultra at 60 fps, 2.7K at 60 fps or 1080 at 120 fps also in 10-bit which seems like a much more compelling package to me. If, and I hope I'm not tempting fate by saying this, my Mavic 2 ended up at the bottom of the Pacific and I got an insurance pay-out the Air 2s is undoubtedly what I'd get in preference to the Mavic 3.

So I guess in terms of video modes, it's a nice incremental upgrade, but not the sort of thing that's going to get me waving wads of cash in front of Mr DJI's face screaming SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY!

Take a Closer Look

Then there's that zoom lens and if anything ever screamed - unfinished bodge job - this is it. I have to assume that the engineers at DJI ran into technical difficulties they couldn't resolve before the Mavic 3's hard release deadline rolled around. The footage produced on that weird little second camera is awful at anything other than the default optical 7x zoom and you have no control over the camera beyond some basic exposure tweaks. Oh and in picture mode, it only shoots JPEGs, not RAWs.

You have to hand it to DJI though - turning their obvious development failure into a feature and christening their unfinished zoom camera 'Explorer Mode' is a fabulous bit of creative marketing. It's a bit like if GoPro had called the catastrophic mid-air failures of their Karma drones 'Sudden Descent Mode'.

What else is new on the Mavic 3? Well, there's a greatly improved collision detection system, APAS 5 which, ermm, won't be available until some time in 2022 when DJI release a firmware update. Oh and all of the Quickshots and Mastershots - those gimmicky modes that only seem to get used by travel influencers on holiday in Bali - those are missing too until the firmware update. So I guess the software engineers stuffed up as badly as the hardware engineers. Don't suppose there are going to be too many Christmas bonuses floating around Shenzhen this year. But if ever a product reeked of 'unfinished' and 'rushed to market' the Mavic 3 is it.

New and Improved

Like the Mavic 2, the Mavic 3 comes in two flavours - your basic model and the Cine version. The basic model is $600 more expensive than the Mavic 2 here in Australia at $3100 or $4200 for the Fly More combo which comes with two spare batteries and a backpack you'll probably never use. And the Cine version is an eye-watering $7200 here in Oz.

So let's talk about that Cine version. In terms of drone hardware the one and only difference is internal storage capacity. On the basic version you get 8Gb and on the Cine you get 1Tb - that's it for the hardware - no improved cameras, no larger batteries, just a larger internal SSD. The Cine package does come with the swanky RC Pro remote controller which has a lovely bright 1000nits display. Which sounds great, but it's bloody expensive value-added feature. Most people use their smartphone with their drone controller and so by way of comparison my iPhone 12 Pro's display is 800nits, the new iPhone 13 display maxes out at 1200nits and the Galaxy S21 goes all the way up to 1500nits, so screen brightness isn't a huge advantage even if convenience is. All of which brings us around to the last point of difference between the basic and Cine packages, which is ProRes 422.

Now if you're not someone who shoots a lot of video with mid to high-end camera equipment you might not have heard of ProRes. It's a video codec, like MP4, H264 or HEVC, and it was developed by Apple for use with their video editing software. It's been widely adopted by camera manufacturers all over the world and is a high quality, lossy video compression format. ProRes comes in various flavours with varying degrees of compression, and bit rates and therefore quality. ProRes 422 is the most commonly used variant and this comes in vanilla 422, 422HQ, 422LT and 422Proxy flavours. The version that DJI decided to endow the Mavic 3 Cine with is the highest quality variant - 422HQ.

The problem is that 422HQ produces massive video files and that is why DJI had to stick a 1Tb SSD inside the drone - SD cards are not fast enough to cope. So it's not like they sat around at a planning meeting and made the measured decision to stick a shit-tonne of internal memory in the Mavic 3 Cine - they did so only because of the honking great video files that 422HQ produces.

The use of 422HQ is an interesting choice, particularly since DJI decided to only offer 422HQ. If you're charging $4000 more than the base model for a glorified controller then I don't think it's unreasonable to include standard 422 or the more compressed 422LT formats particularly since they're marketing this Mavic as a tool for professionals. Why not give people the choice?

In reality the big upgrade to the DJI consumer drone range's video system came with the transition from 8-bit to 10-bit. 8-bit gives you millions of colours and 10-bit gives you billions. And you get 10-bit video in the Mavic 2 Pro (but not the 2 Zoom), the Air 2 and the Air 2S. The Mavic 2 Pro has a honking great 1" sensor in it, as does the Air 2s. I know we're talking about the Mavic range here, but the Phantom 4 Pro has an ultra 4K mode and shoots in 10-bit at 100Mb/s.

The thing is - as I pointed out earlier - most people will not have a clue that you shot your footage in ProRes422 on your Mavic 3 Cine, or in 10-bit D-Log H265 on your Mavic 2 Pro or indeed in good old 8-bit MP4 on a Phantom 3 Pro.
Are you shooting wildlife specials for the BBC Natural History unit? No? Then you probably don't need ProRes422HQ.

I sell b-roll video footage as a side-hustle and 8 of my 10 most popular video clips were shot on my old Phantom 4. In fact there's a bit of footage I shot on my Phantom 4 at nearby Jervis Bay which has been used by the National Geographic and Travel channels, Channel 10 (here in Australia), Tourism Australia, Visit NSW and countless other companies and agencies. It's a 4K clip and I didn't even shoot in log format because the P4 didn't have log - it uses DJI's own Cinematic format.

Crash and Burn

The new Mavic does have some other improvements such as a supposedly improved vision system. Clearly they are trying to take away Skydio's single point of difference which is AI based computed collision detection. How successful they've been in that regard nobody knows because as we know, the new APAS 5 isn't coming out for a few months.

And how important is collision detection anyway? I don't know. I can only tell you that I've never flown any of my drones into anything. What I do - and feel free to use this technique yourself, is - I look at the drone in the sky or on the screen in the controller and (this is the clever bit) if there's something in the way, then I fly around or over that thing - rather than into it. Try it yourself - it works every time.

The seven grand price tag of the Cine version puts it firmly in pro territory and not far short of DJI's Inspire 2 with a Zenmuse X5S on it. Admittedly the Mavic 3's a much more portable package, but we're talking about professional film-makers here and portability is usually not their main consideration. Given the choice between a Mavic 3 with its shonky zoom lens and an Inspire 2 with a Zenmuse camera on it, complete with interchangeable lens system, 5.2K CinemaDNG RAW, Apple ProRes, a dual battery system and a master/slave controller setup for separate pilot and camera operator - I know which I'd go for.

So are you thinking of upgrading your drone to the new Mavic 3? Did you win on the scratchies or something? Are you afflicted with a terminal case of gear acquisition syndrome? I think the Mavic 3 looks like a fine and lovely drone - of that there is no doubt. But even if I was buying a drone for the first time then I'd still probably opt for the Air 2s. And as for upgrading, I have seen nothing that offers a really compelling reason to upgrade from a Mavic 2 Pro, Air 2, Air 2S or from the Phantom 4 Pro for that matter. Not hardware, not firmware and certainly not price tag. Let's revisit this subject next year when the Air 3 comes out!

For the last 16 years I’ve been photographing, blogging (and more recently vlogging) about everything I find, see and enjoy here in South Coast, New South Wales. This is my blogging site focused on my hobby (and part-time job) of photography. Please enjoy my little writing and my photography and I’d love to hear your feedback.
© 2021 Andy Hutchinson
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