SQUAW VALLEY, CA — GoPro CEO Nick Woodman says the company’s newly unveiled Karma drone is more than just a drone.
That’s true, a grip handle that connects to a GoPro Hero 4 or Hero 5 series action camera also screws out of the drone’s body to become a handheld stabilizer.
But consumers have waited a long time for the Karma, and consumer drone leaders like DJI have built up fantastic quadcopters with advanced computer vision. How does the Karma compare? I flew one to find out.
At $799.99 for the drone package, which comes with two batteries, a Karma Grip handheld stabilizer and a backpack to store it all, the Karma is a very attractive when compared to DJI’s Phantom 4, which costs $1,100.
Sounds good, but that doesn’t include any camera, whereas the Phantom 4 does. GoPro says anyone who’s looking at the Karma likely already has a Hero 4 or is planning to get a Hero 5 camera. Fair enough.
And if you don’t have a GoPro camera, the company’s selling a $999.99 bundle with a Hero 5 Session and a $1,099.99 package with a Hero 5 Black. The latter is the most competitive to the Phantom 4.
GoPro touted the Karma’s foldable design, but the actual drone is larger than it looks, even with its propellers and landing skids collapsed. Will it fit in your Jansport? Absolutely not. But that’s why it comes with its own backpack, which is large enough to hold all of its included parts and some additional accessories (like extra propellers).
At 2.2 pounds, the Karma is barely heavier than Apple’s new 12-inch MacBook. You’ll barely feel it on your back.
The drone has a maximum speed of 35 miles per hour, a range of up to 3,280 feet and can climb up to 14,500 feet (although it’s capped to 400 feet by default for safety).
The Karma’s a sleek drone and nimble, and controlling it with the included gamepad-style clamshell controller is nowhere near as intimidating as one of the R/C controllers other drones come with. The self-contained controller design and simple button layout (two joysticks, a launch button, return home button on the face and a couple of shoulder dials and buttons for things like recording and controlling the gimbal) is one way to entice beginners to feel comfortable flying the Karma.
A few other reporters who didn’t have experience flying any drones told me they immediately felt comfortable and at ease using the controller.
Normally, drone controllers require you to slot in your own smartphone or tablet, but not the Karma’s controller. It has a 5-inch touchscreen, which is really bright — bright enough, and with a polarized filter, so that you can still see the screen clearly with sunglasses on. Big plus for this feature alone.
Each of the rather larger removable batteries is good for between 15-20 minutes of flight time, which is comparable to other consumer drones. The controller’s battery is good for four hours on a single charge.
The blades are removable and so, too, are the propeller arms. More kudos to GoPro for making it easy to repair; I actually broke a propeller while landing the Karma when one of them hit a bunch of rocks. I felt bad, but GoPro didn’t. They just swapped in a new one.
Flying is easy and the Karma resists wind quite well. GoPro says it wanted to focus on creating a flying experience that would be easy enough for a beginner to pick up and learn, but also had enough advanced features for a pro to tackle.
While I definitely enjoyed flying the Karma up in the mountains of Squaw Valley, I’m still not convinced it’s better than the Phantom 4, which many, including Mashable chief correspondent Lance Ulanoff considers the “iPhone of drones.”
Head-to-head, the Phantom 4 does more and maybe does it all better. For instance, the Karma doesn’t have any kind of obstacle avoidance system, which the Phantom 4 does. It also doesn’t have a kind of self-follow feature — a feature that’s increasingly available on drones.
On the other hand, the Karma does have cool auto-modes and one feature that lets the drone rise up over a horizon and get a cinematic scenic shot. Additionally, the Karma drone will have an app called Passenger that lets your friends control the attached GoPro with their own smartphones; it’s like having a co-pilot.
Woodman shrugged the lack of obstacle avoidance and auto-follow features as not advanced enough for consumers, but I disagree. See, even though I feel comfortable flying drones, there have been times where I’ve been so glad the Phantom 4 had obstacle avoidance to prevent it from giving bystanders unexpected haircuts because of, say, connectivity issues. It’s just very reassuring to know that there’s a sort of built-in “do not hurt humans or slam into a wall” feature.
Whether those are make or break features will ultimately be up to consumers to decide. The public stigma is that drones can go haywire. GoPro’s Karma drone didn’t allay any of those fears.
Still, if you want a fast and compact drone, the Karma’s a beaut and I, for one, look forward to testing it out for myself to see if perhaps the lack of those two features is misguided or not.