Works with Hero4 and Hero5 cameras. Includes handheld grip for gimbal. Solid tutorial for beginning pilots. Remote has integrated display. Some automated flight features. Easy offline map downloads. Includes backpack.
Short 15-minute flight time. Very limited suburban operating range. GoPro camera not ideal for aerial work. Remote screen is prone to glare. Omits obstacle avoidance and follow mode.
- Bottom Line
After a rocky launch, the GoPro Karma is available for purchase. but there are better drones on the market at lower prices.
By Jim Fisher
Leading up to its announcement, GoPro did a fantastic job creating buzz and anticipation for its first drone, the Karma ($799.99 on its own, $1,099.99 with a Hero5 Black action camera). Thanks to folding arms and landing gear, there wasn't another drone on the market with such a svelte form factor when it was unveiled last year. But the wind was quickly taken out of its sails by the comparatively tiny, and more capable, DJI Mavic Pro, and its rollout was marred by a recall due to a faulty battery latch design. After months of delays, the Karma is finally finished and on sale. But time has not been kind, and there are better drones out there.
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The Karma features a folding design, with arms and landing gear that tuck into the body for storage and transport, and a nose-mounted gimbal. It measures 4.6 by 16.2 by 12.0 inches (HWD) when ready to fly and 3.5 by 8.8 by 14.4 inches when folded for transport. It weighs 2.2 pounds, so you will have to register with the FAA before flying.
It's smaller than a DJI Phantom drone, but not anywhere near as svelte as DJI's compact Mavic Pro. The tiny foldable Mavic measures 3.3 by 3.3 by 7.8 inches when folded and weighs about 1.6 pounds. The Karma's propellers must be screwed on before flying. It only takes a minute or so to do, so it's not a big deal, but it's not as convenient as the Mavic Pro, which has always-on, folding propellers, or the DJI Phantom 4, which boasts more modern twist-and-lock props.
A backpack is included to transport the drone. It holds the Karma and all of its accessories with ease, and can be strapped to your back or carried like a briefcase. This includes the grip for handheld gimbal use, the remote control, the six included propellers, and the battery charger. GoPro claims the pack is comfortable to wear while biking or other outdoor activities, but it's a little bulky for that, and it doesn't hang as comfortably on my body as the ThinkTank Urban Approach backpack I like to wear when hiking with photo gear.
The stabilizing gimbal is mounted at the nose. It's removable, so you can opt to use it handheld with the included Karma Grip. The Grip, which costs $299.99 when bought separately, is a handheld pistol-style grip for your GoPro. It has its own internal battery and keeps your camera straight and level, even when walking. Think of it like a handheld Steadicam.
The remote control features a clamshell design. When opened it shows a glossy 5-inch LCD with 720p resolution and a 900cd/m2 brightness rating. On paper that's pretty bright, but the high-gloss finish is very prone to glare. In practice I had a much easier time viewing an iPhone 6 Plus display at full brightness when compared with the Karma remote at its maximum setting under identical conditions. GoPro would have been better off with a matte finish to improve screen visibility.
The face of the remote features two control sticks, and Power, Return-to-Home, and Start/Stop buttons. There's also a speaker, as the remote gives audio cues in addition to visual information on its screen. The top left side hosts a wheel that tilts the gimbal up and down, and the right includes Mode and Record buttons. Overall, I found it very comfortable to hold, I just wish the screen was more visible under bright sunlight.
On the other hand, the LED that backs the power button is almost too bright. It's not a big deal when flying, but if you're sitting at home working to set up the remote, it's likely to bother your eyes.
There are a few things you'll need to do before flying the Karma for the first time. The first is create a free GoPro account. You can do this using the remote control, from the comfort of your own home, simply by connecting it to your home network and walking through a few steps.
Once that's done, the remote prompts you to fly some practice routes in a virtual environment. The flight simulator guides you through the Karma's basic operation, and is a big plus for first-time drone pilots.
The tutorial lets you know how the controls work—the left stick adjusts altitude and yaws the Karma left and right, while the right moves it forward, left, right, and back in space. Frequent fliers can skip the tutorial, and you can re-enter the simulator at any time by choosing the Learn option from the controller's main menu.
In addition to flight training, there's something else you'll want to do from your armchair—download maps. The Karma remote doesn't have its own LTE connection, so it can't access Google Maps data like a drone that uses a smartphone to run a control app can, like the DJI Mavic Pro. If you know you're going to fly in a specific area you can download a map, complete with road names and satellite imagery. You can search by name or ZIP code, and each map requires about two minutes to download. I highly recommend taking the time to download a map before flying, especially if it's a region you're not familiar with.
The Karma is a perfectly capable aircraft. It locks on to a GPS signal quickly, and is very stable in the air. Its top speed is limited—GoPro rates it at 35mph, but I found that cruising speed was closer to 20mph in my test flights. There's an adjustable geofence, so you can prevent it from straying too far from its launch point.
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Operating range is an issue, though. In our standard suburban setting the video feed started to degrade at just a 700-foot distance. At 900 feet the control signal was lost and the drone entered its return-to-home mode. It turns around, putting its nose toward the launch point, and makes a beeline to home base. If something terrible happeneds and the signal isn't reacquired it will land, but chances are the drone and remote will start talking to each other well before that happens.
In a rural setting, free from loads of home Wi-Fi networks clogging the airwaves, operating range is much better. I had no issues taking the Karma out to 3,000 feet, just within the limits of its default geofence.
Battery life is poor compared with competing models. The Karma gives you a 17-minute estimate of life when you take off, but that's with minimal maneuvering and altitude changes. In real life I netted about 15 minutes of flying time on average—eight minutes less than the DJI Mavic Pro. And keep in mind that, even if you tried to stretch that, the drone will automatically return to home when its battery gets low, and will land in place automatically if it gets down to about a minute of life left. An additional battery is priced at $99.99.
There are a few automated flight modes. To access them you need to turn off the Karma's default Easy operation mode, which you should only do when you feel that you're comfortable behind the controls. You can set up perfectly circular, automated orbits, move from point to point in Cable Cam mode, or start with the camera honed in on your person and pull up and away to reveal the landscape around you in what GoPro calls a Dronie.
The automated flight mode that's conspicuously absent is follow. It's a mode you'd think the GoPro crowd would demand—the ability for your drone to automatically track your movements while performing some insane stunt. The lack of obstacle detection and avoidance probably went into the decision-making process to omit the popular feature from the Karma.
If it's something you want, consider (again) the DJI Mavic Pro. It can actually identify and track a subject automatically, and has an obstacle avoidance system to help prevent it from crashing when tracking. It's a good idea to have a spotter controlling the drone for you, of course, but with the Mavic you don't have to worry about them being a stellar pilot, just trained well enough to bring the drone down safely in the event something goes awry.
We reviewed the Karma with GoPro's latest flagship camera, the Hero5 Black. In terms of video quality, you can get a better idea of what the camera is capable of by reading our review. In short, it shoots in 4K at frame rates up to 30fps and with an ultra-wide field of view only. If you opt for less resolution you have options for a tighter field of view, which corrects for the curved look at 2.7K and lower, and faster frame rates.
I don't see a GoPro action camera as an ideal tool for aerials. Its size is right, of course, but the ultra-wide lens with a modest fish-eye effect is simply too wide for a lot of aerial applications. It's why most drones with integrated cameras have moved to narrower lenses—the DJI Phantom 4 series uses a 20mm-equivalent prime, and the Mavic Pro is a little bit narrower at 25mm. If you're performing some tricks or flips on a big bike ramp, having a tighter lens, which puts more distance between you and the aircraft, can be a blessing, and the 25mm scope is a fine choice for aerial landscape photography and videography.
That said, if you prefer ultra-wide, the GoPro delivers solid results. Its ProTune mode delivers video that's crisp with your option of a Flat or GoPro color profile—the former is a plus if you want to color grade the footage yourself. What you don't get is the ability to adjust exposure on the fly. Most drones allow you to brighten or darken a video using EV compensation when working in automatic exposure, or to set a manual exposure using a specified shutter speed and ISO. That's not the case with the Karma—the exposure the camera thinks is right is the one you get. It's a major downside for users looking at the drone as a tool for aerial videography.
The Hero5 Black does shoot images in Raw, and its GPR file format is supported by the current version of Lightroom CC and Adobe Camera Raw.
It took a while to get off the ground, but you can go out and buy a GoPro Karma today. And while brand devotees who already own a compatible GoPro action cam may see some upsides—including the bundled Karma Grip and relatively attractive price point—I don't think it should be your first choice. The lack of obstacle avoidance and the ultra-wide GoPro field of view are downsides, as is the omission of an automated follow mode.
The Karma also isn't as portable as GoPro would like you to think it is. While it folds and has a shorter minimum height than an entry-level DJI Phantom 3 Standard, it still requires you to carry it in its own case. The Mavic Pro is still the only truly small drone on the market that doesn't leave any features on the table. Its remote control is the size of a video game controller and the drone itself folds to about the size of a water bottle—small enough to simply toss in your messenger bag.
Our Editors' Choice in this price range is the DJI Phantom 4. It's larger than the Karma, but can be carried in a small case or backpack. It currently sells for less than the Karma, and features obstacle avoidance, subject tracking, and 4K capture. The Mavic Pro is a very strong alternative if you want a more compact aircraft.
By Jim Fisher Senior Analyst, Digital Cameras
Senior digital camera analyst for the PCMag consumer electronics reviews team, Jim Fisher is a graduate of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he concentrated on documentary video production. Jim's interest in photography really took off when he borrowed his father's Hasselblad 500C and light meter in 2007. He honed his writing skills at retailer B&H Photo, where he wrote thousands upon thousands of product descriptions, blog posts, and reviews. Since then he's shot with hundreds of camera models, ranging from pocket point-and-shoots to medium format… More »
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