What Is the Best Drone on the Market?
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 most models 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 no longer in production, but you can still find the $500 drone at retail and it offers solid 2.7K video quality, but is bigger than the more modern Mavic series, which starts with the entry-level Mavic Air ($700).
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
Almost 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, and produces the best small drone on the market in the form of the Mavic Pro and Mavic Pro Platinum.
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 and H Plus. It also has a smaller model, the Breeze, to appeal to pilots who want a more user-friendly, casual drone experience.
PowerVision is a newer player in the US market. It’s announced two copters—the consumer-friendly PowerEgg and the pro-grade PowerEye, and has dipped its toes in the underwater UAV market with the PowerRay, PowerDolphin, and PowerSeeker. 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, and it announced a Mavic Pro competitor at the most recent CES. We’ve not yet had the opportunity to review them, but they compare favorably with DJI models in terms of price.
GoPro made a drone, the Karma. But after a rocky launch, which involved a massive recall, and underwhelming performance in the market, the company decided to pull the plug on drone development. You can still buy a Karma while supplies last (at a discount), but there are better options out there.
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.
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.
Pros: Easy to fly. Extremely stable. Obstacle avoidance. Incredible operating range with 720p Live View. Return-to-home and other safety features. Automated flight modes. High-speed Sport mode. Smooth 4K video capture. 20mm wide-angle lens. Subject recognition and tracking. Raw and JPG still capture.
Cons: Pricey. True mission planning requires third-party app.
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.
Pros: Magnesium alloy body. Interchangeable cameras. 5.2K video. CinemaDNG and ProRes recording. High-speed Sport mode. Obstacle detection and avoidance. Retractable landing gear and 360-degree camera rotation. Dual-operator control with FPV pilot camera. Intelligent flight modes.
Cons: High-performance computer required for video editing. Expensive. Adobe Premiere CC bug hampers CinemaDNG workflow.
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.
Pros: Compact, folding design. Small remote control. Forward obstacle avoidance. Automated flight options. Crisp 4K video. 12MP Raw and JPG stills. Up to 28 minutes of flight per charge.
Cons: Pricey. Frequent firmware updates. Requires a smartphone for full experience.
Bottom Line: The DJI Mavic Pro Platinum is the best small drone you can buy, and a fantastic choice for most aerial videographers and YouTubers.
Pros: Long-distance control. Return-to-home. Forward and rear obstacle detection. Automated flight modes. High-performance Sport mode. 24mm lens. Subject recognition and tracking. 60fps 4K video. 20MP Raw and JPG images. 1-inch sensor camera.
Cons: Pricey. Side sensors limited in functionality. Must supply smartphone or tablet for camera control.
Bottom Line: The DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone adds additional obstacle sensors and a vastly improved camera to the already stellar Phantom 4.
Pros: Very small. High bit-rate 4K UHD video. HDR and Panorama still capture. Raw and JPG support. Asteroid video shot. Good obstacle avoidance. Automated flight modes.
Cons: Doesn’t support USB charging. No 4K DCI video. Panorama stitching needs some work. Real-world flight limited to about 18 minutes.
Bottom Line: The Mavic Air is DJI’s smallest, most portable drone, and is just as full-featured as its larger siblings.
Pros: Small. Supports gesture controls. Smartphone-controlled flight. Automated shots. Subject tracking. Forward obstacle avoidance. GPS stabilization. Safety features, including return-to-home.
Cons: Battery nets about 12 minutes of flight time. Limited range and speed when controlling with phone. Video limited to 1080p. No support for 24fps or high frame rate capture. App and video editing features could be easier to use. Dedicated remote control is a pricey add-on.
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.
Pros: Compact. Includes remote and FPV goggles. 19-minute average flight time. Stable 1080p video. Supports midair flips and rolls. Adjustable geofence. Flight app works with Android and iOS.
Cons: Very limited suburban operating range. Full-resolution images are fish-eye. Smartphone or tablet required for camera view. So-so video quality.
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.
Pros: Six-rotor design. Freely rotating 4K video camera. Raw and JPG image capture. Retractable landing gear. Remote control with integrated display. Solid operating range. Intel RealSense obstacle avoidance. Supports dual-operator control.
Cons: Flight limited to 19 minutes. Obstacle avoidance system only works at low speeds. Controller is large and unwieldy. Battery life indicator is confusing to read. Spotty automatic white balance. Expensive.
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.
Pros: Inexpensive. Easy to fly. Programmable via Scratch. Bluetooth remote control compatibility. Automated flight modes.
Cons: Pixelated, low-quality video. Limited control range. No GPS or return-to-home capability.
Bottom Line: The Ryze Tello is a toy quadcopter flyable via smartphone or laptop (using Scratch). Its video quality isn’t anything to write home about, but it’s a fun tech toy and learning tool.