Looking to gift your child a drone, or just looking for something to learn the basics of flight? You don’t have to spend a fortune for some flying fun. We’ve tested more than 20 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.
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
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
The X708W Cyclone lives up to the name: It's a nippy little drone that can turn and move at a considerable speed. That means it requires a light touch on the sticks of the large included remote: Move too fast, and the drone could easily zoom out of control. The X708W's camera captures either video or still images and a Wi-Fi connection. The drone's app, available for iOS and Android devices, lets you preview or record the video from this camera on your phone, although the video is somewhat blurry and grainy when the drone is moving. You can fly the drone either from this app or the remote control.
Camera: 640 x 480
Flight Time: 5 minutes
Size: 6.8 x 6.8 x 2.2 inches
Some people may be fine with paying $20 for a fancy sandwich, but what about a drone? Laying down a Jackson will get you this no-frills drone. At just over 4 inches wide, it's tiny but surprisingly tough, with blade protectors around the rotors and a 3-minute flight time from the tiny, 190-mAh rechargeable battery. The drone comes with a spare set of rotor blades, two lithium-ion batteries and a charger, while its diminutive remote is powered by three AAA batteries. It's a fun drone to fly, with a decent amount of speed and maneuverability. It is bare-bones, though: There's no camera, only a few simple stunts and no GPS. It does include a feature called "return-to-home," but that's just a fancy name for a mode that sets the drone to fly in only one direction and then return when you push the right stick up. Still, it's a fun little drone, and for $20, there won't be too many tears if it gets lost up a tree.
Flight Time: 3 minutes
Size: 3.3 x 3.3 x 1.2 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
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
What do you get if you stick a small quadcopter inside an airplane? You get the TaoTronics TT-DR001, a cheap drone that pulls double duty as both a quadcopter and a small plane. In quadcopter mode, it's a pretty standard small drone, complete with a snap-on protective frame that shields the small rotors from bumps and hard landings. The TT-DR001 flies well, with a good amount of speed and maneuverability, although the sticks of the small, 2.4-GHz controller are rather sensitive.
Mount the quadcopter inside a push-together foam airplane frame, and the TT-DR001 turns into a small craft that you launch by throwing it into the air. You'll need more space in this flight mode, though. Because it lacks ailerons and other flight surfaces, the TT-DR001 turns slowly. Fortunately, it flies slowly as well, so keeping it within the 20- to 30-foot range of the controller isn't hard.
Because of its size in quadcopter mode, this drone is easily blown around by even a light breeze. Still, for less than $30, you get two flying options, both of which are fun to fly.
Flight Time: 6-8 minutes
Size: 13.1 x 9.2 x 4.1 inches (airplane mode)