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We have liftoff…
Drones vary widely in price and capabilities, making it tough for some beginners to pick an ideal starter model. Some of the most feature-rich drones are surprisingly easy to use, requiring only a touch to fly or return to you. Some of the cheapest models are among the most difficult to use. And if you’re trying to buy a drone your kids can fly, those choices suddenly become even more difficult.
After sifting through the market for drones big and small, affordable and expensive, those for racing, for taking photographs and ones for taking selfies, I’ve found the models I’d recommend most for those just starting to take flight.
One important note: Any drone over about half a pound must be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration, which will cost you $5 for three years. You’ll get a pilot ID that you’ll need to inscribe on the outside of the drone (with a marker or a sticker).
This good-sized drone is Amazon’s bestseller, for good reason. The Snaptain S5C includes one-touch takeoff and landing, the ability to hover at a given altitude automatically, 720p video transmission from up to 80 meters away (and simple editing for social media), a gamepad-style controller that uses your Apple or Android phone as the display, and the ability to see what your drone is seeing via a VR headset (not included). Wave at it, and it will take your selfie.
To pilot the Snaptain S5C—which is 13.9″ x 9.7″ x 3.3″ and comes with a controller and two batteries—you just draw a line on the smartphone screen with your finger. Tilting your phone moves the drone around. It responds to voice control. While the Snaptain S5C isn’t the most fully-featured drone on the market, every one of its features is designed to make it easier to fly, making it one of my top choices for adults new to drones.
The Potensic Upgraded A20 is designed to take a little abuse.
The Potensic mini-drone is what you’ll want to hand to the kids. Surprisingly sturdy for its tiny size (3.5″ x 3.1″ x 1.25″), it can survive a tumble or two as beginners, particularly kids, learn how to fly. There are three speed settings, so you can start slow, and it’s “headless” like many more advanced drones. That means no matter what direction the drone is facing, it will respond to commands based on the position of the person holding the remote.
The A20 uses a tiny videogame-style controller, rather than a mobile phone, and the whole thing would fit easily into a bag or backpack—though I’d highly recommend buying a carrying case.
The Altair AA108.
This Altair drone comes with a good selection of features, including headless operation; a 120-degree wide-angle 720p camera; a remote that does not require a phone (though custom routes, where you draw the direction you want the drone to go, do require one); the ability to make its own emergency landings; compatibility with VR for first-person view; and a 100-meter range.
But what makes this drone stand out for beginners are the control settings, which let you lock down how difficult it is to fly. The basic setting is for kids and new adults, and you can ramp up through two other settings with increasing difficulty levels. This means the drone’s abilities grow as your skills do.
Altair also sells the more-heavily-advertised 818 Hornet Beginner Drone for $170. But for beginners, most of the same basic functions are included in the AA108, making it a better deal.
This GPS-enabled drone from Hubsan does what less-expensive drones rarely can: fly back to you automatically, without any input and (hopefully) without hitting anything. Its controller has a 4.3-inch LED screen built in, which allows you to see the drone’s camera view. While the 1080p camera isn’t the best in the business, it’s certainly competent for this price point. The Hubsan H501S X4 has an upgraded controller, but costs an additional $30, so I recommend this model instead.
The Eachine E511S is one case when spending the extra money for an upgraded model is worth it. The E511S is $40 more than the E511, but that higher price buys you full GPS controls, including auto-return home and Follow Me mode, which is super-handy for selfies and hiking, biking or other outdoor activities that you’d like to capture. The drone’s Orbit mode circles it around its controller, taking timed photos if you like, and you can draw predetermined paths for it to follow.
The camera on the Eachine is a strong middle-of-the-road contender, shooting 1080p video and 1920×1080-pixel photos with a wide-angle lens that’s adjustable by 45 degrees. And the high- and low-speed controls make taking slow scenic videos simple.
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