GoPro Karma Review

This is the drone for GoPro diehards.

M

eet the Karma, GoPro’s eagerly awaited quadcopter. The Karma is capable, packable, and easy to fly. And because it uses GoPro’s best cameras, the picture quality is superb.

In the end, GoPro is a camera company that made a drone. The Karma drone is first and foremost an accessory for GoPro cameras and thus it hits the market with a unique value proposition. On its own the Karma is a fantastic drone. Yet when stacked against others, the Karma is missing key features that makes it competitive against the latest and greatest from drone makers.

GoPro bundles the Karma with a durable backpack case, handheld steady-cam mount and a unique controller that looks and feels more like a portable game system than a remote control. The controller is great.

The Karma is a good value. Priced at $799 without a camera, the Karma is a solid buy for those that already have a Hero 4 camera. It’s also available for $999 and $1099 if bundled with a Hero 4 Black or Hero 5 camera, respectively. At these price points, the Karma is competitive with the DJI Phantom 3 Advanced and DJI Phantom 4 especially when the bundled accessories are taken into account.

I’ll spoil the suspense now: The Karma is a great drone. Think of it as a flying GoPro mount, though, instead of an autonomous aerial vehicle. It lacks collision detection and follow-me abilities — the latest features found on most drones in the Karma’s price point. And that’s a shame, too, as both are excellent additions to drone technology. Think of the Karma as one of the best drones from 2014, and maybe, for GoPro’s core audience, that’s fine.

The Karma takes seconds to get out of its case and into the air. Anyone can fly it, and I like that, and I’m sure others will too. GoPro users will like that they can use their cameras in the drone. Is it the most advanced drone available for the price? Nah, but is it one of the most satisfying to use? I think so.

Dispelling Karma myths

Myth one: The GoPro Karma is a small drone.

The Karma is the size of a DJI Phantom. It’s not a drone that can fold up and fit in a pocket or most computer bags. It’s a full-size consumer drone that happens to morph for easer transportation.

Compared to a DJI Phantom, the Karma is much more portable because of its collapsible design. The landing gear collapses and the prop arms fold to the side. Even still, when packed, the Karma isn’t small. Don’t expect to put the Karma in a laptop bag.

Collapsed, packed and without the props, the Karma takes up about the same space as three MacBook Pros stacked on top of each other. When the props are in place, it’s about an extra 4 inches long.

The Karma ships with a travel backpack that holds the drone, controller, charger, and handheld gimbal grip. The case is durable and thoroughly padded though it lacks space for anything other than an extra camera. It’s tough to get even a small tablet in the case with the drone. Forget about throwing in a small laptop with the drone. There isn’t enough room.

When fully packed, the case weighs around 10 lbs.

I often travel with my DJI Phantom 3 Advanced, but I took the Karma with me instead to a recent trip to Seoul, South Korea. The Karma’s thin backpack case made traveling with the drone much easier than lugging around the Phantom in its huge Pelican case. I carried it on the plane though TSA looked twice at the large battery. The agents in Detroit said it was the most dense battery they had seen.

The backpack, at best, is a case with straps to put it on your back. It’s not a backpacking rig and lacks any sorts of economic padding for the wearer. It’s fine to wear for a few minutes but I doubt many would want to strap it on their back and race through a mountain top trail.

Myth two: The Karma’s closest competitor is the DJI Mavic

On paper, the GoPro Karma looks like it’s going to compete with the DJI Mavic drone. They’re both packable drones with limited feature sets, designed with portability in mind. In reality, the Karma’s main competitor is the DJI Phantom. And for some buyers, the Karma is a better buy than a Phantom.

Both the Mavic and Karma were announced within weeks of each other. Their main selling points are portability but that’s where it ends. The Mavic sacrifices video quality and durability at the expense of ultra-portability, though the tiny Mavic has collision detection and follow-me features lacking in the Karma. The Karma is a packable, full-size drone that uses one of the best cameras on the market — the GoPro Hero 5.

Spec for spec, the Karma lines up closely with the aging Phantom 3 Advanced. Both the Karma and Phantom 3 lack the Phantom 4’s speed, obstacle avoidance and follow mode, and the older Phantom 3 Advanced has a longer range than the Karma. The Karma sits on par with the Phantom 4’s camera though. The Hero 5 is great and unlike the Phantom’s camera, the Hero 5 can be removed from the drone and immediately used as a standalone camera. And when GoPro makes a new camera with improved capabilities, it will work in the Karma, too.

 

GoPro takes flight

The Karma is GoPro’s first drone. However, several competitors made their products compatible with GoPro cameras in the past, including DJI and 3DR.

Flight

Simply put, flying the Karma is bit boring. There’s no drama or fuss or nonsense in using the drone. It just works and works well. The Karma flies smooth and level. It’s not darty, though it can quickly turn and change directions. In the air, the Karma feels like a sport utility vehicle rather than a hot hatchback.

It takes just a minute or two to unpack the drone and get it into the sky. This is where the Karma stands apart from competitors. After removing it from the case, the prop arms and landing gear swing into place. Hit the power button on top of the remote and once the drone connects to GPS (this takes about a minute) it can be launched.

This simplicity is the Karma’s main draw: take it out of its case and it’s flying a minute or two later. Both taking off and landing is done through dedicated buttons. Pilots are not required to connect a smartphone to get a point-of-view video feed, and there’s no learning curve with the Karma.

In the air, the drone is smooth and predictable. Let go of the controls and it hovers in place, though not as well as other drones. The Karma tends to drift around a bit when hovering — not a lot, but more than other new drones. Mash the control sticks and the drone responds without hesitation. The Karma has no problem flying mere inches off the ground or rapidly changing directions though I find the Phantom drones a bit more agile.

The Karma tops off at 35 mph, which is faster than older drones, but a bit slow compared to other drones just now hitting the market.

Range is not an issue with the Karma. Its maximum flight distance is 3,000m, which in most cases is far enough for the pilot to lose sight of the drone, breaking one of the key FAA rules of piloting a drone of keeping the drone in visible range. However, many other drones available around the Karma’s price now have a range of 5,000 meters or farther.

The Karma is easy to fly thanks mostly to the controller. It’s great. The Karma comes with the best controller of any drone TechCrunch has tested, and both experienced and novice pilots will appreciate the built in screen, ergonomics and ease of use.

The controller is packaged like a portable game system. Flipping up the lid reveals a large LCD screen and controls. Camera controls are mounted on the shoulders making for a natural control scheme — flight controls are done with the pilot’s thumbs and the camera is controlled with the pointer finger.

This controller is one of the reasons I like the Karma so much. The built-in screen means pilots do not have to hassle with connecting a phone or tablet to the drone or controller. Just flip up the lid and start flying.

The battery is one of the Karma’s weak spots. It’s massive and provides less than 20 minutes of flight time. Realistically, expect about 18 minutes of flight time. After that, the controller alerts the pilot of the very low battery and the drone automatically returns to its launch site and

Camera

The Karma uses a GoPro camera to capture images and videos. The camera sits in a contraption that does its best to keep the camera steady during flight. Called a gimbal, this 3-axis steady cam keeps the camera properly oriented during flight. Even when the drone is dipping and diving, the camera remains virtually level with the horizon.

Drones have long used gimbals to keep cameras steady. The Karma’s doesn’t seem to be anything special compared to those offered by other companies. However, on the GoPro Karma, the gimbal and camera are mounted at the front instead of under the body.

Having the camera on the front of the drone offers several advantages for the Karma. One, the propeller props and landing gear never get in the camera shot. Two, having the camera on the front makes the drone much thinner, which is part of the reason the Karma is so packable. But there’s one big disadvantage too: To swivel the camera left and right more than a few degrees requires the drone to rotate. The gimbal allows for slight left and right movement, but the drone must rotate to provide any additional panning.

The GoPro cameras provide top-notch video quality. GoPro has long lead the industry and the new Hero5 camera carries the GoPro standard forward. Video is crisp and clear and stays smooth even during the most outrageous maneuvers.

The amount of recording options is nearly endless. Both the Hero 4 and Hero 5 offer several video recording resolutions maxing out at 4k at 30 fps. The Hero 5 sports more recording options including more high-speed options such as 1080p@120 and 720p@240. The Hero 5 also provides a more natural photo point of view with a new option called linear, which removes most of the fish-eye effect caused by the wide-angle lens on the GoPro camera, which dramatically improves photography.

And since the Karma uses a standard GoPro camera, sound is recorded during flight. Most of the time, when the drone is cruising at altitude, the sound recorded is the props and wind. But when the drone is low and around people, the ability to capture the ambient sound is a unique opportunity. Most drones including the latest from DJI do not record audio.

The GoPro Karma Grip

The Karma drone ships with a handle for the drone’s gimbal. Just take it off the drone and stick it in the Karma Grip to make silky smooth videos with a GoPro camera. The Karma Grip is $299 when purchased separately.

Karma Grip

This is a surprise. The Karma drone comes with handheld device that allows owners to take the gimbal and camera off the drone and mount it on this handle. Called the Karma Grip, this lets owners hold a GoPro camera and record video free of shaking or vibration.

Stick it out the window of a moving car and you’ll capture silky smooth video. Mount the Karma Grip to a bike and race down a hill. The video will be surprisingly smooth.

These sorts of gadgets have long existed for professional and consumer cameras. DJI sells several versions of this type of device. What’s unique here is that it comes with the Karma Drone. DJI’s version costs around $500 when included with a camera though it features several abilities absent from the GoPro Karma Grip.

I used the Karma Grip throughout my South Korean trip and loved it. The Karma Grip is a tad big, but it’s very easy to use and the resulting video is worth dealing with the size.

Like other handheld gimbals, the Karma Grip mounts the camera on top of a 3-axis contraption. This keeps the camera in place and on target while moving. No matter how much the handle moves, the camera stays level.

The Karma Grip has several buttons, and these are key to the device’s appeal. Hit the record button on the Grip and the camera powers on and immediately starts recording. There’s a tagging button, too, that lets operators mark key moments during recording. These bookmarks of sort make it much easier to edit. There’s also a mode button to switch the connected GoPro between video and photo modes.

But there is a curious niggle about the Karma Grip. One of the gimbal’s joints covers half of the GoPro’s screen. It’s an odd sacrifice. On one hand, this makes the device as compact as possible and GoPro cameras have never relied on built-in screens. They’re point of view cameras. But this orientation is just odd and makes framing a shot a bit more difficult than necessary.

Here’s a deep dive on the GoPro Karma Grip against its closest competitor, the DJI Osmo.

The Bottom Line

I really like the GoPro Karma for several reasons. First, I’m deep into the GoPro ecosystem with tons of accessories and mounts and cameras. The Karma fits naturally into this world. It’s essentially a flying GoPro mount.

Second, users do not need to connect a smartphone to get a live video feed from the camera. The controller has a built-in screen that works great, so it’s just one less thing to worry about. I love grabbing this drone and getting it in the air in seconds. This ease of use is novel in the drone world and it’s lovely.

Lastly, Karma is GoPro tough. During my time with the drone, I flew it in the rain, crashed it into pavement and skidded the camera across a tarmac. The drone and camera survived it all. The controller held up in the rain without an issue. I’ve crashed plenty of Phantom drones and they’re durable, too, but the Karma feels just a bit more rugged and better equipped to handle life with kids and bored parents.

As much as I like the Karma, it’s not the best drone on the market. For my money, that title goes to the DJI Phantom 4. The Phantom 4 is faster, more capable, and has amazing features like collision detection and a follow-me feature. During my testing, there were a couple of times when I wished the Karma had those abilities.

It’s tough to recommend a drone in late 2016 that lacks those two items, yet that’s what I’m going to do with a big stipulation: The Karma drone is the drone to buy for GoPro diehards. If someone is already deep into GoPro with a few cameras and tons of accessories, the Karma will feel like the next big thing.