So you've decided to buy a drone. And why wouldn't you? These petite flying machines let you survey your surroundings from on high, and they take magnificent aerial photos and videos. One of the most exciting and innovative bits of tech to emerge in recent years, a decent drone now costs relatively little—so it's never been a better time to take to the skies.
Whether you're upgrading your existing drone or buying your very first model, then you need to know where to start. We'll outline the different types of drone to choose between, the features to consider, and the range of prices you can expect to pay.
Types of drones
When it comes to buying drones, you don't have to consider as many makes and models as you do when you pick up a new smartphone or fitness tracker. In fact, you can put most drones into two broad categories: large camera-bearing fliers and smaller, lighter camera-free ones.
For some consumers, a drone isn't a drone unless it can capture jaw-dropping footage from the skies; other shoppers just want to control a cool airborne machine and don't mind sacrificing the digital view in exchange for a lower price tag. As well as having lower costs, the more compact so-called toy drones can fly around indoors, so you won't have to go outside to play with them.
While some of these tiny indoor drones do come with simple cameras attached—which messes up our categorizations a bit—these cameras can only capture low-quality footage, so they won't make very good contributions to your next movie project.
In addition to size and camera quality, these categories often come with different control systems. If you opt for a larger drone equipped with a camera capable of shooting video at 1080p HD or greater, then it will typically have a separate controller. You usually steer toy drones, on the other hand, through your phone.
Most beginners will be happy with either a standard camera-equipped drone or a flexible toy one. Although we won't focus too much on other categories, there are two other types of drones worth knowing about. Racing drones, geared toward speed-conscious consumers, often come as kits with disparate parts that the buyers have to assemble. Professional drones, used by broadcasters and filmmakers, cost several thousand dollars but deliver fantastic video quality. These expensive drone categories offer better specs and speeds, but purchasers need to seriously know their drone tech.
Before you start thumbing through spec and feature lists, consider what you'd like to do with a drone, or perhaps how much money you plan to spend. Do you want to have some fun buzzing a little copter around the living room and garden? Or would you prefer to head to the great outdoors and nab sweeping landscape photographs? Once you've decided on a priority, you're ready to start picking a drone.
Features to look for
The sticker price won't give you an exact indicator of a machine's quality, although it does provide a quick, and approximate, assessment of which drones are better than others. In general, more expensive drones will fly longer and farther, take better movies and photos, and come with more bells and whistles. But to make a more informed decision, you'll need to get specific about specs. Here are the features you should know about.
Battery life: Just like a smartphone, a drone will eventually run out of juice. Even on the best models, flight times between charges struggle to surpass 30 minutes. Of course, you can always carry an extra battery—but if you think you might be doing this, make sure to include the cost of spare batteries in the total price of the option that you're considering.
Brushless motors: When perusing a listing, you may come across this term. Brushless motors cost more than brushed ones, but in exchange, they offer quieter operation and possess a longer lifespan, which means you won't have to replace them as often.
Camera: If you want the best-quality footage possible, the camera specs should be a big consideration. So make sure to look for the photo and video resolution of the drone's integrated camera. Most decent-size models—not including toy drones—now come with a built-in camera, but some leave you the option of attaching your own. For more information about the features that let you capture high-res photos and videos, check out our guide to choosing a digital camera.
Headless mode: Starting to fly a drone can be tricky, so for beginners, some models offer headless mode. It means that when you press the controller stick in one direction, the drone will move in that direction relative to you, rather than relative to where the joystick is pointing.
Integrated GPS: At the premium end of the drone market, you'll find models with integrated GPS, which lets the machines know where they are in the world. This upgrade helps your drone find its way back home—a feature called, aptly, return-to-home or RTH—and improves its general stability and navigational skills. For example, many drones with GPS can easily hover in one place.
Follow-me mode: Some drones equipped with GPS also offer this option: Follow-me mode lets your drone track you across the ground or ocean, so you can concentrate on your mountain biking or kite surfing while your aerial pal tags along recording your progress. Certain drones do this better than others, so check in with user reviews to see how well the mode works in practice.
Gimbal: As drones go up in price, you'll notice they start having something called an integrated gimbal. This support just keeps the camera steady while it's moving around in high winds and elevated altitudes. (Smaller toy drones won't have this attachment, but they don't really need it, because they're often flown indoors or at lower altitudes.) If you want the best video footage and photos, make sure the drone includes a gimbal.
Obstacle avoidance: A premium feature on some premium drones, obstacle avoidance will cost you money but might just protect your drone from crashing into a tree. As with the follow me mode, some drones do this better than others. So as well as noting whether a model has this ability or not, check the reviews online to see if it actually works as advertised.
Range: A drone's range tells you how far from you it can move before you lose control of it. More expensive professional-level drones have greater ranges. No matter how far your drone can stray, bear in mind that you should be keeping your drone in sight at all times anyway.
Check our range of drones here