Drones, quad-copters and multi-rotor helicopters are all the rage at the moment, but the sheer amount of choice as well as the huge range of prices can make it difficult to know what to buy and how much to spend. Here we explain what you need to know about buying a drone, and review the best quadcopters for all budgets.
Drones are known by many names, including quad-copters, mini-quads, multi-rotor craft and more. Most commonly they have four rotors but vary in their size, price and features.
Latest entry: DJI Phantom 4
Quadcopter buying guide: Price
At the entry level , mini-quads start at just £10, but you won’t get a camera unless you pay around £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. The Revell X-Spy, for example, costs £80 online and has a mount above the remote control for holding your smartphone.
At higher prices, you get more for your money. As well as longer flight times (see below) drones should also have better on-board processing to help with flying. For example, both the Parrot AR Drone and DJI Phantom 2 can hover in one spot, whereas cheaper drones require you to be constantly adjusting the controls just to maintain position in the air.
Quadcopter buying guide: Cameras
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 (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 VGA video, but it’s worth opting for at least 720p (1280x720) if you want a drone for aerial video. Bear in mind that - as ever - you can't trust specs alone. One 720p camera may shoot detailed footage while another looks more like CCTV from the 1980s.
However, you’ll only get great quality footage if you buy a drone with a gimbal. This is a gryo-stabilised mount for the camera which keeps it steady when the drone tilts or moves around. They don’t come cheap, though.
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.
Quadcopter buying guide: Flight time… and charging time
Typically, you can expect between 5 and 15 minutes of flight time between charges, which themselves take around an hour. It’s a shame more companies don’t supply multiple batteries, as you really need one or two spares.
You should also budget for a couple of sets of rechargeable AA batteries as most controllers take four of them, and those with live video screens will burn through a set of alkaline batteries in under an hour.
Quadcopter buying guide: Range & where to fly
Although some manufacturers claim a range of over 100m, it’s best to assume you’ll never get more than about 50m. By law in the UK, you must keep the ‘unmanned aircraft’ in your line of sight at all times, anyway.
Realistically, you can’t easily fly a quadcopter in your home. The rooms are too small and the rotors can be dangerous to people and pets. Plus, pets and children are scared by them. Only the tiniest models - such as the Hubsan X4 and Revell X-Spy can really be flown in small spaces.
Even a garden is likely to be too limited on space, and it’s all too easy to lose control and end up crashing your drone into a neighbour’s garden. Even worse, you may not know exactly which garden it landed in, and won’t be able to get it back (we know this from unfortunate first-hand experience). In fact, it’s well worth putting some contact details such as an email address on a label stuck somewhere on the drone just in case.
The best place is a field, park or other open space where there are no trees for the drone to get caught in, and no people or dogs to hit.
Bear in mind that you can only fly (safely) in relatively windless conditions, and don’t forget that it might be a lot windier up in the air where the drone is flying than your controlling position on the ground!
Quadcopter buying guide: Spares
The fragile nature of drones means you will probably break propellers (rotors) and other bits and pieces fairly regularly. All drones come with a full set of spare rotors, but as two rotate anti-clockwise and the other pair clockwise, you’ve only got two spares for each pair of spindles.
For this reason, it’s worth choosing a drone for which spare parts are easy to obtain. A low purchase price might be tempting, but it could be a waste of money if you can’t buy extra rotors. Sometimes, you'll get discounted spares if you order at the same time as the quadcopter, and a couple of sets of rotors are a must.
Another point to note is that you won't get brushless motors on cheap quadcopters. They have cheaper brushed motors that have a much more limited lifespan. This is ok if you can buy spares (which are usually very cheap) but you will need the skills to remove a burned-out motor and solder in a new one.
The DJI Phantom and Parrot AR.Drone have brushless motors which should last a lot longer, and require no maintenance.
Quadcopter buying guide: Privacy and the law - Dronecode
You can read all about the rules for flying 'recreational' drones in the UK. Suffice to say that you are responsible for any collisions and that it’s illegal to fly your drone “over a congested area”. You should also “think about what you do with any images you obtain as you may breach privacy laws”. Basically, you need a big open space away from roads, people, buildings and animals and pets. You shouldn’t post any aerial video which would allow anyone to be identified on YouTube or social networks unless you have their permission.
Best quadcopters 2016
We've reviewed a selection of quadcopters here, but not all come with cameras. The WLToys V303 and Flying 3D X8 are capable of carrying a GoPro-style camera, though, but you'll need to budget for that (and a gimbal if you want stable video). Only the DJI Phantoms record decent video: the rest are either mediocre or downright rubbish. Poor-quality video is ok if you want to use it simply for flying the quadcopter, but if you want to use it in home videos or for sharing with friends, be prepared to spend more than £250.
- Reviewed on: 1 April 16
- RRP: £1229 inc VAT
The Phantom 4 is unquestionably DJI’s best drone yet. It shoots decent quality 4K video and is easier to control than ever before. Batteries are very expensive, though, and the intelligent modes still 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. Of course, the Solo is more expensive, doesn’t come with a camera and lacks obstacle avoidance, so the Phantom 4 is still a great choice if you can afford it. Don’t forget, though, that the Phantom 3 4K can capture similar-quality video and costs only £699.
Read our DJI Phantom 4 review.
2. 3DR Solo
- Reviewed on: 4 September 15
- RRP: £979 inc VAT (optional gimbal £379 inc VAT)
The Solo is a fantastic tool for capturing stunning aerial shots that would otherwise be impossible even for experienced quadcopter pilots. The price, though, will be a barrier for a lot of people. A Phantom 3 Advanced, for example, costs considerably less than the basic Solo yet comes with a great camera and gimbal. DJI has already announced it will add orbit and follow modes in an update coming soon, meaning it will deliver similar shots on a much smaller budget.
Read our 3DR Solo review.
- Reviewed on: 10 September 15
- RRP: £1299 inc VAT
DJI has delivered on its bold claims: the Phantom 3 is by far the best consumer quadcopter we've seen. It's stable and produces stunning video footage. Its range goes beyond what most consumers will need and the only extra requirement out of the box is a compatible iOS or Android device to use with the controller. Even beginners will be able to fly it, and there are good safety features to prevent the Phantom flying away, as well as landing when the battery is low. The Professional model is fairly expensive at over £1000 online, but those who don't need 4K can save (and still be happy) with the Advanced model for under £800.
Read our DJI Phantom 3 Professional review.
- Reviewed on: 3 March 16
- RRP: £449 inc VAT
The intelligent flying modes may not be the easiest to use, but they do allow you to get smooth shots that would be near impossible with a Phantom 2. The Go app is also a huge improvement, but the biggest gains are crucially in photo and video quality. With the recent price drop, the Phantom 3 Standard is almost unbelievably cheap. If you can't stretch to a P3 Pro, this is superb value for money.
Read our DJI Phantom 3 Standard review.
- Reviewed on: 21 July 15
- RRP: £940 inc VAT
At under £700 now, the Phantom 2 Vision Plus V3 is an awesome piece of kit and delivers great 1080p aerial footage.
Read our DJI Phantom 2 Vision Plus V3.0 review.
6. WLtoys V303
- Reviewed on: 24 April 15
- RRP: £199 inc import duty and handling
The WLtoys V303 is a great alternative to a Phantom if your budget won't stretch. In fact, with a gimbal and camera, the V303 works out at roughly one third of the price. Spares are available from GearBest and aren't too expensive.
Read our WLtoys V303 review.
- Reviewed on: 13 March 15
- RRP: £230 inc VAT
If you can't afford a DJI Phantom or a Parrot BeBop, the AR.Drone 2.0 is the next-best thing. Its ability to hover and the general high build quality make it worth spending this amount of money.
Read our Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 Elite Edition review.
8. Flying 3D X8
- Reviewed on: 20 August 15
- RRP: £161.48 plus import duty and handling
The Flying 3D X8 is a good value quadcopter and a reasonable alternative to a DJI Phantom if your budget can’t stretch even to a Phantom 3 Standard. You'll have to allow for import duty and handling fees if you buy from GearBest which supplied the X8 for review, and don't forget to budget for extra batteries and a gimbal and camera if you want to record aerial footage.
Read our Flying 3D X8 review.
- Reviewed on: 13 March 15
- RRP: £159 inc VAT
For the price, video quality is poor, so don't expect to be recording amazing footage from the air. If you invest in some extra batteries and time in learning to fly it properly, the H107D can be a rewarding and fun quadcopter.
Read our Hubsan X4 FPV review.
10. Revell X-Spy
- Reviewed on: 12 March 15
- RRP: £99 inc VAT
As long as you have an Android phone or an iPhone, the X-Spy is a good-value drone with FPV. However, if you can live without live video (or without a camera at all) there are cheaper options.
Read our Revell X-Spy review.
- Reviewed on: 13 March 15
- RRP: $149 (approx. £100)
The V666 is a good starter FPV quadcopter, and is great value considering it includes everything you need to fly for just £100. Spares are also readily available and aren't expensive.
Read our WLtoys V666 FPV quadcopter review.