Since I was a kid I always wanted a radio controlled plane or helicopter. In fact it was always a helicopter thanks to Airwolf. Over the last four or five years as drones have quite literally taken off as a consumer product I’ve came close to buying one as the technology and ease of use has matured and the price dropped to more reasonable levels. What put me off was buying the drone was always just a part of the full solution. Next was a GoPro, then a gimbal…and then connections to iPhones/iPads for your remote. The list went on and it all felt a bit of a faff when I just want a drone and I can go out and fly.
The Phantom 3 he purchased seemed to offered all I wanted…so a couple of weeks later I ordered mine. Yes – I have a drone. Arrest me now!
I picked up the DJI Phantom 3 Professional whose main difference with the Advanced is that it will record video in 4k. Out the box the Phantom needs quite a bit of setup. Firstly you need to charge the battery and the remote control. This takes a couple of hours. Whats nice is the remote control can now use an iOS or Android device to act as a screen which will receive live video from the drone. When I priced up the Phantom 2 you needed the drone, a light bridge plus camera but the Phantom 3 has all this built in. So I fired up the drone and the remote control and launched the DJI Go app…which complained that I needed to update the drone firmware and the firmware on the remote. Damn – another hour.
So out the box the drone can take a bit to setup and there isn’t much in the way of documentation. The full manual isn’t included but can be downloaded from the DJI website. More useful was this Phantom 3 Checklist from The Phantom Guide.
With the firmware updates done and an IMU, gimbal and controller calibration completed too I was ready to fly.
I was a bit nervous about flying the Phantom for the first time but I needn’t have worried. The Phantom has three flying modes – P, A and F. P-Mode is the default which is positioning mode. This mode will use GPS and the built in vision system (downward pointing camera and infrared sensors) to help maintain position and makes for far easier flying.
I went out very early so I could fly without disruption and also make the most of a good weather forecast. Movement was a bit more rapid and jerky but not too bad for the first time.
You start in beginner mode which restricts you to 30m but I switched that to 120m and….oh boy. The views were fantastic and I was really spoiled for a first go as the weather was perfect.
The photo’s out of the Phantoms built in camera are excellent and only needed some slight tweaking in Lightroom. I was also impressed with the video. The Phantom + gimbal give incredibly steady video and with some practice in controlling with a steadier hand it should lead to some excellent footage.
I did throw the drone around during these first flights. It moves pretty fast but the movement is predictable so as long as I take some care I should be ok. Landing was also easier than expected probably thanks to the mode I was in. The DJI app has a button to automatically take off and land but I prefer to do that myself. There’s also a return to home button if you lose sight of the drone or the drone loses contact with you. I’ve not had need to use this yet but it’s great that the feature is there.
What did take me by surprise was how quickly it rose. It was easy to lose sight of the drone especially in the bright morning sky. The live feedback from the camera worked well and I didn’t have any issues with the drone going out of range but I wasn’t pushing it on this first go. The app is much better than I expected. You have full control over the camera settings just like a typical hand held camera. You also not only get a live view from the camera but a map showing you and your drones position. After you’ve finished there are full flight logs showing where you were, the photo’s you took and also the control inputs during the flight. Impressive.
The following day the QEC block was to be barged down the Clyde. With another good day forecast it was a great opportunity to record the event via the drone.
I really wanted to swoop by the block as it passed and spin in front of it but I crapped myself. What if I hit it? What if I lost control. Second day nerves but head ruled the heart on that one.
There was also a few more people around despite the area I picked being really quiet. Around half the passers by asked about the drone, what it cost, what happens if it falls in the water (obvious really?) and a couple stayed to watch me take off and take some pics. No one was negative about it which was pretty cool.
As with all new gadgets you always have a need for accessories. The must have for the Phantom is a battery. It comes with one but that gives you a maximum flight time of 25 minutes, more likely 20. However a spare battery doesn’t come cheap – £124 for one extra battery. Ouch. When I picked up the Phantom 3 I went for a package which included an extra battery, extra charger, spare props and landing gear, larger SD card and a bag for carrying the drone. Overall the package saved me around £200 and the battery and extra charger are really useful – charging can take quite a while so being able to charge the two batteries at the same time is great. Over time I can see me picking up at least one other battery but the two are fine for now.
There’s a massive aftermarket for the Phantom drones and I’ve picked up a couple of extras to protect the camera and gimbal. The supplied gimbal protector is a bit of a faff to fit and doesn’t protect the lens. So I picked up a 3D printed gimbal holder and lens cover which fits a lot better. I also picked up a gimbal guard which attaches to the drone and should protect the gimbal which looks pretty fragile when landing. Probably a bit OTT but piece of mind is no bad thing.
Apart from the battery I’ve got my eye on another couple of accessories. The iPad screen is almost unreadable on a bright day so I was running for shade a few times. I’ll pick up a sun shade at some point although it’s not an immediate need. I’ll also look at getting an ND filter or two for the camera especially for those dawn and dusk shots.
For Your Consideration
I’m thrilled with the Phantom so far but there are a few things to think about if you are interested in buying one. I went for the Professional but the Advanced would have done fine as the 4k video is really a nice to have. It also makes for much longer video editing and large files. The quality is stunning though. Video editing is also something new to me. For photo’s I love Lightroom and know how to get the best out of it but for video’s I’m a bit lost. New skills ahead!
The main consideration is flying legally. When flying in the UK you need to keep the CAA rules in mind. You don’t need a licence to fly a drone if you are doing non commercial work but when you see the speed and power in the Phantom I can see there being a call for all users to be trained/licensed in some way. Two main points are keep under 400ft (120m) and keep 50m away from people and buildings…which is actually quite difficult to do.
One last point is that this is an expensive hobby. The drone itself costs a fair bit (£1200) plus the accessories but there is also the knowledge that at some point an engine, rotor or worse the camera/gimbal will be damaged or need repairing/replaced. None of the main parts are cheap so have that in mind when buying a Phantom.
I can’t finish this write up on a negative though. The Phantom 3 is a great piece of kit and it’s so much fun to pilot. I’ve loved the outings with it so far and the images and video’s have exceeded my expectations.
I’ve got a list of places that I want to visit over the coming months but I’ll bide my time as I want to try and get the right weather conditions for some of them. However I’ll be getting the drone out again even just to fly around and practice. I’m also looking forward to upcoming software updates that will allow you to pick a point of interest and the drone will focus on it as you fly around and also the ability to set waypoints so you can pre plan flights.
So Apple did come through for a lot of people on Friday and many got their hands on an Apple Watch, myself included. I hadn’t seen one in the flesh until Friday when I popped into the Apple Store and got quite the surprise – the watch is much smaller than I expected. It comes in two sizes and I went for the larger 42mm, but even that wasn’t the brick I expected and the 38mm looked really well sized for a smartwatch. I was also pleased with the decision to stick with the basic Apple Watch Sport model. The Apple Watch version did look really nice but overall I wasn’t sure on any of the straps outside of the default Sport band. That’s not quite true – I hated the look of the Milanese Loop and the Leather Loop. Anyway, it was the evening before I finally got to play with my watch and then put it through it’s paces over the weekend. Thoughts below.
I expected good packaging from Apple but not quite the monolith I received through the post. The Sport comes in a long white box and inside is a long white heavy duty plastic case holding the watch along with the magnetic charger, plug and small/medium strap that can be swapped for the default medium/large strap.
The case is in total contrast to iPhone and iPad packaging – almost nothing is recyclable and it is huge in comparison to the tiny box the iPhone comes in. I know the watch is a different market but still quite surprising. The other thing I like – the delivery box for the watch fits the sport box, the lid of the sport box slips off with just enough friction, the case itself separates nicely. Design. It shows throughout the Apple product line and not just the final product – everything. Speaking of which…
The watch is lighter than expected and fits my wrist well. The curved glass screen fits well with the body and feels seamless. It’s rounded, it feels nice in the hand, it feels more touchable than a phone or tablet. Is that the route to making a wearable that people actually want? The digital crown on the right hand side is an infinite scroll wheel and a button and the main way of interacting with the watch aside from the touch screen. It feels nice to use and I’ve had no real issues with it. Below that is the side button – couldn’t there have been better name? It’s used to launch your favourite contacts (and a double tap for Apple Pay in the USA) but it feels like a sleep button more than anything else.
The screen itself is excellent. Apple call it a Retina display and it’s hard to argue as you don’t see the pixels and it’s hard to determine the screen edge at all. It’s night and day compared to the Pebble I tried a couple of years ago. It was also pretty clear outside in the sun yesterday while running. On the back of the watch you find the heart rate sensors and the inductive charging system. This is the first Apple product to support inductive charging and as expected it’s easy to use as it uses magnets, so you place the watch on the charger and it aligns. Also underneath are two buttons to release the bands as they are interchangeable. I guess third party bands will come out soon but there is a fairly good, if expensive, range available from Apple. I can see these being big Christmas sellers.
I had a niggle that the band, made from high-performance fluoroelastomer, would feel quite rubbery but it’s actually soft to touch and is comfortable on the wrist. During normal use I haven’t found it to get sweaty underneath the band but during exercise is does become a sweat collector especially where the band loops within itself. The watch is waterproof despite the mixed messages from Apple which is strange – I’ve showered a couple of times with it now and it’s fine, but I’ll be removing it after runs purely due to the sweat issue.
One last point – the UK now has a folding plug included as standard. Happy days! Far more practical for travelling and nicely designed but it’s £25 for the folding plug against £15 for the standard 5W plug from the Apple store. I’m hoping that this will be the standard plug for iPhones and iPads in the future but the price difference makes me suspect not.
Setup and Controls
Setting up the watch was smooth – a credit to Apple. Switch on the watch and to pair it with the iPhone was a simple case of taking a picture of a pattern on the watch face. Boom. You then enter your iCloud credentials and the iPhone then started to install supported applications on to the watch. This took quite a while to complete but once done it was time to play.
There are many ways to interact with the watch and some are more than a little confusing. The digital crown works and more importantly feels fantastic – the resistance is just right. Although it offers no change in resistance the combination of the feel and good software tricks the mind – getting to the end of a list and I still think the resistance changes…but it doesn’t. The digital crown is also a button and mostly makes sense but I still get confused between it and the side button. Press the digital crown to take you to installed apps. You can then swipe around the apps or use the crown to zoom in and out of applications. It can be quite a faff to find and select the right app especially if you try and do it during a run.
The side button takes you to your favourite contacts and from there you can message, call or digital touch them if they have a watch. This feels a waste of a button and it would be great if you could map this to something more useful, like take you back to your watch face. It feels like a home button – let me use it as one.
The screen itself supports touch but not multitouch, hence the digital crown for zooming in and out. Touch has worked OK but there’s a few times now where a touch isn’t registered – not sure if it’s just aggressive touch zones or v1 software but it is annoying. The watch also supports a force touch gesture – tap normally and then press a bit harder. You get a nice bit of haptic feedback when this works and is used almost like a right click. It lets you customise watchfaces, clear notifications and many apps also support it but you won’t know until you try. Discoverability!
Swiping up on the watch will display Glances. These are like widgets and there are default ones like power, heartbeat and also third party app’s can add their own Glances. Apple’s own Glances have worked well for me but third party ones are generally slow and a bit buggy right now. Finally you can swipe down for notifications with the all important force touch to clear them.
As I said, lots to get your head around and very different to iOS. Time will tell if it becomes second nature but it’s been quite confusing to navigate between apps and the watchface so far.
One last note on the display – it’s off 90% of the time. It only displays when you lift up your wrist and it then switches on for a few seconds…and then it’s off again. I did have a worry about how reliable this would be and some early reviews said it took a while to display but I’ve had no issues although I would like the display to stay on for a few more seconds sometimes. I also don’t have many false positives – switching on when I didn’t expect it – so this goes down as a success so far.
Watchfaces and Complications
Apple have supplied a good mix of watchfaces so most users should be able to find something they like. Each offer a range of customisation, from increasing the dial detail to selecting a primary colour for the date and second hand. Most faces also offer Complications – widgets that add information to the face. Day and date, battery life, weather, moon phase, activity, stocks, alarms, timers and world times. These are great and allow you to build a useful watchface – far more useful than a standard watch. However not all watchfaces allow you to add Complications. It’s also no big surprise that as of right now, third party Watchfaces and Complications aren’t supported. It’s like the early days of iOS. Little was allowed but each version offered more and more and I fully expect future O/S versions to allow at least custom Watchfaces and eventually third party Complications – I’d love to see Dark Sky weather information rather than the stock app, especially as clicking on the Complication launches the application.
Glimpses and Notifications Glimpses let you access information via small widgets that are only one screen tall. Default ones allow you to switch to do not disturb or airplane mode easily, control your music, take a heart beat measurement, see the current battery levels, get a quick update on todays activity level, see todays calendar, your current locations weather, your current location on a map and also world times. I also ended up with a lot of third party Glimpses but most were slow and I’ve turned them off. Glimpses are really running on your iPhone and the third party ones offer little or no value right now.
Notifications at first were overwhelming. I never really worried too much about notifications on the iPhone but the watch displays all the iPhone notifications and it was far too invasive to see and hear them buzzing on the watch. This isn’t the watches fault though – it’s down to me as the user to take control of this and manage them more effectively which I’ve now done. I only get the messages that are important to me and I’m happy now with the information I receive and can act upon. It’s also easy to clear old notifications with a simple force touch, something that iOS desperately needs.
Day one of the App Store on iOS saw a few hundred apps. Day one for the Apple Watch saw over 3000 applications available and almost every one of them had been written without being tested on an actual physical watch…and it shows. I installed all available applications and with hindsight I should have been more selective, but then again I wouldn’t have known how they performed if I hadn’t. The app’s all run on the iPhone and display their results on the watch. The ones I’ve kept, like Dark Sky and 1Password are very useful and show the possibilities of app’s on the watch platform. However the official Twitter and Instagram clients are poorly thought out. I’m not going to click through my Twitter timeline 5 tweets at a time. Equally while the screen is great, it’s not the best place to experience my full Instagram feed. Both feel like app’s being available for the sake of it rather than a user getting benefit from them. They also feel slow.
I’m sure we will see lots of iteration over the coming weeks and months as developers actually use their apps on a physical device rather than the simulator but I expect, like the original iPhone, we won’t see a good third party application experience until developers can write an app thats runs on the watch rather than on the iPhone. Next year perhaps as I can’t see this being dropped in at WWDC?
Phone, Messages and Digital Touch
A lot was made of using the Apple Watch to make and receive calls, message your friends or send a Digital Touch to folk that also have an Apple Watch. So far I’ve been pretty disappointed with most of these features.
The watch hardware, speaker and microphone, work well and it does allow for calls to be made and received. In fact it’s far better than I expected. However the software leaves a lot to be desired and I’ve found the experience buggy. As for messaging, the dictation via Siri has been really good and exceeded expectations. You can also setup stock answers so you can quickly reply to messages and again this works well. However the new animated emoji is horrible. What were they thinking?
Digital Touch also seems superfluous. You can send a fellow Watch owner a series of taps, a sketch or your heartbeat. While it works I find it a bit annoying in practise and always default back to messaging. I’ve also found audio messaging far more reliable on the watch than on the iPhone. Is this due to an improvement in Siri or something the watch is doing – hard to tell.
Health and Activity
This was the primary reason I wanted to try the Apple Watch and so far, so good. The activity app shows you three key stats – Move (calories burnt), Exercise (minutes per day) and Stand (stand per hour) as a series of circles. Complete the circles before the end of the day and it’s thumbs up. Complementing this is the Workout app. Here you can pick from a series of indoor and outdoor activities, set a time or calorie goal and then the watch will track you as you complete the workout. During a run or cycle it gave me some haptic feedback on how far into the workout I was and at anytime I could swipe to see pace, heartbeat and some other useful stats. The Workout app looks simple but works really well. For my runs the step count was very similar to my Fitbit but not so much for the cycle where the watch tracked far lower. You also get badges for completing workouts and reaching goals – not sure they are much of a motivation but if you are motivated by such things then there’s plenty of goals to chase.
The Apple Watch will also track your heartbeat throughout the day and you can take a reading at anytime. This has matched the readings from elsewhere so I’m happy to say this is accurate as long as the watch has good contact with your skin and isn’t too loose. It seems to take a reading every ten minutes but during an activity will read every five seconds, using up far more battery. This can be toggled off but I’d only do that on something like a hill walk over a few hours. Hour long runs and cycles won’t kill it too much.
You also get an Activity app on the iPhone and this shows you your activity in more detail. I love the app and it completes and complements the Health app. Overall the Health and Activity aspects of the watch have been excellent and I look forward to further improvements with the software over time…like easily extracting individual workouts, sharing of heart rates etc.
A lot of the negative talk around the Apple Watch was it’s “18 hour day”. This was the figure that Apple quoted with regards battery life. There are no sleep tracking functions on the Apple Watch so the expectation is that you charge your watch overnight and that full charge will last you through the day. So far that has been the case…with ease. This first full day saw lots of tinkering and experimentation and also an hour long cycle and after 17 hours I still had 25% charge remaining. Day two saw a cycle and an outdoor run and again I had plenty left at the end of the day. Today at work was pretty busy, so not much interaction with the watch. I’m 14 hours into wearing the watch and battery is at 69% which is great. So fears about battery life on the watch seem pretty unfounded at the moment – just don’t forget your charger if you are away on an overnight. It would be great to have a battery that lasts a few days or even a week but it feels like we are a few years away from seeing that or some sort of step change in battery technology.
Battery on the iPhone however is impacted slightly. Your phone is connected permanently to the watch, you setup much of the watch from the phone and third party apps all run from the phone so some impact is expected but it’s something to keep an eye on.
Performance and Bugs
Before wrapping up there are a couple of niggles to share. Firstly there is definitely some spotty performance when using the watch. It’s not consistent and I can’t narrow it down to a certain app or function, but from time to time first and third party app’s will stutter more than expected. I also find touch inputs aren’t recognised sometimes. Not sure if it’s me pressing too hard and the watch is confused between a touch and a force touch or that the touch area isn’t quite right but I’ve noticed it a few times now in different apps. The good news is that I haven’t seen any lag when lifting my wrist and the screen switching on – worked 100% for me so far.
There are also issues when you are on the edge of bluetooth connectivity. The watch will still be connected to the phone but performance is so poor that you may as well not be – app’s fail, you can’t answer calls but the watch thinks it has. I’ve also had issues with answering and placing calls in general. When it works it’s great in a ‘from the future’ kind of way, but when it fails it’s just frustration. However I have faith that these can all be addressed with updates over time – there’s no showstopper issue that I’ve found so far and it is v1.0.
Firstly, you don’t need an Apple Watch. It’s arguable that no smart watch or wearable is required right now. At this point in time it’s not essential and the third party app’s leave a lot to be desired. It has some bugs and it does feel like an iPhones second screen at times. So if like me a few weeks ago you have some FOMO on the Apple Watch then don’t worry – next years model will be so much better and there’s no desperate reason to jump on this version!
However the foundations are great. The hardware is really solid and the bugs and issues I’ve mentioned are all easily fixable in software. If you are all in on the Apple platform then the Apple Watch, even this early version, makes far more sense than the Pebble. I’ll continue to use it day to day and so far I’ve found it to be an enjoyable experience rather than a frustrating one. I’ve got no regrets and look forward to seeing how the platform evolves over the comings months and what developers start to deliver once they can actually write app’s for the phone. The true test will be if it’s still on my wrist in six months time. If it is, then Apple are really onto something. Again.