Search Posts

The best drones for 2020 – CNET

As the technologies of mobile phonescameras and lithium-ion batteries have evolved in recent years, drones have come a long way since the advent of expensive models that were once the sole domain of Hollywood productions. Now, for less than $1,000 at your electronics retailer of choice, you can get a drone that will pilot itself, shoot 4K video, and remain in the air for more than half an hour. Flying a drone is about as close as most of us will get to personal flight — at least, until we get to the point where everyone uses jetpacks.

But the low end of the market has also matured, and $50 (about £40 or AU$80) is now enough to cover a basic quadcopter drone with an integrated camera that can fly for nearly 10 minutes on a charge. And there are plenty of options that fall somewhere in the middle, offering various combinations of features, video quality and price for every drone enthusiast. Below, we’ve got recommendations for the best drones for beginner and intermediate pilots looking to spend less than $1,000.

Best drones, compared

Best drone for most people Best cheap starter drone Best camera drone Best racing drone for beginners
Model DJI Mavic Mini Hubsan X4 H107C Plus DJI Mavic Air 2 Emax Tinyhawk 
Buying info See it at Amazon See it at Amazon See it at Amazon See it at Amazon
Price $399 $35 $799 $165
Photo 12 megapixels 2 megapixels 12 megapixels 600 TVL
Video 2.7K at 30fps 720p at 30fps 4K at 60fps 600 TVL
GPS support Yes No Yes No
Flight time 30 minutes 6 minutes 34 minutes 8 minutes
Weight 249 grams 54 grams 570 grams 9 grams
Requires registration (in the US) No No Yes No

DJI is the undisputed leader in drone technology and dominates the drone business, with a vast lineup of models for consumers, hobbyists and professionals that start at around $100 and exceed $20,000. But there are other reputable brands making high-quality consumer quadcopters including Parrot and Skydio, as well as countless upstarts making inexpensive drones you can buy at Walmart, Amazon and Best Buy. 

As with most things, the more you spend, the more you get. And while there are exceptions, most drones under $50 may frustrate you with limited features, primitive controls and just a few minutes of flight time. As you explore the options, here are a few key things to consider:

  • Controls: Many drones come with a dedicated remote — they often look like game controllers — and can also be piloted using a smartphone app, or with a combination of the two. Some come with first-person view goggles that give you an immersive view of the drone flight as if you were in a cockpit. 
  • GPS support: Support for GPS (or GLONASS, the Russian variation) will make your flights and video more stable, assist with taking off and landing and cut down on crashes. Drones with GPS often have a “return to home” feature that can recall them automatically if you get into a sticky situation.
  • Sensors: Air pressure sensors that can help with altitude assistance or “holding” will let you concentrate on flying your drone instead of having to constantly adjust the throttle. 
  • Batteries: The lithium-ion batteries that power most of the best drones run for 15 to 25 minutes on a charge, though some newer models like the Mavic Air 2 can fly for 30 minutes or more. Still, you’ll need spare batteries — they range from $45 to $70 for the DJI drone models included here — to extend your flight time beyond that.  
  • Rules and regulations: If your drone weighs 250 grams or more, you’ll need to register it with the FAA. And regardless of the weight, US national parks are off-limits — as are many state parks. Most counties and municipalities have their own regulations regarding remote control aircraft. 

We’ve outlined our top picks for the best drones for kids and beginners, intermediate users and “prosumer” enthusiasts, as well as an introductory drone for folks interested in racing, which is a whole scene unto itself. We’ve also included a more in-depth buying guide on the best drones below, with more information about the key things to consider before you buy. 

Hubsan

If you or your kid are looking for a basic drone to learn the ropes, this small model is probably the best drone for newcomers to start. The Hubsan X4 is an inexpensive drone and stable enough for newbie flyers (with sufficient power to fly outside), and it will give you between five and seven minutes of flight time per charge. The bright LED lights help you see its orientation from a distance and let you fly at night. It comes with a gaming-style controller, two batteries and USB charger and four spare propellers. 

Joshua Goldman/CNET

The Mavic Mini drone is DJI’s smallest and lightest camera drone, weighing in at 249 grams (8.8 ounces). The weight is significant because it means that — in the US, at least — you don’t need to register it with the FAA. Despite its compact profile, however, it offers many of the best features you’ll find on the company’s larger models: It folds up neatly for easy portability, includes a physical remote (which also folds up) and can fly for about 30 minutes on a charge. And the camera specs are rock-solid. You get 12-megapixel photographs and 2.7K video at 30 frames per second (and 1080p at 60fps). The three-axis motorized gimbal ensures you end up with smooth video and clear photos. 

One of the reasons that the Mini is so light is that it has fewer sensors for obstacle avoidance and recognition. That means there will be a learning curve and some crashing. But once you get the hang of it, the Mini is stable, nimble, safe to fly and quieter than other DJI models including the Air and the now-discontinued Spark

Spending an additional $100 on the Fly More combo gets you three batteries, a charging hub, extra propellers and a carrying case. 

Read our DJI Mavic Mini review.


Now playing:
Watch this:

DJI’s Mavic Mini is a pocketable folding camera drone…

3:08

Joshua Goldman/CNET

Though the Mavic Mini remains the best drone for most people, it lacks the build quality, blockbuster camera technology and extensive flight time you get with DJI’s step-up model, the Mavic Air 2. The second-generation Air isn’t cheap — it costs about twice as much as the Mavic Mini — but it’s considerably sturdier and stronger. It’s also heavier, but mostly due to a beefier battery, which has pushed its flight time beyond 30 minutes per charge, making the Mavic Air 2 the undisputed leader for consumer drones in this category.

The original Mavic Air had legit camera specs, but the new model is even better, capable of shooting full 4K video at 60fps and capturing 48MP photos. It retains the first-generation’s top speed of 42.5 mph but adds APAS 3.0 technology, which helps it more fluidly navigate around obstacles instead of just stopping to avoid them. That noted, if obstacle avoidance is your top priority, the $1,000 Skydio 2 remains the gold-standard — and an all-around excellent choice in its own right.

DJI makes plenty of other drones with superior specs — even better cameras and photography capabilities — but they come with higher prices. Higher-spec options include the Mavic Pro, which costs $200 more than the Air 2, and the Mavic Pro 2, which costs quite a bit more. Still, for most people who aren’t super-experienced hobbyists or professionals, we think the Mavic Air 2 offers the best combination of design and features in its price range.

Read our DJI Mavic Air 2 preview.


Now playing:
Watch this:

DJI’s Mavic Air has big features but still fits in a…

5:31

Emax

Though mainstream drones like the DJI Mini can fly fast, racing drones fly even faster, capable of hitting speeds above 100 mph. They’re also much more agile, built for acrobatic maneuvers with you at a set of manual controls. That means there’s a learning curve that usually involves some crashes. 

The Emax Tinyhawk S keeps things relatively simple. You’ll still need to learn how to pilot the thing, but the process will be less frustrating than other entry-level systems. For one thing, you don’t need to worry about getting all of the individual pieces to work together — or soldering anything, which is required for many DIY models. The Tinyhawk is ready to fly and comes with a controller (also called a transmitter) and FPV goggles for flying by first-person view. 

The 7 things to consider before you buy a drone

New to the world of modern drones? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Here’s a quick overview of what any beginner needs to know in order to find the best drone for their money.

Cheaper drones aren’t necessarily for beginners

axis-turbo-x-drone.jpg

Tiny inexpensive quads like these can be a pain for first-timers.


Joshua Goldman/CNET

Like many things in life, you get what you pay for with drones: The more money you spend, the more features you get that make flying easier. For example, while the Hubsan X4 quad mentioned at the top isn’t a bad place to start, it lacks sensors found on higher-end drones to help it hover in place on its own or return to you if you get in a jam.

GPS is invaluable for new drone pilots. It’s worth paying more for if you’re looking for stable flying out of the box, especially for aerial photography and videos. You won’t typically find it on toy-grade drones, so new pilots might find toy drones to be frustrating even though they can be good to practice with.

Flight times are still relatively short

Battery life is the drone industry’s Achilles’ heel. A handful of models claim they can remain airborne for around 30 minutes on a charge — but that’s likely under ideal testing conditions in a controlled environment. The faster you fly, the more weight you add; the stronger the winds, the quicker a drone will sap its battery. Plus, there’s the time it takes to get up in the air and land — and that’s often not accounted for in the flight modes specs quoted by manufacturers.

Our general rule of thumb is to take whatever the manufacturer claims and subtract 5 to 10 minutes for a midsize drone. Toy drones typically get between 5 and 7 minutes of good flying, though some can hit the 10- to 12-minute range.

Drone maker Zero Zero Robotics says its upcoming V-Coptr Falcon will reset the bar for the industry by staying in the air for up to 50 minutes. CNET hasn’t tested this claim, or the drone — though we did see it in action at CES 2020. The company postponed its shipping time frame from March to June, due to the coronavirus outbreak. The company has not yet responded to CNET’s request for an update on product delivery.  


Now playing:
Watch this:

The V-Coptr Falcon is a gamechanger for consumer drone…

2:11

The price of the drone is only the beginning

dji-phantom-4-10.jpgdji-phantom-4-10.jpg

Depending on the aircraft, extra batteries can run you from $5 for toys to more than $100 each for camera drones.


Joshua Goldman/CNET

You’re going to want a couple extra batteries, some spare propellers, maybe some prop guards and perhaps a quick charger, so you’re not waiting hours to fly again. You’re more than likely going to crash, which could lead to repair costs — either for replacement parts or shipping it back to the manufacturer for repairs. (This is exactly why DJI offers crash insurance for new drones.)

Before you buy a drone, it’s worth spending a little time researching the price and availability of replacement parts, batteries and other accessories. And be cautious of third-party parts — especially batteries and chargers — which may be inferior to those made by the drone manufacturer.

Everyone will assume you’re invading their privacy

When you’re out flying in a public space, or even in your own backyard, anyone who sees you doing it will think you’re spying on them or someone else. You could be standing in the middle of a 20-acre field with no one in sight and your drone no more than 50 feet directly overhead and you might end up answering questions about being a peeping Tom. It’s happened to us. Repeatedly.

And along those same lines….

Everyone but you thinks they’re dangerous

It doesn’t matter if you’re the safest drone pilot around or that you could do more damage hitting someone with a baseball than a drone — onlookers may feel threatened. After all, nothing about plastic blades spinning at high speeds screams “safety.” 

parrot-bebop-2-04.jpgparrot-bebop-2-04.jpg

Parrot’s Bebop 2 has some nice safety features including with propellers that stop instantly if they hit anything.


Joshua Goldman/CNET

As such, US-based pilots may benefit from an Academy of Model Aeronautics membership. Along with a whole host of benefits including access to AMA-member flying sites, the $75 annual membership protects you with $2,500,000 of comprehensive general liability insurance as well as $25,000 in accident or medical coverage, $10,000 maximum accidental death coverage and $1,000 fire, theft and vandalism coverage. 

Finding places to fly can be a challenge

In population-dense places like cities and metropolitan areas, it can be difficult to find places to safely and legally fly. US national parks are off-limits. Regulations differ among state, county and municipal parks. And then there are the no-fly zones, which puts many metropolitan areas out of bounds as well as just dangerous, because of buildings, people and cars.

Before you buy a drone — even a toy one, if you plan to fly outside — you’ll want to visit AirMap or download the FAA’s B4UFly app to check for no-fly zones. These don’t cover state or local ordinances, though, so you’ll need to do additional research on your chosen environs before you fly.

Any remote control aircraft except ‘toys’ need an FAA registration

faa-uas-reg-6.jpgfaa-uas-reg-6.jpg

Screenshot by Sean Hollister/CNET

The US Federal Aviation Administration is requiring anyone who wants to fly an unmanned aerial vehicle that weighs between 0.55-pound (250 grams) and 55 pounds (approximately 25 kilograms) for recreation or hobby to register with the agency. Civil penalties for not registering such an unmanned aircraft may include fines up to $27,500. Criminal penalties may include fines up to $250,000, imprisonment for up to three years or both.

Most sub-$100 UAS drones fall under this weight. For example, all of these toy drones weigh in under that half-pound mark. A kitchen or postal scale can be used to weigh your drone or you can check with the manufacturer. Also, this applies to both store-bought and homemade aircraft.

The registration cost is $5 and it can all be done online in a matter of minutes. You don’t have to register each aircraft you own — just yourself, and you’ll be given a number to attach to what you’re flying. That’s it. Essentially, it’s the FAA’s way of getting you to agree that you’ve read its safety guidelines including staying more than five miles away from airports and below 400 feet.

The UK has its own registration requirements. Essentially, owners of drones that weigh more than 250 grams must register as a drone operator, which costs £9 annually. And pilots of drones that weigh more than 250 grams must pass a free online education course every three years. Australia has promised that new rules are “on their way,” but for now there are no official requirements.  

Glossary: Know your RTF from your FPV

Like any hobby or technology, there’s a whole lot of lingo and abbreviations that come with the territory. Here are some of the ones you’ll come across the most.

  • Ready-to-fly (RTF): A drone that requires little to no assembly and is ready to fly out of the box.
  • Almost-ready-to-fly (ARTF or ARF): These drones may require some minor assembly and additional equipment such as a receiver (Rx) and radio transmitter (Tx, also called a radio controller).
  • Bind-n-fly (BNF): These are essentially RTF drones with a receiver, but not a radio controller (you must buy one separately). But you can then use that controller to pilot other BNF aircraft, saving you some money if you decide to grow your RC aircraft collection.
  • First-person view (FPV): The video feed direct from a camera on the drone. It can be used for framing your photos or videos as well as piloting. With drone racing, pilots usually wear FPV goggles for an immersive experience.
  • Return-to-home (RTH): A safety feature that allows the drone to autonomously fly back to the pilot’s location or starting point.
  • Gimbal: A mechanical camera stabilization system that offers you smooth video and sharp photos even with fast movements or in high winds.
  • Headless mode: Intended for beginner pilots. It keeps the drone traveling forward, backward, left or right when you move your remote’s stick in those directions, regardless of which way the front of the drone is pointed.
  • Follow me: A feature that allows a drone to automatically follow a subject, typically using a GPS signal from a mobile device, remote control or a beacon attached to the subject being tracked.
  • Brushless motor: Though more expensive than their brushed counterparts, brushless motors are more efficient, last longer and are quieter.

Originally published earlier and updated periodically as we review new products.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *