When drones first became popular, there were essentially two kinds you could buy. The first was the super-cheap — and flimsy — drone that would fly for about five minutes on a full charge. The second was the more hardcore drone costing $1,000 or more, fully stocked with all the features you could ever want, including an HD camera, GPS, and long-range radio controllers.
These days, however, there are more options on the market, and even inexpensive drones have lots of cool features. The best drones under $500 now boast 4K cameras, obstacle-avoidance systems, and user-friendly apps. If you’re a novice or if you’re looking to buy for someone who fits that description, chances are you don’t need to drop thousands on a top-shelf model. We’ve found tons of cheaper options that’ll make for perfect introductions to the field (or just fun toys for weekend use).
At a glance
Why should you buy this: It’s portable, lightweight, and controlled with an intuitive, feature-rich app.
Who’s it for: First-time drone buyers who want easy controls and reliable performance.
Why we picked the DJI Mavic Mini:
Leading drone brand DJI strikes again with the portable Mavic Mini drone, a compact flyer that is great for beginners and exceptionally compact. The entire drone weighs less than 1 pound, which is about the weight of the average smartphone. That also takes into account the battery pack, propellors, and microSD card. In fact, the Mavic weighs so little that it may not require registration with your local government — although you’ll want to be sure of this before sending yours into the sky.
The DJI Fly app (for iOS and Android) makes launching your Mavic quick and simple. Easy presets and quick-tap commands will have you taking expert photos and videos like a seasoned pro. If it’s your first time controlling a drone, the app also features a Flight Tutorial mode for walking you through the basics of commanding your winged companion. Control range is up to 2.5 miles, and you’ll get about 25 minutes of airtime from the Mini’s battery.
For the money, we do wish the Mavic was capable of 4K. The onboard camera is only capable of 2.7K HD video and 12-megapixel stills. While this may be sufficient for many first-time drone buyers or infrequent hobbyists, those with a penchant for flight photography should set their sights on our next choice.
Read our full DJI Mavic Mini review
Why should you buy this: You want a performance-driven drone that is loaded with easy-to-use features.
Who’s it for: Those looking for a great first drone at a solid price.
Why we picked the Holy Stone HS120D:
What we love most about the Holy Stone HS120D is its dressed-to-impress design. For starters, we love the intuitive Follow Me mode. Once the camera locks onto a designated person, the drone will follow them midair at an ideal height and distance for taking selfies and capturing jaw-dropping video. If you’ve got a scenic route in mind, the Holy Stone app (iOS and Android) will let you map out a custom route with just a few finger traces across your phone screen. The drone also responds to various gestures for real-time photo-taking — just make sure you and your crew of friends are close enough for the camera to pick up your hand signals.
Speaking of the camera, the HS120D doesn’t cut corners. While you won’t be getting 4K video, what you will receive is beautiful 2K capture and live views. Camera controls are simple to adjust, and snapshots and recorded video look pristine, which says a lot for the lower price.
Single-key takeoff and landing mean you won’t be worrying about how to properly start and end your flight. The twin batteries are rated for up to 36 minutes of airtime, but not to fear if your indicator starts flashing red: The Auto Return function automatically kicks in if the drone loses GPS signal or if your batteries start draining, so you won’t have to worry about crash-landing in an unreachable place.
Why should you buy this: You’re after a solid 4K drone that doesn’t compromise on other drone fundamentals, like stability and battery.
Who’s it for: Those shopping on a budget who are seeking the higher-quality photo/video capabilities of many flagship drones.
Why we picked the Potensic 4K Dreamer Quadcopter:
4K drones can easily live in the $1,000+ price range, but we’re betting that most photo/video connoisseurs and seasoned flight hobbyists will feel right at home with the almighty Potensic Dreamer drone. At just a fraction of the cost of many big-ticket flying machines, the $300 Dreamer is fully outfitted for lush 4K photos and video. It’s all thanks to Sony’s onboard 4K lens and image processor. At any height or distance, the 90-degree photo-sensitive lens will automatically adjust and balance your image for the best real-time capture. The 5.8G Wi-Fi transmission means your 4K footage gets pinged back to your phone almost instantly — just make sure you’re no more than 1,6oo feet away.
The batteries are rated for up to 31 minutes of flight time on a full charge. Better yet, if the packs are getting weak but you’ve found something you really want to snap a photo of, the Dreamer’s PowerAC Dynamic System will kick in, netting you a few seconds of extra power and stability. Several different flight modes are available to experiment with, including Follow Me, circle flight, and waypoint mapping. There’s also an auto-return mode for GPS signal loss and low battery.
Why you should buy this: You want a drone that can do a little bit of everything — and for a long time.
Who’s it for: Those who prefer a classic controller over an app on their phone.
Why we picked the Force1 F100:
The Force1 F100 is really the best of two worlds: Impressive photographic features meet endurance and durability. Let’s start with the camera capabilities.
First and foremost, GoPro enthusiasts will love the Hero 3 and 4 universal mount. Your GoPro snaps right into the chassis, and then you’re clear for takeoff. If you’re without a GoPro action cam, the F100’s onboard 1080 HD camera is nothing to shake a stick at. The lens is light-adaptive and well-balanced, making for clear and stable photos and videos. Better yet, there are two LED headlamps for adding illumination to your nighttime shots.
On the endurance end, you’re looking at two batteries for up to 30 minutes of flight time, as well as brushless motors for quiet and long-lasting operation. The drone also operates at either high or low speeds. In our opinion, the F100 mimics the performance and features of higher-priced drones, doing so quite convincingly.
Why should you buy this: You’re looking for a fun and reliable junior drone for kids of any age.
Who’s it for: Kids that dig interactive toys and their parents who want said toys to be durable and hazard-free.
Why we picked the Snaptain SP350 Mini Drone:
Letting your son or daughter man an airborne drone is a scary prospect. That’s exactly what the folks at Snaptain had in mind when designing their SP350 Mini Drone. At an otherworldly low cost of $30, the SP350 is built for a long road of bumps and scratches. The body of the drone is rugged and built for action, an armor only enhanced by the durable, plastic guard rings cased around the propellors.
In terms of actual aviation, the Throw’n Go function still blows our minds. In lieu of a launch button on the controller, once the SP350 is lightly tossed into the air, it automatically revs up, stabilizes, and remains airborne. Then, your kid can grab the remote pad and get to work. Tiny pilots will really love the adventurous flight controls, with features like Circle Fly (with multiple speed adjustments), 3D spins and dives, and Headless Mode, which positions the drone in the direction its human pilot is facing. The drone comes with three battery packs that, fully-charged, deliver 7 minutes of flight time. It’s not much, but fewer air minutes means a longer-lasting toy drone.
For the money, you won’t find a camera here. The SP350 is more of a dazzling performance toy than a fully comprehensive drone, but considering its attractive price and extremely entertaining features, you really can’t go wrong with Snaptain. The SP350 is just one of several Mini Drones that Snaptain makes, but it’s our personal favorite of the bunch.
Why should you buy this: You want the best battery life you can get, but don’t want to lose out on other great drone features.
Who’s it for: Those who like photographing scenic imagery, leaving their drone airborne for as long as possible.
Why we picked the Ruko F11 Pro:
Many of the drones on our list have batteries that get close to 30 minutes of airtime on a full charge. The Ruko F11 Pro will net you double the airtime. The F11 comes with two 2500mAh rechargeable batteries, which come in handy if you’ve got a ton of scenery you want to photograph, or if you want to do a bit of worry-free exploring.
The F11’s UHD camera takes brilliant 4K stills across a 120-degree field of view. The lens itself is also adjustable up to 90 degrees. On the downside, you won’t get full 4K video, but the camera does manage to pull off 2.9K.
With brushless motors for quieter and better-stabilized images, along with a number of popular flight options like Follow Me, Headless, and custom flight paths, the Ruko F11 Pro combines sharp and responsive camera work, excellent design, and extended battery life, all under one cohesive and user-friendly copter.
How we test drones
Build quality and design
The first thing we do when we get a new drone is beat it up a little bit. We don’t kick it down the stairs or anything, but we’ll give it a few knocks, twists, and shallow drops to assess the build quality and durability. Does it feel flimsy, or does it feel like it could survive a crash landing in the park? We give each review unit a light beating (and usually a couple of unintentional crash landings) before we give you a definitive answer on how durable it is.
Flight performance, range, and autonomy
To gauge flight performance, we put the drone through a number of tests to see how the manufacturer’s claims hold up. First, we take it to a local football field and see how fast it can clear 100 yards. Then, we do some calculations to get an objective reading on speed in miles per hour. After that, we do a similar test to assess ascent and descent speeds, and all the while, we’re also taking notes on how responsive the controls are, how stable the craft is, how far it can go before it’s out of range, and what the overall piloting experience is like compared to other drones.
Battery life and charge time
After we’ve taken the drone out to play for a while and jotted down a few notes about how long the battery lasts, we put it on the charger and grab a stopwatch to determine recharge time. Then, we take it back out and do a hover test. By flying the drone in the least demanding conditions, we can get a sense of what the maximum flight time is. And finally, we take it out for a few more good, hard flights to find out how long the battery lasts (on average) under normal conditions.
Camera, accessories, and upgradability
If the drone we’re testing happens to have a camera capable of recording, we capture as much footage as we possibly can. We’ll shoot in dark places, light places, and places with lots of color and contrast. This footage is then compared to all the highlight reels that we filmed with other drones, which helps us get a sense of the camera’s strengths and weaknesses. We also test any accessories that accompany the camera, like lenses, filters, gimbals, or FPV goggles. Finally, we’ll also let you know if the camera setup is upgradable, so you won’t be stuck with an outdated shooter in two years.
We also do our research
When we don’t have the ability to test things ourselves, we start with a full assessment of the product’s specs. After that, we’ll comb through any available reviews and forum posts online to check for outstanding problems and usually try to find at least two videos of the product in action. We cannot physically review every drone yet, but we’re committed to helping you find a great quadcopter, regardless.