The best travel drone for 2020? DJI Mavic Mini review

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The best travel drone for 2020 is the DJI Mavic Mini

The folding Mavic Pro instantly became the go-to choice for travel photographers and videographers. The compact size and light weight made it the top choice for the amateur photographer wanting to shake up their travel photos and get a more interesting perspective. The high quality photo and 4k video performance made it a popular choice even among serious film makers and pro bloggers.

Long flight time, ease of use, and relatively cheap prices compared to full-on pro level drones took it straight to the top of the list of best travel drones.

DJI tried something different with the Spark. A cheaper, smaller drone, that should have been a contender for best travel drone but didn’t match up to the expectation. With fixed arms it just wasn’t any easier to transport than its more capable big brother. The image quality didn’t match up, leaving price as the only reason to pick it over the Mavic. Many were disappointed with their purchase.

Fast-forward to November 2019 and the Mavic Mini is now on sale at just £369, a full £400 cheaper than the Mavic Air and almost £1000 cheaper than the utterly sensational Mavic Pro 2. But does low price mean low quality? Is this a serious drone for travel photography or just a toy for beginners?

On paper, it sounds ideal for travel photography. Perhaps the most important factor when choosing a drone for travel is the size. The best camera is the one you have with you, and even with the Mavic Pro’s compact folded-up dimensions, I’ve often reluctantly left it home on short trips when travelling light.

Even if you have space in your bags, sometimes the thought of carrying it around with you wherever you go, through airports and every time you pack and unpack, knowing that you’ll maybe only use it in a few places, if at all… well, you just leave it at home.

A drone so small and light you can easily carry it with you wherever you go, even if you’re on foot and being active for a day of hiking or cycling or at the beach, without taking up all the space in your backpack? Well yeah, awesome, you’ll carry it with you and never again be stood looking at some sensational scenery and just wishing you had your drone with you. Too many times I’ve been somewhere kicking myself for not bringing the drone.

If you’re a serious filmmaker or pro photographer then the technical details like resolution and frame rate are going to sway your decision, but for the 99% of regular travellers and bloggers and instagrammers, the best drone is the drone that you have with you, and the more you have it with you the more you will use it, and the more you use your drone the better your photography becomes.

The Mavic Mini has one more very important trick up its sleeve. At just 249 grams it’s light enough that you don’t need to register as a drone operator, which means you and anyone else can fly it without having to pass an online test and without having to pay an annual registration fee. You’re picking the best travel drone but you also want a drone you can use easily at home, so this is useful.

What’s in the box

mavic mini box open

It’s always an exciting day when a parcel arrives from DJI, and this one especially so. The box is the usual minimalist DJI style of clean white and if you ever owned a drone it’s really amazing how small and light the box is. It’s so light your first thought is to wonder whether they’ve sent you an empty box…

Open it up, and there it is. The controller looks about the same size as the Mavic Pro’s controller, but the drone is tiny. Pick it up and it’s amazingly light. I opened the battery compartment expecting it to be empty. Batteries are quite heavy. To my great surprise the incredibly light weight is with battery installed.

Yes, I already know it’s just 249 grams but hold it in your hands and it’s really impressive to feel how light that actually is. It does worry me that the Mini might not be able to operate in slightly breezy conditions, but more on that later.

The quality and detail is obvious. Even the protective plastic bags feel nice. Inside the box we’ve got the drone with props already attached, the controller, spare props and some very tiny and easily lost screws for attaching the props, along with a mini screwdriver. There’s a USB charging cable and a choice of three different cables for connecting controller to phone – USB-C, USB Mini, and Lightning.

mavic mini unbox 3

There’s also a pair of joysticks for the controller. The fixed sticks on the Mavic Pro controller were a problem for transport that led to a little industry of plastic pieces designed to protect them from damage in transit. Being able to unscrew them is a really nice touch for the Mavic Mini, but in true DJI style they’ve gone even further.

Open the controller arms and you’ll find two clever little slots for storing the sticks for transport. This is really nice, because those sticks are tiny and easily lost, but here they’ll be well-protected and the controller so much easier to carry.

The battery is tiny. This is another boon for travellers, not just because it obviously takes up less space and less weight, but also because one of the big frustrations with drone travel is the difficulty of getting through airport security. These batteries are so small that they will not attract the same degree of interest and inspection at the airport x-ray, and that’s going to save you time and hassle.

So far, it looks amazing and I have high hopes. There are a few concerns though. The props feel very flimsy compared to the Mavic Pro. They look vulnerable. Of course, damaging props if you fly without care is expected, but these feel like they will suffer in transport. I think a protective case is going to be essential. The props can’t be easily removed to place in a box for transport, because unlike the Mavic Pro they are screwed in. You don’t want to be messing around with a screwdriver and those tiny screws.

mavic mini arm wire weakness

Those tiny screws by the way are another concern. You’re going to lose them. End of story. Get spares.

The wiring that passes through the folding arms also looks a little flimsy and unprotected. DJI will have tested this to death, but I do wonder how well it will stand up to repeated folding.

Then I noticed that the Mini doesn’t have a battery charger. Instead there’s a mini USB socket on the back of the drone and you can charge the battery in-situ. This is another huge advantage for a traveller: no need to pack a separate charger. All you need is a spare battery and you can easily charge both of them overnight, and with a claimed flight time approaching 30 minutes that will be ample for your travel photography.

The charger in the “Fly More” combo is cleverly designed to act as storage for three batteries, so it doesn’t add a great deal of bulk, but do remember that the batteries should really be carried individually in fire-proof protective bags, especially if you’re going somewhere where you would prefer to avoid any trouble at the airport. 

Technical Specifications

Flight time30 minutes
Weight249 grams
DimensionsFolded: 140×82×57 mm (L×W×H)
Gimbal3 Axis stabilization
Video resolution2.7K at 30fps / 1080p at 60fps
Photo resolution12MP
Photo size4:3: 4000×3000
16:9: 4000×2250
Maximum controller range in EU500m

Mavic Mini compared to the Mavic Pro

Size wise the difference is dramatic. The Mavic Mini is as small compared to the Pro as the Pro was compared to my old GoPro-carrying 3DR Solo (a magnificent thing, but huge by today’s standards. Can’t believe I carried that monster with me through 5 countries…)

mavic compared 3dr solo

These pictures tell you all you need to know. It would fit in a large pocket. It’s no longer or wider than a Samsung Galaxy S9, and less than 6cm tall. Even without a display screen, the controller is the same size as for the Pro, but any smaller and it wouldn’t fit in your hands. It should also mean that the battery lasts a decent time. It doesn’t matter how many batteries you have for the drone if your controller runs out.

To charge the controller battery while out flying your only option is a USB power pack. Amazingly the mini is barely longer than one of the Pro’s propeller blades. When I’m choosing the best travel drone, size and portability is far away the most important consideration. If you don’t have it with you, you can’t use it.

Price

The Mavic Mini is £369. The “Fly more” combo is £459 and comes with two extra batteries worth £90 alone, as well as spare props and prop guards for indoor use. The batteries would mean an extra hour of flying and given the likelihood of damaging props, having some spares is a good idea. You also get a carry case.

Take a look at our review of the top 10 accessories for the Mavic Mini

If you have a heavier drone, remember that you need to register as a drone operator.

Flying

The mini is very small. As soon as you start flying you notice the difference compared to the Mavic Pro. It’s quieter, and when it’s 20m up and away you can’t hear it. That’s a good thing for travel photos because when people can’t hear your drone they’re less likely to come over and start moaning.

Being so small and light it is going to be more affected by wind. The Mavic Pro is nowhere near as stable in strong wind as my mush heavier 3DR Solo was, and the Mini is smaller still. DJI state a maximum wind speed resistance of 8m/s, which is just shy of 18mph. The Pro was rated for 10m/s or 22mph.

It also feels slower, in P mode at least. Max climb rate is 2m/s in P, 4m/s in S. The Mavic Pro S mode climb rate is 5m/s. In S mode, the Pro’s max flight speed is 40mph. For the Mini, in S mode, it’s 29mph. In P mode, the max speed is 18mph. The Mavic Mini isn’t a racing drone though, so this performance is perfectly adequate for travel photography and more than enough to quickly get into position for a shot.

Another thing to consider is that you will very quickly lose sight of the Mavic Mini when flying. Even the Pro, at twice the size, effortlessly disappears from view even when the background is clear sky. Fly a few tens of metres away, take your eyes off it briefly to look at the screen, look back and you can’t see it.

That happens with the Mini at alf the distance it happens with the Pro, and it happens with the Pro all the time. It’s just something you have to deal with when flying. Know where you’ve gone, understand how to check the drone’s orientation on the phone screen, be aware of the landmarks around you, and if you do lose sight, just go straight up until you see movement.

Also remember to take off to about 2m high and hover for a few seconds until the drone successfully registers its home point, in case you need to activate the return-to-home feature.

The problem with the Mavic Mini

There is one very important issue to consider before buying the Mavic Mini. There are different specifications based on which country you’re buying in. For models sold in Europe there is a lower power transmission mode, which means a lower range.

Buy a US model and you get higher power transmission and a maximum comms range up to 4000m. The Japanese spec has a max range of 2000m. The CE variant sold in Europe has a maximum controller range of just 500m.

This isn’t going to be a problem if you’re flying sensibly and within line of sight, and certainly for travel photography you’re going to be flying fairly close by, but it is worth bearing in mind.

If you’re tempted to buy the higher power US model, then understand that if you try to use it in an EU country (and others around the world) then you will be breaking the law as soon as you turn it on. The European CE model will be legal (from a radio transmission point of view) anywhere.

For a lot of people, this limit will mean that the Mavic Mini is certainly not the best entry-level drone, but I don’t think it is as much of an issue when choosing the best travel drone.

It may also be possible to improve the range of the Mavic Mini by using a signal boosting antenna reflector. Come back soon and read To See The World’s flight test of a signal booster to see if they really do increase the range.

You do notice the range limits though. On my first flight I found the video freezing briefly at much closer distances than I ever experience with the Mavic Pro. You will have to consider how you will use it. For close by flying to take dronies and photos of yourself in a scenic spot on your travels it will be fine, and the increased portability is worth the reduced range. For other uses, you’ll be better off with the Air or the Pro.

Ultimately, the Mini is an entry level drone. You’re not buying a massively capable device, you’re buying a pocket-sized, take it anywhere, casual use aerial camera.

A possible half-way house would be the Mavic Air. You can fly the Air over wi-fi from your phone without needing the controller. I find it a pain to fly without a proper controller, but it does mean you don’t necessarily have to take the controller with you on your travels. And you will have to register as a drone operator.

I would rather have the Mini, with a proper controller, in my pocket the way we used to carry compact digital cameras. A compact digital camera would never match the performance of a pro DSLR, but you can stick it in your pocket and not care about it. The Mavic Mini is a flying compact digital camera, not a film-makers 4K drone.

Image quality

Perfectly fine for travel photos and videos. If you want more then you already know you wouldn’t want the Mavic Mini. It’s certainly good enough to qualify for best travel drone 2020.

 

Our verdict

The best travel drone currently available

Despite some limitations with video quality that will put off serious film-makers, the beautifully light and compact Mavic Mini is perfect for travel.
Take it anywhere, and no need to carry a bag full of chargers and accessories.
Great photo and video quality. Unbeatable DJI ease of use. 
There’s no automatic obstacle avoidance, but if you’re relying on that then you’re flying wrong in the first place.

However, you must consider the limited range. For typical travel photography this shouldn’t be a problem, and being able to stick it in your pocket and take it with you anywhere is ideal for travel, but it does put a limit on what you will be able to do with it.

Think of the Mavic Mini as one of the compact digital cameras we all used to carry before phone cameras replaced them, except that this one flies.

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