Got a budding pilot in the family? Any of these drones could give them a taste of life in the air without breaking the bank. Most of these drones cost less than $100 but offer features such as video cameras, auto takeoff and live video streaming.
We tested all of these drones, evaluating based on design, ease of use, features and overall fun, to arrive at our top picks.
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.
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.
This miniature drone packs a lot into a small package, offering aerial stunts, video and photos in a body just 1.2 inches wide. The Mota JetJat Nano-C records videos onto an included microSD card, but you don't get any live-video preview. Like most miniature drones, it's a little difficult to fly, but it's a fun toy once you get the hang of it. Press in the right control stick on the miniature remote to enable stunt mode, and it will flip or somersault with a flip of the control stick. This drone is meant for indoor use.
You get a lot with the UTI U45 Blue Jay, a medium-size drone that includes an HD camera that transmits live video to a cellphone or tablet and clips onto a large remote control. It also flies fairly well, offering decent speed and an altitude hold system that maintains the drone's flying level — a plus for first-time fliers. Flying time is short, at just about 5 minutes, but a spare battery and set of rotor blades are included. It's on the expensive side, so wait for the price to drop below $130. For use outdoors.
The X-stream is a small drone that's all about streaming video. When you combine it with the free app, you get a live video preview and on-screen controls that make it a pretty simple drone to fly. At just 4.5 inches wide from rotor tip to rotor tip and less than 2 ounces, it won't break anything when you inevitably crash it. A flexible protective frame surrounds the rotors and top of the drone, meaning that it just bounces away from most crashes and keeps going. It's a little more expensive than some video drones; but the image quality is better, and it is easier to fly. It's small enough to fly indoors, too.
Want to get a taste for drone racing? The Sky Viper Hover Racer has you covered. It comes with four infrared beacons that, when combined with the free smartphone app, make a racetrack that you can run timed races around. You can race against friends with this speedy little drone or practice maneuvers between the drones in an obstacle course. Multiple Hover Racers can compete directly, blasting each other with virtual weapons that slow the opposition. It's a fun package that offers a taste of the hottest new sport for a good price. For outdoor use.
The X400W is a sleek little drone that looks like something out of a low-budget sci-fi movie, complete with blinking lights and engine noise that are guaranteed to frighten the audience (or your dog). When you press the buttons on the top of the large controller, the drone does a series of flips and turns, all captured by the camera built into the drone and streamed live to the app that accompanies it. Don't expect rocket-like speed, or HD video, though; the video doesn't move very fast and is very low-resolution (640 x 480). The app is poorly translated (hence the app description of "Let's blow my disposal sky flying objects!"). For outdoor use.