FrSky Taranis X-Lite Review

July 13, 2018 13:14 | By | Add a Comment

So the X-Lite has finally arrived and we’re going to take a look at this gamepad-styled TX. Is it worth the 120-140 bucks that they ask for? Is it just for quads or can you actually use this as your main transmitter for planes and similar? And is OpenTX even usable by a normal human, considering it’s open source and all that?

Read on after the break for the full review!

First let’s talk about the hardware and controls. This is a game controller style TX that features slightly downsized gimbals. The gimbals themselves use hall effect sensors, and are plenty springy with all settings (mode switch, ratchet) being changeable without opening up the case. One long screw is provided in the box to disable the centering spring on whichever stick you want to use as throttle. I was afraid that the gimbals would be hard to use for people with large hands, i.e. me. I’m glad to report that this is absolutely not an issue. If you’re thumbing, which you should be if you fly with a controller style TX, then no matter the size of your hands, you’ll find a comfy spot to hold.

Because no death grip is required, you can simply shift your hands up and down the generous side handles as needed. What is not going to happen is you pinching the sticks, i.e. holding each stick between your thumb and index finger. The gimbals are simply too small for that and you will constantly touch the side of the gimbal casing if you try. You can lengthen the sticks with the little hex screw in the center, but that will only cause issues with actually holding the transmitter. I guess some people will make this work regardless, but it’s certainly not optimal. So if you’re a pincher, now might be the time to get used to thumbing.

The switches on top are good quality ones with satisfying rest positions, but they are short. They are REALLY short. Don’t believe me?

FrSky adds some grey heatshrink tubing to put over those switches for better grip, but while unusual I don’t find those little things to be a dealbreaker. The rotary controls are easy to use and have no center indentation which is a bit odd. However I found that you can set up vibration feedback to occur whenever you hit the center location.

The bottom reveals the headphone jack (yay!), Micro SD card slot (no card supplied in the box), micro USB port for data transfer and firmware updates (NOT charging), and a SmartPortĀ  ™ for doing all kinds of things, like updating receiver firmware.

Why the headphone port? Well, sounds and music for one, as you can play music straight off the Micro SD card. Great for pilots who practice routines to specific songs for example, and you can even map songs to switches. The built-in variometer function may drive your colleagues mad if you leave it on speakers, so this is a very welcome feature all around.

That the Micro USB port doesn’t charge the transmitter is regrettable, though it is understandable considering the battery voltage and power requirements. Speaking of batteries:

They are 18500 Lithium cells which is great news for battery life, but not so great news for people ordering this radio without knowing about the need to order two of these as well. There are no batteries in the box, and you need a dedicated charger as well. If you’re a flashlight enthusiast or build your own powerwalls out of discarded 18650 cells you probably already have the charging equipment required, the others will need to invest 20 bucks in a charger. The good news is that the batteries last for a very long time, you’ll be able to go for almost a week of flying without worries. And the battery indicator is pretty accurate too, unlike some cheap chinese radios that only show 100% or close to it, until right before they die.

The screen is backlit and can be set to light up whenver you press a button, move the controls, both, or none. The power button requires holding for several seconds to turn the radio on or off, which is sufficiently safe to never be done on accident. The D-pad on the left is used only for trimming, while the menu navigation uses the little four-direction nub on the right. The bottom button is back, the rightmost one is used as shift key.

While this should not be a review of OpenTX, it is worth mentioning a few things here:

 

OpenTX is extremely versatile, to the point where some people are afraid of it being hard to use. While it is true that this software lacks specific modes like a sailplane mode, or a helicopter mode, it is easy to get in to and actually very logical. Each control consists of an input, a mixer, and an output section. This allows you to do everything you can on a 2000 Dollar radio, you just have to think logically about what you want to achieve. For example, programming flaps consists of setting up an input for the switch, like on the picture above. Then in the mixer, you can decide whether this affects only a single channel or more (if you have more flaps channels in use on your receiver). Want to mix in some elevator to compensate for the flaps? Easy, just… add this in the mixer section. This versatility means that there are sometimes more ways to achieve something, like reversing servos which can be done in the input section, mixer, or even the output section.

In fact, I’d argue that OpenTX is often times easier to use than most proprietary TX operating systems. For example, when setting up a new model you’re asked as to the configuration of your model (as usual in the industry), but then you can also immediately change the channels used for each function during setup. So instead of just asking how many aileron servo channels you use, you are also asked to confirm which channels those are. Got a V-Tail? OpenTX has you covered there as well. The result is very different from something like a Spektrum transmitter: That wizard doesn’t set some internal bits that opaquely determine that you’re flying a V-tail glider, instead it just configures mixer settings that you can check out yourself at any time. This has the big benefit of you actually seeing how v-tail mixing works (and that it’s actually super simple). Another great thing is that you don’t ever lose your settings, like on the DX9 where switching an existing model memory slot from sailplane to regular airplane mode clears the entire model and overwrites all model settings with the new defaults. Now, this may be too much for some users who prefer to just set up a model and never touch it again. The good news is that you don’t have to worry about anything extra, but the versatility is there if you need it.

Do you like telemetry? OpenTX is great for that too, though keep in mind that you have to let the transmitter “learn” the sensors in the telemetry settings for your model, and then set up the display settings to determine which of the telemetry values you want to see on each page. This aspect is a tad limited in that you can show only numbers on one page, and only bars on another, but never mix bar graphs and numbers on a single telemetry page. But this is nitpicking on a high level.

I learned to enjoy OpenTX a lot and I now see it as a lot more powerful than the stock software on Spektrum or Futaba systems, offering more capabilities with very little extra work. And even though the screen is just 128×64 pixels, the usability is unaffected. Most importantly, this transmitter is in no way “watered down” to justify multiple versions of the same product at different price points. I’m looking at you, Spektrum, and your DX18QQ which for some time featured a “shortcut” to the system menu which was unavailable on the normal DX18. Or the price difference between the DX6 G3 and DX9, two radios that are essentially identical with the software limiting the available channels to justify a 2x price hike on the DX9, when in fact the DX6 is so cheap because of manufacturing costs of the DX9 having dropped. Here’s a sub-200 dollar radio that makes investments into $2500 radios seem quite foolish, especially considering the fact that this one is better built than some of its high-price competitors.

If you fly FrSky receivers, you need no extra gear to get going. The internal antenna is more than sufficient. However, there’s an external antenna port on the top if you want to connect a directional high-gain antenna. Note that the X-Lite is a full range transmitter, easily capable to support the 300-500 meter ranges typically used in RC flight. But the option to use external antennas is there if you need it. Available optional antennae include the standard 2dB whip, 5dB whip, mini T-antenna and 7dB patch antenna.

And if you need to go even further, the back reveals a module slot for external transmitter modules. At the time of this review, there is both a 800/900MHz long range option available, as well as an upcoming module with multi-protocol support for, among other things, DSM-2 and DSM-X. The X-Lite is actually using the same pinout as JR modules so you could connect pretty much every aftermarket module to it, it’s merely a matter of the connector and how to mount the external module to the back.

One snag became apparent when I took delivery of my X-Lite: The EU Version supported only the D16 protocol, whereas I had several D8R-XP receivers that run on the D8 protocol. For legal reasons, this protocol is disabled in the transmitter firmware. The reason for this regulation is to optimize throughput and cooperation in areas where many systems operate on the 2.4GHz ISM Band, courtesy of lobbying by Cisco and other WiFi gear manufacturers – not really an issue out on an RC flying field. A quick flash of the latest Non-EU OpenTX firmware fixed that, and restored compatibility with the D8R receiver. To flash your transmitter, you need the OpenTX Companion program and hold all four sides of the D-pad while briefly tapping the power button.

If you slide in a Micro SD card, you can add extra features like sounds, music, and even LUA scripts that let you do complete PID tuning (not just one value at a time!) of your quad right on the radio. The internal model memory stores 60 models but can be extended. This also means that if your SD card goes bad, which some unfortunately do, you don’t lose any of your internally stored models. Switching between models happens instantly without any loading time – sadly this is not something that can be taken for granted nowadays.

There is a lot to like about the X-Lite. The build quality is excellent, it feels great in the hand, flying with it is a joy and makes even the well designed DX9 feel like your grandfather’s old transmitter. This is not to say that the DX9 is a bad radio, quite the opposite. But as the Tesla Model S was the iPhone moment for car manufacturers, the X-Lite is the same for transmitters. While the Turnigy Evolution was a good start, it lacked everything from speech output to full range support. The Evolution was a radio for small quads. The X-Lite is a full range radio that has everything you need to fly everything from warbirds to helicopters (swashplate mixing ftw) down to aforementioned quads.

It looks great, comes in a sturdy case, and even gimbal protectors are included. Frankly, the only downsides are the slightly minimalistic controls which take a few minutes to get used to, the lack of batteries in the box requiring an extra purchase, and sometimes I wish the directional nub on the right was a D-pad instead. And it’s not a radio for pinchers.

Other than that, frankly, I’m switching as many models as possible over to FrSky so I only have to bring this radio to the field. FrSky has a complete winner here. Especially considering the price, there is simply no question about whether this radio is recommended. It may well be the best radio we’ve ever tested, and it certainly leads the market in terms of bang per buck. And even more exciting than that, is to see the transmitter shape finally evolve after well over half a century. Other pilots may mock you for using a “toy radio”, but they should watch out. People mocked electric model airplanes, foam models, and 2.4Ghz Spread Spectrum radios, and look at what’s being flown today.

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