Drones are undeniably cool, but unless you have the necessary know-how making an informed purchasing decision is virtually impossible – there are so many options, from cheap quadcopters to expensive professional drones for which you’ll probably need to justify spending that much on a ‘toy’.
If money is going to factor heavily in your buying decision, you should also check out our guide to the best cheap drones. If you’re more interested in having the best drone we’ve some options below.
There are laws on flying drones, though, so read up on the rules for flying drones in the UK too.
Your Buying Guide for the Best Drones in 2017
What is the difference between a drone and a quadcopter?
In the majority of cases you can think of a drone and a quadcopter as the same thing, though you’ll often find more expensive devices are marketed as drones and cheaper toys as quadcopters.
In truth, a drone is any unmanned aerial vehicle, while a quadcopter is any drone controlled by four motors. Typically speaking, a drone will be able to stay in flight for longer than a quadcopter.
How much should I spend on a drone?
At the entry level, toy drones start at just £10, but you won’t get a camera unless you pay around £40-50. Increase your budget towards £100 and you should expect to get live video (first-person view) on your smartphone via a free app, or even a colour screen on the remote control.
None of these will shoot good-quality video, though. For that you will need to spend £300+.
At higher prices, though, you get more for your money and not just better cameras. As well as longer flight times more expensive drones should also be easier to fly thanks to auto-hovering. Without this, you will have to work harder to keep it in the air.
Flight time and range
Cheap drones tend to fly for about five- to 10 minutes before they need recharging, and USB chargers tend to take 30- to 60 minutes to recharge the batteries. Try to get a drone with replaceable batteries and buy a couple of spares.
Although some manufacturers claim a range of over 100m for cheap drones, it’s best to assume you’ll never get more than about 50m. By law in the UK, you must keep drone in your line of sight at all times, anyway.
Small and light drones will be blown around in the wind, so warm, windless days are the best times to fly, although the smallest micro drones can be flown indoors.
For bigger drones, such as DJI’s Phantoms, expect flight times around 20-25 minutes and a range measured in miles, not metres. These use big batteries but are of course bigger and heavier than toy drones. Even the most expensive consumer drones (and we’re talking £2,000) don’t fly for longer than 30 minutes.
Spares – and the availability of spares – are essential
You will crash your drone and you will break things, usually propellers. Almost all drones come with a full set of spare rotors, but as two rotate anti-clockwise and the other pair clockwise, you’ve got only two spares for each pair of spindles.
Check first if spare parts are easy to obtain for a particular drone, and also their prices.
Not all drones come with cameras. You don’t need a camera, since you should always have the drone in your line of sight while flying it. And even if a drone has a camera, it may not offer FPV (First Person View, a real-time video stream) which you need in order to fly it without line-of-sight.
At the cheaper end of the price scale you’ll be lucky to get even 720p (1280×720) video, but if you want a drone for aerial video go for at least 1080p (1920×1080). Bear in mind that – as ever – you can’t trust specs alone. Read our reviews to find out how good each drone’s camera is.
However, you’ll only get great quality footage if you buy a drone with a gimbal. This is a stabilised mount for the camera which keeps it steady when the drone tilts or moves around.
Gimbals don’t come cheap, though. If you have a limited budget and have a GoPro (or other action camera) already, consider a drone with a GoPro or gimbal mount. Two-axis gimbals can be bought for around £60. The WLToys V303 and Flying 3D X8 are capable of carrying a GoPro-style camera.
Some cameras record video directly to a microSD card (or USB drive) but others record from the remote control, or even directly to a smartphone. Direct recording is usually more reliable and better quality as the video doesn’t have to be transmitted over the air before being recorded.
Also check out our best drone photography tips.
Best drones 2017 UK – best drone reviews
DJI Mavic Pro
Folding drones are undoubtedly the future. and the Mavic Pro is fantastic. It may seem expensive, but the fact that it has even better tech inside it than the Phantom 4 means it’s actually good value.
If there’s one downside it’s that you can’t remove the gimbal and camera for ground-based filming as you can with GoPro’s Karma. But the Mavic Pro’s portability, auto flight modes and the fantastic new controller are the real winners.
You don’t have to lug a big case around as you did for the Phantom, and it doesn’t have to be a special occasion: you can take the Mavic Pro everywhere.
Read our Mavic Pro review.
The Spark is even tinier than the Mavic Pro, so you can take it just about everywhere with you. And you can control it with just your hands, taking selfies and recording video without a controller.
It even has the Mavic Pro’s obstacle avoidance and brilliant new Quick Shot modes which create handy processed clips you can share to Facebook.
Read our DJI Spark review
DJI Phantom 4
The Phantom 4 Advanced replaced the Phantom 4. It’s even more expensive but has the Pro model’s 20Mp camera which can shoots 4K video at 60 frames per second and is very easy to control.
Batteries are very expensive and the intelligent modes, although catching up, don’t quite match those you’ll get with a 3DR Solo which, in our opinion, is still the better choice if you need to capture complex cinematic aerial shots.
The Solo, though, doesn’t come with a camera and lacks obstacle avoidance, so the Phantom 4 Advanced is a great choice if you can afford it.
Read our full Phantom 4 Advanced review.
The Karma is another folding drone, though it’s much bigger than DJI’s Mavic Pro. It isn’t as smart, either, with no obstacle avoidance.
However, if you have a compatible GoPro camera it could prove a tempting deal, and the gimbal is removable from the drone so you can use it as a ground-based stabiliser.
And because it uses a GoPro camera, it also means it should be upgradeable in the future.
Read our full Karma review.
The Solo is a fantastic tool for capturing stunning aerial shots that would otherwise be impossible even for experienced quadcopter pilots. It originally launched at £1500, which is hard to believe given that didn’t even include a gimbal or camera.
These days you can pick one up with a 3-axis gimbal for a GoPro Hero 3 or 4 for under £500, which is decent value.
A Mavic Pro costs more than twice this much, but does come with a camera and gimbal, and has obstacle avoidance and auto-tracking modes.
Still, if you already have a suitable GoPro, it’s well worth reading our full 3DR Solo review.
DJI Phantom 3 Standard
For the price, the P3S (as it’s known) allows you to get super-smooth shots with its automatic flying modes that would be near impossible if you were flying manually.
Plus, the 1080p video quality is excellent considering the price, with much less distortion than from a Phantom 2 Vision+. If you can’t stretch to a Phantom 3 4K, this is good value for money at £449 from Amazon.
Read our full Phantom 3 Standard review.
The R220 is a ready-to-fly FPV racing drone that’s well designed and well built. It’s very fast and manoeuvrable, and comes with an on-board video transmitter: you need only add your own FPV goggles (with appropriate video receiver) to get a first person view while flying.
If you’re not the type to want to build your own racing drone, it’s remarkably good value and saves a lot of time and research.
Read our full ViFly R220 review
Hubsan H501S X4
Hubsan’s H501S comes with a built-in camera, and a remote control with a handy 3.7in screen. This means you can see a first person view as if you were on board – indeed, the remote also has an analogue video output for use with matching FPV goggles.
It also has GPS and lasts around 20 minutes from a single charge, although it does take hours to recharge, so buy a spare battery or two – they’re cheap enough.
Read our full Hubsan H501S review to find out more.
Hubsan X4 FPV
The X4 FPV isn’t meant for recording amazing aerial video.
Instead it’s intended as a starter drone with first-person view. There’s a screen built into the controller and it’s ready to fly.
If you invest in some extra batteries and time in learning to fly it properly (it’s completely manual with no auto-hovering), the H107D can be a rewarding and fun drone. But, compared to the others here, it is much more of a toy.
Read our full Hubsan X4 FPV review
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