Drones rocketed from the obscure to the mainstream in just a few years. However, as much as you might want to own a drone, buying one is a complex process. A sea of devices exist. Plus, distinct features further complicate drone-buying.
Budget and intended purpose are excellent criteria for most buyers. Learn how to select the best drone, from asking the right questions to finding the right specifications.
Drone Buying Considerations
Before you purchase a drone, you’ll want to first consider these eight questions. Notably, what you’re looking for is likely not a drone but a quadcopter. By definition, a quadcopter is an aircraft with a set of four blades, but many “drones” may have six or even eight blades. These models are hexacopters and octocopters. Because the term “drone” is widely used as an interchangeable term for these copters, we’ll use that catch-all.
There are plenty of criteria you may use to narrow your quest for the perfect drone. The main features we’ll concentrate on are:
- Ease of use.
- Number of motors.
- Flight time.
The Syma X5C Explorers is incredibly affordable. With a sub-$100 price tag, it’s one of the cheapest drones available. Despite its extremely low price point, the Syma X5C does not skimp on features. This budget drone sports a 720p HD camera and 4 GB microSD card. Interchangeable parts make the Syma X5C a phenomenal value. Break a motor? Just replace it. Want a camera with Wi-Fi? Simply buy an updated version and swap it out.
Beware, though. Cutting costs sacrifices premium features. While the 720p camera is HD, a CNET review notes quality falls short. Also, the Syma X5C lacks image stabilization, so images can appear blurry. The main drawback is its weak battery. Powered by a 3.7-volt 500 mAh battery pack, you’ll likely only clock about 7–10 minutes off of a full 90-minute charge.
At around $50, it’s difficult to complain about image quality and flight time. Ultimately, the Syma X5C Explorers is a hefty drone for the price of a toy drone.
- 3.7-volt 500 mAh battery (7–10 minutes flight time from a 90-minute charge).
- 720p HD camera.
- 4 motors.
- Extremely user-friendly.
The Parrot Bebop is a premium and budget-friendly. This quadcopter runs more than the average toy drone at about $230, but less than the mid-range DJI Phantom 3 ($400). Parrot’s Bebop boasts beefy specs: it’s rocking a 1080p camera, it’s capable of HD video, it’s safe to fly inside. You can control the Bebop with a mobile device like a phone or tablet, and it performs simple tricks, like flips and rolls. PC Mag praises the Parrot’s stability, so this comes with a low learning curve.
However, the Parrot Bebop only offers 8 GB of built-in storage. And there’s no microSD port. Battery life is pretty limited: CNET reviewers averaged around 10 minutes. You do get two batteries, but you’ll need to land safely to swap batteries. The Parrot Bebop may be controlled with a phone or tablet, and it’s pretty easy to use. An optional remote is available, but once you shell out the extra cash it’s worth considering a slightly more expensive and capable drone.
Within its budget segment, though, the Parrot Bebop is a compact yet durable drone that balances budget and high-end features.
- 10 minute flight time (two batteries included).
- 8 GB built-in storage.
- Controllable via phone and tablet.
- Standard Wi-Fi.
- Replaceable parts.
- 4 motors.
- Full 1080p video.
Since this article was published, Parrot has released a new version of the compact drone, the Parrot Bebop 2 FPV.
Just as 4K televisions and monitors are all the rage, so too is 4K a popular spec in the drone realm. The Yuneec Breeze 4K offers 4K support in a lightweight and small package. The app, available on Android and iOS is easy to use so it’s perfect for beginners and comes loaded with a slew of automated flight modes.
Unfortunately, flight time is pretty limited at just around 12 minutes. Thankfully, the Yuneec Breeze does Although there is 4K support, image stabilization is only available at 1080p and 720p resolutions. One of the preset modes automates selfie photography — watch the video! The Yunteec offers quality, durability, and a compact frame. It boasts a slew of premium abilities, at a reasonable price.
- 4K resolution (image stabilization limited to 1080p and 720p).
- 12-minute battery life (two batteries included).
- Easy to use.
- 4 motors.
The Xiro Xplorer V sports an all around superb experience in a small package. Its ease of use, return-to-home functionality, automatic landing and takeoff, and commendable stability posit the Xplorer V as a top drone pick.
While the battery is rated for 25 minute flight time, PCMag reviews found about 19–20 as a realistic measurement. There is 1080p support, but no 4K. Oddly, 4K resolutions are commonly found in other drones as this price point including the Yuneec Breeze 4K. However, the combination of stability, HD images, and extreme ease of operation make the Xiro Xplorer V one of the best drones available at any price. The DJI Phantom 3 Standard is a great alternative, although it’s much larger.
- 25-minute flight time (two batteries included).
- Very stable.
- 4 motors.
- Extreme ease of use (auto takeoff and landing, return to home).
DJI Phantom drones rank high among the most popular, and recognizable, drones available. In the top-tier drone category, the DJI Phantom 3 Professional is a top tier pick. While pricey, the Phantom 3 Professional does rock an impressive roster of features. There’s 4K support, a 20mm wide-angle lens, built-in GPS, and a return-to-home function. The DJI Phantom 3 Pro also boasts automated flight modes which are really useful for beginners and foster an easy learning curve.
A PC Mag review praises the video quality and flying experience. Battery life remains skimpy, and the wide-angle lens occasionally displays distortion around the edges. Nevertheless, the DJI Phantom 3 Professional is the best upper echelon drone for the price.
- 4K resolution (live streaming limited to 720p).
- 23-minute flight time.
- 4 motors.
- microSD expansion.
The DJI Phantom 4 may not be the cheapest drone on the market, but it’s probably the best available and most consumer-centric. Upgrades for the Phantom 4 include an awesome Sport mode that increases speed for reaching a destination faster or merely zipping around for fun. An Obstacle Sensing System improves safety by helping to avoid collisions. It even includes a slow-mo video feature. Like many other drones, the rated flight time and real-world numbers differ. It’s rated for 28 minutes but realistically gets about 23 minutes.
Unfortunately, the Phantom 4 suffers from a few rough edges. Notably, the Obstacle Sensing System only covers the drone’s front. And the Phantom requires a mobile device. Unlike other drones, the DJI Phantom 4 is not compact, and moreover, the camera and landing gear are fixed to the drone, so you can’t chuck it in a pack. Despite a few minor quibbles, the DJI Phantom 4 offers the best bang for your buck in the high-end drone category. An upgrade to the DJI Phantom 4 Pro adds enhanced obstacle sensors and a better camera, as well as long-distance controls. However, it also bumps the price well above $1,000 making it tough to recommend for the average consumer.
- 4K support.
- 28-minute flight time.
- Image stabilization.
- Sport mode.
- Easy to use (Sport mode not for beginners).
- Obstacle Sensing System.
Final Drone Buying Thoughts
There’s certainly no shortage of drones available on the market. DJI tends to be a go-to vendor for good reason: DJI drones present a superb balance of top-tier elements and consumer accessibility. Ultimately, budget and use are the major limiting factors. Sure, you can snag a 4K drone for below $500, but its 4K recording and image stabilization abilities would suffer. If video and image capture are most important, you’ll want to prioritize those features over flight time or performance.
The one area that almost every drone could improve on: battery life. Within the high end, drones like the Phantom line were rated for about 25 minutes, but only clocked around 19 minutes of flight. Granted, it’s probably difficult to engineer a coptor that stays airborne while lugging a massive battery and camera.
Which drones are your favorites and what are you using your drones for?
Image Credit: Dmitry Kalinovsky via Shutterstock