Drones are everywhere these days, filming dramatic revelations and awe-inspiring landscapes for social media platforms. The problem is that they are not exactly approachable for beginners who have only used a smartphone. Last month, Snap debuted the $230 Pixy drone just for those folks. It requires very little skill and acts like a personal robotic photographer to help you take useful aerial photos.
You don’t have to drive the Pixy. In fact, you couldn’t if you wanted to. Instead, it flies by itself and executes pre-programmed patterns that focus on you, the user. It has great potential for things like parties or tourist activities, and takes great aerial photos without user intervention.
Snap calls itself a camera company, but its other photo-focused products like Spectacles have had limited success. To me, the Pixy drone holds great promise because it could help users get more interesting content than with a phone or regular camera. I’ve had one in the French countryside for the past week, so let’s see if it’s as versatile as I hope.
Hardware and Settings
Gallery: Pixy drone hands-on: a flying robot photographer for Snapchat users | 20 photos
Gallery: Pixy drone hands-on: a flying robot photographer for Snapchat users | 20 photos
Weighing in at just 101 grams, the Pixy is small enough to toss in a bag or wear around your neck using the included protective sleeve with strap. It’s pretty cute – I even heard some oohs and aahs from friends and bystanders – although it does look a bit flimsy. However, it proved to be surprisingly resistant to drops and accidents, coming out of several such incidents without a scratch.
The four propellers are housed in a protective hood, so they can’t buzz tree branches or fingers. On top is a home button and mode dial, with the battery compartment and charging indicator lights below. You’ll also notice a camera on the bottom, but it’s only for detecting your hand and not taking pictures or video. A USB-C port on the back allows you to charge the drone and transfer files to your phone or PC.
The main camera shoots 2.7K video at 30 fps and 12 megapixel images. It shoots in 16:9 landscape mode, which is a bit odd considering the Snaps are vertical. However, an in-app crop tool allows you to convert your shots to portrait mode.
The first thing to do is to sync it to your account via Bluetooth by putting it into standby mode and then pressing and holding the home button. From there, Snapchat will detect the Pixy and sync everything over Wi-Fi. In my testing, the process was seamless on both an iPhone 12 and a Samsung Galaxy S10.
Then set the dial to one of four flight modes: hover, reveal, track and orbit. They’re pretty straightforward, with Hover holding the drone in place and letting you do all the actions for it. Reveal starts tight on your face and zooms away to 10 to 30 feet high, revealing the background. Follow you around (it works best if it can see your face) and Orbit will make a 360 circle at about head height and between 10 and 30 feet away.
Each of these can be customized in the app with different flight times, distances and more. If you often use a flight mode like Reveal with a specific setting, you can save it to the Favorite dial using the app for easy access.
Once the flight pattern is selected, simply hold the Pixy up so the camera can see your face and press the Home button. It will launch and execute the selected maneuver, saving video and/or photos to the 16 GB fixed internal storage. That’s enough for about 100 videos and 1,000 photos, depending on the mode and settings.
All flight patterns worked well, but as mentioned, tracking mode works best when it can see your face. It doesn’t detect specific people, but it seemed to stubbornly stick to the same face even when multiple people were in the frame.
When it’s done, just hold your hand under it and it lands right on it, which is where the bottom camera comes into play. It worked fairly reliably, but sometimes I had to move my hand a bit to catch it or keep it from falling.
After that, if you jump to the Memories section of the Snapchat app, it will tell you that you have some Pixy clips ready to import. You can also copy them to your PC via USB-C, but you’ll need to adjust a Snapchat setting in the Pixy section (“Import via USB”) first.
Once you have some clips, you can start editing them. If you want to post on Snap, you can use the auto-crop feature to convert to vertical video while centering your subjects. You can then trim the video, add music, and use special Pixy AR lenses, such as “Flame Aura”, “Multiples” (making you three) and Record, an old-fashioned VHS tape effect. It also comes with two special speed ramp effects, Jump Cut and Hyperspeed.
So far it’s going well, but there are some things it can’t do. For starters, there are no sensors for detecting obstacles at all, so if something gets in the way, the Pixy will crash right into it. Leaves and twigs didn’t always hold it back, but walls, branches and human bodies certainly did. Thankfully, as mentioned, the Pixy is pretty tough.
Since it can’t go very far or high (up to 30 feet), the lack of obstacle detection shouldn’t be an issue for most people. However, to avoid problems, you should test each maneuver in a wide-open area to get an idea of how far away it travels.
Another important limitation is flight time. Snap told me the Pixy can fly for four to five minutes on a charge, or between five and 10 flights. You can buy extra batteries for $20 each and a dual-battery portable charger for $50. If you think you need that extra flight time (you will), it’s best to go with the Pixy Flight Pack, which includes the charger. and add two extra batteries for an extra $20.
It also lacks a gimbal and relies strictly on electronic stabilization, so you can get some shaky footage if you’re flying in high winds. Speaking of which, the Pixy’s light weight means you can’t fly it out at all in gusty conditions.
The image and video quality isn’t great, but it does the job. When I showed it to a professional photographer friend, he was pleasantly surprised. The exposure levels were good and it adapted well when going from shade to sunlight. It worked fine indoors, provided I had a reasonable amount of light.
When you open videos or photos on a PC screen, it is obvious that it cannot be compared to a smartphone or other drones, especially in low light. But even if you lower the resolution by cropping vertically, it looks good on a smartphone – so it’s definitely good enough for most Snapchat users.
My friend, a photographer, took it to a wedding and he loved taking some extra shots or showing off behind the scenes. Requiring almost no setup or pilots, all he had to do was fire up the Pixy and it would do the rest – ideal for a busy photographer if quality isn’t an issue.
I’ve also enjoyed it as a quick and easy drone and I feel like it’s something I would take with me on a trip to get some nice reveals and aerial shots. I was curious to see how it compares to other Snapchat camera products like Spectacles, and what ambitions Snap has for it, so I asked Engadget senior editor Karissa Bell, who covers social media.
“Considering what they’ve done with Spectacles…there was a lot of interest in the beginning, but once you start using them, they’re more of a novelty,” she told me. “The Pixy is interesting because it really seems to have more potential.”
“If you are someone who is really active on Snapchat [or] by making videos for Spotlight, which is their take on a TikTok-esque feature, you can get really creative. But $230 is no small amount, especially for younger folks in Snapchat’s core demographic. So I think it could be a bigger success than Spectacles, but there are a lot of drone companies if you’re just looking for a drone.”
In fact, it already looks like it will be a challenge to get your hands on one, as the wait has been stretched to four whole months after pre-orders started on April 28. That may have to do with demand, but Snap CEO Evan Spiegel also told The Verge that the company “should have made more”.
Still, it looks like Snap is on to something with the Pixy. It’s not nearly as capable as more expensive drones from DJI and others, but that’s not really the point. Rather, it’s a way for social media users to get some cinematic shots without having to be a drone expert.
You can also hand over photo and video jobs to the Pixy and focus on creating your Snap content. If you’re out with friends for a night out, you can send him out to snap some photos without needing a selfie stick or other gear.
It’s not perfect, as the battery life is pretty poor and the picture quality only fair. And at $230, it’s pretty expensive too, considering you could buy a decent drone for that kind of money — we’ve seen DJI’s Spark Mini on sale for $250, for example.
But Pixy isn’t designed for avid drone users who might hesitate at that price. It was made for social media creators who might even consider it cheap considering what it could do for them. The reactions I saw from passersby and friends were overwhelmingly positive, with some saying they might buy one. If that’s a sign, the Pixy could take a hit.
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