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Product Reviews

Autel X-Star Premium

Great price point and superb flying capabilities

October 11, 2016

System Specs
X-Star Premium
  • Available: Autel Robotics
  • Rotor type: Quadcopter
  • Diameter: 13.8 inches
  • Weight: 3.52 pounds
  • Flight time: 20+ minutes
  • Price: $899
Autel Robotic's X-Star Premium bears more than a little resemblance to DJI's Phantom series, but dipped in tangerine. I'd say the similarities emerge simply because of good design sensibilities and functionality. While aggressive lines and arachnid arms might look cool on unmanned aerial vehicles, there’s something to be said for simplicity, and the X-Star Premium shines with exemplary controls, easy-to-use functions, and a strong, sleek airframe.

Autel offers two X-Star versions: the basic and the Premium. There are only a couple of differences between the two: Reportedly, the Premium can be controlled and transmit video up to 1.25 miles farther than the basic model’s 0.6 mile. The Premium model routes video back to the transmitter where it is displayed on a compatible tablet or mobile device via USB cable. The basic model creates a Wi-Fi hot spot, whose signal strength diminishes with distance. The Premium also comes with a rugged carrying case and a 64GB micro-SD card. The basic includes a 16GB micro-SD card, but no case.

For images, tucked underneath the main housing between the landing skids hangs an XI-5S 4K 3-axis gimbal camera.

Two sets of props, a lanyard, battery charger, transmitter, and maintenance kit including extra vibration absorbers and antidrop rods round out the package.
Before flying

After charging the battery, but before anything else, I ejected the micro-SD card from the X-Star camera and downloaded onto it the most recent firmware from autelrobotics.com/support. I reinserted the card in the camera, turned on the transmitter and X-Star, and the aircraft took care of the rest.

For the technically challenged, have no fear. This was a painless update. The display on the transmitter kept me informed about the update's progress, and the Autel website did a fair amount of hand holding. You'll get through it with no trouble at all. While the X-Star chewed away on its update, I downloaded Autel's Starlink app to Drone360 's iPad Mini. Make sure that your iOS is updated to 8.0 or later (Android 4.0).

I can’t attest to the Wi-Fi connection, but I do know you can’t use the USB connection from the transmitter to an older iPad with a 30-pin sync cable, no matter the iOS version. The app refuses to recognize that it’s connected. So make sure your Apple mobile device uses a Lightning cable.

Nearly 30 minutes later, the X-Star was just about ready to fly. Two last things: I calibrated the compass, which the Starlink app made easy, and put my FAA registration number inside the battery compartment. That’s right. Don’t forget to do it.
The Starlink app

The Starlink app has a friendly interface that makes a lot of sense, but you should take some time getting familiar with it. Sure, you can go out and put your X-Star in the sky without really giving the app much thought, but you'll be better off learning its functions.

Starlink provides finer control of the gimbal camera, a live FPV feed, and some light photo and video editing features. It also acts as a flight recorder and ground station to let you know your altitude, air speed, and battery level.

Plus this app contains autopilot features: orbit, follow me, and waypoint. If you've never flown a drone with these capabilities before, Starlink makes accessing them simple — but that doesn't mean using them is easy. Nor should it be. Each autopilot mode requires special attention, even if you're a veteran drone pilot. I spent an entire flight per autopilot mode getting comfortable accessing the feature and learning what to expect. When your drone starts moving on its own without your input, it may seem like magic, but it's not, and you have to be aware of possible obstructions to its flight path when planning your routes.

Overall, Starlink is a slickly designed app that works well and provides useful tools for piloting the X-Star and shooting aerial photos and video.
Into the blue

I've always been of the opinion that when given a product for review, you put it through its paces. To do anything less helps no one. I'm not brashly negligent, but I do like to push things. So it was with the X-Star.

Automatic takeoff and landing works beautifully, and the Starpoint Positioning System with a monocular camera and two ultrasonic sensors on the bottom of the airframe do a good job of keeping the drone in place when GPS is weak or nonexistent.

And the X-Star is quick. Very quick. With a top speed around 35 mph, it can truly hustle and take some impressive video at that speed. (Check out this kiteboarding drone video that was filmed using an X-star.) So, when I miscalculated a flight path at top speed and caught the branches of a tree at about 20 feet off the ground, imagine my dismay. Especially for someone who constantly rails about safe flight. Idiocy!

The X-Star, despite my stupidity, fared quite well. The camera detached safely, and while a couple of props broke, I was able to make repairs, recalibrate, do a thorough flight check, and get back in the air within a couple of hours. The X-Star has become a favorite flyer for me.
Highlights
  • Steady, responsive flight controls
  • Well-designed app interface
  • Three autopilot modes, adjustable camera settings
  • Durable airframe
Final thoughts

With Autel Robotics' X-Star Premium, we're not looking at features helping you avoid trees or people. Nor will it save you from abysmal flying skills or the occasional lapse in judgement. Although, its SecureFly technology will warn you when you're flying in an area with magnetic interference and give you time to maneuver clear. Helpful!

What Autel Robotics does with the X-Star is provide powerful aerial video and flying capabilities at a competitive price. I'm eager to see what its next consumer drone will be.

Note: A version of this review appears in the July/August 2016 issue of Drone360.
Featured image: Drew Halverson (3)