Drones have literally taken off in the last few years. But when it comes to buying one, there’s a lot to consider. First off, you’ll have to decide what your primary needs are for it. Are you just starting out and looking for a beginners’ model? Do you just want a cheap model to play around with? Or do you want to use it to take aerial pictures and video? To help you decide which drone might be best for you, read our top eight picks below (and before you use it, be sure to read about the rules and regulations on the FAA website).
Best Overall: DJI Mavic Pro
DJI’s Mavic Pro can be summed up in three words: portable and powerful. Capable of collapsing down to as small as a bottle of water, DJI Mavic Pro is a fantastic choice for quadcopter fans. A new OcuSync transmission system will offer up to 4.3 miles of range, 40 mph speed and a flight time around 27 minutes, thanks to a powerful battery. The lengthy range away from the base controller is aided by GPS and satellite to help maintain precise location control. Thanks to sensor redundancy, the inclusion of obstacle avoidance will help the Mavic Pro dodge anything that could knock it out of the sky.
Visually, the 3.27 x 7.8 x 3.27-inch Mavic Pro looks and feels different from DJI’s wildly popular existing quadcopter line and has more contour and angular shapes. It almost gives off the appeal of a stealth bomber, rather than the stark white Phantom line. Shorter legs give the Mavic Pro the appearance of landing on its belly, and the rear arms pivot downward to tuck in the underside while the front arms fold inward toward the top of the main body. Recreating the camera and three-axis gimbal system allows DJI’s designers to create such a backpack-friendly design.
Setup is a snap and, after connecting to the remote control, you can add a smartphone to act as a screen. The compact remote is as well designed as the Mavic Pro itself, with two joysticks controlling height, direction and motion. One scroll wheel on the back adjusts the camera gimbal and the other is open to programming. The camera records 4K video at 30fps or 1080p at 96fps, the latter of which can live stream to Facebook, YouTube, and Periscope at 30fps. Additionally, you can capture stills with the 12-megapixel camera.
Runner-Up, Best Overall: Best Camera: DJI Phantom 4
The Phantom 4 continues DJI’s dominance in the drone market and it’s the best camera drone out there. And it comes complete with additional features and functionalities to justify its high price tag. At just over three pounds, most of the Phantom 4’s additional weight over the Phantom 3 Professional comes from the 5,350mAh battery. Both novice fliers and experts will find the Phantom 4 easy to navigate partially due to a safety system that detects obstacles ahead and stops the Phantom 4 in its tracks. It’s not foolproof, but it’s one of the many fine points that helps make this drone well worth the price of admission.
Capable of speeds of up to 45 mph, the Phantom 4 can fly four miles above sea level, but FAA regulations will cut that down to about 400 feet in an area with tight restrictions. Multiple flight modes including autonomous flying, sport mode, positioning and more allow for various capabilities, all of which are handled beautifully by the incredible controller. The 28-minute flight time and 75-minute recharge time puts the Phantom 4 among the best at this price range.
With a fixed f/2.8 aperture and 4K video capture, it’s the camera that truly stands out on this drone. Images can be captured in either JPG, RAW DNG or RAW + JPG at 12-megapixel resolution. The 4K video recording maxes out at 30fps and dropping video quality down to 1080p will add 48, 50, 60 and 120fps shooting. The gimbal does an excellent job of leveling out the camera as you’re flying around and helps avoid some of the shaking and twisting of the drone body from appearing or affecting video. If you’re grabbing 4K video, you’ll want to consider that you can fill up a 16GB memory card during the course of a single flight. Slight caveats aside, the Phantom 4 is one of the best drones available.
Best Budget: Syma X5SC
While we often look to higher price ranges for the very best in quadcopter and drone technology, there’s plenty of budget options we shouldn’t ignore. The wallet-friendly Syma X5SC offers HD video and pictures, headless mode, a sturdy frame, six to eight minutes of flight time and a 150-foot range of flight. Unfortunately, recharging the 500mAh battery takes two hours, but you have to understand that there will be trade-offs at this price point.
However, for a drone that’s just under .24 pounds, we’re not surprised that stability outdoors is a challenge. A slight burst of wind and it can take some time with the controls to bring the unit back to stability. One last disappointment is the camera, a 2mp camera leads to average photos and, while our expectations are tempered for the price, we’d love to see slightly higher quality photos. Fortunately, the X5SC is very durable and online reviews mention people crashing into doors, trees, walls, ceilings and more with nary a scratch on the unit. The good news is that, for the price, replacement parts are cheap should you ever find yourself in need of new blades or blade protectors.
Although flight time can be short, additional batteries can be purchased for under $20. Even with some shortfalls at the entry-level price, the Syma X5SC is an outstanding value and a ton of fun, earning an easy recommendation as your budget option.
Best for Beginners: Syma X5C
If you’ve never flown a drone before, it’s best to start small, start inexpensive and start with something great. The Syma X5C hits all three of these requirements. Praised by general technology and drone-specific sites alike, the Syma is a great way to introduce yourself to the drone world. There’s nothing here that will knock your socks off and the SYMA is just a great introductory drone.
At just 2.1 pounds, the X5C is capable of a seven-minute flight time supported by a 100-minute recharge time. That’s all fairly standard in the price range of the X5C. However, unlike some its similarly-priced competition, the X5C is capable of being flown both indoors and outdoors, thanks to a wind-resistant build. A six-axis gyro stabilization helps ensure that the X5C has maximum stability during its flight time. Equipped with a 720p HD camera and 2GB memory card, the X5C can take photos and video while in flight but we’d temper any expectations about quality since it’s just average.
The advertised range of about 50 meters is a limit we wouldn’t recommend pushing until you are truly comfortable with the controls. The 2.4GHz spread spectrum technology is designed to help avoid interference and allow for increased distance, but we’d stick close to home until you move beyond the “new out of the box” phase. Thankfully, Syma packs four spare propellers and four spare blade guards with the X5C to help repair any damage from those almost guaranteed first-timer crashes. While the battery life might be short and its built-in camera less than stellar, its overall value makes the SYMA X5C an easy recommendation for beginners.
Best Flight Time: Yuneec Typhoon H Collision Avoidance Hexacopter
Fly farther with this six rotor hexacopter from Yuneec, a compact and nimble drone that can fly for up to 25 minutes on a single battery charge. The Typhoon H is ready to fly out of the box and is a CES 2016 “Best of Class” winner, a high-end favorite of professional drone enthusiasts and first-time fliers.
In your nearly 30 minutes of flight time you can capture stunning Ultra HD 4K footage with the three-axis anti-vibration CGO3+gimbal camera, which has a 360-degree range of motion and can capture 12 megapixel still images. The camera has a wide-angle lens and you can see the footage on a seven-inch Android touchscreen in a ST16 controller.
The drone has multiple advanced safety mechanisms to protect your investment, including ultrasonic collision prevention, retractable landing gear, and five rotor fail-safe insurance. Other innovative features include Orbit Me circular path, point-of-interest focus and curve cable cam.
Best Mini: Hubsan H107C+ HD
Some good things come in small packages. Miniature drones don’t have the flash, battery life or camera quality like the rest on this list, but they are a ton of fun to fly. If you just don’t have the time, desire or cash to splurge on a more pricey model, the Hubsan H107C+ HD is the drone for you. With just seven minutes of flying time, you’ll want to maximize every second this miniature wonder is afloat (up to 150 feet), but that’s ok because it takes just 40 minutes to recharge and get back in the air.
The addition of a 720p camera means you’ll be able to capture the flight. But what truly grabbed our attention on the Hubsan were some of the additional features that aren’t usually included at this price point. Altitude hold, for example, allows for a smooth and stable flight without any additional operator movement. Partnered with the six axis gyro for increased stability, the Hubsan once again proves that it can punch well above its weight class.
Best for Intermediates: DJI Phantom 3 Professional
The DJI Phantom 3 Professional, is one of the best drones on today’s market, and the 4K UHD video recording and 720p live viewing drone, make this a fan-favorite. The design is basic, weighing just under three pounds with a bottom-mounted camera and four pylons each with a rotor.
There are two pre-programmed flight controls for both beginners and advanced pilots, a fantastic inclusion given the asking price. Battery life is rated at 23 minutes, but you can expect that number to drop with heavy camera use. Connecting your smartphone or tablet will give you a 720p live stream video of everything your Phantom 3 Professional sees while in flight. Vision positioning technology will help beginners and advanced drone hobbyists properly control the flight path with assisted help from the DJI software with visual and ultrasonic sensors. This will aid anyone who wants to set a course indoors, fly low to the ground or in GPS-free areas. Charging the Phantom takes a little longer than we’d like because of a lower wattage charger, but you can jump from 15 to 20 percent charge to 100 percent in around an hour.
While FAA rules require that you keep your drone in visual sight, the Phantom is capable of flying nearly 3.1 miles from the handheld controller. The newly redesigned controller from the Phantom 2 features both power and home buttons, the latter of which allows the drone to return to its preset “home” location with just the press of a button. Two aluminum joysticks provide what is said to be some of the best-designed functionality for properly handling and flying any drone.
Best For Professionals: DJI Inspire 1 Pro
If you’re already well-versed in the drone industry, the name DJI is already at the forefront of your vocabulary, and it’s no surprise that the DJI Inspire 1 Pro is our choice for the best splurge. Coming in at 6.5 pounds and 1.5 feet wide, this drone is for serious buyers only. Attached to the drone is the Zenmuse micro four thirds sensor with DJI branded 15mm f/1.7 lens, which is 4K video and HD image capable. Needless to say, this drone comes with one of the best cameras you can buy across the drone industry.
Since it is capable of flying at more than 50mph and ascending to 15,000 feet AND flying in sub-zero temperatures, the asking price isn’t so out-of-this-world. Aside from the FAA requirements that would come with a drone capable of flying at 15,000 feet, you’ll definitely want to be cognizant of weather, take-off and landing conditions, as well as a soft place to put down in an emergency. Included with the unit is a 4500mAh battery which allows for 18 minutes of flight time. DJI offers a larger 5700mAh battery sold separately that would bring total flight time to 22 minutes.
For the price, this drone excels at professional aerial imaging and, with comprehensive app control via a downloadable application on Android and iOS, you can compose the perfect shot on the fly, pun intended. All in all, footage from the camera is gorgeous and cinematographers will rave for days about the quality of the aerial footage captured.