A Good Drone's Going to Cost You
Even if you have no good reason to justify buying one, you have to admit that drones are cool. Some models out there are glorified tech toys, but the ones we highlight here are fit for use in imaging and cinematic applications small and large. If you think you can use a flying camera in your next project, there's some good news—the tech has come a long way in a very short time. There are models on the market now that put earlier copters to shame in terms of video quality and stabilization.
And now the bad news. You get what you pay for, and if you want an aerial video platform that can capture stunning footage, you need to be ready to spend some cash. Because drones are such pricey propositions, it pays to do your research before buying one. We've tested many of the ready-to-fly models on the market to determine what's important to look for, and the best models available.
There are low-cost drones on the market (we've rounded some of the top-rated options under $100 on Amazon), but you're still looking at spending around $500 to get a solid model that's stable in flight with an excellent integrated camera. The DJI Phantom 3 Standard is our favorite budget model, and while it doesn't support 4K capture, its 2.7K video capability is better than 1080p and leaves some room to crop footage for HD projects. You'll be hard pressed to find a quadcopter that delivers the video quality of the Phantom 3 Standard for less money.
The drones we review are ready-to-fly models, so you can use them right out of the box. In most cases you'll need to bring your own Android or iOS device to view the camera feed in real-time, but we've reviewed a few models that have an Android tablet built into the remote control. We haven't delved into covering true pro models, which require you to get out a soldering iron and install flight control systems and custom gimbals that can accommodate an SLR or mirrorless camera.
Drone Safety and Regulations
All of the models featured here have some safety features. Even the Bebop 2, which isn't built for long-distance flight, includes a GPS and automatic Return-to-Home functionality. If your control signal is interrupted, or if the battery gets down too low (most drones can only fly for about 20 minutes on a single battery charge), you drone will start to head back to its takeoff point and land.
Flyaways still happen, and there are horror stories on various web discussion forums. Of course, negative experiences are amplified in this context, simply because uneventful flights that don't result in a crash or missing drone aren't hot topics for discussion.
If you're flying within the United States, you need to take heed of FAA guidelines—or be prepared to face potential fines or jail time. There are no-fly zones set by the FAA, so don't take off if you're near an airport without notifying the control tower first. And, even if you're out in the middle of nowhere, don't take your drone above 400 feet. Most drones are set to obey these regulations out of the box, but controlling a quadcopter is just like driving a car—even if you missed seeing that speed limit sign, you're still liable to pay the ticket.
Be sure to read up on the current FAA guidelines before buying. At press time, a court ruling states you don't have to pay to register your drone with the FAA, but that can change with an appeal. Even if you don't have an FAA number attached to your aircraft, be careful out there.
Racing and Toy Drones
There are a number of products on the market that are sold as drones, but don't quite fit the bill. Remote-controlled aircraft have been around for ages. (Check out this clip from Magnum, P.I. if you don't believe me, or just want to see Tom Selleck in a bathrobe.) But with the recent surge in popularity, quadcopters that would simply be sold as RC products are now being tagged as drones. These products don't include GPS stabilization, return-to-home functionality, and other automated flight modes that make a drone a drone.
We've reviewed a handful of these products and placed them in our Toy reviews category. If you're interested in something you can use on the International Drone Racing Association, keep your eyes tuned there for reviews.
DJI models currently dominate our top picks, and there's a good reason for that. The company is simply a few steps ahead of its competition right now, and has a product catalog with models at various price points, which take up a good number of the slots in our top ten. It made huge improvements with its Phantom 3 series, and has continued to refine form and function with the Phantom 4.
DJI's pro line is dubbed Inspire, and is currently in its second generation. Inspire models offer functionality well beyond what you get with a Phantom, including dual-operator support—one person flying and the other working the camera—as well as interchangeable lenses and camera modules, a Raw cinema workflow, and retractable landing gear.
Big Drones, Small Drones
For a long time, the DJI Phantom series was about as small as you could go if you wanted to get a full-featured drone that maintains stability in the air and includes strong safety features. That's changing. Hikers and travel photographers appreciate a small, light kit, and they can now can now get a drone that fits into a backpack. We've got a couple small models in our top ten, and expect to add a few more as the space develops further.
Of course, not every small drone is a top flyer. Some are barely capable of getting off the ground and require you to use your smartphone as a remote control, which makes for a sloppy control experience. Make sure to read reviews before spending hard-earned cash on a compact quadcopter.
Yuneec is DJI's major competition in the consumer market. Its Typhoon series competes with DJI's Phantom line and offers some features that Phantoms don't provide, including a freely rotating camera on the Typhoon H. It also has a smaller model, the Breeze, to appeal to pilots who want a more user-friendly, casual drone experience.
GoPro launched its Karma drone in late 2016, but quickly pulled it from the market. The reason? Karma drones were falling from the sky due to mid-flight power loss. It goes to show that making a reliable, safe drone isn't easy, even for a seasoned hardware manufacturer. GoPro has fixed the issue and the Karma is back on the market, but it didn't score highly enough to be included in our top picks.
PowerVision is a newer player in the US market. It's announced two copters—the consumer-friendly PowerEgg and the pro-grade PowerEye. Also making headway in the US is Autel Robotics. Its line of X-Star drones look like DJI Phantoms that have been dipped in bright orange paint. We've not yet had the opportunity to review them, but they compare favorably with DJI models in terms of price.
3D Robotics, which took a swing with its Solo drone, has exited the consumer market—the Solo is now only on sale at closeout prices. That's a shame, as the Solo delivers a lot of innovative features and would be a stellar choice for GoPro users if it weren't hampered by subpar battery life and a GPS that's slow to lock on to satellites. The Solo can be had for a little more than $200 without a camera or gimbal, making it a solid platform for DIY hobbyists.
The DJI Inspire 2 is aimed at professional cinematographers, news organizations, and independent filmmakers. And it's priced as such—its $3,000 MSRP doesn't include a camera. You have the option of adding a 1-inch sensor fixed-lens camera, a Micro Four Thirds interchangeable lens model, or a Super35mm cinema mount with its own proprietary lens system and support for 6K video capture.
Yuneec also has a model with a Micro Four Thirds camera. Its Tornado H920 is a huge drone with six rotors and room to hold three batteries, giving it an unheard of 42-minute flight capability. Its CGO4 camera is essentially a custom version of the Panasonic GH4, a favorite of many a terrestrial videographer. It doesn't record uncompressed video like the Inspire 2, but it's less expensive.
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Ultimately, you can't go wrong with any of the models listed here. For the latest field-tested drone reviews, check out our Drones Product Guide.
Bottom Line: The latest version of DJI's top-end consumer drone, the Phantom 4, improves on its predecessor in many ways. It's the best consumer drone on the market, and it's priced accordingly.
Bottom Line: If money is no object, the DJI Inspire 2 is the best drone you can buy, delivering Raw video capture at 5.2K quality, superb build quality, and top-end performance.
Bottom Line: The DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone adds additional obstacle sensors and a vastly improved camera to the already stellar Phantom 4.
Bottom Line: The DJI Phantom 3 Standard delivers the safety, reliability, and video quality you expect from a Phantom at a price that appeals to entry-level pilots.
Bottom Line: With a sharp, stabilized, distortion-free 4K video camera, the $999 DJI Mavic Pro is much more capable than you'd expect given its size. It's an excellent choice for pilots looking for a mor…
Bottom Line: The DJI Phantom 3 Advanced is one of the best drones on the market thanks to a bevy of features and 2.7K video recording.
Bottom Line: The DJI Spark is a $500 palm-size gesture-controlled selfie drone for the masses, but it's hampered by short flying time and an app that could be easier to use.
Bottom Line: The Parrot Bebop 2 FPV is an attractive, compact drone for backyard and rural pilots, but it has difficulty with long distance flight in areas with crowded Wi-Fi signals.
Bottom Line: The Parrot Disco FPV is a lot of fun to fly, but isn't the most practical drone on the market.
Bottom Line: The Yuneec Typhoon H Pro with Intel RealSense Technology has enormous potential, but its flight interface and video both leave some room for improvement.
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