How to Choose the Right Drone
What Is the Best Drone on the Market?
Even if you have no good reason to justify buying one, you have to admit that drones are cool. Some are glorified tech toys, but most models we highlight here are fit for use in imaging and cinematic applications small and large. If you think you can use a flying camera in your next project, there’s some good news—the tech has come a long way in a very short time. There are models on the market now that put earlier copters to shame in terms of video quality and stabilization.
And now the bad news. You get what you pay for, and if you want an aerial video platform that can capture stunning footage, you need to be ready to spend some cash. Because drones are such pricey propositions, it pays to do your research before buying one. We’ve tested many of the ready-to-fly models on the market to determine what’s important to look for, and the best models available.
There are low-cost drones on the market (we’ve rounded some of the top-rated options under $100 on Amazon), but you’re still looking at spending a few hundred dollars to get a solid model that’s stable in flight with an excellent integrated camera.
The drones we review are ready-to-fly models, so you can use them right out of the box. In most cases, you’ll need to bring your own Android or iOS device to view the camera feed in real-time, but we’ve reviewed a few models that stream video directly to a remote control. We don’t cover racing, industrial, or agricultural aircraft here—our focus is on aircraft intended for aerial imaging and videography.
Regulations and Safety
The rules of the air vary from region to region—we’ve covered what to know for US and UK pilots. But, typically, if your drone weighs 8.8 ounces (250g) and up, you’ll need to register it in order to fly it outdoors legally—even over your own property.
There is one mass market exception, the DJI Mavic Mini. Its 249g takeoff weight avoids the need for registration in the US and UK, and opens it up to (legal) operation in other regions.
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It skips a safety feature—obstacle avoidance—to make weight, though. But it includes all of the other expected tools to help ensure a safe flight, including GPS stabilization, automated return-to-home, and automatic takeoff and landing.
Almost all of the models featured here have some safety features. Even the DJI Spark, which isn’t built for long-distance flight, includes a GPS and automatic return-to-home functionality. If your control signal is interrupted, or if the battery gets down too low (most drones can only fly for about 25 minutes on a single battery charge), you drone will start to head back to its takeoff point and land.
Flyaways still happen, and there are horror stories on various web discussion forums. Of course, negative experiences are amplified in this context, simply because uneventful flights that don’t result in a crash or missing drone aren’t hot topics for discussion.
If you’re flying within the United States, you need to take heed of FAA guidelines—or be prepared to face potential fines or jail time. There are no-fly zones set by the FAA, so don’t take off if you’re near an airport without notifying the control tower first. And, even if you’re out in the middle of nowhere, don’t take your drone above 400 feet. Most are set to obey these regulations out of the box, but controlling a quadcopter is just like driving a car—even if you missed seeing that speed limit sign, you’re still liable to pay the ticket.
Racing and Toy Drones
There are a number of products on the market that are sold as drones, but don’t quite fit the bill. Remote-controlled aircraft have been around for ages. (Check out this clip from Magnum, P.I. if you don’t believe me, or just want to see Tom Selleck in a bathrobe.) But with the recent surge in popularity, quadcopters that would simply be sold as RC products are now being tagged as drones. These don’t include GPS stabilization, return-to-home functionality, and other automated flight modes that make a drone a drone. We also don’t review many of them.
What Are the Best Brands of Drones?
DJI models currently dominate our top picks, and there’s a good reason for that. The company is simply a few steps ahead of its competition right now, and has a product catalog with models at various price points, which take up a good number of the slots in our top ten. It made a huge splash with its iconic Phantom series, and now makes the best small drones we’ve tested in the form of the Mavic series.
DJI’s pro line is dubbed Inspire and is currently in its second generation. Inspire models offer functionality well beyond what you get with a Phantom, including dual-operator support—one person flying and the other working the camera—as well as interchangeable lenses and camera modules, a Raw cinema workflow, and retractable landing gear.
There are a few other brands to consider when looking for a drone. Autel makes the Evo, which is similar to a Mavic, but has an LCD in the remote so you don’t need to connect your phone. Parrot, based in France, offers the Anafi, another good folding drone, and is an option for consumers wary of buying tech from Chinese firms.
Your purchase choices may be driven by politics, but we look more closely at product performance and value. The price of DJI drones recently increased across the board for US customers, a response to increases in import tariffs. As result, competing drones from Autel, Parrot, and Yuneec are more compelling alternatives, as their prices have not yet ticked upward.
The Best Small Drones
For a long time, the DJI Phantom series was about as small as you could go if you wanted to get a full-featured drone that maintains stability in the air and includes strong safety features. That’s no longer the case. Hikers and travel photographers appreciate a small, light kit, and they can now get a drone that fits into a backpack.
Of course, not every small drone is a top flyer. Some are barely capable of getting off the ground and require you to use your smartphone as a remote control, which makes for a sloppy control experience.
There are some standouts in the class. The DJI Mavic Air 2 and Mavic 2 Pro offer as much power and imaging prowess as you can find in an older Phantom model, but in a much smaller package. Size doesn’t compromise their performance in any way. It’s not just DJI, either. The Parrot Anafi is svelte, charges via USB-C, and supports 4K HDR video.
And there are models that come with some caveats. The DJI Mavic Mini is so light that you don’t have to pay a FAA registration fee to fly it, and its video and images are of strong quality. But it showed issues with connectivity and wind resistance in test flights, and doesn’t offer any sort of obstacle detection.
The Ryze Tello isn’t a good drone for videographers, but Scratch programming support makes it an appealing first drone for teens learning to code. The DJI Spark is another one that makes compromises for its size, but remains a good choice for low altitude, short distance flights and aerial selfies.
The Best Drones for Pros
The DJI Inspire 2 is aimed at professional cinematographers, news organizations, and independent filmmakers. And it’s priced as such—its $3,000 MSRP doesn’t include a camera. You have the option of adding a 1-inch sensor fixed-lens camera, a Micro Four Thirds interchangeable lens model, or a Super35mm cinema mount with its own proprietary lens system and support for 6K video capture.
The Mavic Pro 2 also has some serious appeal for pilots who make a living from aerial video and imaging. Its camera sports a 1-inch class sensor for higher quality photos, and it can record 4K footage with a wide or standard angle of view. It’s a lot smaller than the Inspire too, appealing for independent creatives working without the support of a full film crew.
Ultimately, you can’t go wrong with any of the models listed here. For the latest field-tested drone reviews, check out our Drones Product Guide. And if you just bought a quadcopter and are looking to get started, read our guide on how to fly a drone.
DJI Mavic 2 Pro
Pros: Superlative 4K video.
20MP Raw and JPG still imaging.
Great battery life.
Compact, foldable design.
Obstacle avoidance sensors.
Cons: 8GB internal memory isn’t much.
No DCI format support.
Bottom Line: The DJI Mavic 2 Pro is the best small drone on the market, with superior image and video quality, obstacle avoidance, and excellent battery life.
DJI Inspire 2
Pros: Magnesium alloy construction.
Two camera options.
16-bit Raw images.
PCIe SSD storage.
67mph top speed.
Obstacle detection and avoidance.
Retractable landing gear and 360-degree camera rotation.
Dual operator control with FPV pilot camera.
Intelligent flight modes.
Cons: High-performance computer required for video editing.
Not intended for hobbyists.
Micro Four Thirds camera is expensive.
Bottom Line: DJI’s Inspire 2 drone is a huge update to the Inspire 1, delivering more pro-grade video features and enhanced dual-operator control.
DJI Mavic Air 2
Pros: Superlative battery life
Strong image and video quality
Obstacle detection and avoidance
HDR video and Raw imaging
Cons: Video profiles limited to standard and flat
App-based editing limited to 1080p output
Remote omits EV control wheel
Not easy to get Raw images to your tablet or smartphone
Bottom Line: With a compelling mix of imaging, stability, and safety features, DJI’s Mavic Air 2 is the best drone you can buy for under $1,000.
Autel Robotics Evo
Pros: Compact, folding design.
Stable 4K video at up to 60fps.
Log video profile.
Supports UHD and DCI formats.
Obstacle avoidance system.
Solid battery life.
Works with or without a smartphone.
Cons: Default video profile appears oversharpened.
Memory card door is very tight.
Not as many safety features as other drones.
Bottom Line: The Autel Robotics EVO is a very solid small drone with strong battery life, a stabilized 4K camera, and an obstacle detection system.
DJI Mavic 2 Zoom
Pros: Smooth, sharp 4K video.
2x optical zoom lens.
Excellent battery life.
Compact, folding design.
Obstacle detection system.
High-resolution stitched image mode.
Raw and HDR photos.
Cons: Could use more internal memory.
Omits DCI aspect ratio.
Bottom Line: The DJI Mavic 2 Zoom sets itself apart from other drones thanks to an optical zoom lens.
It’s loaded with features, including obstacle avoidance, and is a fine choice for enthusiast pilots.
Pros: Very small.
Charges via USB-C.
4K video with HDR.
3x digital zoom lens.
Upward gimbal tilt.
Big battery for 25-minute flights.
Cons: No obstacle detection.
Digital zoom cuts into 4K quality.
Construction feels a little flimsy.
Bottom Line: The Parrot Anafi puts all emphasis on size—the small, folding drone is ideal for travel, thanks to 4K video capture, a small airframe, and USB charging.
Supports gesture controls.
Forward obstacle avoidance.
Safety features, including return-to-home.
Cons: Dedicated remote control is a pricey add-on.
Limited range and speed when controlling with phone.
Video limited to 1080p.
Bottom Line: The $500 DJI Spark is a small selfie drone for the masses, with ease of use and gesture controls promised as headline features.
Easy to fly.
Programmable via Scratch.
Bluetooth remote control compatibility.
Automated flight modes.
Cons: Pixelated, low-quality video.
Limited control range.
No GPS or return-to-home capability.
Bottom Line: The Ryze Tello is a toy quadcopter flyable via smartphone or laptop (using Scratch).
Its video quality isn’t anything to write home about, but it’s a fun tech toy and learning tool.
DJI Mavic Mini
Pros: Low cost of entry.
Includes remote control.
Excellent battery life.
Crisp 2.7K video and 12MP photos.
Automated cinematic camera movements.
Find My Drone feature.
Doesn’t require federal registration.
Cons: Some connectivity issues in testing.
Omits obstacle detection sensors.
No 24fps video option.
Doesn’t support Raw or HDR images.
Bottom Line: The DJI Mavic Mini is a lightweight drone that you don’t have to register, but spotty connectivity makes it hard to recommend wholeheartedly.
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