Not so long ago, drones were the preserve of the military and dystopian science fiction films, but the technology has advanced rapidly and prices have plummeted, meaning they are quickly becoming a household favourite, whether just to fly around as a toy or to create amazing aerial photography.
With an unprecedented amount of choice now available, the list of features on offer can bewilder even the hardened drone enthusiast. We’ve reviewed a broad range to find the best models for all budgets and experience levels.
Two key things separate the current breed of flying machine from its relatively primitive forefather, the radio-controlled helicopter. The first is that they are much easier to fly thanks to the four-blade set up. This gives great stability and many models can hover in a static position if you let go of all of the controls, making the experience far more enjoyable and, hopefully, crash-free. The second is that they can take incredible pictures and video.
There are a few things to look out for that have the biggest impact on the piloting experience. We focused on ease-of-use, battery life, range and picture quality. Nail these and you can’t really go wrong.
Battery life is without-doubt the biggest limitation on most drones available at the moment. The propellers use a lot of power which either means a big, heavy power pack or a compromise on the flight time. Time between charges can be anywhere from just five minutes up to half an hour, depending on the model. Spare batteries really are a must, so factor this into your cost calculations.
Prices range from £10 for a mini quadcopter that’s great fun to fly around the living room, right up to many thousands for professional level drones with sophisticated features like automatic tracking and stabilised cameras.
If you want something with a camera, you’ll need to spend at least £50, while from £150 you can expect to get video, which is a big advance, as it gives you the ability to experience the flight in first-person through a smartphone app. Some have cameras built in while others have a mount for a GoPro. At the top-end, the DJI models produce ultra-sharp 4K imagery that is second-to-none. The cameras included on cheaper models are considerably more basic by comparison.
Drones costing a few hundred pounds or more have features such as a gimbal, which is essentially a steady-cam that gives stunning, professional-looking aerial video. Spend £20,000 and you’ll be shooting Planet Earth III in no time.
We took our drones out for a spin in a London park, testing out their top speed, manoeuvrability and picture-taking abilities. You will notice that a couple of names dominate our list. This is simply because a small number of suppliers are currently way out ahead of the rest.
1. DJI Mavic Pro: £975, Lightinthebox
China-based DJI is the king of the drone world at the moment, with incredible attention to detail put into every product. The Mavic Pro is its latest release. It essentially bundles all of the impressive abilities of its bigger brother (The Phantom 4, see number five) into an unbelievably tiny package that you can fold up and throw in your hand luggage. The Mavic is the ultimate flying camera to take on holiday or an adventure sports weekend. With a top speed of 40mph it isn’t quite as fast as the Phantom but can track objects and automatically avoid obstacles in the same way. Considering its light weight, it can hold itself steady remarkably well, though it feels slightly more “jumpy” in flight than the Phantom. The camera has a narrower field of view but for most purposes this makes little difference. The quality is still razor-sharp 4K. The battery also lasts around 25 minutes and it has the longest range of all of the models we tested at 7km.
2. Parrot Bebop 2: £349.99, Parrot
There is a lot to like about the Bebop 2 from the French drone specialists. It’s compact, stable and great fun to use, making it suitable for experts and newbies alike. It will fly to a range of 300m, which is plenty for most needs, and it has a 14MP camera which delivers decent 1080p footage. The version we tested also came with a virtual reality FPV headset, which gives a truly immersive flying experience, although you inevitably look a bit strange wearing it at the park. The slightly cartoony styling contrasts with the more stark sci-fi appearance of the pricier DJIs. In both look and features it fits neatly between the toy and “serious” models. There are a couple of minor gripes that let it down slightly. Unlike some of the more expensive models, it doesn’t have any removable storage, so once you’ve filled up the 8GB internal drive you have to wipe and start again. Also, the Wi-Fi connection between the controller and the drone cuts out a couple of times when it should have been within range, which is a little frustrating. Battery is good at 20 minutes. As with many of the drones we tested, you can control it with the Parrot app on your phone or connect it to a joystick controller which feels more natural.
3. Yuneec Breeze 4K: £360, Reichelt
Muscling in on DJI and Parrot’s position at the mid-to-high end of the market is relative newcomer, Yuneec, which burst onto the scene with its mean-looking Typhoon drone in 2015. The Breeze 4K is a different proposition entirely. It’s certainly aptly named as it couldn’t be easier to set up. You just fold out the four wings, install the smartphone app and get started. In the air it is nippy, if not electric, and it’s really easy to pilot with the intuitive on-screen controls. Unlike the Parrot and DJI models, it doesn’t have a compatible joystick controller but this is a relatively small drawback. With the tagline #myflyingcamera, it’s obvious this is aimed at those wanting to take selfies with a difference (“dronies”, apparently). It comes with a “follow me” mode, for the real narcissists among us that allows you to catch yourself from every angle. To complete the package, the Breeze comes with built-in social media connectivity so you can instantly show everyone how amazing your holiday is with a simple tap of the app. All-in-all this is a great drone for Instagram fans but don’t let that fool you into thinking this is a gimmick – it produces great 4K images. One issue is that the battery runs down quickly – you’ll only get twelve minutes on a single 40-minute charge. At 100m, the range is quite a bit less than the Bebop 2 but certainly enough, given what this drone is for.
4. Parrot Swing: £119.99, Parrot
Looking like a baby X-wing, this mini drone is a great starter machine for anyone unsure about the whole drone thing. Its unique design means it can fly like a traditional quadcopter or flip horizontally and move like a plane, which allows it to go faster – up to 18mph, according to Parrot, which is impressive for a drone at this price. It felt a little slower than this in our test flight, partly down to the wind. The wings make it look like something Luke Skywalker would fly but for this budget they are made from polystyrene. This keeps the craft light and easy to manoeuvre but does make it prone to a gust of wind. The Swing is controlled via the simple Parrot smartphone app and comes with a controller that you snap your smartphone into. It’s basically exactly the same as a PlayStation controller so unless you’ve never used a games console, you’ll find it very intuitive. A range of 30m and a battery life of around 20 minutes make this a good drone to take to the park to practice your pilot skills. It’s very easy to use, so highly recommended as a family toy. The 640x480 resolution camera is functional but the images it produces are fairly grainy.
5. DJI Phantom 4: £1231.99, Maplin
The Phantom range is DJI’s best seller, for good reason – out of the box, it is a beautiful piece of sleek, white plastic, and when it gets into the air it is fantastically responsive and boasts an unrivalled set of features. It darts around exactly where you want it to at a breakneck 20 metres per second (45mph), yet still captures silky footage thanks to the gimbal-mounted camera and the steadiness of the machine itself. It will hold its position even in moderate winds and always feels sturdy and reliable. Even for the novice, it’s easy to handle, via the controller provided, using your phone or tablet for first person view. It’s the Phantom’s impressive set of tricks that set it apart, however. Tap an object in view your phone and the drone will lock onto it as you fly around to capture footage from all angles. It can also track moving objects. Battery life is a respectable 25 minutes and the range is 5km, though we never got to test this last statistic.
6. Hubsan x4: £149.99, Menkind
This pocket-sized drone comfortably fits in the palm of your hand, but somehow manages to fit a camera on board. Video is streamed live to a 4.3” screen on the controller. At 720x240 pixels, it’s comparatively low-res but to get first-person view on a drone at this price is impressive. It’s also very useful as the tiny x4 can quickly disappear from view. The controller is really easy to operate and you’ll be able to use it straight out of the box without referring to the instructions. It’s also comfortingly retro in its styling – think Sega Game Gear circa 1990. The in-built screen means no need for a smartphone app. The Hubsan is great fun to fly, zipping around like an electronic mosquito, the controls are responsive and novices will pick it up in no time. Bear in mind that this machine weighs just 58g, so it can’t handle wind. It also doesn’t have the GPS that allows more expensive drones to hover in a steady position so you have to keep adjusting the controls, which can make it easier to crash. Luckily this little machine is tough – I crashed it several times and it still worked perfectly fine. Battery life is only about eight to nine minutes but spares can be picked up for a few pounds so are well worth the investment. It will fly up to 100m away before going out of range.
7. T-Series T111 FPV: £99.99, Red5
This is a fantastic little all-rounder that competes with the Hubsan for best entry-level drone. It also has a first-person view camera that streams live to a screen in the controller. The camera is sharper than the x4’s, delivering HD picture quality. The T-series also has the added benefit of an auto-hover function, which makes it easier to fly for beginners. In the air it can perform some great stunts like a 360 degree flip and the slick black frame with led lights look cool. The range is decent enough at 40m. The downside is the battery lasts just seven minutes, but it comes with a spare.
The Verdict: Drones
For beginners looking to hone their drone skills with an inexpensive bit of kit, the Hubsan and Parrot Swing are great choices. For those with a little more cash to spend, we really like the Phantom 4. Video quality is phenomenal and it’s quick and manoeuvrable with great features like tracking and automatic obstacle avoidance. That said, the winner in this group has to be the Mavic Pro. It matches the Phantom 4 in most areas but has the massive benefit of being so portable.
IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing
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