Let me guess: You’re thinking about buying a drone?
You’ve double tapped countless drone photos on Instagram, you’ve re-watched a million different drone videos on YouTube, and you’ve already planned out the first dozen places you’re going to fly!
But then you started to look at prices, and tried to compare features, and stumbled across a DIY post that promised you could easily build an amazing drone for 1/2 the price, and… you got stuck.
What drone is right for me?
Do I really need those advanced features?
Should I really spend $1,000+ on something that might fly into the nearest lake?
All valid questions, which is why I decided to put together this buyer’s guide. I recently went through the exact same thought process, and did countless hours of research and hands-on testing to help weed through the options and figure out what drone is right for different needs and budget.
For most people, a ready-to-fly (RTF) drone is going to be the best option. You don’t need to worry about complicated DIY instructions, assembling compatible parts, soldering, or programming, which means you can start flying in just minutes.
It also means that a big company paid a lot of smart people to make the drone as easy to use and as foolproof as possible, which you definitely can’t say about that DIY option!
Plus if something breaks, of if you can’t figure out how to use a feature, there are going to be more options for parts, service, and Q&A if you go with one of the more popular drones.
So if you’re thinking about buying a drone, either just for fun, as a new way to take photos and videos, or even as a professional drone-for-hire, this buyer’s guide will help you find the best drone for your needs:
JUST FOR FUN:
AUKEY Mini Drone
The AUKEY Mini Drone is a fun toy to get started with.
With enough technology to make learning how to fly and control a drone a whole lot of fun, the AUKEY Mini Drone the perfect drone for beginners, or even more advanced flyers that want a drone to play around with in their spare time.
The Mini Drone features 5 minutes of continuous flight time, and needs just 30 minutes to recharge, so you don’t have to wait long before flying again. It can fly up to 82 feet away, and while it’s certainly not the most advanced drone available, it does have 6-axis gyro stabilization, three speeds, one button takeoff and landing, and a pre-programmed “trick-mode” to help you get started.
Perhaps the biggest selling feature of the AUKEY Mini Drone is the 24 month warranty. There are 100s of companies that sell a version of this drone, and they all pretty much come from the same factory in China. However, most of these companies either offer no warranty, or make it very difficult to contact them if you have a warranty claim. AUKEY is a trusted brand that has been around for a long time, selling a wide range of electronics, and I’ve heard nothing but praise for their warranty process.
UPDATE: For other great beginner drones, check out my list of the Best Drones Under $150.
LEARNING TO FLY:
DJI Phantom 3 “Standard”
If you want to get started flying a full-size drone, but don’t want to make a huge investment before you know whether or not you’re going to like flying, the DJI Phantom 3 “Standard” is the way to go.
Unlike previous versions of the Phantom, which required you to buy and install accessories to get features like first person view (FPV) and flight data, the Phantom 3 gives you everything you need to start taking amazing photos and videos right out of the box.
Getting started with the Phantom 3 is easy, and in less than :30 minutes you’ll be flying around taking pictures and shooting video. The Phantom 3 Standard connects to your phone or tablet (iPhone/iPad or Android) to give a live view of what the drone camera sees, and also gives you flight information like altitude, battery life, and camera settings.
For first-time flyers, DJI includes an application that allows you to ‘fly’ a virtual drone using the real controller, so you can practice the controls before you take your real drone out and start flying.
The camera takes 12 megapixel photos and HD video, and the gimbal stabilization means you’ll have super smooth image quality no matter how you fly.
The battery on the Phantom is great, giving you up to 25 minutes of flight time on a single charge, which allows you to take advantage of the 1/2 mile flight range.
A couple downsides to the Phantom 3 Standard are WiFi Video Downlink (compared to Lightbridge Video Downlink on more expensive DJI drones) that limits how far away you can fly while streaming video, a lack of Vision Positioning System that limits the drone’s ability to hold a position without GPS, and an older style controller.
However, many of these downsides only affect more extreme styles of flight, where your drone is more than 1/2 mile away from you, or if you’re trying to fly indoors. The Standard still includes a great camera on a 3-axis gimbal, still has the same motors and control style as more advanced drones, and even has a few extra minutes of flight time per charge thanks to its slightly reduced weight.
UPDATE: If you decide to get the Phantom 3 “Standard”, make sure to check out my guide to the best Phantom 3 Accessories.
DJI Phantom 4
If you’re serious about shooting photos and videos (anyone with a nice dSLR and a few lenses falls into this category) then the DJI Phantom 4 is the way to go.
The new Phantom 4 is slightly more expensive than the Phantom 3, but it includes some amazing new features that make this one of the most capable drones on the market, and helps future-proof your investment since it will still be one of the best drones available for years to come.
The biggest new feature is visual object avoidance.. There are small sensors in the front and bottom of the drone that allow it to ‘see’ and understand the environment around it, automatically avoiding obstacles, and tracking objects as they move around. These sensors also help keep the drone steady and oriented while flying, making silky smooth photos and videos easier than ever before.
The new front obstacle sensors and advanced computer vision and processing allow for new features like TapFly, where you simply tap on the live view screen to send the drone flying in that direction while automatically avoiding obstacles, and ActiveTrack, where the Phantom 4 will recognize your subject, follow them naturally, and keep them in the frame with no GPS bracelet, tracker, or beacon required.
The camera shoots 4K video, or 1080p video at 120 frames per second for epic slow motion shots. The camera is mounted to one of DJI’s most advanced 3-axis gimbals, with motors on both sides of the camera which helps smooth out unwanted movements in flight, and makes it sturdier for transport.
The Phantom 4 also now features dual compass modules and dual Inertial Measurement Units (IMUs) that allow it to constantly check and verify the data it receives, and isolate and ignore incorrect data without affecting your flight. (Or sending your uncontrollable drone off towards the horizon!)
The new battery gives you up to 28 minutes of flight time, an increase of 25% from the Phantom 3 Professional, and you’re going to need it, since the Phantom 4 can fly up to 3.1 miles away while streaming back 720p video to help you control the drone and aim the camera.
For extra fun there’s even a new Sport Mode that increases the maximum speed by 25%, and takes advantage of the new magnesium core, integrated gimbal, and battery placement to give you more agility, while the new object avoidance systems ensure you don’t just use that extra speed to smash into the closest immovable object.
The Phantom 4 is a serious investment, but it’s also a seriously fun and capable drone that has features only found in $3,000+ drones less than a year ago. You can’t go wrong with DJI, and if you’re looking for a great way to get started with drone photography, the Phantom 4 is the drone to get.
UPDATE: If you decide to get the Phantom 4, make sure to check out my guide to the best Phantom 4 Accessories.
SERIOUS DRONE ALTERNATIVE:
3D Robotics Solo
(Plus Cost Of GoPro)
The 3D Robotics Solo has some interesting features that make it a strong alternative for certain types of buyers.
If DJI is like Apple, then 3D Robotics is like Android, giving you more options and potential for customization, but requiring a little more setup and learning curve for the beginning drone user.
The biggest difference between the 3DR Solo and the DJI Phantom is that the Solo doesn’t include a built-in camera. Instead, it has an open accessory bay on the bottom that you can use to attach accessories like a gimbal for a GoPro.
If you already own a newer GoPro, the Solo is a great way to get it in the sky! But if you don’t own a GoPro, you’ll need to include the cost of a new one (and probably a few GoPro accessories) in your total budget.
While this modular system requires more initial setup and investment, it means that you can upgrade things like the camera in the future without replacing the entire drone. 3D Robotics also gives development partners access to the open accessory bay, so they can potentially create new and unique accessories for the Solo that would be easy to swap in and start using. (So far though, no official accessories have been announced.)
Another unique feature of the 3DR Solo is that the controller includes its own 1 GHz computer, so you can adjust and save camera positions, control the gimbal, record videos and snap photos with the push of a button. Your phone or tablet is just used to provide a live video feed from the camera, so it keeps the screen less cluttered for easier previews.
The controller also logs all of your flight information, and if the flight log shows that a system malfunction caused the loss of your copter, 3DR will replace the copter and gimbal, and will even give you credit to buy a new GoPro if one was installed!
UPDATE: 3D Robotics has announced that it is getting out of the consumer drone market, to focus on enterprise drones. They haven’t announced if this will effect the Solo or not, but it doesn’t look good for the Solo’s future…
DJI Inspire 1
The DJI Inspire 1 is an amazing drone, and a great entry into the world of professional-level drones.
While a hobbiest could certainly get an Inspire 1 and enjoy it, you get the most out of the Inspire 1 when you fly it with two people and two controllers, one controlling the drone, and one controlling the camera.
The Inspire 1 is also significantly larger than the Phantom, which allows it to lift larger cameras and stay in the air longer, but attracts a lot more attention every time you fly it.
If you’re serious about aerial imaging, and want to do it professionally at some point, the Inspire 1 is a great option. But when you consider the cost and complexity, it’s probably better to get a cheaper drone first, learn to fly it well, and then upgrade to the Inspire 1 once you feel more confident in your skills.
5 drones, 5 price points, and 5 levels of features. Whether you’re just getting started, or looking to go pro, one of these drones should be a great match for your needs.
Keep in mind that most of these drone companies are on their 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th generation of drones, so this isn’t some unproven technology that’s going to change in a week.
Drones advanced quickly in the early years, but now they’re relatively stable, with predictable upgrades, and marginal improvements.
If you buy a drone now, there may be a new feature or small improvement that hits the market in a year or two, but it’s probably not going to be something that you can’t live without, so now is a great time to jump in and get started with flying a drone!