Earlier this month, Phottix announced that the FCC (344Mhz) version of their PocketWizard-compatible Atlas wireless flash triggers would enter production. Days later LPA Design, the makers of the PocketWizard, hit Phottix with multiple allegations of patent infringement - a move that effectively blocked the Hong Kong-based company from releasing the Atlas in the US market.
Given that the CE 433Mhz version of the Atlas has been widely available throughout Europe and Asia for months, its assumed that LPA Designs (PocketWizard) has gauged the initial market response and sees the Phottix Atlas as a real threat to it’s industry dominance and, more importantly, it’s profits.
While both companies and US photographers await the outcome of what it sure to be a lengthy legal battle, we sought answers to the big questions:
- How similar is the Phottix Atlas to the industry-standard PocketWizard Plus II?
- Does the Atlas pose a true threat to LPA Designs near-monopoly on professional flash triggers?
This review covers the features and real-world performance of the 433 Mhz (Europe/Australia/Asia) Phottix Atlas and draws direct comparisons to the industry standard PocketWizard Plus II wireless flash trigger
If you haven’t heard of Phottix by now, it’s time to climb out from under that rock and start paying very close attention. The Hong Kong-based company offers a wide range of attractive camera and lighting accessories, from wireless flash triggers like the Phottix Atlas to wireless live-view LCDs and portable strobes. To date, the products we’ve seen from Phottix stand above the growing sea of budget wireless flash triggers with a surprising combination of unique features, solid build quality, professional performance and low cost.
In addition to the Phottix Atlas, you may recall the Phottix Strato 2.4GHz wireless flash triggers we reviewed, which featured one of the first instances of TTL pass-through capability for a wireless flash trigger.
The Phottix Atlas Wireless Flash Trigger
Phottix has made waves over the past few months by positioning the Atlas in direct competition with the ubiquitous PocketWizard Plus II flash trigger but for nearly $50 less per unit. Since it operates at the same frequency as the Plus II (433 Mhz in Europe/Australia/Asia and 344 Mhz in North and South America), the allure of the Phottix Atlas lies in it’s unstated ability to work seamlessly with existing PocketWizard units as well as studio equipment with built-in PocketWizard receivers like Profoto and Dynalite power packs and the popular the Sekonic L-358 light meter.
The design of the Atlas differs notably from the PocketWizard Plus II with the addition of a hotshoe for attaching speedlights directly to the unit. This feature gives photographers the freedom to fire remote flashes without relying on cumbersome PC-sync cords. And the benefits don’t stop there…
Another huge advantage of the dedicated hotshoe is the ability of the Atlas to trigger speedlights that lack a PC-sync terminal such as the Nikon SB-600, Cannon 430EX II or the new Nikon SB-700. You can even put another brand of wireless flash trigger on the Atlas transmitter’s hotshoe to trigger another set of remote flashes in sync with the Atlas remotes.
The Atlas hotshoe is roughly centered on the unit which results in near perfect balance, even when used with heavy speedlights like the Canon 580EX II or Nikon SB-900 (shown here). The shoe itself is snug, well machined, and features a locking pin for Nikon speedlights. Unlike some other flash triggers, all of the unit’s control surfaces, including the two-stage status LED, remain easy accessible with a speedlight attached.
Phottix Atlas Features
- Use as wireless flash, studio trigger or shutter release
- Automatically switches to transmit or receive mode when attached to a camera or flash, and triggers flashes
- A hot shoe port and PC Sync port for attaching flashes and strobes.
- Sync Speed: Up to 1/250* sec.
- 4-channel and fire “ALL” function
- Shoot from 100+ meters away
- Simultaneously trigger cameras, flashes, and studio strobes with a single remote
- Equipped with a two-color status LED
- Use two AA Batteries or DC power port
* On compatible cameras / flash
Inside The Box
Inside the box for the Phottix Atlas is everything needed to start using the unit immediately, including a set of AA batteries. The kit contains a screw-lock PC-sync cord for connection to speedlight flashes, 3.5mm and 1/4″ mini plug connectors for studio strobes, and a lanyard loop for hanging.
Unlike the accessories that come with other budget flash triggers, the Atlas has no odd or proprietary connections. All of the included cords and plugs are industry standard and surprisingly high quality. The only thing missing from the lot is the 10-pin shutter-release cable needed to use the Atlas as a remote release.
This omission of the shutter release cable is only a little odd because the cheaper Phottix Atlas transmitter and receiver set comes standard with this accessory cable.
The layout and control surfaces of the Phottix Atlas are nearly identical to the PocketWizard Plus II with all of the core functions – the power switches, channel selectors, test buttons, and 3.5mm connections – in the same locations.
Where the units begin to differ is in the placement of the wireless remote sync (WRS), a feature that allows the units to quickly fire the camera and trigger remote flashes in sync with the opening of the shutter. PocketWizard handles this with a 3-stage switch on the face of the unit whereas Phottix uses an on/off toggle just above the power switch.
The Atlas and Plus II also differ in the placement of the 1/4″ screw mount that is used to attach the transceivers to lightstands and other accessories. The screw mount of the Plus II is located off-center, just to the right of the battery compartment. Since the PocketWizard Plus II is not load bearing in any way, the placement of the screw mount really doesn’t matter. The Atlas on the other hand needs to account for the balance of the unit when a heavy speedlight is attached to the hotshoe. Phottix has accomplished this by situating the screw mount on-axis with the hotshoe, creating a nice distribution of weight when used with an attached speedlight.
PocketWizard and Phottix took different approaches to their transceiver feet. Specifically, the Atlas features a sturdy metal foot and large locking wheel which make securing and removing the unit extremely easy, even with gloves on. After locking and unlocking the Atlas several times, manipulating the significantly smaller wheel and plastic foot of the Plus II feels unnecessarily difficult.
While the metal foot of the Atlas looks good on paper and feels good in practice, it might actually be a disadvantage in a certain worst-case-scenario. It’s rumored that one of the reasons the foot of the PocketWizard Plus II is made of – let’s face it – cheap feeling plastic is so that if the camera were dropped with the trigger attached, the PocketWizard would take the brunt of the damage and simply snap off, possibly leaving the camera’s hotshoe unharmed.
Note: Though we didn’t drop-test our Nikon D3 bodies, we did take a very detailed look inside the Atlas and the Plus II (see below) and concluded that a significant impact would probably still require a hotshoe replacement regardless of which trigger was attached.
The final notable design difference between the two units is the battery compartment. The battery cover of the Phottix Atlas slides open to reveal the battery diagram but lacks the serial number, bar code and electronic contacts found on the Plus II. The battery door to the Atlas is very stiff on the outset but loosens to a manageable degree after a few open/close actions.
The build quality of the Phottix Atlas is impressive and in some regards better than the PocketWizard Plus II. Both units feature heavy duty plastic and have a healthy heft when fitted with a pair of AA batteries. Neither unit suffers from creaking joints in the important areas.
Where the Atlas pulls ahead of the PocketWizard is in how precisely the case is manufactured. While it’s common to see small gaps between the casing and the internal components of the Plus II, the Atlas is a different story. On the 3 Phottix units we tested, we couldn’t find a hair’s breath of space between the Atlas casings and any of the jacks or toggles.
The various switches on both transmitters feature positive detents at each position and feel equally well made. For what it’s worth, we prefer the test button on the PocketWizard for it’s more positive feeling throw but favor the channel selector on the Atlas for its firmer, more noticeable stops.
The Phottix Atlas and PocketWizard Plus II Dissected
With the recent controversy surrounding these products, it was worth voiding a couple of warranties for a closer look – don’t try this at home. Despite being functionally identical devices, the Phottix Atlas and PocketWizard Plus II look quite different on the inside.
The jacks and switches all occupy the roughly the same amount of real estate, as does what is assumed to be the radio transmitter, but other 70% of the PCB is a different picture.
One point worth noting here is that the wired connections to the foot of the Phottix Atlas are exposed in the casing, while the Pocketwizard connections are not exposed in any vulnerable way.
Where as the PocketWizard PBC comes out of the casing entirely, Phottix has soldered the contacts for the hotshoe and the foot directly to the board. These connections are not user removable.
The Phottix Atlas comes with very high quality cables including a 3.5mm miniplug, a miniplug to PC-sync with locking threads, and a 3.5mm to 1/4″ miniplug adapter. Of these, the PocketWizard Plus II comes solely with a non-locking miniplug to PC-sync.
Both the Plus II and the Atlas can be used to trigger almost anything from speedlights to large strobes from maker like Dynalite or Profoto. Thanks to the onboard hotshoe, the Atlas is additionally well suited for speedlights that lack a PC-sync socket without the need for an expensive 3.5mm to hotshoe cable.
Operating both the PocketWizard Plus II and the Phottix Atlas is simple affair. To use these triggers, set one unit to transmit or WRS mode and attach it to the camera’s hotshoe. Then, set one or more additional units to receive on the same channel, and attached them to the speedlights or strobes of your choice.
To use either transceiver with a speedlight that has a PC-sync port, connect the trigger to the speedlight using the included cable 3.5mm miniplug to PC-sync cable. Speedlights can also be mounted directly to the Atlas unit via the hotshoe. Turn on and manually set the power output of your speedlight or strobe, turn on the transceiver and you’re ready to roll.
Both the Atlas and Plus II can be used as remote shutter release with an optional 10-pin to 3.5mm miniplug cable. When the receiver is plugged into the 10-pin shutter release socket of your camera, the transmitter’s test button acts as the shutter release, complete with half-press AF capabilities.
The remote flashes can be triggered with the shutter release of a camera with an attached Atlas or Plus II, or by pressing the test button on the unit. Both the Atlas and the Plus II are compatible with the popular Sekonic L-358 light meter with Sekonic RT-32 Radio Transmitter Module, respective to the FCC/CE versions of the transmitter.
Both units pass the white wall test, syncing cleanly at their specified maximum focal plane sync speed of 1/250. For this test the units were connected directly to the hotshoe of a Nikon D3.
Relability & Range
The main draw of the PocketWizard Plus II and the Phottix Atlas over infra-red and 2.4ghz systems is their reliability over large distances. We put a pair of 433Mhz Atlas units and pair of 344Mhz Plus II units through a line-of-sight field test to determine the extremes of their operating range.
On the receiving end, two Nikon SB-900 speedlights were mounted to a light stand roughly 2 feet apart. Both speedlights were connected to the receivers with identical PC-sync to 3.5mm miniplug connectors; one attached to the Atlas the other attached to the Plus II. Since the SB-900 does not wake via the PC-sync terminal, standby more was disabled on both speedlights. Each speedlight was manually set to 1/32 power to ensure that recycle time would not be a significant factor in the results. The receivers were positioned vertically (antenas pointing upward) roughly 5 feet off the ground.
On the transmitting end, we tested one copy of each device. The transmitters were handheld in the vertical position at arm’s length, roughly 5 feet off the ground. The speedlights were fired via the test button on each unit.
The graphic below shows the distance at which each transmitter could successfully trigger the corresponding SB-900 speedlight 20 times in quick succession.
- PocketWizard Plus II (344Mhz) was reliable up to approx. 240m / 787ft
- Phottix Atlas (433Mhz) was reliable up to approx. 220m / 722ft
In other words:
At extreme ranges, the Phottix Atlas achieves about 90% of the performance of the Pocketwizard Plus II, despite retailing for 70% of the price. At normal working distances – within 100 meters – the real-world reliability of the units was identical.
It’s worth noting that the difference in performance displayed in this test may have also been due to interference in the radio spectrum close to the 433Mhz frequency that didn’t affect the 344Mhz Pocketwizard Plus II.
Still, the range of both units is impressive (and much greater than the specified range of 100-meters), and either is probably going to work in extreme situations – even if you have to trigger a speedlight in a flying helicopter.
Features and Specs Compared
Phottix Atlas (433Mhz)
PocketWizard Plus II (344Mhz)
|Price||• $123||• $169|
|Modes||• wireless flash, studio trigger or shutter release||• wireless flash, studio trigger or shutter release|
|Connectivity||• hotshoe port and PC-sync port||• PC-sync port|
|Sync Speed||• sync speed: up to 1/250 sec. (focal plane shutter)||• sync speed: up to 1/250 sec. (focal plane shutter)|
|Channels||• 4 channels||• 4 channels|
|Frequency||• 433Mhz||• 344Mhz|
|Range||• 220 meters||• 270 meters|
|Indicators||• two-color status LED (red & green)||• one-color LED (red)|
|Power Source||• use two AA batteries or DC power port||• use two AA batteries or DC power port|
|Accessories||• locking PC-sync, 3.5mm, 1/4″ mini plug, batteries, lanyard||• PC-sync, batteries, lanyard|
|Build Quality||• tight shutlines, oversized wheel, metal foot||• gaps between case and components, small wheel, plastic foot|
|Availability||• currently only Europe / Asia / Australia||• worldwide|
|Device Compatibility||• (International) Profoto||• (USA) Profoto and Dynalite, (International) Profoto|
|Longevity||• unknown||• likely years|
End Notes & Conclusion:
By the spec sheet and country of origin, you might mistake the Phottix Atlas for another cheap flash trigger from an overseas manufacturer fighting for PocketWizard’s table scraps. The actual design and performance of the unit tell a very different story – one that the LPA Designs is clearly (and in our opinion rightfully) afraid of.
The Phottix Atlas stands up extremely well against the PocketWizard Plus II. It not only meets expectations but, as we’ve seen in this review, exceeds them with more features, great build quality, and better included accessories. Much like their 2.4ghz Strato flash triggers, Phottix has designed a winning product through attention to detail; the integrated hotshoe is an absolute dream for “strobist” photographers who rely on small flashes to control light, especially those who own speedlights that lack a dedicated PC-sync jack.
Even if you don’t care in the least about the bells and whistles, the Phottix Atlas specification is hard to argue with. The Atlas achieves 90% of the PocketWizard Plus II’s proven extreme operating range at 70% of the price. For normal shooting, we’re confident that the Atlas matches the Pocketwizard Plus IIs for performance, all in a more robust, feature-rich package.
Where To Buy – Recommended Retailers
You can buy the CE 433Mhz version of the Phottix Atlas directly from the Phottix online store. Note: At the time of writing the Atlas is not available for sale or shipment to the US. If this review and other content on FlashRAW was helpful to you, please consider supporting this site and purchasing your photo equipment any of the links in this review:
- B&H Photo