Which drone should I buy? The ultimate drone buying guide:
If you are here reading this article, you’ve already answered the question “Do I need a drone?” with an enthusiastic ”Yes, of course!”. The next question, however, might be a bit more challenging to answer, as the market for consumer drones has increased drastically over the past years. Each brand offers a slew of different models and sub-models with plenty of characteristics, specs, and options. The good thing is, with all those drones to choose from, you are guaranteed to find one that fits your budget and intended use.
So, which drone should you buy? Two central questions have to be answered first. What is your budget and do you want to fly it only for racing purposes? Or are you also planning on taking pictures and videos during your flight? The first question is easy to understand. For the second, you should know that racing drones and photography drones are two different categories. While a photography drone usually has an HD camera with gimbal mechanism to stabilize the footage, a racing drone will not, and its camera (if it even has one) will be comparable to earlier smartphones. It serves as a guide to the remote pilot, who is controlling the flight through First-Person-View (FPV) goggles or screens, but not as photography tool to capture those tremendous top-down images you see shared on social media for example.
Let’s have a look at the racing drone category first. If you plan on racing in a competitive environment, either among friends or in organized leagues, you have to learn how to control the drone first. For that, an easy to fly and tough to destroy drone should be the first target, because eventually, you will crash. Here are some options:
The Syma X5C is probably one of the cheapest reliable drones you can get. For as little as 26 USD, if you choose the version without a camera, you will get a perfectly capable drone, easy to fly and perfect to learn the hobby.
Spare parts are easy to buy and cheap, you will not have to worry if and once you crash it. It can do 360 degrees rolls, fly for about 8 minutes, and if you choose the camera option, you will get a feeling for both categories, racer and camera drone. From then on, you can decide for yourself what you are most interested in and upgrade accordingly.
The Hubsan H107D+ could be considered the intermediate level. It is much smaller than the mentioned Syma, but also much faster and more adequate for your first fun races. For around 100 USD you get a professional looking controller with a built-in LCD for great FPV capacity. Due to its tiny size, mistakes and crashes are quickly forgotten, this little drone will just keep flying. Once you get used to the controls of the Hubsan and the FPV, you will be ready for the next level.
Walkera F210 3D
The Walkera F210 3D will be the drone to consider once you start to get serious about drone racing. Retailing at currently 350 USD, it is considered by many racers as a perfect FPV drone, as you can modify and improve the performance the better you get at flying. Top speeds right out of the box are comparable to some of the customized drones and will not embarrass you.
As you compete in races, the more you’ll see that the first places finishers are flying custom-built drones. Those are made from scratch and use components sourced or even built by the pilot (or his team). But all of them learned how to fly using drones less valuable than a fully customized and unique airframe.
Many drone flyers looking for a new drone want to be able to capture great images or produce professional-looking videos for their YouTube channels. If that is what you are into, you will not get around the DJI brand. The Chinese company dominates the market for photography drones and offers several options at different prices, from the beginner drone, Tello at 99 USD all the way up to professional grade drones costing more than 5.000 USD. Other good drones come from the French makers Parrot or action camera specialists GoPro are also worth a look. Let’s compare:
DJI Ryze Tello
The Ryze Tello is by far the most affordable camera drone you can get from DJI. It was actually built by a start-up company, Ryze Technology, but in close partnership with DJI and shares some of the characteristics found in the bigger drones from DJI. Intelligent flight modes, auto-land, and a competent controller are just some of the features that you will also find in the bigger drones. Speaking of size, the Tello is a class of its own in the camera drone segment. At just 0.17 pounds it still reaches a speed of 17 mph and flies for up to 13 minutes, very impressive! However, the biggest minus for the Tello is the camera. Don’t get me wrong, for this price and size you are still getting a great shooter. However, in the end, there is no gimbal, only electronic image stabilization, only 720p video resolution and no RAW image capacity. For basic social media photos, it might just be enough, but you will easily notice the difference in quality when comparing with the DJI Spark. However, the flight modes are fun and will keep you entertained for a while.
The DJI Spark is a recent addition from DJI, made to facilitate the entrance of new drone flyers into the hobby. Retailing at around 400 USD, it offers a great mix of portability, image quality, and price. It has a 2-axis gimbal and a 12 megapixel Full HD camera delivering great shots even at higher wind speeds. However, the Spark does also not deliver RAW photos, only JPEG. With a weight of 0.6lbs, in almost all countries drone insurance or registration will not be obligatorily needed. Even though it is not foldable, it has a tiny footprint and can easily be transported in a small bag. It also attracts less attention than other bigger drones, which can be an advantage as well. A neat feature is the Spark’s gesture control, which makes it possible to fly it completely without a controller, using only your hand. The range is probably the biggest downside of the Spark, as even in good conditions with little interference no more than 1.2mi will be possible. Additionally, and according to online reports, the latch of the first generation batteries was too small, leading to reports of batteries being ejected mid-flight and of course crashes. DJI addressed this with an improved battery design, but you should be aware. In the end, the Spark is a compromise between affordability, small and increased (camera and flight) options.
DJI Mavic series
DJI has 3 different Mavic drones, all aimed at different budgets and types of pilots. The newest and most affordable is the Mavic Air at around 800 USD. It brings a 3-axis gimbal for fully stabilized shots, RAW image support, slow-motion shots and 4k video capability, with flight autonomy of 21 minutes. It’s much smaller than the two other Mavic’s and when folded, even smaller than the DJI Spark. The Mavic Air is one of 2 DJI drones with back-facing sensors to avoid crashes while flying backward but is much cheaper than the other, the Phantom 4 Pro. With a range of up to 2.5mi and 42 mi/h of speed, the Mavic Air seems like a perfect fit for most hobby or budget-minded photographers.
The Mavic Pro and the Mavic Pro Platinum are quite similar and differ mostly in two aspects; flight time and noise. The Platinum has special blades that enable quieter flights, and it has autonomy for 30 minutes in the air, 3 more than the Mavic Pro. In all other aspects, they are pretty much identical. Both come with a controller with an LCD display, fly up to 4 mi, shoot in 4K UHD and weight 1.62lbs. For a professional photographer getting into drones, they are probably the best choice, as images will be of the highest quality. Both Mavic’s record slow-motion footage and have a bunch of intelligent flight modes for the most cinematic feel.
GoPro is, of course, one of the biggest and most famous camera brands. Producing highly durable action cameras, everyone has seen or heard the quality footage GoPro can deliver. GoPro entered the drone market with the GoPro Karma at 850 USD. The production has now been discontinued, but fortunately, official support is still given, as the Karma is a highly capable drone. It can fly up to 10.500ft high and 9.840ft distance at a speed of 35 MPH. The flight time is lower than comparably expensive drones at only 20 minutes. However, the main advantage of the Karma is its assembly. The stabilizer is a GoPro Grip Handle, which can be removed from the drone and used on the ground as an action camera stabilizer. This gimbal can be bought separately to be used with any GoPro action cam for 300 USD. If you choose the 850 USD version, you will also get a GoPro Hero 6 camera, one of the best action cams on the market right now, retailing alone at 400 USD. All in all, it ends up being quite a price-effective bundle for multiple uses; drone flying and typical action camera usage.
DJI Phantom 4 Pro
Lastly, let’s speak about the crème de la crème of drone photography. The DJI Phantom 4 Pro has the best camera you can find on a consumer drone. At 1500 USD minimum price, you will also pay the highest price from all mentioned drones. However, you get almost perfect obstacle sensing systems, a camera rivaling many good DSLR cameras, 30 minutes of autonomy and 4K videos with an improved frame rate of 60fps. Taking bad pictures with those specs will be difficult! The large 1’’ camera sensor, allows for better pictures in dark conditions and the 60fps will give your videos a more cinematic look. Speaking of which, flight modes in the Phantom 4 Pro are a must-try, improving the outcome of the shots by miles. The range of the Phantom is also groundbreaking, with up to 9 miles distance being possible. If you have the budget, the only concern would be the portability and size. The Phantom has the classic drone form, with two large feet as landing gear and a circular body placed on top. If you travel a lot, you have to take into consideration the time it takes to prepare the drone and get flying. You will also have to count with a weight of over 3 pounds, which will take away from your bag allowance. Furthermore, in most countries, drones with that much weight have to be registered or even demand a drone license, not to mention the necessity to have a valid insurance policy.
With 10 drones presented here, hopefully, fewer questions and fewer doubts remain for you. If you are looking for the racing drones, start with a small and durable cheap drone to get the hang of it. Learn how to fly visually, and soon you will be able to upgrade to the FPV drones flying neck-breaking speeds around tight corners with a custom-built racing machine.
For the camera drones, it comes down to price and portability. If you have the cash and can take your time to prepare the drone, nothing will be better than the Phantom 4 Pro. However, the size can be off-putting for many. That is why the second best choice would probably be the Mavic Air, together with the Karma. If you do not have any action cam, the GoPro aircraft is a great value for many while keeping the usual GoPro quality. An honorable final mention goes to the Spark, which is an excellent drone at a beginner-friendly price.
Many other drone models could have been included in this guide. From the Parrot Bebop 2, with respectable image quality and similar flying capabilities as the DJI Spark, up to the Yuneec Typhoon H, a good DJI Phantom 4 competitor. Alternatively, even the DJI Inspire 2, at a price of almost 6000 USD, not a toy anymore. However, for 95% of drone enthusiasts, it is going to be one of the drones mentioned here, as they merely represent the best image quality at the best price range.