A Review of the DJI Smart Controller: Is it worth it?

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DJI recently announced the release of the DJI Smart Controller, an Android-powered handheld remote controller with an integrated display. This controller was especially designed for the Mavic 2 Pro and Mavic 2 Zoom, DJI’s current flagship entries in the ultra-portable drone market. Owners of the Mavic 2 drones are probably wondering if it’s worth it to get a brand-new (and expensive) controller for their drone.  In this article, we break down the key features of the DJI Smart Controller and determine if they justify an upgrade.

Design and build

The Smart Controller comes with a clean minimalist design that successfully integrates a display with all the physical buttons and control sticks without making the whole thing look cluttered. Its quite heavy, and this added heft feels good in the hands and makes the controller feel robust. The Smart Controller weighs in at slightly under 700g, significantly heavier than the old Mavic 2 controller even with a smartphone attached to it.

The antenna of the Smart Controller folds out from its rear portion, which also hosts a microSD card slot, an HDMI port, and a USB 3.0 port. A series of flashing lights located at the top of the controller serve as signals for the battery and pairing status. A small notch near the middle of the antennas can be used to store the removable controller sticks.

The display screen is located below the control panel which feels strange at first and takes some getting used to. We like how the controller sticks are spread out in such a way that your hands will not end up covering the screen.

The larger Smart Controller is a bit of a two-edged sword: while it’s nice to have a controller that does not feet as cramped as the old Mavic 2 controller, it’s also antithetical to Mavic’s image of ultra-portability. The much bigger Smart Controller will not fit in most bags and carrying cases designed for the original Mavic 2 controller. However, it’s also to not have to struggle every time with trying to fit a smartphone into the controller’s mobile device mount.

Pairing

Pairing the Smart Controller with your Mavic 2 Pro or Mavic 2 Zoom is a fairly simple process. Upon starting the pairing process on the controller, you only need to press the small pairing button on the body of the drone. Once a drone has been paired with the Smart Controller, they will automatically connect to each other once the controller and the drone have been turned on.

Display quality

One of the best features of the DJI Smart Controller is its integrated 5.5-inch 1080p display which eliminates the need to pair it with a mobile device. While pretty much all drone pilots bring their smartphones with them when they fly their drone, it’s also disconcerting when your smartphone’s battery starts to get drained. There’s also the risk of receiving phone calls and notifications on your phone while you are flying, which is a constant source of distraction.

The screen of the Smart Controller is the 5.5-inch CrystalSky screen. Its brightness can go up to 1000 cd/m2 which is almost double the maximum brightness of most standard smartphones. However, it still pales in comparison to the Ultra Bright CrystalSky variant, which can up to 2000 cd/m2. The brightness of the screen can be controlled manually, or automatically using a built-in light sensor. Although the display of the Smart Controller is optimized for use in direct sunlight, it still does not eliminate glare issues. You are still going to need a hood when using this remote controller in very bright and sunny days.

Interface

The interface of the Smart Controller’s touchscreen is a customizable Android-based dashboard. It does not come with Google Play Services, but third-party apps can be installed via browser or as APK files loaded from the microSD card slot.

The Smart Controller supports both DJI GO 4 and DJI Pilot app for to augment in-flight controls. The major addition to the DJI GO 4 app is the Skytalk feature, which allows live streaming of audio and video via the usual social channels. You can livestream using Facebook, Instagram, and WeChat. However, the Smart Controller cannot receive its own cellular signal since it does not have a SIM card slot. If you’re interested in livestreaming your flight, you will have to pair the Smart Controller with a smartphone.

Usability

The first thing you’ll notice when you get ahold of the DJI Smart Controller is how its much more comfortable to hold compare to the old Mavic 2 controller. It feels natural on the hands, and its weight gives it a bit more stability. The built-in screen is bigger than the screen of most smartphones, making it easier to see the real-time video and to use the touchscreen controls. As with the CrystalSky, the touchscreen is very responsive.

The Smart Controller has an array of physical buttons that are reasonably spaced apart but still very accessible. The joysticks are in the perfect location and are just long enough to feel natural on the thumbs.  The one-button return-to-home function is complemented by a one-button Pause function, which stops the drone in its tracks no matter the scenario. A physical switch toggles between different flight modes, while wheels on the either side of the controller are used for camera panning and tilting.

An improvement we like is the re-location of the shutter buttons for capturing stills and to start recording videos. They are now located on the shoulder of the controller, easily reachable by your index fingers. The Smart Controller comes with two new buttons: the Select and Back buttons located on either side of the joysticks. These can be used to navigate the menus on the screen instead of relying on touchscreen controls

Transmission and range

The Smart Controller can switch automatically between the 2.4 and 5.8 GHz frequency bands, optimizing communication between controller and drone and reducing the effects of signal interference. It comes with the OcuSync 2.0, the video transmission system used by the old Mavic 2 controllers. This is the newest transmission technology from DJI, boasting very low latency of 120-130 ms and the ability to transmit real-time 1080p video up to 8 kilometers or 5 miles.

With the release of the Smart Controller that features OcuSync 2.0, it appears all but confirmed that DJI will continue to develop drones using OcuSync technology and totally do away with Lightbridge. Only time will tell if this is truly DJI’s course of action.

Battery life

The Smart Controller has two built-in 2500 mAh batteries that can last 2 to 2.5 hours of continuous use. Considering the weight of the controller, this is a surprisingly short battery life. However, we need to consider that it’s also providing power to an ultra-bright touchscreen display as well as a top-of-the-line transmission technology. Charging the batteries of the DJI Smart Controller takes about an hour.

DJI claims that the batteries can perform in a wide range of temperatures: from -20 °C to 40 °C. This is valid concern for batteries, especially for devices that are meant to be used outdoor.

While it is possible to use the Smart Controller while it is plugged in to a power source via the USB-C port, it would have been better if the batteries were removable instead of built-in. With the built-in batteries, bringing extra batteries is not an option. Instead, you will need to bring a portable power bank to provide back-up power.

Communication ports, microphone, and speakers

While the integrated display looks great, its resolution is limited to 1080p. If you want to playback the videos your Mavic 2 drone recorded in glorious 4K, you have the option of connecting a monitor to the controller’s HDMI port. Capable of transmitting 4K 60fps live output, this feature can be very useful for commercial drone photography or filmmaking. The HDMI settings such as resolution, rotation, zoom, and output mode can be changed via the DJI GO 4 app.

The USB-C port is mainly used for charging the Smart Controller but can also be used to connect it to a computer for transferring of files or photos via PTP.

The Smart Controller has a built-in 16GB internal storage which is mainly used to store cache versions of videos in 720p resolution so they can be played back quickly. For more robust storage, it is recommended to use the microSD card slot. With a microSD card, it is possible to expand the storage capacity of the Smart Controller by up to 128GB.

The built-in microphone and speakers are designed to be used for livestreaming of your drone flight. Currently, there appears to be no feature that allows for audio recording. This would be a nice additional feature so drone pilots can provide commentary on the drone videos they are recording. Perhaps this is something that DJI should consider in a future firmware update.

Firmware updates

Much like the DJI GO app for mobile devices, the Smart Controller can also be used to update the firmware of your Mavic 2 drone.

DJI Go Share

DJI Go Share is new feature that comes pre-installed with the DJI Smart Controller. It allows quick and wireless transfer of images and videos from the controller to your mobile device. This is a great feature for professionals or vloggers who need to upload or email their photos right away. Currently, DJI Go Share only allows transfer of drone photos and images, and not screenshots or screen recordings.

Flight modes

The Smart Controller can be used to easily switch between 3 flight modes: T-mode, P-mode, and S-mode.

T-mode stands for Tripod mode. When T-mode is activated, the drone prioritizes stability. The maximum flight speed is reduced to only 2.2 mph and the responsiveness of the drone to the controls are greatly reduced. This results in more controlled movement, making it easier to compose shots.

P-mode stands for Positioning mode. This mode uses the full array of GPS technology, vision systems, and infrared sensing systems of the Mavic 2 drones to track objects while capturing stable video and avoiding obstacles.

S-mode stands for Sport mode. Most drone pilots probably know that this mode is about maximum speed and maneuverability. Keep in mind that all obstacle avoidance technology is deactivated in Sport mode, so this is strictly for experienced drone pilots.

Other features

The DJI Smart Controller has a couple of button combinations that allow you to perform common functions easily such as adjusting the screen’s brightness or the speaker volume, taking screenshots, or starting screen recording.

While flying, you can activate a Do Not Disturb that blocks notifications from third-party apps. This allows you to concentrate on the task at hand, free from the distraction you would normally get from these notifications.

Compatibility

Right now, the Smart Controller is only compatible the Mavic 2 series of drones. This includes the Mavic 2 Pro, Mavic 2 Zoom, and the Mavic 2 Enterprise. DJI has not indicated if any of the older drones can be paired with the Smart Controller. However, we are not optimistic that this will happen mostly because only the Mavic 2 drones are equipped with OcuSync 2.0 technology. We are hoping that DJI can develop transmission technology that is backwards compatible. Perhaps this will be a reality by the time OcuSync 3.0 comes around.

Price

The launch price of the DJI Smart Controller is $649. Considering that the Mavic 2 drones cost at least $1500, getting the new controller means you would have already spent more than $2000 on your drone setup.

The 5.5-inch CrystalSky monitor that is equivalent to the Smart Controller’s built-in screen costs around $469. To use it with any controller, you also need to get the CrystalSky mounting device, which costs an additional $79. This means that you need to spend around $548 to upgrade any DJI controller with a CrystalSky display.

If you are flying your Mavic 2 drone commercially, then the cost of the Smart Controller is easily justifiable. Considering the improved controls and integrated display, the $100 difference between the Smart Controller and a CrystalSky setup almost sounds like peanuts.

If you are yet to buy a Mavic 2 drone, then we strongly recommend getting a Mavic 2 drone that comes bundled with the Smart Controller. This is a much more cost-efficient option that could give you up $200 in savings.

Final thoughts

Our impression of the Smart Controller can be summarized in this statement: using the Smart Controller makes it hard to go back to the original Mavic 2 controller. The controller feels more comfortable in the hands, the layout of the buttons feels more natural, and the built-in display makes for a more enjoyable drone flight experience. We like not having to stress out over the battery level of our smartphone, which is one less thing to worry about when you pack up your gear to fly.

Time will tell if the new livestreaming features that DJI has introduced with the Smart Controller will be a hit. Even if it proves to be a bust, the built-in microphone might still be useful for providing commentary or verbal notes on drone flights. We realize this feature is not available yet, but we are optimistic that it can be included in a firmware update.

Being the first controller with an integrated display for DJI’s line of ultra-portable drones, we consider the Smart Controller a prototype which can still be improved in many areas. Hot-swappable batteries, sharing of screenshots and screen recordings, compatibility with more common Android apps – these are just some of the features we would like to see in future iterations of this Smart Controller.

As a first effort, the DJI Smart Controller is an admirable product. We have always been thrilled with how DJI can effortlessly come out with new and innovative drone technology. With what we have seen with the Smart Controller, DJI seems to be headed in the right direction.