GoPro Karma review: Stiff competition, but a decent drone
There were two main takeways from Karma’s reveal. First, the lack of expected “follow me” features; second, the inclusion of unexpected hand-held stabilizers, making the Karma a “kit.” Go Pro CEO Nick Woodman declared Karma “more than a drone,“ pitching it as a video-stabilization system – to be worn, held and flown. Is this enough for buyers to overlook a pared feature set?
At $799 (BYO camera) or $999/$1,099 including a Hero5 Session or Black, the Karma is competitively priced, undercutting the Phantom 4 from DJI, if you factor in the hand-held stabilizer. But DJI revealed the Mavic Pro, setting fire to GoPro’s plans. Similarly priced, smaller, and beats GoPro’s spec sheet – the question is, is GoPro’s “more than a drone” claim enough to lure casual filmmakers away from DJI’s superior product?
On November 8th 2016, GoPro globally recalled the Karma drone after electrical failures led to loss of power during flight. GoPro advisers users to return units to GoPro or place of purchase for a full refund. No replacements are currently being offered. This review remains for posterity’s sake – we will re-assess our review & score if GoPro resumes selling Karma.
What’s in the box depends on if you need a GoPro. Bundle a Hero5 camera, and you’ll save $100. All bundles include: a Karma drone, touchscreen controller, hand-held “Grip” stabilizer (called a “gimbal”), six propellers, and a backpack for it all. There’s also a charger with USB Type-C, and connectors for batteries, allowing simultaneous drone & controller charging.
The removable gimbal is Karma’s party trick, allowing you to switch from drone to Grip for smooth videos from both sky and ground. A clip makes the Grip compatible with existing GoPro mounts. This means you can (almost) stabilize your GoPro anywhere you can mount it.
There are many creative ways to use the Grip to achieve stabilized, interesting videos you couldn’t before. While you’re buying this for the drone, the Grip adds much functionality. And although the drone is more fun, you may end up using the Grip more overall.
Karma is referred to as a “stabilization system” by GoPro. This seems as a repositioning of the Karma as a camera product, and not a direct competitor to Phantom 4 or Mavic drones. Keep this in mind, and we’ll revisit this later.
The Karma isn’t a bad looking quadcopter. Collapsible landing gear & folding arms mean a very low profile, being lower than any Phantom, but longer & wider than Mavic. Unfolding Karma only takes seconds.
The body is primarily glossy white plastic, with a gray underbelly & soft-touch section on top. Whether you find it better looking than curvy Phantom or masculine Mavic is a matter of personal taste.
The Karma controller looks & feels great, with a built in 5-inch, 900-nit 720p display kept safe in a clamshell design. Rather than metal knurled “sticks”, Karma has smooth sticks with rubberized finishes. It’s weighty but comfortable, and the controller’s lack of antennas make it feel infinitely less geeky.
The Grip follows a similar aesthetic, with flush buttons & a gunmetal color. Unlike prior stabilizers, it features buttons that will directly control the camera – turning it on/off, setting highlight tags, starting/stopping recording, changing mods, and setting the camera’s angle can all be done without touching the GoPro.
Overall, we found everything carefully engineered & well made. For example, charging the Grip with a camera in it will charge both devices simultaneously. The GoPro quick-release mount on the strap for mounting the Grip on the backpack is also a nice touch.
Battery life is estimated at 20 minutes, and we saw ~17 minutes, depending on your flying style. Drone battery life is a guessing game, as we got no more than 20min from Mavic’s claimed 27min of life. To summarize, get extra batteries (at $99 a pop). This is on par/cheaper than competitors (Mavic/Phantom at $89 and $169).
So what does Karma lack? The “follow me” feature really stands out. Basic tools, GPS in both drone & controller, are present, but GoPro claims current tech isn’t sufficient. I’ve tried GPS solutions in the past, and found them jerky with constant recalculating. Camera-based is superior, but is still prone to losing its target. The simple answer for leaving it out: most won’t use it. It also requires obstacle avoidance, which Karma also lacks. Others, like Mavic & Phantom 4 “only” have forward facing obstacle avoidance, but that’s better than none.
Video & Photo Modes
Karma has four auto-shot modes, most or all of which are common on other camera drones. However, Karma is pitched at outdoor amateur videographers, so we find this fine.
The “Dronie” selfie mode allows you to fly Karma to a point, from which it will slowly fly back & upward until you’re but a dot. I’m not sure how many times I’d use it, but you may differ.
Far more useful is “Cable cam”, moving the Karma between two locations as if on a cable. The Karma can be rotated or slowed/sped up while moving, and start/end points can be at different heights.
“Orbit” will make Karma fly around a central point, also allowing height & angle changes along the way. I do wish however Karma could circle a moving target like Mavic’s equivalent.
Finally, “Reveal” will fly between two points, camera facing downward, panning upward slowly for a big reveal – a staple shot great for intros.
Now’s a good time to remind you that if you’re using a Hero 5, its Linear mode will remove the common GoPro fish-eye effect at a cost of recording at 2.7K below, and not 4K.
Camera modes can be changed via onscreen menu on controller, or “Highlight” button if not actively recording. We found the display’s ‘recording time’ number freezing, unable to be unfrozen by tapping the record button. Upon landing, the camera was still recording, with no footage lost – okay, but frustrating. All recorded media can be viewed via controller, surprisingly quickly.
The “Passenger” mobile app allows you to hand over control to another via their phone. A simply setup – connect via controller’s Wi-Fi hotspot, grand access, and go. It worked on my iOS, but GoPro state they’re still testing Android 7.1.
Passengers is exciting for the potential it brings, as it could be a direct way to add livestreaming to YouTube or Facebook.
Karma is a decent deal – drone, camera, hand-held stabilizer for the price of a Mavic.