I’ve been flying an original DJI Phantom quadrotor for almost two years. Even though it’s never given me an ounce of trouble, watching the super-stable video footage from quads equipped with camera gimbals convinced me that I needed an upgrade. Rather than add a gimbal to my Phantom, I decided to keep it as a sport flyer and add a new quad to my fleet. The new ship is a Blade 350QX2 AP Combo (~$900). Its features are similar to the Phantom 2 Vision + reviewed by Norm and Will, but there are a several differences. I will talk about those variances throughout this review.
The Blade 350QX series is not new. It was first released in the summer of 2013. Like the Phantom, the 350QX lineup has seen continuous improvements and added options. The AP Combo is the first 350QX equipped with a 2-axis gimbal and a camera. Blade brand quads and helicopters are quite popular, so you are likely to find kits and spare parts at your local hobby shop.
What’s In the Box
The AP Combo is a turnkey setup. It includes the factory-built quad, a Spektrum DX4 transmitter, the gimbal, a 3-cell 3000mAh LiPo battery, and an AC charger for the battery. The only thing I had to add was a micro-SD card for the GoPro-like CGO1 camera. I used a SanDisk 16GB class 10 card. The quad was 95% ready to fly when I opened the box. Even the props were installed (a full extra set is included as well).
The one required assembly step was to snap the gimbal unit into place on the bottom of the quad. If you’re not paying attention, it can be installed backwards. Trust me on that. If it doesn’t click into place easily, you’re doing it wrong. Retreat, regroup, and charge again. While I was working on the gimbal, I had the flight battery and camera charging on their respective chargers. The camera charges through a micro-USB cable (included).
Blade includes a Quick Start Guide to lead you through the necessary steps to get the quad in the air. It is easy to follow and understand. A full manual is available online as are numerous videos. I found the online videos especially helpful. Since I had watched several of them while the quad was being shipped, I already knew what to expect when I opened the box.
The battery connectors are the popular EC3 style that is included with most Blade products as well as the other house brands distributed by Horizon Hobby (E-flite, Parkzone, ECX, Losi, Vaterra, etc.). They work fine and there is no reason to replace them. However, all of my RC equipment is configured with Deans Ultra Plugs. For the sake of consistency, I swapped the EC3s on the 350QX2 for Deans.
What’s a Gimbal?
In a nut shell, a gimbal is a device that isolates the camera from pitching and rolling movements of the quad that is carrying it. For example: if the quad tilts to the right, the gimbal control board senses this motion and rotates the roll axis of the gimbal to keep the camera level. The end result is that the video footage is much smoother than what can usually be obtained without a gimbal. An added benefit is that the pilot can change the tilt angle of the camera in flight when using certain transmitters…more on that later.
The gimbal included with the 350QX2 is the GB200, which is an optional add-on for other 350QX models. As I mentioned, the assembly snaps right into the preinstalled base unit on the quad. Also of interest is the flexible isolation mount used here. Four rubber boots separate the top and bottom halves of the mount. This setup prevents minor vibrations in the quad from reaching the camera and causing the dreaded jello distortion in videos. As included with the AP Combo, the GB200 has a mount for the CGO1 camera that is also a part of the package. Blade offers a GB200 camera mount intended for the GoPro Hero3 as well.
The included CGO1 camera has a form factor very similar to a GoPro. Its outer dimensions are within a few millimeters of a GoPro Hero 2 on every axis. It is a snug press fit into the gimbal mount and there is also a small thumb screw to make sure things stay in place. What is most unique about the CGO1 is the mushroom-like Wi-Fi antenna that protrudes from the bottom of the camera.
I couldn’t find any documentation showing the approximate range of the CGO1’s W-Fi signal, but I can say that it works much further away and with much less latency than the similar system on my Hero 3 Black. The Wi-Fi transmitter is automatically activated when you turn the camera on. Without the antenna attached, the Wi-Fi system could overheat and fail. Because of that risk, you have to be sure to have the antenna attached whenever the camera is turned on.
The Wi-Fi signal can be used to see a real-time view from the camera, start/stop recording, choose between still photo and video modes, and a few other items. The interface is made possible via the CGO1 app, which is available for Apple or Android devices. Be advised that the CGO1 transmits a 5.8GHz signal and may not be recognized by all phones and tablets. My older iPhone 4S was no-go, but an iPhone 5 and iPad Mini worked fine. In case you were wondering, the DX4 transmitter includes a clamp that can hold most smartphones.
The CGO1 shoots 1080p video at 30FPS--not exactly cutting edge, but it’s good enough for most situations. Still photos are 2MP resolution at 1920 x 1080 pixels.
The 350QX has three flight modes that are selectable via a 3-position switch on the transmitter. Smart Mode in intended for rookie quad flyers. In this mode, all control inputs are relative to the position and orientation of the quad when it was armed. You set the 350QX2 on the ground with the nose facing away from you. Then, stand at least 16ft behind the quad. You are now standing inside the “SAFE Circle”, a zone that the quad will (ideally) not fly into.
In Smart Mode, pushing the right stick forward will send the quad away from the SAFE Circle. It doesn’t matter which way the nose of the quad is pointing. Pulling back on the stick will bring the quad back towards the circle. Moving the right stick to the right or left will send the 350QX2 in a clockwise or counter-clockwise (respectively) circular path concentric to the SAFE Circle. Basically, Smart Mode relieves the pilot from having to maintain orientation of the quad. It will always respond the same no matter what its present orientation is.
Smart Mode relieves the pilot from having to maintain orientation of the quad. It will always respond the same no matter what its present orientation is.
Another facet of Smart Mode is that the 350QX2’s altitude is limited to 45 meters. The throttle input on the left stick is treated as a (somewhat) linear relationship to that altitude range. Full throttle takes you to 45 meters. Mid-throttle will park the quad at an intermediate altitude. Full down on the throttle stick will bring the quad in for a landing. It may sound like a loose relationship, but I found it very easy to manage in flight. Left/Right movements on the left stick will rotate the quad on the yaw axis.
AP (Aerial Photography) Mode removes the SAFE Circle and makes pitch and roll inputs relative to the quad’s present orientation. Pushing forward on the right stick will send the 350QX2 towards whatever the nose is pointing at. You must maintain visual orientation of the quad in order to competently command it where to go. AP Mode maintains the altitude-relative throttle positioning seen in Smart Mode.
Stability Mode is similar to AP Mode with a few differences. The control authority on every axis is much greater. You have the ability to tilt the quad faster and further in any direction. This lets you reach surprisingly fast flight speeds. This maneuverability stops short of aerobatic moves, however. No flips or rolls with this guy.
In Stability Mode, the position of the throttle stick is now relative to the available power output of the motors. All the way up is full throttle. All the way down is zilch. You must manage the throttle position to climb, descend, or maintain altitude.
All three flight modes share a few different traits that most flyers will appreciate. Position Hold will keep the quad steady over the same small plot of ground as long as you make no inputs to the right stick. You can yaw or change the throttle while maintaining position. The Self-Leveling feature brings the 350QX2 back to level flight when you release the right stick.
Perhaps the most important feature is the Return To Home switch. When you flip this switch on the transmitter, the 350QX2 will begin heading back to the point where it was launched and automatically land itself. This is very handy for those times when you get too far away and lose orientation.
Flying the Blade 350QX2
The first thing I noticed at the flying field is that there is less than an inch of ground clearance when the Wi-Fi antenna is attached to the camera. You’ll have to operate from a relatively smooth surface to make sure the quad rests on its skids rather than the antenna.
I’ve found that my 350QX2 typically needs anywhere from 30 seconds to 1 minute to get a GPS lock. Smart Mode will not allow you to take off until you get the lock. You can depart in AP or Stability mode prior to GPS lock, but you forfeit the GPS-driven functions such as Position Hold and Return To Home. My personal policy is to stay on the ground until I get the lock, regardless of the mode I am using.
Takeoffs with the 350QX2 are very smooth. With my Phantom, I often have to jump it into the air because it acts unstable within a foot or two of the ground. I don’t see that trait with this quad. It does fine with gentle, gradual liftoffs.
I’ve logged a lot of time flying the 350QX2 in Smart Mode. Quite frankly, it makes me feel dumb. Since I am already comfortable flying quads with vehicle-centric inputs, I have a tough time transposing to the “stick relativity” approach required for Smart Mode. It works exactly like the manual says it should. It just doesn’t respond the way my pre-programmed brain thinks it should. Then again, this mode is tailor-made for people with zero flight experience. I can see where it would be very intuitive for those folks.
Control response is brisk and the quad can really get truckin’! Low-level, full-speed passes down the runway are easy to perform and fun to watch.
If you plan to stay in the multi-rotor game for a while, you’re going to have to learn how to fly with vehicle-centric inputs sooner or later. My suggestion has always been to learn this technique with a RC simulator and/or a quality mini quad. I’ll concede that Smart Mode on the 350QX2 offers an alternate path to earn your wings. The upfront cost is lower than my suggested route since you are not investing in another quad or software. However, the potential cost of mistakes increases when using the larger, more expensive 350QX2 to train. Also consider that you will have to “unlearn” Smart Mode flying once you’re comfortable enough to make the switch to normal flying. You have options, so choose what suits you.
I find AP Mode comfortable and casual. Pitch, roll and yaw inputs respond the way I am used to. I don’t have any trouble adjusting to the altitude-relative throttle commands. Control response in this mode is smooth and subtle--just what you want when shooting video or photos.
Most of my flight time is spent in Stability Mode. I think that is mostly due to my comfort level with flying quads. Control response is brisk and the quad can really get truckin’! Low-level, full-speed passes down the runway are easy to perform and fun to watch. That’s the sort of flying that I’m saving my old Phantom for, but this quad is good at it too.
I’m still working on my throttle management skills with the 350QX2 to avoid ballooning upwards as I level off at the end of a high speed pass. I’m actually thankful that the quad doesn’t handle this chore for me. If there were no challenge to flying it, I would become bored very quickly. For the same reason, it doesn’t concern me that the 350QX2 does not have programmable way points and full auto-pilot. It’s only fun for me if I’m (mostly) in command. I don’t mind being helped with features like attitude stabilization and GPS hold. However, if I can’t see the quad and tell it what to do, I figure that I might as well be on the simulator.
I’ve flown the 350QX2 in winds ranging from dead calm to a gusty 20mph. In all cases, I was very impressed by the position holding ability of the quad. I don’t know what the normal tolerance is for this GPS system, but I’ve never seen my quad drift more than a few feet in any direction. This compares favorably with my Phantom, which also drops anchor in the air very reliably. I have to admit that the 350QX2’s altitude-relative throttle inputs used in Smart and AP modes make it really easy to hold a steady altitude as well.
The footprint of the 350QX2 is not quite symmetrical. This helps a little with in-flight orientation, but only a little. Different colored props front and rear help a little more, as do contrasting LEDs on the bottom side of the frame. Despite all of these features, sorting out which end is which can be somewhat challenging at times. That’s true in varying degrees for every with quad-rotor that I’ve ever flown.
In all the countless flights I’ve logged on my Phantom, I’ve never needed to use the “Go-Home” feature. Nor have I ever felt an urge to test the efficacy of Go-Home by turning off the transmitter (the method for engaging Go-Home on early Phantoms). There’s just something about killing the only link I have with the quad that I find hard to digest.
I have no reservations about engaging Return To Home (RTH) on the 350QX2. I just have to flip a switch on the transmitter…which never gets turned off. Each time that I have used RTH, the 350QX2 was returned to almost the exact spot from which it departed. Having this RTH safety net will give me confidence to send the 350QX2 out a little beyond my visual comfort zone...maybe.
With the stock 3000mAh battery I am able to get 13 minute flights with no reserve. This includes a mixture of hovering and horsing around in moderate wind. Your specific conditions and flying style may net different results. I have a handful of 3-cell 2200mAh batteries that also work well in the 350QX2 with 7-8 minute flight times.
Overall, I’m pleased with how the 350QX flies. I can’t find any legitimate gripes. I think that total rookies can use Smart Mode to get the 350QX2 in the air and steer it with relative confidence. Anyone with some mini quad or simulator experience should have no trouble flying in AP Mode. Stability Mode is lively enough to keep most experienced pilots happy while still being easy to fly. I’m not sure that you can ask much more of an off-the-shelf quad-rotor.
But What About the Gimbal And Camera?
Oh yeah, the gimbal was the whole point of getting this quad. I’m happy to say that it has been working flawlessly. From the factory, it is programed with a slight downward tilt to the camera. This has turned out to be a good setting for landscape shots which capture good proportions of ground and sky. If you prefer a different tilt angle, it can be set manually when the quad is armed.
The footage I’ve captured since using the gimbal has been a big improvement over what I’m used to with rigidly mounted cameras. As expected, the field of view remains much more consistent as the quad is bucked by the wind or direction changes. That’s exactly what I was looking for.
My experience with the CGO1 camera has been a mixture of good and bad. I’ll start with the good. The Wi-Fi signal and interface with the phone app have worked better than I expected. I routinely get a link that is solid nearly as far away as I’m willing to fly the quad. With my setup, I usually see about one second of lag. I’d never be comfortable flying via that delayed view, but it is more than adequate for framing shots.
Unfortunately, I have not been impressed by the image quality of the video or photos from the camera. Colors tend to be somewhat washed out, even under blue skies with good lighting. The phone app has brightness and contrast settings, which can provide some relief. However, I have yet to see the vibrant colors that I was hoping for.
A more significant issue is that every shot is slightly out of focus. It seems that the lens is set to focus on close objects (< 1 foot), which doesn’t make much sense for a camera intended to shoot from the sky. Even if the focus on my unit was not a problem, the color rendering issue alone would have driven me to substitute the CGO1 with my Hero 3 Black. The CGO1 isn’t awful, but my GoPro is better. So, why not use it?
The Hero 3 mounts for the GB200 are presently on backorder, but I hope to have one soon. In the meantime, I have been able to fit the smaller GoPro in the CGO1 mount. I just fill the empty space with foam rubber shims and retain the camera with a Velcro strap. It may not be the best configuration balance-wise (important with gimbals) but it has worked well so far.
There are two down sides to my camera mount hack. First, some of the buttons on the GoPro are obscured by the mount. This means that I have to remove the camera after each flight to turn off the Wi-Fi. Secondly, the Wi-Fi on my GoPro stinks in both range and latency. I’m sure that I will soon just turn off the Wi-Fi and eyeball my shots from the ground.
Many GoPro owners have reported that the Wi-Fi interferes with the GPS receiver on their quad (true of DJI and Blade quads). I guess I dodged that bullet because I have not seen any adverse effects with the Hero 3 in my quad. Flyers that have tackled this issue claim that a copper foil shield around the camera is an easy remedy.
The included DX4 transmitter works great and I have no complaints about it. Owners of other Spektrum computer transmitters (DX7S, DX8, DX9, or DX18) can bind their radio to the 350QX2 and add real-time tilt control of the gimbal. It’s an easy process and there are how-to videos specific to each transmitter.
My last several flights with the 350QX2 have used my DX8 for control. A 3-position switch controls the gimbal. The uppermost position commands the gimbal to tilt the camera upwards, while the bottom position sends it in the other direction. The middle position tells it to stay put. In addition to gimbal tilt, I was also able to set-up dual rates. Translated, that means I can choose how sensitive I want the controls to be with the flip of a switch.
Some flyers appreciate the familiarity of using just one transmitter for every flying machine they own. That capability is one of the primary benefits of owning a computer radio. I can see where those guys would jump at the chance to link their radio to the 350QX2. I’m not one of those guys. I certainly don’t mind using my DX8 for this quad. I’m finding, however, that I rarely use the additional features that it affords. I almost never change the camera’s tilt angle and I like the stock sensitivity settings. I also like the idea of having a dedicated transmitter just for the 350QX2. As soon as I finish this review, I plan to relink the simple but capable DX4 to the quad.
Summary of Opinions
For the most part the Blade 350QX2 AP Combo provided everything that I was looking for in a new aerial video platform. It included all of the equipment I needed in a prebuilt, all-in-one package. It flies every bit as well as my DJI Phantom while also incorporating a “return home” feature that I’m not terrified to utilize. My only real disappointment regarded the lackluster performance of the CGO1 camera. That being said, I didn’t really need a camera to be included in the first place. Blade would have had to throw in a pretty spectacular camera to make me abandon my Hero 3. Perhaps they will offer a package with the gimbal and Hero 3 mount while omitting the CGO1.