Inevitably, every gadget and gizmo loses its allure over time. The DJI Phantom 2 Vision is the rare exception. This quadrocopter (that's a helicopter with four rotors) has a built-in high-def camera and so works like a personal drone. And it can fly to an astounding quarter-mile high.
Thanks to the advent of more powerful batteries, smaller motors and servos and sensors, and more sophisticated electronics, the world of remote-control vehicles has gone through a revolution over the past decade, and the Phantom 2 and its ilk are the result. These are unprecedented, powerful tools that are polished enough for amateurs to quickly master, and fall head over heels in love with. The Phantom 2 is controlled with a dual joystick remote that uses WiFi radio to communicate (a range extender boosts the signal to 1,500 feet or so). A clip on the remote lets you mount an iPhone or Android smartphone, so you can load up and use the Phantom 2's app for viewing real-time video from its built-in 14-megapixel, 1080p-capable camera. (The original Phantom did not have a built-in camera, so you had to buy and attach a GoPro instead.)
The most impressive technical feat to us is the way the Phantom 2 uses GPS satellites for stability; in our tests, the quadrocopter stayed perfectly level, even on a blustery day. Unlike some mass-market personal drones, the Phantom 2 was dead simple to pick up and maneuver – the left joystick controls elevation and rotation, the right forward movement – and we had little kids operating it with nary a hitch. If it goes out of range – or if the remote loses power – then the drone is programmed to return to its home position automatically. It's an absolute thrill to operate.
The Phantom 2's camera can record video in either 30-frames-per-second or 60-frames-per-second, and it has a wide, 140-degree viewing angle. The still images we took were lush and crisp, and are saved directly to an included 4GB microSD card. (There's also an option to save media on your connected smartphone.) The app was straightforward and shows real-time altitude, speed, current heading, and total travel time. It's an amazing product overall.
The only issues we had were the limited battery life of about 30 minutes, which goes quickly (though, notably, that's still a significant upgrade from the original Phantom's 8-minute battery lifespan). We also found the blades broke easily in the event of a crash landing. Fortunately, you can bring along spares to solve both problems. The list price is no doubt high, but the Phantom 2 Vision is an incredible ride that functions flawlessly and is a blast to operate. [$1,199; dji.com]