I've come to accept that the smartphones and tablets in my house require updates to apps and/or the OS nearly every day. That kind of dynamic operating environment is just the cost of having the world at your fingertips, right? The radio systems I use for my RC models, however, are a different story. The software that they come loaded with is typically the exact software they will always have. I appreciate that stability. After all, there are enough intrinsic variables involved with flying RC models. I don't want to have to manage ever-changing software configurations too.
When the release of the Spektrum iX12 radio system was announced several months ago, I was conflicted. Its primary selling feature is that it incorporates an Android system into a "normal" radio. It's like having a hybrid of a tablet and radio system. While I could easily imagine the potential capabilities of an Android-powered radio transmitter, I was concerned that the overall system would be too dynamic and unstable for my liking. It is safe to say that I began my ownership of the iX12 (and this review) with a healthy dose of skepticism.
The iX12 is a 12-channel radio. Its starting price point of $630 asserts that it is a high-end radio with features and capabilities for serious hobbyists. For that kind of money, you get a radio system packed into in a standard-size housing with two ball bearing-equipped gimbals, eight toggle switches, two sliders, one knob and one momentary switch (all of which are programmable). It looks and feels like a solid, well-built radio. The base color is black, but Spektrum recently released a limited-edition of the iX12 in neon colors ($680).
Like other Spektrum radios, this unit talks to your RC vehicle with 2.4GHz signals. It is compatible with Spektrum receivers using the DSMX or DSM2 protocols. That means it can also be used with all of the Bind-N-Fly airplanes, multi-rotors, and helicopters sold by Spektrum's parent company, Horizon Hobby.
Any 12-channel computer radio is inherently complex. The Android aspect of the equation makes things a little bit more intricate. Even experienced hobbyists will probably require some help to navigate the iX12. While the radio does not come with a printed manual, there is an online manual available. Better yet, you can download the latest manual directly to the transmitter and view it on the unit's the touchscreen. Spektrum also has a series of instructional videos for iX12 owners on YouTube.
Getting to Know the iX12
One of the first things I noticed when testing the iX12 is that it takes a long time to boot up. Most radio systems are ready to go as soon as you flip the switch. It takes nearly 2 minutes, however, for the iX12 to come fully alive. That may sound trivial to some of you, but it's a long time to wait if you just want to power up for a 5-minute flight. The good news here is that you probably will not need to completely cycle the iX12 on and off between every flight as you would with most other radios.
The iX12 has a sleep function that puts the radio in a low-power mode when you're not flying. It wakes immediately from the sleep mode and is ready to use in an instant. The obvious strategy is to power on the system at the start of a day of flying and put it into sleep mode between each flight. You can then power down at the end of the day, or even keep the radio in sleep mode if you're planning to fly within the next day or two. The onboard Lithium-Ion battery is charged with a standard micro-USB cable.
You can configure the radio's settings for each of your RC vehicles using the AirWare app on the 3.4" x 2" (86.4mm x 51mm) color touchscreen. AirWare automatically loads when you power on the radio system. The bezel around the touchscreen is a little steep. I sometimes have trouble keying buttons near the perimeter. A stylus would probably be handy to use.
The big question in my mind is, "What happens if the app crashes while I'm flying?" When I presented this query to a Spektrum rep, he informed me that the radio would continue to command the model with the current configuration settings. The app crash would effectively be transparent while you are flying. That's very reassuring, but I have not been able to confirm this for myself.
AirWare actually did crash on me once while I was configuring a model in my workshop. Everything on the screen completely froze and I eventually had to unplug the battery to reboot the system. Unfortunately, I didn't think to verify the control link before rebooting…drats!
Like most transmitters in this range, there are countless configuration options for airplanes, quads, and helicopters. It's hard to imagine that any one user would ever utilize more than 10% of the features that are available. That's a good thing. Whenever I dream up new projects, I don't want limitations to come from my radio options. The iX12 should be able to handle any set-up you can imagine.
I've been using the iX12 for about two months now. Overall, I have not found anything significant to complain about. In fact, it has replaced my trusty Spektrum DX8 as my primary go-to radio for new models (and a lot of my old ones too). The iX12 is comfortable to use and I really like the feel of the gimbals. It did take me a while to get used to the power-on time. But I've come to appreciate the sleep mode option and use it often.
I have to admit that, as an iOS guy, I'm not very savvy with Android. I'm getting used to the nuances. There is definitely a short learning curve involved.
So what useful stuff can you do with an Android tablet built into your radio system? That's a good question…and probably one that will not be fully answered for some time. I think that as more and more people adopt the iX12 and explore its capabilities, truly helpful utilities will emerge.
I don't predict that anyone will regularly use the iX12 for normal tablet/phone tasks such as texting, email, or web surfing. Even though the transmitter has Wi-Fi (also Bluetooth and USB connection options), the screen is pretty small for heavy reading or typing. Plus, most RC flying fields do not have Wi-Fi access. So you would have to configure a Wi-Fi hotspot on your phone to start with. I do not see an advantage over just using your phone.
I've already mentioned one handy capability afforded by Android: navigating the user-manual. There have been countless times when having a manual on-hand at the flying field would have been really useful. I'm sure that I will take advantage of that capability often with the iX12.
Another notable use for the Android side of the iX12 is on-location configuration of models. Most flight controllers that are used to stabilize multi-rotors (and other vehicles) are configured through apps. Running those apps on your transmitter means that you do not have to carry a tablet or laptop to the field to tweak your setup. Several Spektrum receivers can also be configured through the AS3X Programming app.
Google's Text-to-Voice app has some interesting uses with the iX12. The radio has built-in voice alerts via Text-to-Voice that can keep you informed of things such as timers and telemetry data while you fly. There are a lot of other radios with similar voice features. The iX12 is unique in that it has ways to configure custom voice messages for anything you want. The example used in Spektrum's video series has the radio call out a series of aerobatic maneuvers for a competition routine. In all of these cases, the voice alerts are a handy tool because the pilot never has to look away from the model to get the information they're after.
To Be Continued
Unstable software and frequent app updates were a concern of mine early on. Reality has been somewhat kinder than my predictions. I have not forgotten that AirWare crashed on me. But it did reboot just fine and has been working well in the weeks since then. I remain cautiously optimistic about its overall reliability.
I have only had to update AirWare once so far. Being able to download and install the update directly though the transmitter's Wi-Fi certainly eased that burden. At this rate, I think I can stomach occasional software changes.
I am confident in saying that the iX12 is a high-quality and capable radio. I like it and will continue to use it. At the same time, I am not completely sold on the idea that the benefits introduced by the Android processor outweigh the additional risks and overhead. I find the radio to be very novel and friendly rather than revolutionary.
I can certainly appreciate that having Android onboard permits some handy features. But none of those things are critical to me. If I were more active with my racing quads, I'm sure I would put greater stock in the on-site flight controller tuning capability of the iX12. As it stands, I simply haven't found the one "killer app" that truly justifies the Android element. I am open minded enough to believe that exceptionally useful apps for this radio will eventually come along. When they do, my iX12 and I will be ready!
Terry is a freelance writer living in Buffalo, NY. Visit his website at TerryDunn.org and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. You can also hear Terry talk about RC hobbies as one of the hosts of the RC Roundtable podcast.