Everything you need to know before you take off.
- Best starter droneHubsan X4 H107C PlusJump to details$30 AT AMAZON
- Best drone for most peopleDJI Mavic MiniJump to details$399 AT WALMART
- Best drone for photos and videoDJI Mavic AirJump to detailsSEE AT AMAZON
- Best racing drone for beginnersEMAX TinyhawkJump to details$178 AT AMAZON
Until we get jetpacks, flying a drone is the closest most of us will get to personal flight. As the constituent technologies — including cameras, mobile phones and lithium-ion batteries — have evolved in recent years, the designs and features that were once exclusive to Hollywood productions are now available at your electronics retailer of choice. You can spend less than $1,000 for a drone that can pilot itself, shoot 4K video and stay in the air for close to 30 minutes.
But the low end of the market has also matured, and $50 (about £40 or AU$80) is now enough to cover a basic quadcopter with an integrated camera that can fly for nearly 10 minutes on a charge. And there are plenty of options that fall somewhere in the middle, offering different combinations of features, quality and price. We’ve got recommendations for the best drones for beginner and intermediate pilots looking to spend less than $1,000.
BEST DRONES, COMPARED
|Best drone for most people||Best cheap starter drone||Best camera drone||Best racing drone for beginners|
|Model||DJI Mavic Mini||Hubsan X4 H107C Plus||DJI Mavic Air||Emax Tinyhawk|
|Buying info||See it at Amazon||See it at Amazon||See it at Amazon||See it at Amazon|
|Photo||12 megapixels||2 megapixels||12 megapixels||600 TVL|
|Video||2.7K at 30fps||720p at 30 fps||4K at 30fps||600 TVL|
|Flight time||30 minutes||6 minutes||21 minutes||8 minutes|
|Weight||249 grams||54 grams||430 grams||9 grams|
|Requires registration (in the US)||No||No||Yes||No|
DJI is the undisputed leader in drone technology, with a vast lineup of models for consumers, hobbyists and professionals that start at around $100 and exceed $20,000. But there are other reputable brands making high-quality consumer quadcopters including Parrot and Skydio, as well as countless upstarts making inexpensive drones you can buy at Walmart, Amazon and Best Buy.
As with most things, the more you spend, the more you get. And while there are exceptions, most drones under $50 may frustrate you with limited features, primitive controls and just a few minutes of flight time. As you explore the options, here are a few key things to consider:
- Controls: Many drones come with a dedicated remote — they often look like game controllers — and can also be piloted using a smartphone app, or with a combination of the two. Some come with first-person view goggles that give you an immersive view as if you were in a cockpit.
- GPS support: Support for GPS (or GLONASS, the Russian variation) will make your flights and video more stable, assist with taking off and landing and cut down on crashes. Drones with GPS often have a “return to home” feature that can recall them automatically if you get into a sticky situation.
- Sensors: Air pressure sensors that can help with altitude assistance or “holding” will let you concentrate on flying your drone instead of having to constantly adjust the throttle.
- Batteries: The lithium ion batteries that power most premium drones run for 15 to 25 minutes on a charge. You’ll need spare batteries — they range from $45 to $70 for the DJI models included here — to extend your flight time beyond that.
- Rules and regulations: If your drone weighs 250 grams or more, you’ll need to register it with the FAA. And regardless of the weight, US national parks are off-limits — as are many state parks. Most counties and municipalities have their own regulations regarding remote control aircraft.
We’ve outlined our top picks for kids and beginners, intermediate users and “prosumer” enthusiasts, as well as an introductory drone for folks interested in racing (which is a whole scene unto itself). We’ve also included a more in-depth buying guide below, with more information about the key things to consider before you buy. Best starter droneHubsan X4 H107C Plus
If you or your kid are looking for a basic drone to learn the ropes, this is a good place to start. The Hubsan X4 is inexpensive and stable enough for newbie flyers (with sufficient power to fly outside), and it will give you between five and seven minutes of flight time per charge. The bright LED lights help you see its orientation from a distance and let you fly at night. It comes with a gaming-style controller, two batteries and USB charger and four spare propellers. $30 AT AMAZONBest drone for most peopleDJI Mavic Mini
The Mavic Mini is DJI’s smallest and lightest camera drone, weighing in at 249 grams (8.8 ounces). The weight is significant because it means that — in the US, at least — you don’t need to register it with the FAA. Despite its compact profile, however, it offers many of the best features you’ll find on the company’s larger models: It folds up neatly for easy portability, includes a physical remote (which also folds up) and can fly for about 30 minutes on a charge. And the camera specs are rock-solid. You get 12-megapixel photographs and 2.7K video at 30 frames per second (and 1080p at 60fps). The three-axis motorized gimbal ensures you end up with smooth video and clear photos.
One of the reasons that the Mini is so light is that it has fewer sensors for obstacle avoidance and recognition. That means there will be a learning curve and some crashing. But once you get the hang of it, the Mini is stable, nimble, safe to fly and quieter than other DJI models including the Air and the now-discontinued Spark.
Spending an additional $100 on the Fly More combo gets you three batteries, a charging hub, extra propellers and a carrying case. Read our DJI Mavic Mini review.$399 AT WALMART$400 AT APPLE$400 AT BEST BUY
The Mavic Mini is the best drone for the most people — but it lacks the build quality and a handful of higher-end features that come with DJI’s step-up model, the Mavic Air. The Air isn’t cheap — it costs several hundred dollars more than the Mavic Mini — but it’s considerably sturdier and stronger. It’s also heavier, which means it can only fly for about 20 minutes on a charge and you’ll need to register it to fly legally. (Trust us, it’s not that big a deal.)
In addition to upping a few key camera specs — it’s capable of shooting full 4K video and capturing RAW photos — the Air also gives you longer flights, a higher top speed (42.5 mph), superior obstacle avoidance features and 8GB of integrated storage.
Note that DJI makes plenty of other drones with superior specs — even better cameras — but they come with higher prices. Higher-spec options include the Mavic Pro, which is only nominally more expensive than the Air, and the Mavic Pro 2, which costs considerably more. Still, for most people who aren’t super-experienced hobbyists or professionals, we think the Mavic Air offers the best combination of design and features in its price range. Read our DJI Mavic Air review.SEE AT AMAZON
Though mainstream drones like the DJI Mini can fly fast, racing drones fly even faster, capable of hitting speeds above 100 mph. They’re also much more agile, built for acrobatic maneuvers with you at a set of manual controls. That means there’s a learning curve that usually involves some crashes.
The Emax Tinyhawk S keeps things relatively simple. You’ll still need to learn how to pilot the thing, but the process will be less frustrating than other entry-level systems. For one thing, you don’t need to worry about getting all of the individual pieces to work together — or soldering anything, which is required for many DIY models. The Tinyhawk is ready to fly and comes with a controller (also called a transmitter) and FPV goggles for flying by first-person view. $178 AT AMAZON
The 7 things to consider before you buy a drone
New to the world of drones? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Here’s a quick overview of what any beginner needs to now.
Cheaper drones aren’t necessarily for beginners
Like many things in life, you get what you pay for with drones: The more money you spend, the more features you get that make flying easier. For example, while the Hubsan X4 quad mentioned at the top isn’t a bad place to start, it lacks sensors found on higher-end drones to help it hover in place on its own or return to you if you get in a jam.
GPS is invaluable for new drone pilots. It’s worth paying more for if you’re looking for stable flying out of the box, especially for photos and video. You won’t typically find it on toy-grade drones, so new pilots might find toy drones to be frustrating even though they can be good to practice with.
Flight times are still relatively short
Battery life is the drone industry’s Achilles’ heel. A handful of models claim they can remain airborne for around 30 minutes on a charge — but that’s likely under ideal testing conditions in a controlled environment. The faster you fly, the more weight you add, the stronger the winds, the quicker a drone will sap its battery. Plus, there’s the time it takes to get up in the air and land — and that’s often not accounted for in the specs quoted by manufacturers.
Our general rule of thumb is to take whatever the manufacturer claims and subtract five to 10 minutes for a midsize drone. Toy drones typically get between five and seven minutes of good flying, though some can hit the 10- to 12-minute range.
Drone maker Zero Zero Robotics says its upcoming V-Coptr Falcon will reset the bar for the industry by staying in the air for up to 50 minutes. CNET hasn’t tested this claim, or the drone — though we did see it in action at CES 2020. The company, which expected to begin shipping in March, however, halted work in February due to thecoronavirus outbreak.
Watch this: The V-Coptr Falcon is a gamechanger for consumer drone… 2:11
The price of the drone is only the beginning
You’re going to want a couple extra batteries, some spare propellers, maybe some prop guards and perhaps a quick charger, so you’re not waiting hours to fly again. You’re more than likely going to crash, which could lead to repair costs — either for replacement parts or shipping it back to the manufacturer for repairs. (This is exactly why DJI offers crash insurance for new drones.)
Before you buy a drone, it’s worth spending a little time researching the price and availability of replacement parts, batteries and other accessories. And be cautious of third-party parts — especially batteries and chargers — which may be inferior to those made by the drone manufacturer.
Everyone will assume you’re invading their privacy
When you’re out flying in a public space, or even in your own backyard, anyone who sees you doing it will think you’re spying on them or someone else. You could be standing in the middle of a 20-acre field with no one in sight and your drone no more than 50 feet directly overhead and you might end up answering questions about being a peeping Tom. It’s happened to us. Repeatedly.
And along those same lines….
Everyone but you thinks they’re dangerous
It doesn’t matter if you’re the safest pilot around or that you could do more damage hitting someone with a baseball than a drone — onlookers may feel threatened. After all, nothing about plastic blades spinning at high speeds screams “safety.”
As such, US-based pilots may benefit from an Academy of Model Aeronautics membership. Along with a whole host of benefits including access to AMA-member flying sites, the $75 annual membership protects you with $2,500,000 of comprehensive general liability insurance as well as $25,000 in accident or medical coverage, $10,000 maximum accidental death coverage and $1,000 fire, theft and vandalism coverage.
Finding places to fly can be a challenge
In population-dense places like cities and metropolitan areas, it can be difficult to find places to safely and legally fly. US national parks are off-limits. Regulations differ among state, county and municipal parks. And then there are the no-fly zones, which puts many metropolitan areas out of bounds as well as just dangerous, because of buildings, people and cars.
Before you buy a drone — even a toy one, if you plan to fly outside — you’ll want to visit AirMap or download the FAA’s B4UFly app to check for no-fly zones. These don’t cover state or local ordinances, though, so you’ll need to do additional research on your chosen environs before you fly.
Any remote control aircraft except ‘toys’ need an FAA registration
The US Federal Aviation Administration is requiring anyone who wants to fly an unmanned aerial system that weighs between 0.55-pound (250 grams) and 55 pounds (approximately 25 kilograms) for recreation or hobby to register with the agency. Civil penalties for not registering may include fines up to $27,500. Criminal penalties may include fines up to $250,000, imprisonment for up to three years or both.
Most sub-$100 UAS drones fall under this weight. For example, all of these toy drones weigh in under that half-pound mark. A kitchen or postal scale can be used to weigh your drone or you can check with the manufacturer. Also, this applies to both store-bought and homemade aircraft.
The registration cost is $5 and it can all be done online in a matter of minutes. You don’t have to register each aircraft you own — just yourself, and you’ll be given a number to attach to what you’re flying. That’s it. Essentially, it’s the FAA’s way of getting you to agree that you’ve read its safety guidelines including staying more than five miles away from airports and below 400 feet.
The UK has its own registration requirements. Essentially, owners of drones that weigh more than 250 grams must register as an operator, which costs £9 annually. And pilots of drones that weigh more than 250 grams must pass a free online education course every three years. Australia has promised that new rules are “on their way,” but for now there are no official requirements.
Glossary: Know your RTF from your FPV
Like any hobby or technology, there’s a whole lot of lingo and abbreviations that come with the territory. Here are some of the ones you’ll come across the most.
- Ready-to-fly (RTF): A drone that requires little to no assembly and is ready to fly out of the box.
- Almost-ready-to-fly (ARTF or ARF): These drones may require some minor assembly and additional equipment such as a receiver (Rx) and radio transmitter (Tx, also called a radio controller).
- Bind-n-fly (BNF): These are essentially RTF drones with a receiver, but not a radio controller (you must buy one separately). But you can then use that controller to pilot other BNF aircraft, saving you some money if you decide to grow your RC aircraft collection.
- First-person view (FPV): The video feed direct from a camera on the drone. It can be used for framing your photos or videos as well as piloting. With drone racing, pilots usually wear FPV goggles for an immersive experience.
- Return-to-home (RTH): A safety feature that allows the drone to autonomously fly back to the pilot’s location or starting point.
- Gimbal: A mechanical camera stabilization system that offers you smooth video and sharp photos even with fast movements or in high winds.
- Headless mode: Intended for beginner pilots. It keeps the drone traveling forward, backward, left or right when you move your remote’s stick in those directions, regardless of which way the front of the drone is pointed.
- Follow me: A feature that allows a drone to automatically follow a subject, typically using a GPS signal from a mobile device, remote control or a beacon attached to the subject being tracked.
- Brushless motor: Though more expensive than their brushed counterparts, brushless motors are more efficient, last longer and are quieter.
Discuss: Best drone for 2020
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Save $350 on the DJI Mavic Air drone
Now down to $549, with a memory card and spare battery included free. Or get the Fly More Combo (DJI-refurbished) for $20 more.
Rick BroidaApril 23, 2020 4:47 a.m. PT
Drone popularity has surged in recent weeks, and no surprise there: Flying a quadcopter is a fun activity you can do from the comfort (and social safety) of your own yard. And although there are plenty of toy drones you can get for $100 or less, anyone serious about the sport is no doubt eyeballing a DJI model.
Like this one: For a limited time, and while supplies last, BuyDig has the DJI Mavic Air for $549. That’s $50 less than just a couple weeks ago, which was already a $200 savings. And BuyDig throws in a 32GB SanDisk memory card and a second battery, which have a combined value of $104. Put simply: Best Mavic Air deal to date.SEE IT AT BUYDIG
Update: BuyDig’s supply is running low, but there’s another option you might want to consider. DroneNerds has the DJI-refurbished Mavic Air Fly More Combo for $569 with promo code REV5. That nets you three batteries instead of two, a battery charging hub, extra propellers, a travel bag and more. It’s literally good as new, right down to the full manufacturer’s warranty.
Although this quad is a couple years old, there’s nothing dated about the compact folding design, 4K-resolution camera, three-axis gimbal or obstacle-avoidance features.
My advice: If you’re the least bit interested, grab one of these before they’re gone. They will be, and soon.
Read more: The best drone for 2020
Originally published earlier this month. Updated to reflect new sale price and availability.