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Ryze Tello Review & Rating

If you’re a videographer in search of a low-cost drone, the Ryze Tello ($99) is not for you. Instead, its appeal is to hobbyists who are more interested in remote control flying than video capture, and as a STEM tool to get kids excited about programming. We wish the coding tools were a bit easier to use and that its video quality was better. But if you’re looking for a quadcopter that’s safe to fly and won’t break the bank, the Tello is a solid choice.

Design: Small and Light

The Tello is quite small, measuring just 1.6 by 3.9 by 3.6 inches (HWD) and tipping the scales at a mere 2.8 ounces. It’s light enough that US residents are not required to register with the FAA to fly it outdoors. That’s a sensible thing, as the most danger the tiny copter presents is getting lost on a roof.

Its propellers spin fast, but while I didn’t stick my finger in their path to test the danger, I have the feeling that they are unlikely to injure you with any severity in the event of a mishap. Propeller guards are there to keep them from taking damage if you fly the Tello into a wall or tree.

The props and struts that attach them to the central body are black, with a silver finish to their motors. The body itself is white, but Tello offers blue or yellow snap-on covers for $9 each, and there are vinyl skins available as well, sold in sets of four for $7.

There’s no memory card slot—videos and images are sent to your smartphone wirelessly using the Tello app for Android and iOS. Nor do you get GPS stabilization, so there’s no automated return-to-home function, a major factor in calling the Tello a toy rather than a drone.

You do get downward-facing sensors to help keep it in place. Using licensed technology from DJI, the Tello’s Vision Positioning System does an OK job keeping it in place by reading the patterns of the ground below it, but I noticed some drift in both indoor and outdoor flight. Don’t expect it to hover perfectly in place like a drone with real GPS stabilization.

Ryze rates the Tello’s battery life at 13 minutes, which you’ll get if you simply want to let it hover in place until the low battery warning kicks in and it lands automatically. I was able to get about 10 minutes of actual use when flying around in the yard. The battery charges in-aircraft, via micro USB. Extra batteries are $19 and Ryze sells a 3-battery charging hub for $15.

Flying: Smartphone Control

There are a couple of ways to fly the Tello—either with a smartphone and app, or using a computer and MIT’s Scratch programming language.

The Tello app, available for Android and iOS, uses your smartphone as a recording device and remote control. To get started, you’ll need to connect your phone to the aircraft via Wi-Fi—the Tello broadcasts its own network, without password protection for quicker, easier connection.

Ryze Tello : iOS App

Once connected, you’ll get a live view from the Tello’s nose-mounted camera, along with a couple of on-screen joysticks that control flight. The left panel raises, lowers, and rotates the drone, while the right is used to move it forward, backward, left, or right. There’s a big red button to start or stop video recording. If you’re in still photo mode the icon is in the same place, but it’s white and triggers a 5MP photo instead of a video.

Flying is fairly intuitive, even if the on-screen controls are a bit clunky to use. It’s simply harder to perform turns and other maneuvers using the flat control screen of your phone. To remedy this, there is a $29 remote control available as an optional add-on. It connects to your phone via Bluetooth, so you’ll still need a handset to fly. I haven’t had a chance to use it, but Yuneec offers a similar remote for its low-cost Breeze which I found much easier to control with the remote. I’d expect the same is true with the Tello.

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In addition to basic flight, the Tello can perform midair flips, take off and land from your hand, and has an EZ Shots function. It can orbit around a point in space, rotate around its axis to capture a 360-degree view of its surroundings, and fly up and away to reveal your surroundings.

Unfortunately, the video you’ll get out of the Tello isn’t that great. Resolution is 720p, which wouldn’t be awful if there was on-board storage with a decent compression rate. Instead, you have to stream video to your smartphone over the same Wi-Fi connection that provides flight control. The result is pixelated, blocky video. If you want sweeping aerials at 4K, you’ll need to expand your budget and target a drone like the DJI Mavic Air.

Likewise, still images are nothing to write home about. The Tello snaps 5MP JPGs, well behind what a good smartphone can manage.

You can certainly get a different perspective from the air, but don’t expect sweeping aerials or high-altitude views. Ryze states that the Tello’s maximum operating range is about 330 feet (100 meters). I lost the video signal well before that, at about 100 feet away, in an area with little-to-no Wi-Fi interference.

Programming: Scratch

One of the big selling points of the Tello is compatibility with MIT’s Scratch programming language. You’ll need to install some software on your computer to get it going, and it’s not the easiest thing to do without the aid of some instructions. I used this tutorial to get things going on my MacBook; Windows users can follow these instructions.

Ryze Tello : Scratch Programming

Once you’re up and running with Scratch, you can hop into the “More Blocks” section of the app to see what you can tell the Tello to do. Blocks can be dragged together to send off commands in sequence, and you can start any sequence by clicking on it—you just need to make sure that the Tello is on and your laptop is connected to its Wi-Fi network.

I had a good time using the computer to make the Tello take off, perform midair flips, and rotate about its axis. You’ll want to make sure to update the firmware—out of the box I could only have it take off and flip. But once the latest firmware is installed the rotation and motion commands work well. It’s pretty basic programming, but it’s a great way to get your child interested in coding, which can be worth the price of entry alone. One thing to note, because there’s no onboard storage, you can’t record video or snap photos when controlling the Tello using Scratch.

Conclusions: A Fun Toy

The Ryze Tello isn’t for serious video work or long-distance flight, but that’s okay. There are plenty of capable, and more expensive, drones out there that scratch that itch, such as the DJI Mavic Air. Instead it addresses an underserved market: folks who want a quadcopter to tool around in the backyard or local park, but don’t give a hoot or holler about video or image quality. As a $99 tech toy, it succeeds, and you won’t have to cry too much if you end up getting it stuck on a roof.

Parents who dread getting the stepladder out to retrieve errant toys can curb some of that frustration with the knowledge that the Tello is also an incentive to teach kids how to code. It’s easier to set up commands and macros in Scratch than it is to get programming software up and running. With any luck, using the Tello will be a gateway to get your kids interested in more advanced code work.


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