Can the Chroma Make Epic Easy?
Horizon Hobby and Blade have been consistently pushing their aerial photography platforms forward. It was only 2 years ago when the first Blade 350QX launched, and in the time since, we've seen two additional releases from that line. The Blade Chroma's launch marks a departure from Horizon's two year convention, breaking free from the clumsy naming standard and into a new era of consumer-friendly monikers.
The question, however, is whether the Chroma is a worthy successor to the popular 350QX line of products. Can the Chroma bring Horizon forward in the crowded camera-equipped drone market? Can, as their tag-line goes, the Chroma make epic easy? Let's find out.
Unboxing the Chroma is a pleasant experience. Once the main box is open, everything is labelled and nicely organized. Getting it into flying shape is a snap — Horizon covers it well in their first flight video (link here), so I won't cover the initial setup in this review. I will, however, note some differences between my experience and the one they detail in that video. In my box, the battery for the transmitter was already installed into the radio. Additionally, the instructions that come with the Chroma also tell you to calibrate the compass before flying the first time. I didn't do that, and it flew just fine. That having been said, I wouldn't recommend anyone else follow my lead — you should follow their instructions to ensure proper flight and prevent problems.
The ST10+ Transmitter
The ST10+ transmitter is new to the Blade line of products, only otherwise seen on the Yuneec Typhoon 500-class quadcopter. The transmitter is the most obvious symbol that the Chroma was developed in a joint venture between Horizon and Yuneec. At first, the transmitter looks large and cumbersome, but once I had the Chroma in the air, it felt like any other radio. The big change here is obviously the addition of a touchscreen display powered by Android. The Chroma sends back telemetry to the screen in addition to the video feed from the camera, making it easy to know how much battery life is left, how fast the Chroma is flying, distance from pilot, and altitude. It even sends back its latitude and longitude coordinates, though I'm not sure how useful that is.
My only real complaint about the ST10+ is the lack of brightness control.
The transmitter features a rechargeable 5200mAh Li-Ion battery pack. It gets charged through the microUSB port on the right side of the radio system using the included microUSB-to-USB cord, and gets plugged into any standard USB port. I used an AC-powered USB adapter from an old smartphone to charge ours. It takes a while to charge, but it will last a good number of flights before needed to be recharged. The transmitter's programming also features a full monitor suite to ensure all the controls are working properly, a nice feature I didn't expect.
All of the switches and dials are conveniently located and easy to reach while flying. I like the rate dial, marked with a turtle and hare (just like your lawnmower); it makes adjusting your rates much more nuanced than a simple 2- or 3-position switch. The camera's tilt control is located opposite the rate dial, and is similarly easy to use. In fact, there's nothing really complicated about this controller; everything is well labelled and laid out.
My only real complaint about the ST10+ is the lack of brightness control. When outside on a sunny day, the screen is pretty much washed out. There is an included sun-shield, which works alright, but even it can't help the fact that the screen is simply too dim. If I can see my iPhone's screen in broad daylight, I don't see why this screen should be such a problem. Hopefully a firmware patch can add in the brightness control — it is, after all, an Android operating system, and Android does have brightness controls on their phones.
Speaking of the screen, I should touch on the camera and its video transmission capabilities (though I'll touch on the camera itself later). While I haven't seen this stated anywhere on Horizon's Chroma website, I did reach out to Blade's Brand Manager, Steve Petrotto, to ask him some questions about the Chroma. Once of them was with regards to the maximum video transmission range of the Chroma — something very much lacking with the Blade 350QX3, which maxed out at only around 100 meters — ranging from difficult to impossible to control the camera at any appreciable distance away. Steve told me they were able to increase the range of the CGO-2+ by as much as six times, maxing out at 600 meters — 6.3 American football fields! That's longer than the Empire State Building is tall. The only caveat is that it's still a WiFi-based system, and areas where there is a lot of WiFi traffic will see a reduction in range.
In using the Chroma, I never experienced a dropout in video, though I did gets some significant lag from time to time. For 95% of my flight time, though, the video was smooth and crisp with no hiccups. The Chroma is a much, much better experience than the Blade 350QX3 in terms of video downlink.
The Battery and Charger
Here's where the Internet lost its collective mind when the Chroma was revealed. Don't pay the nay-sayers any mind — the Chroma's proprietary battery is a huge improvement over the 350QX3 and other quadcopters that use more industry-standard equipment.
Now, I'm usually the first one to stand up and complain about proprietary components; overall, I'm a fan of allowing other companies to adapt and improve on products, and proprietary tech gets in the way of that innovation. In this case, however, the move is not only justified, but welcome. Stuffing that battery into the already packed chassis of the 350QX3 was the biggest pain in the butt.
The Chroma does away with any such fuss by changing over to a cartridge-style battery. Simply line up the rails, slide it in, and lock it in place. Switching batteries went from a chore to the easiest thing in the world. Aerial photographers can get back into the air quicker than before as hot-swapping is much, much quicker. The battery is a 5400mAh 3S LiPo, nearly twice the capacity of the QX3's battery pack. The Chroma advertises 30 minute flight times with this pack. We'll put that to the test later in the review.
The downside, and it's not an insignificant one, is that only Horizon Hobby makes a battery to fit the Chroma (for the moment, at least), and those batteries are $120 a piece, twice the cost of a replacement battery for the 350QX3. However, if I were in the field with a quadcopter to film something, I'd want to minimize downtime as much as possible to make the day more fruitful, and that's what the new battery system on the Chroma does. So I'd pick the Chroma's battery design over an industry-standard one any day of the week.
The charger isn't anything exciting — in fact it's exactly the same as the charger that comes with the 350QX3. It's AC/DC and charges only a 3S LiPo battery at 3.5A. It does the job and nothing else. Due to the proprietary nature of the battery, you might think the included charger is the only way to charge the Chroma's flight pack. And you'd be wrong. Horizon is releasing an adapter to allow the Chroma's battery to be charged on any standard LiPo charger (BLH8624, $10). Steve even says it can be charged at much higher amp rates, meaning a faster charge for those that want to get in the air as soon as possible. So for those wanting to use their existing chargers, or perhaps use a multi-port charger like the Hitec X4 AC+ to charge more than one battery at a time, that's going to be possible as soon as the adapters come out.
The first thing I noticed when taking the Chroma out to fly was just how quickly the GPS locks in. It's usually within 10-15 seconds, much faster than I'm used to with the Blade 350QX3. Unfortunately, that speed is made underwhelming due to the full minute or more it takes to link up the camera to the transmitter. While not a big deal for those not interested in aerial photography (but seriously, why buy the Chroma if you don't care about photography?), it's the single biggest complaint that I have about the Chroma's time to flight. It feels like it takes forever to get the camera transmitting.
I didn't even try to max out the range... but it's certainly much farther than I would be able to see and easily control it.
Once the camera is all linked up, it's time to start flying. You can use the red button in the upper-left corner to start and stop the props, which also locks in the GPS home position and compass heading. Fans of the Blade 350QX line will appreciate that you can also arm the Chroma by pushing both sticks into their innermost-bottom positions, same as the 350QX line. Personally, I alternate between the two, though I really do appreciate the red button for stopping the blades from spinning after landing.
I didn't even try to max out the range on the Chroma, but it's certainly much farther than I would be able to see and easily control it. According to the transmitter's telemetry, the farthest away I've been from the Chroma while flying is approximately 1,000' away and 350' high. Using good ol' Pythagoras' formula, that's approximately 1,060' from the Chroma. At that distance, if I didn't have the live feed from the camera, I would be completely unable to determine orientation and therefore would find it difficult to safely control the drone. So rest assured that the transmission range for the transmitter signal travels farther that you would need it to if you're using your Chroma safely (and within the bounds of the law).
A big deal was made about the Chroma's increased battery life over the Blade 350QX3 AP. Blade has gone so far as to put "30 Minute Flights" on the Chroma's box. Well, I hate to disappoint anyone looking for flights that long, but that's simply not a reality. I took our Chroma out for five time trial flights — and while controlled conditions and methodology are great for science, let's face it — nobody's ever going to fly the same exact way twice. So I mixed up my flights; in some I simply hovered in place, and in others I really whipped the Chroma around. Every test had the camera attached, as I doubt anyone will regularly fly the Chroma without the camera. In each flight, I kept flying until the transmitter issued a warning about the battery, at which point I manually brought the drone back to me and landed. The timer kept going until the props stopped spinning.
The numbers we got were disappointing. The Chroma averaged 20:26 per flight, significantly down from the promised 30 minutes. As you can see from the time table, my times didn't vary that much (max/min deviation was only 1:34). I feel our test is a good overall look at the Chroma's capabilities in the battery department, despite the windy conditions. While it's true that most of my battery flights were inevitably during periods of high winds (usually between 15 and 20MPH), I don't feel this compromised the tests. When you compare the first and third tests, they are within a minute of each other, and it was calm during the first test and windy throughout the third. The Chroma is still a significant improvement over its predecessor, but the it doesn't live up to the hype in this department.
I'm disappointed by the numbers we put up in the battery department — so much so that I reached out to Horizon Hobby with my findings to determine exactly how they came to their 30 minute promise. I detailed out my methodology for testing the battery, and inquired as to theirs. Here's what I got back: "There are many different factors such as wind, elevation, and the different variations will get different flight times." They went on to promise me that they "...did get 30mins though". Basically, they refused to engage with me at all. I already discounted wind as a factor (I don't believe there could be a 1/3 variation in battery life due to wind alone based on my numbers), and I can't control for elevation. What really gets under my skin, though, is their claim of 30 minute flights without any data to back that up. I can't be the only one asking questions and getting flight times like this, so eventually they will have to address this claim — but probably not before upsetting a solid chunk of their consumer-base.
All that having been said, I still think this is a big improvement over the Blade 350QX3, and 20 minute flights are still long enough for most applications. I wish my data tracked more closely with the text on the box, but that's why we do reviews.
While it was in the air, however, flying the Chroma is just like any other quadcopter in its class. It's stable, the GPS does a good job of keeping the Chroma on point even in a stiff wind, and it's a smooth handling unit. There's nothing spectacular or unique about how it flies on a fundamental level. Where it gets interesting is in the different various modes, so let's talk about those.
SMART Mode is the go-to for first-time flyers. This flight mode offers a unique set of aides to the pilot that help beginners fly with confidence. The first of these features is the SAFE Circle. This is an invisible barrier the drone creates using its GPS module. The center of the circle is approximately 15 feet behind the Chroma, meaning the diameter of the circle is around 30 feet. Stay within that circle, and the Chroma can't fly into you or any onlookers within those boundaries.
SMART Mode also features Blade's Stick Relativity technology, making flight controls easily understandable for new pilots. Normally, when the drone is oriented away from the pilot, moving the right stick to the left will result in the drone moving left. Simple, right? Well, rotate that quadcopter around and have it facing the pilot, and those controls get reversed. Suddenly, moving that stick to the left results in the drone moving right. Stick Relativity removes this impediment, putting the pilot front-and-center in the control scheme. So long as the pilot doesn't leave the SAFE Circle, the controls should always make sense.
AP Mode is more for experienced pilots or pilots that have spent a significant amount of time in SMART Mode and are ready to take it to the next level. AP Mode operates like a conventional quadcopter or helicopter, and is thus a bit more difficult to control than SMART Mode, but offers much more command of the drone. The rates are turned up and the bank limiting turned down, allowing for more speed and maneuverability.
Additionally, the Stick Relativity and SAFE Circle are gone, making this a mode you can walk around with while flying. I suspect most serious aerial photographers and videographers will spend most of their time in AP Mode. The majority of our review flights took place in this mode.
While Stick Relativity and the SAFE Circle are out the window in AP Mode, the Chroma still has auto-leveling, GPS position hold, and altitude hold in this mode, so you can still let off the sticks and have the Chroma enter a stable hover, even in AP Mode, so there are some safeties that are not removed in any mode.
Follow Me / Tracking Mode
While both SMART Mode and AP Mode were present on the Blade 350QX3, Follow Me and Tracking Modes are brand-new for the Chroma. In simple terms, Follow Me and Tracking Modes operate a lot like a mobile version of SMART Mode. The controls are relative controls; moving the right stick left and right will rotate the Chroma around the ST10+ transmitter at a distance that you define by pushing the right stick forward or backward. You can also control altitude with the throttle stick. As you walk around, the Chroma will follow along, always keeping the pilot at the center of the circle.
Follow Me allows you to control the pan of Chroma using the left stick, basically just like you normally would. So the bottom line is that Follow Me Mode is about as close to a mobile SMART Mode as we're likely to get. This was a stand out feature for me — I didn't expect to like it very much at all, but I was pleasantly surprised by just how useful I can see this being for amateur photographers looking to get that great shot and uninterested in really learning how to fly in AP Mode. Any basic tracking shot is going to be a piece of cake when you can just hop in a golf cart or chase car and keep the Chroma just ahead or behind the vehicle. Obviously it goes without saying that the pilot of the Chroma should not actually be driving the vehicle while flying the drone.
Tracking Mode, on the other hand, is much less useful. Other than getting tracking shots of the vehicle the pilot is in, which probably isn't that necessary, the only other thing this mode is good for is taking selfies. And aren't we really past the point where we should be doing that? Please, Internet. Let's stop selfies.
If you want to fly in either of these two modes, you have to select them before you arm the motors; you cannot switch into them in the air. Also, once you switch into these modes, you loose the SMART Mode until you switch back, which also has to occur on the ground. You can switch into and out of AP Mode while in Follow Me or Tracking Mode, allowing you to resume full control over the Chroma if you need it.
This is a complex thing to try and explain in writing, but here's my best try: Think of the SMART Mode position on the Flight Mode Switch as a place where you can have either SMART Mode enabled or Follow Me / Tracking Mode enabled. You can't have both at the same time; when Follow Me or Tracking Mode is enabled, that takes SMART Mode's place on the Flight Mode Switch — change back to normal flight, and SMART Mode resumes its normal position. It's much easier to demonstrate in person, so check your local hobby shop to see if they have a demonstration model of the Chroma like we do.
Return To Home
The final mode, if you want to call it that, is Return to Home. If you've flown any other similar drone product before, you know this is basically exactly what it sounds like: the Chroma uses its GPS position on start-up like a "home" location, and at the flip of a switch, return to that spot, even landing itself at the location.
Return to Home works pretty well, though like its Blade 350QX predecessors, it's not the most accurate when it comes to landing exactly where it took off from. I've had it land as much as six feet away from its original location — not a problem in a wide-open field, but potentially an issue in a more compact space. For instance, if you're on a boat in the middle of a lake, you're probably going to want to land the Chroma on your own, even if you could assure your boat didn't move an inch from when you took off (and you're probably going to want to use a pontoon boat — there's not much room in a speed boat to land or take off).
When you're in Follow Me or Tracking Modes, the Return to Home works a little bit differently. Instead of using it's GPS location at start-up for home coordinates, it remains relative to the ST10+ transmitter — so the Chroma won't try to land way back where you started if you take a long walk with it.
The Chroma is supposed to enter RtH mode if it looses connection to the transmitter, but as I'm not inclined to intentionally crash an $1,100 machine, we didn't test out this feature.
All of the modes are well and good, but if the camera's junk, what's the point of the drone? It is for aerial photography, after all. Thankfully, that's not an issue with the Chroma. The camera quality is just as good as the CGO-2 from the Blade 350QX3, but will the added bonus in the removal of the fish-eye distortion that plagues most action cameras today. With the CGO-2+, the horizon is a flat, horizontal line; a welcome sight indeed.
As you can see from the above images, the camera on the Chroma is pretty good. While I don't think anyone would argue its merits over a high-end DSLR rig, the CGO-2+ is a solid 16MP camera in its own right. The images are crisp, with plenty of detail in the image. Everything is captured in the JPEG format, so serious photographers might be unhappy about the absence of an uncompressed option, the vast majority of users will find the images in line with most modern cellphones, quality-wise.
Of course, the big advantage of the Chroma over a cellphone camera is its ability to take pictures from an entirely new dimension. I particularly love the lonely playground slides image; this kind of image wouldn't be possible without some sort of aerial platform. Like most amateur photographers, I took plenty of pictures and kept the ones I really liked. Also like most amateur shutterbugs, I put all of these images through some minor-touch up programs, to increase the contrast and adjust the saturation. That said, other than the black-and-white image I obviously changed drastically from the original, none of the images were seriously edited - just some simple filters for contrast and color saturation were applied, and the images were cropped to fit the aesthetic of the review page better.
This is why people buy these things. I had a blast capturing footage for our traditional product video. The video quality is as good as one can hope for out of an action camera. The filmmaker in me would still rather have a DSLR with interchangeable lenses, but that would obviously cost much more than the Chroma - hell, a good DSLR alone costs more than the entire Chroma package. As you can see in the video, the color is crisp and clean, and I think the CGO-2+ has better color saturation in general than the original CGO-2. I didn't adjust the video from the camera at all when editing; there wasn't much I felt was needed. I did play around with adjusting the contrast, but opted to simply let the raw video speak for itself - despite being unaltered, I think it looks pretty damn good.
Having the rock-solid video streaming to the transmitter was a huge help in framing my shots and really getting the look I was going for. I love the big sweeping shots - they're really dynamic and impressive. The subtle lens flare as I round the playground was a fantastic happenstance, and it really added to that shot.
Whether you're simply filming a family gathering or opting for something a bit more nuanced, the Chroma can deliver the goods. I'm very pleased with how the footage turned out, and had a blast putting the video above together. The Chroma is a solid tool for any type of videography, from the rank amateur to the seasoned veteran.
GPS Waypoints: MIA
With all the improvements Horizon has made to their flagship camera drone, there's one feature that is conspicuously absent: GPS waypoints. Most of the major competition to the Chroma, including the DJI Phantom line and the upcoming Hubsan X4 Pro. This puts the Chroma at a disadvantage, albeit a minor one. There are consumers that will want the waypoints feature — namely, farmers and anyone else with a large piece of property they want to regularly patrol. For these individuals, the Chroma might be a bad fit, but for the vast majority of those interested in purchasing a camera-equipped quadcopter, I doubt the waypoints feature is one that will be heavily used. There's no way for the drone to know if there's a tree or some other obstacle in the way, so it could potentially careen right into a solid object if the altitude wasn't set high enough. In an urban area with power lines, traffic lights, and cell towers, I just don't see GPS waypoints being a killer feature for all but a select few.
That having been said, I still think it's silly not to include the waypoints feature on the Chroma, especially when Blade admitted that the hardware was capable of using them. At this point, all that is standing in the way of the Chroma having waypoints is the right firmware update and Horizon's willingness to release that update. They have been unwilling to answer the question as to why they didn't include this feature from the beginning, and offered no time line for when (of even if) it might be released, so only time will tell. Still, the Chroma is a great drone even without this feature, and I don't think most people will really hold the lack of waypoints against the quad.
So after all that, does the Chroma live up to its tag line? Does it make epic easy?
I'd say it makes it easier, but easy is a relative term, and that's ultimately up to the consumer. To me, and most of the staff here at Roger's, the Chroma doesn't really have one thing that makes it better than the drones that have gone before it. Instead, the Chroma's strength is in the little things; the small details that, while diminutive by themselves, coalesce into something larger than the sum of the parts. The much-improved battery design and flight times, the screw-less method of attaching the landing skids, the massive video-link range, the distortion-free camera... all these make for a camera drone that is worth the $300 difference between the old and the new.
- Great Video Range
- Improved Battery Life
- Better Battery Design
- Easy to Repair
- Excellent Camera
- Solid Customer Support
- Flight Times Shorter than Promised
- No GPS Waypoints
- Expensive Battery
- Expensive Replacement Parts
While the Blade 350QX3 is still available and not at all a bad way to start an aerial photography hobby, the Chroma is pretty much better in every way. The differences are subtle, but the improvements the Blade team made with the Chroma are much needed and appreciated. I can't imagine me recommending the older QX3 to a customer for any reason other than they can't afford the Chroma.
The bottom line is that the Chroma is more than worthy to be the successor of the 350QX line — it's worthy of it's own line. I'm excited for the future of the Chroma line. I hope they add in the ability for GPS waypoints in the future, as a way to further fill out the capabilities of the Chroma, and I hope they address the battery-life issues I brought up. Judging it as it is now, however, I'd have to say the Chroma is easily the best choice I've ever used for a beginner pilot looking to upgrade to a full-fledged consumer-level camera drone.