GoPro Karma drone: A smaller, lighter, cheaper, less capable DJI Phantom with free Osmo-like gimbal grip


posted Tuesday, September 20, 2016 at 4:59 AM EST


It's been promised for what feels like an eternity, and now it's finally here: Action camera maker GoPro has taken the wraps off its long-awaited Karma aerial camera platform! Final judgement on the company's first drone will have to wait until the Karma reaches market, but with the specs finally known, it's time for a comparison of the GoPro Karma vs. the DJI Phantom 4. On paper at least, it would appear to offer a fair bit of the well-entrenched DJI Phantom 4's capabilities, but in a somewhat smaller, folding package and at a lower pricetag -- at least, if you want a gimbal grip, that is.

Right off the bat, it's clear that the product bundle itself is one of the main differences between the GoPro Karma and its DJI rival. GoPro shares a single camera between both the drone and its gimbal grip, and wants you to buy it separately. You'll need to supply a Hero4 Black or Silver, or the new Hero5 Session or Hero5 Black camera for use with your drone, bolstering GoPro's camera sales in the process unless you already own one. But the drone ships with its gimbal grip as a free accessory, and realistically speaking, many target customers likely already own one or more GoPro cameras anyway.


DJI, by contrast, includes the camera in the price of its flagship Phantom-series drone, the DJI Phantom 4, but if you want its Osmo gimbal grip, you'll have to buy it separately, including a second camera to use with the device. (DJI does offer interchangeability for Osmo, but you'll need to step up to the much higher-end, more expensive Inspire-series drones if you want to share a single camera between both drone and gimbal grip.)

So if you need the gimbal grip, the GoPro Karma is likely a better value than the Phantom 4, by dint of the fact that you needn't purchase multiple cameras. The added cost of the Osmo pushes the Phantom 4's price to more than half again as much as the GoPro Karma, in this scenario. But if you're only interested in aerial photography then the pricing becomes a wash, as either DJI Phantom 4 and GoPro Karma with Hero5 Black camera will set you back around $1,200 -- and then it becomes a comparison of their respective features.


The GoPro Karma wins on size and weight, tipping the scales at a full 13.2 ounces (27%) lighter than the DJI Phantom 4. And it's also a fair bit smaller than its DJI rival, especially when folded. (DJI's Phantom-series drones can't be folded to reduce their size, a feature it reserves for much more expensive drones.)

But beyond size, weight and pricing, there's little question that the DJI Phantom 4 is a much more capable aerial platform, on paper at least. For one thing, its three-axis gimbal has a significantly greater range of motion than that of the GoPro Karma, which can only be tilted downwards. DJI's gimbal, by contrast, can also face upwards by some 30 degrees.


Admittedly, doing so will likely result in the drone's propellers being visible, but that's probably preferable to losing sight of your subject entirely because a gust of wind or a sudden flight movement caused the drone to tilt, aiming the camera downwards. And the greater range of motion for DJI's gimbal will be even more useful with its gimbal grip, where impinging propellers aren't a concern.

And the Karma drone itself is also rather less agile than its DJI rival, at least according to both company's marketing materials. For example, where the DJI Phantom 4 can reach speeds of up to 45 miles per hour, the GoPro Karma tops out at 35 mph. And where DJI cites a service ceiling (the maximum height to which the drone is capable of climbing above sea level) of 19,685 feet, the GoPro Karma tops out at 14,500 feet.


GoPro also cites a range of 3,280 feet, and while it's not clear if this is referencing range of its bundled 2.4 GHz controller, if this is the case, then the DJI controller's 16,368-foot range is simply in a different class altogether. Perhaps even more importantly, though, GoPro rates its drone as capable of a 20-minute flight time, where DJI's can manage as long as 28 minutes. Less battery life means you'll be flying back home to change and recharge batteries more frequently, and quite possibly missing the action at the same time.

The controller itself is another key area in which the two companies differ, incidentally. DJI relies on your smartphone or tablet to serve as its live view display, showing a feed of the video the UAV's camera is currently seeing and letting you control camera positioning from the smart device. GoPro's interesting, folding controller, by contrast, uses a built-in five-inch screen with 720p resolution. That's likely a fair bit lower-res than your current smartphone, and may well be a good bit smaller as well, nor will it get a free upgrade the next time you buy a new phone.


All things considered, the GoPro Karma looks like something of a mixed bag. It's perhaps not quite the high-end aerial camera platform its maker has suggested it to be, but its aggressive pricing and the inclusion of the gimbal grip are nice touches, especially if you're already a GoPro Hero4 owner who intends to shoot stabilized video on land as well, not just in the air. And the portability will pay dividends if you have to lug the drone for significant distances to get to your shooting location.

But if it's the flight capabilities of the drone itself and its gimbal that are of most importance to you -- and if you can afford its higher initial cost if you need the Osmo gimbal -- then the DJI Phantom 4 looks to be a safer bet for now, especially given that in the drone space at least, it's DJI and not GoPro which is the 800 pound gorilla in the room.

Priced at US$800, the GoPro Karma drone is slated to arrive on the US market from late October 2016.