Sunday, July 13, 2014

Hubsan X4 Video Recording Review

I'll have to start this by saying I'm not an expert quad pilot. In fact, I pretty much suck at it.

So, I've had a standard Hubsan X4 for about a year and, after trying out 3 or 4 similar micro-quads, I have to say it's simply the best micro-quad you can buy. It's cheap, easy to fly and is just a perfectly engineered little machine.

For example, quadcopters are essentially fly-by-wire machines. You tell the quad what you want it to do and an onboard computer, with the help of gyros and accelerometers, adjusts the throttle on each of the four motors to make it perform the required maneuver. Without this, quadcopters would be just about impossible to fly. Something as simple as flying forwards would mean simultaneously adjusting the speed of all four rotors to make the machine tilt forward enough to move forward and maintain altitude without flipping over.

As you can imagine, this is tricky, and a lot of other cheap microquads just don't do a very good job of it. For example, the Silverlit Space Galaxy tends to overcorrect and assumes if there's no input on the controller, that you want it to hover in place.

There's none of that with the X4 model. In beginner mode you have a steady, docile machine that just about anyone can fly. In expert mode you have an extremely fast, agile, responsive quad that does what you want it to do, when you want it to do it.

So what about the X4 Video Recording model?

To be honest, there's very little difference between flying a standard X4 and the X4VR. It's just as responsive and easy to fly and actually seems sturdier that the Standard X4 (a fast, uncontrolled crash from about 3 stories high with no damage proved that). The only downside is that the X4VR is obviously a little heavier which means a slightly shorter battery life (approx 8-10 minutes) and slightly slower climb rates...but there's no drastic drop off in performance.

The video quality is actually a lot better than I expected from the tiny camera in the X4VR at 720x480 at 25fps. It's essentially the same quality as a decent laptop webcam, and as it records to a microSD card, there's as much storage as you want, with a 5 minute video taking up approximately 170mb of space.

Operating the camera is simple, with a single button on the side of the quad. Press the button once and a red light will start flashing, showing that  recording has started. When you're finished, pressing the same button again stops recording and saves the video. Having flown a standard X4 for so long, I'd sometimes forget to save the video before disconnecting the battery...but that's down to me rather than the quad.

The only real downside I found, which again is more a problem with me than the quad, is that the quad will power down after a crash to prevent further damage. With a standard X4 this is something you probably wouldn't even notice. You have a minor crash, the power is cut, then you get your quad, reset it and relaunch. However, on the video version, cutting the power also means losing any video you've recorded. More than once, I'd recorded 5 minutes of video only to lose it due to a sudden gust of wind and a bad landing...but again, the solution to this is not to crash.

In other words, I can't recommend this quad enough. It's an excellent flyer, cheap enough to where it's not the end of the world if you damage it beyond repair, and extremely cheap to order new parts if you have a more significant crash. The quad comes with four replacement props, and replacements are literally pennies to buy.

Now the review is over, here are some experiences with a few tips for newbie pilots like myself:

The most difficult thing I found to get used to is actually orienting the camera. There's really no such thing as the 'nose' of a quad...they can fly just as fast and easily sideways and backwards as forwards. Because of this I learned to fly the X4 with the nose always pointing away from me, so left on the stick always meant the quad would move left, etc, etc. Obviously, if you want to record something, the camera has to be pointing at it...which really highlighted my inexperience. Quite often, especially when the quad was at altitude, I'd lose track of the orientation...which can lead to a panicked moment when you steer the quad towards the rooftop or tree you're trying to avoid. The quad has coloured LEDs on each prop to help with this, but on a bright day when the quad is high above you, this is difficult to see.

I also flew my standard X4 exclusively indoors. If you've done the same, I suggest some practice outside at low altitude and over grass before you try flying at altitude or over less forgiving terrain. Wind is obviously a factor, but I'd found I'd got into a few habits that make sense indoors but are practically suicidal outside. For example, if I was flying indoors and got into trouble, my habit was to immediately cut power....a 6 foot drop onto carpet causes a lot less damage than props at full power hitting a wall or the TV.

On my first trip outside I had the quad about 3 stories high and nearly went into a wall. Without thinking I cut the throttle. By the time I realised my mistake, the quad was already too low and falling too fast to recover. Luckily, the only damage was that a prop came off, but was easily reattached.

Basically, having a camera on your quad makes you want to immediately fly as high as possible to get good footage. My advice is practice and get as comfortable as possible before going for those high altitide shots.

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