So you want to be a drone pilot? This is where you start. Not with a crazy $US1200 semi-autonomous eye in the sky, but a cheap miniature quadcopter. Chinese companies are pumping out truckloads of mini quads right now, and while they can't find their own way home, they can teach you the basics of how to fly a speedy four-propeller craft for under $100 even in a tiny apartment. They won't make cops nervous, and they're an absolute blast to fly around.
The hard part, I found, is picking the right one. When I realised how cheap and easy it would be to get started, I bought the first drone I laid my eyes on. It lost its tiny propellers whenever it crashed into objects, and my puppy nearly swallowed one. The second put scratches on my walls, and another one in my palm. So I set out to find the perfect beginner drone: easy to learn, durable, cheap and safe to fly indoors.
Cheap drones are still relatively new, and they're hard to find even in hobby shops. But go online, and you can find practically as many flying objects as you'd need to blot out the sun. Whether big or small, I found that most cheap miniature quadcopters have the same battery life of roughly six to eight minutes, have roughly the same long range thanks to 2.4GHz transmitters, are nice and stable due to internal gyroscopes, and charge over USB in about an hour. You know what they don't all have? Propeller guards. If you're learning to fly -- and aren't fond of damage -- those are priority number one. So I did what any red-blooded gadget lover would do: I nabbed a crapload of drones with propeller guards and flew my heart out.
The Best Overall: Air Hogs Helix X4 Stunt
The $US65 Air Hogs Helix X4 won't wow your friends. It's not a speed demon you can send zipping around your lawn. But it is the only drone I flew directly into my precious Panasonic plasma TV, at top speed, without a care in the world. Completely covered in lightweight styrofoam armour, it didn't leave so much as a scratch. It bounces off my walls, sticks to my ceilings, and doesn't hurt even when I shove a finger right into its ducted fans. Plus, it's easy to control: while it doesn't have the fancy trim adjustments of practically every other drone I tried, it automatically compensated for minor deviations. I even flew it outdoors in a pinch. It's also the only drone I could charge from its controller, which admittedly requires an outrageous eight AA batteries.
Oh, but beware: the Helix X4 screeches like a hair dryer the entire time you're using it.
If I had to pick just one drone to recommend sight-unseen, it would be the Air Hogs Helix X4. But it's not the best for everyone. Here are four other drones I can wholeheartedly recommend that might suit you even better.
The Best Drone for Advanced Beginners: Blade Nano QX
The $US90 Blade Nano QX makes the Helix X4 look like a giant blimp. With hobby-grade motors set in an incredibly lightweight frame, it's blazing fast. When you set the controller to beginner mode, it's stable enough to use indoors and there's a expert mode that disables the gyroscope entirely for outdoor stunts. (It sounds like an angry bumblebee, which is comparatively a plus!)
Still, this quadcopter has so much power under the hood that its prop guards and bendy frame can't protect it from the worst, as I discovered when cracking its cockpit, permanently deforming a propeller, and accidentally ripping out one of the motors (while trying to remove that propeller) over the course of an afternoon. While it comes with two sets of propellers and spare parts are modular and cheap, you'll want to be a seasoned quadcopter pilot before taking off the safeties.
The Best Miniature Drone: UDI U839
Thinking about buying an Estes Proto-X or Synchro? Buy this $US30 drone instead. This cute ladybug of a palmtop quad has such a well-designed prop guard, it's the only miniature drone that never once lost or bent a propeller when I repeatedly flew it into foreign objects. It's also got way more power than other mini drones, which can admittedly make it a challenge to fly indoors -- ease off on the throttle, folks -- but also means it can actually challenge a light breeze if you take it outside.
You can have it perform flips by pressing in the right thumbstick, and it's got nice soft rubber feet for hard landings. The fun also lasts longer than with any other toy-grade drone thanks to the ingenious idea of using a pair of identical LiPo batteries for both the transmitter and the drone itself: just swap them when the tiny copter dies and you're good for another 6-7 minutes. Again, it's a challenge to fly this one, and the gyro seems a little finicky: I wound up spending time recalibrating the trim nearly every time it hit a wall.
The Best Camera Drone: Syma X5C
There aren't a lot of drones that have cameras and propeller guards, but this is the one to get right now. It's a $US60 DJI Phantom ripoff with cheap materials and a crappy camera, but nothing else comes close for the price Syma is asking. It's one of the most stable cheap quadcopters I tried, stable enough to fly around my tiny townhouse indoors, and stable enough to fly in a mild breeze -- though you'll get some very shaky footage. You can start capturing video just by holding down a button on the remote control. The video quality is absolutely terrible, worse than any cameraphone you've used in the past decade, but even disgustingly bad footage from high in the sky has charm!
The Quietest Drone: Syma X4
You're not going to find a quadcopter that doesn't sound like four propellers straining to keep themselves in the air, but the $US35 Syma X4 more closely resembles a miniature blender than a dying vacuum cleaner. What's more, it's sleek, well-built, and wonderfully stable for indoor flights -- easier to fly than any of the miniature drones I tried. Gamers (like me!) will find themselves right at home with its Xbox-style controller. Just make sure you check that all the buttons on the controller are working correctly: one of the important trim buttons on my controller was misaligned and extremely hard to press.
Litehawk High Roller (aka Sky Walker 1306 / Sky Matrix H1306)
I had more fun with the $US90 High Roller than any other drone I tried. It's the only drone you can crash over and over and keep on flying because it automatically flips itself upright. Unfortunately, it's also the only drone that permanently died after I turned it off one evening. If I wasn't afraid of the many quality control issues I spotted, I'd recommend one to you.
Hubsan X4 (H107C, aka Code Black / Black Hawk)
I really, really wanted to like the Hubsan X4. It's such a sleek little craft, and the $US50 H107C model comes with a propeller guard and a built-in camera. Unfortunately, the camera stopped working the very first time I took it out, and somehow the Hubsan's brittle propellers still managed to push past the guard and impact my walls.
Hubsan X4 (H107L)
This smaller $US40 version of the H107C doesn't come with a propeller guard and didn't work well with the optional one I bought for an additional $US7. It's jerky, not nearly as stable or as easy to control, and mine had a tendancy to tilt too far during flight and crash into the ground. Don't bother.
Estes Proto X (aka Syncro / Hubsan Q4)
This tiny cute $US30-$US40 drone is quite literally a circuit board with motors attached at all four corners, but those motors don't give even this barebones drone a lot of lift. When I added an aftermarket propeller guard, it was too heavy to fly properly. Without one, it tends to lose propellers in my carpet.
Parrot Rolling Spider
While it comes with a pair of detachable wheels that let it roll up walls and across ceilings, I found they didn't adequately keep the $US100 Rolling Spider from slicing into household objects. The main reason I didn't enjoy playing with the Parrot, though, were the laggy smartphone controls.
Syma X3 (aka Swann Xtreem Maxi Quad Starship)
Don't bother with this larger $US25-$US50 version of the Syma X4. It's a teensy bit more powerful, but not enough to reliably fly outdoors. It doesn't last longer, and it's noisier and looks uglier. The propeller guard is removable, but wound up removing itself at inopportune moments.
The #1 best-selling quadcopter on Amazon, I had high hopes that this cousin of my favourite miniature quadcopter would be a solid camera drone. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of the flimsiest pieces of shit I've ever laid eyes on. More importantly, even with a fully charged battery, my $US65 unit didn't always have enough power to get off the damn ground.
Parrot AR.Drone 2.0
Though it's a way better camera drone than the others I tried, producing far clearer HD footage, it's also big, heavy, expensive for beginners at $US300, and not as responsive as joystick-controlled drones. Smartphone controls suck.
Hubsan X4 (H107D)
Much like the H107C, but transmits a live video feed from the camera to a screen on the remote control for $US140. Lots of unhappy customers due to issues with that controller. I didn't bother.
WL Toys V262 Cyclone
Some user reviews complain of quality control issues, and more of them about horrendous customer service. Didn't feel like risking $US62.
World Tech Toys Panther Spy Drone UFO
It looks like a clone of the WL Toys V262, but with higher quality components -- as you'd expect for the $US150 asking price. But just like the UDI U818A, I couldn't get the damn thing to stay in the air even with fully charged batteries.
On Amazon, it had as many one-star reviews as five-star reviews. It kinda looks like junk.