Looking to gift your child a drone this holiday season? You don’t have to spend a fortune for some flying fun. We’ve tested 15 drones — most priced under $100 — that would be great to fly in your backyard, on the beach or in the countryside. We reviewed all of these drones, evaluating them based on design, ease of use, features and overall fun, to arrive at our top picks.
All of the drones are small and light, so they don’t need registering with the FAA. But they aren’t light on features: many include a camera that can capture video and stills and companion apps that bring the video to your phone or tablet. Any of them would also be a great introduction to drone flying for the aspiring pilot.
At about 13.5 inches wide, the U818A is one of the larger drones in this roundup, but most of this size is due to the built-in rotor blade guards. That’s a good thing for novice fliers: the circular blade protectors save the blades from being damaged by sticks, fingers and more. The lightweight plastic case is flimsy, and would easily break in a moderate-speed collision.
The camera hangs below the center of the drone, and can be angled manually to point from straight ahead to about 30-degrees down. It captures a 720P image at 1280 x 720 pixel resolution, stored on the microSD card that fits into the back of the camera body. The accompanying app (available for both iOS and Android) can control the drone and shows a 480P resolution video preview. This can be switched to 720P, but that gets a little glitchy when the drone is more than 20 to 25 feet away.
The U818A flies well, hovering when you release the control sticks on the small remote, but turning and banking quickly when you maneuver it around. It isn’t particularly fast, though. You get about 8 to 10 minutes of flight time from its 350mAh battery, and two are included. This combination of maneuverability, stability and battery life makes it a great pick for those who are more interested in video than aerobatics.
Flight Time: 8-10 minutes
Size: 13.4 x 13 x 3.6 inches
Parrot is bundling its fun and easy-to-fly Mambo drone with a host of goodies, including a 720p camera, the Flypad controller, and a set of FPV goggles, so you can get a first-person view from the drone itself. Plus, it comes with a battery that will last up to 10 minutes, and two flight modes—racing and drift—will let your kid get a taste of what drone racing is all about. While pricier than most on this list, this package is a good deal.
Camera: 720p (detachable)
Flight Time: 10 minutes
Size: 5.2 x 5.2 x 1.6 in
If Apple were to design a cheap drone, it might look something like the Aukey Mohawk, whose minimalist, black-plastic design is all sleek lines. It's one of the smaller drones we tested, but its light weight and low-profile design make it one of the faster ones, managing very decent speeds and tight turns. There is no camera, but it does offer a nice one-touch landing-and-takeoff control, plus a few neat stunt flips. The Mohawk is a great budget pick for the aspiring pilot who wants to master flying but doesn't care about airborne videos. However, it's not meant for indoor flight.
Flight Time: 8-10 minutes
Size: 7.7 x 7.7 x 3.6 inches
The Wright brothers would get a kick out of the Parrot Swing, a cross between a quadcopter and a fixed-wing airplane. It takes off straight up (like a quadcopter), but then tilts to fly like an ordinary airplane, albeit one that has four wings rather than two. It's fun to fly, though: The fixed wing makes it more stable than a quadcopter, and it's just as easy to launch and land. It's controlled through the Flypad, a small Bluetooth remote control and a smartphone app (Android and iOS).
The unusual design allows you to perform stunts that quads can't manage, such as barrel rolls. The battery life is also a bit better than most small quads get; we were able to keep flying for about 9 minutes. Outdoor use only.
Flight Time: 9 minutes
Size: 13 x 5 x 5 inches
With a Ferrari-red plastic case and high-tech styling, the HS200 wouldn’t look out of place in a sci-fi movie as a minion of a high-tech villain. It’s pretty high-tech on the inside as well, including a one-button takeoff and landing and a panic mode: release the control sticks, and the drone automatically hovers in place. That’s great for novice pilots, and it works pretty well.
The drone isn’t overly fast, but the HS200 is maneuverable and fun to fly. Video is captured in 720p resolution (1280 x 720 pixels) and stored on the microSD card that fits into the back of the camera suspended under the body. This camera also sends video over Wi-Fi to the companion app (available for iOS and Android), which looks pretty clean. You can control the drone from this app or with the small, but nicely designed, remote control.
Like many cheap drones, the app is a bit finicky: It took us several tries to get it to connect to the Wi-Fi network the drone creates on an Android phone. Also, the video is somewhat blurry when the drone maneuvers, and the battery gives you only about 5 minutes of flight time.
Flight Time: 5 minutes
Size: 12.6 x 12.6 x 2.6 inches
The only controller that comes with this drone is one you strap to your hand; then, you simply move your hand around to pilot the drone. The Aura feels a bit cheap, but it survived a bunch of crashes easily. It's a novel approach to drone flight, and make it feel (almost) like you're using the Force.
Flight Time: 4-5 minutes
Size: 7.25 (diameter) x 2.5 inches
This diminutive drone is just under 5.5 inches wide and is built for speed and maneuverability. There is an $79.99 model called the HS170C that includes a Wi-Fi camera, but we tested the basic, no-frills model. The first time we tried to fly the HS170, the two rear white rotor blades flew off the quadcopter, leaving the drone itself behind. Once they were recovered, I found that they were not properly formed, and didn’t stick to the motor shaft properly. So, as soon as the motor started spinning, they did what they were supposed to do, and flew off.
Fortunately, the included spare set stayed put, and the HS170 proved to be a speedy, if somewhat sensitive, flier. It’s fast and maneuverable, but the small size and weight (just under 8 ounces) means that it is extremely sensitive to small touches of the controls. On a day with only a slight breeze, it was a struggle to keep it hovering in place, and anything more than a whisper of wind could be enough to tip it and send it spinning to the ground.
The small 350mAh battery also gives only about 4 to 5 minutes of flight time: enough to get a feel for it, only to then have to swap the battery out. Just one battery is included, and this takes a long 40 to 50 minutes to recharge with the included USB charging cable. So, while the HS170 is definitely cheap, it isn’t that much of a bargain.
Flight Time: 4-5 minutes
Size: 5.3 x 5.3 x 1.6 inches