When you're looking for the best drone, you have a lot of choices. Gone are the days when you practically needed a pilot's license to fly a drone. Now, thanks to newer sensors and technology, drones pretty much fly themselves, and can remain stable in the air in all but the most challenging weather conditions.
At the same time, consumer drones have also become better at taking aerial photos and video. Not only have the cameras improved, but so has the software, so drones can now track people and objects, and help you record some truly cinematic scenes. On the whole, drones have also become less expensive. Where a few years back, the best drones cost upwards of $1,000, you can now find excellent models for half that price. But that makes finding the best drone all the more difficult.
What is the best drone?
After flying dozens of drones around the sky for countless hours, we think the best drone for most people is the DJI Mini 2. It's the company's least expensive and most compact drone, making it easy to carry around and fly virtually anywhere. It packs up with its controller into a carrying case no bigger than a lunchbox, with room left over for spare parts and extra batteries. The Mini 2 ($449) has been upgraded to shoot 4K video, has a 6-mile range, and can stay aloft for up to 31 minutes.
The best camera drone is the DJI Mavic 2 Pro, which has a 1/2.3 Hasselblad sensor, much larger than you'll find on other drones with built-in cameras. If you're looking for something with a zoom lens, then the Mavic 2 Zoom, which has a 2x zoom lens, is your best option.
If you don't want to spend more than a grand, then we suggest the DJI Mavic Air 2 ($799), which features a long 34-minute flight time and a new camera with a 1/2-inch sensor that's capable of taking 48MP stills and recording video at resolutions up to 4K/120 fps.
Looking for a drone under $100? Here is a list of the best cheap drones, many of which are great for kids and those learning how to fly.
The best drones you can buy today
For most people, the DJI Mini 2 will be the best drone for their needs. It's tiny—able to fit in the palm of your hand—easy to fly, and can last up to 31 minutes in the air. And, at $449, it's also the least expensive of DJI's drones, making it more accessible to the masses.
The Mini 2's camera resolution has been improved over the previous generation, so it can now shoot at 4K/30 fps. And, because it's gimbal-stabilized, it's just as smooth as ever. Because of its light weight—249 grams—you don't need to register the Mini 2with the FAA, but it also means that the drone is more susceptible to high winds. Still, it's amazing what DJI packed into the miniscule Mini 2.
Read our full DJI Mini 2review.
The DJI Mavic Air 2 is the best drone for those who want to record 4K video, but don't want to spend more than a grand. This second edition of the Mavic Air has been upgraded with a better camera, capable of taking 4K videos at 60 frames per second, as well as super-slo mo 240p video at full HD resolutions. And, it can take super-large 48-megapixel photos, too.
DJI also boosted the flight time to an excellent 34 minutes, and improved the drone's object tracking, so that it can now maintain a lock, even if you duck behind a tree for a moment. Additionally, the Mavic Air 2 can receive ADS-B signals, so you can better know when aircraft are approaching. The only quibble we have is that the Mavic Air 2 now shares the same drab looks as the Mavic Mini and Mavic Pro. But who cares about looks with performance like this?
Read our full DJI Mavic Air 2 review.
If your aerial photography needs are a little more complex, another DJI drone can get the job done for you. The DJI Mavic 2 is the best drone for videographers and photographers looking for an all-in-one aerial platform. (There are other, more expensive drones that let you mount DSLRs and other third-party cameras, but are much more expensive).
The Mavic 2 is available in two versions: the $1,449 Mavic 2 Pro offers a 1-inch Hasselblad sensor for capturing high-quality photos and video, while the $1,249 Mavic 2 Zoom features a 2X optical zoom lens. Either version is a good choice, though the Zoom proved a little more versatile in our tests. Whichever Mavic 2 you opt for, you can count on an easy-to-fly drone that now features 360-degree obstacle avoidance.
Read our full DJI Mavic 2 Pro and Mavic 2 Zoom review.
While DJI dominates the foldable-drone market, the Parrot Anafi is one of the best alternatives, and has a feature DJI's drones can't match: The Anafi's gimbal-mounted camera can rotate up, so you can take photos and videos of objects above the drone — say, if you want to fly it under a bridge.
The Anafi has a good selection of flight modes to take interesting shots, and the video it captures is pretty good, delivering clean, smooth video with plenty of detail. However, it does lack collision detection, a feature found on DJI's comparably priced drones. But all in all, it's a great alternative.
Read our full Parrot Anafi review.
The Powervision Poweregg X can go where most other drones can't: In the water. That's because the Poweregg X has a removable waterproof shell and pontoons that allow you to land and take off from ponds, lakes—even the ocean, if it's calm enough. And, the drone's body can even be used as a camcorder, making it useful even when it's not in the air.
We found that the Poweregg X flew well, if a bit slowly (the pontoons do weigh it down), can fly up to 25 minutes or so on a charge, and has pretty good object tracking. However, video and photo quality, while above average, did not measure up to DJI's drones. Then again, try landing one of DJI's drones in the water and see what happens.
Read our full Powervision Poweregg X review.
For just under $100, the Ryze Tech Tello—designed by DJI—makes for a good, inexpensive drone for first-time fliers. However, what elevates it above other inexpensive drones for kids is the fact that it can be programmed using Scratch, turning this toy into an educational device.
In addition, the Tello has a 720 camera that records pretty good video, and is easy to fly around. The biggest issue we had with the drone was its short 5-minute flight time, so you'll want to stock up on a few batteries if you decide to pick it up.
Read our full Ryze Tech Tello review.
The PowerUp 4.0 takes the traditional paper airplane and brings it to the next level. This little kit attaches to an ordinary airplane, and thanks to a pair of propellers, lets you pilot the plane from your smartphone. The kit comes with four pieces of paper with an airplane pattern, but you can also download patterns for free from the company's website.
As we found, there's a bit of a learning curve when it comes to keeping the PowerUp 4.0 in the air. You'll need a lot of space to fly the plane; we recommend a football field. But once you get the hang of it, you'll be surprised at how far it will go.
Read our full PowerUp 4.0 review.
Looking for an inexpensive drone to learn the basics? The Blade Nano QX is the best drone for the job, offering a great selection of features for the flier who wants more without spending more than $50. The no-frills Blade Nano QX RTF lacks a camera, but it's fast and maneuverable.
We also liked its sturdy blade guards, which help keep it in one piece if it crashes into something. However, it has a short battery life of around 7-8 minutes, but through Amazon, you can purchase a pack of four batteries for around $20.
Read our full Blade Nano QX RTF review.
How to choose the best drone for you
Drones aren't just fun to fly. They can let you capture breathtaking footage, some in high-resolution 4K video. They're also more affordable than ever, as quality beginner models now cost less than $60. Good camera drones start at a few hundred dollars. More complex drones, starting at less than $1,000, offer customizable and programmable features, turning them into truly autonomous devices that can make their own decisions. Plus, a new class of racing drones has started hitting the scene.
Drones aren't that complicated, but there are a few key features you should consider when you are shopping. There are also some key rules you need to follow when you take to the air.
FAA has rules you have to follow. The most important two: Never fly around or above people, and always keep your drone in sight. The FAA has a full list of safety guidelines for model aircraft that you should check before you take off. There are also restrictions on where you can fly: For example, within 5 miles of an airport is off limits. Mapbox provides a great interactive map of no-fly areas, and local RC (Remote Control) aircraft clubs may list fields that they use.
Non-commercial drones that weigh between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds have to be registered (there's a $5 fee), and have to carry your license with you while flying the drone.
Most drones use a remote control with two joysticks — a bit like one of the best PC game controllers. One stick controls what's called the attitude of the quadcopter, including roll (tilting left and right) and pitch (tilting up and down). The other stick controls throttle and the rotation of the quadcopter. A good remote control should fit well in the hand, with sticks resting comfortably under your thumbs and providing a smooth, responsive feel that allows you to guide the quadcopter by touch.
Some models skip the remote control, or offer it as an extra-cost feature, and instead use a smartphone connected via Wi-Fi and a flying app. These apps often provide a live video view from the quadcopter camera. However, apps don’t allow the precision of real controllers: It is easier for your thumbs to slip, possibly causing a crash.
Construction and Repair
Despite what the ads tell you, drones crash all the time. A good drone will take an unplanned descent and ground interface (aka: a crash) in stride, without damaging the frame. It will also include shields to protect the rotors and electronics from harm.
Regardless, things still get broken sometimes, particularly racing drones. A good model will offer a ready supply of cheap parts like rotors and struts to replace the broken ones, and will make it easy to swap these parts out when required. The same is true of batteries.
Very few drones offer more than 20-30 minutes of battery life, so an easily swapped battery can give you more flying time without hassle. This tends to be a feature of more expensive models, with a spare battery typically costing more than $100.
Want to show off your aerial exploits? A camera, either built-in or add-on, can capture those dramatic vistas for posterity. The best drones will have cameras that can record video at resolutions of 4K or higher, but even budget models are getting better, able to capture video at 720p. However, they tend to use smaller image sensors, so the quality won't be that great.
Some drones also offer first-person view (FPV), sending a pilot's-eye view from the drone itself to a phone or tablet. Some models offer video goggles for the ultimate pilot-seat flying experience.
How we test drones
When we take a new drone out for a spin, we evaluate it based on a number of factors:
- Design: How well is the drone built, and does it look good? If it comes with a controller, we take a look at its ergonomics.
- Durability/Repairability: Face it. You're going to crash your drone at least once, but a good model should be able to survive a few mishaps without a problem. And, if something happens to break (it's usually a rotor), how easy is it to repair?
- Flight Performance: How easy is the drone to fly? Is is stable when hovering, or does it require a lot of stick work? How does it respond to your commands?
- App: How intuitive is the app? What sort of features are available?
- Camera Quality: If the drone has a camera, then how good are the photos and videos it takes?
- Flight time: How long can the drone stay in the air before its battery runs out? This varies a lot based on the size of the drone, but the best drones have batteries that last up to 25-30 minutes.
- Price: Obviously, we don't expect a $50 drone to perform as well as a $1,000 drone, so we take its cost into consideration when rendering a final verdict.