So You Want to Buy a Drone for Christmas
A Drone Gift Guide for the 2016 Holiday Season
By Andy Putch, Project Manager @DroneDeploy
*Links and pricing for the article will be periodically updated as deals/prices fluctuate*
Let’s keep this brief. Last year I wrote “So You Want to Buy a Drone For Christmas” which only had 3 recommendations at 3 price points. The thesis was: do not buy a Chinese copy, buy the Chinese real deal, DJI, instead. This year, we have 5 price points and an equally heavy focus on DJI. There is, however, one other important division. When spending less than $200 dollars, you can get a drone that is good for flying & racing at home, the office, or at close range outdoors. Above $200 you are gifting a specialized camera, not a drone. There are many cool camera gadgets on the market including 360 cameras, light field cameras, and of course, flying cameras, aka drones. In the end, these are all just cameras. Remember this when evaluating the options below because for over $200 the only question you need to answer is: will this drone allow me to capture photos/video at my desired quality? Let’s go!
~$50: Flight School
When it comes to inexpensive drones you need to keep in mind that anything you buy will not last more than a month or so. Expect crashes, terrible image quality, and tons of fun messing with your pet, family, or SO. These are best gifts for someone that is interested in drones but will likely not take on RC quadcopters as a personal hobby.
Syma X8C ($65)
The price keeps fluctuating on this one but you should be able to find it for $50-$60. This is a great starter drone as it is much larger than the typical micro-drone and thus easier to control for beginners.
Inductrix RTF ($70)
This is the go-to “Tiny Whoop” on the market (more on tiny whoops in the next section). Make sure you order an RTF (ready to fly) instead of the BNF (bind and fly) because with a BNF the transmitter (aka “controller” or “TX”) is sold separately.
~$200: FPV Racer (TOP PICK)
One of the most exciting aspects of 2016 is the price of microquad racers, also known as Tiny Whoops, are finally affordable! This is the perfect gift for the engineer, tinkerer, or hobbyist who will get a rush from FPV racing but will also have the patience to figure out how the system works and how to fix it when it breaks. Let’s just say, ages 15+.
Inductrix FPV ($200)
This is actually the same quad as the last section but the FPV, or First Person View, has a tiny camera and transmitter built on top of the frame. This set comes with a controller and mounted monitor to view the camera feed as you fly.
TBS X-Racer RTF ($150)
A brand new product from Team Blacksheep. The X-Racer will be slightly larger, more powerfully, and noisier than the Inductrix. Both quads are relatively simple to fly as the Inductrix leverages Horizon Hobby’s Safe autopilot and the X-Racer uses Cleanflight, an open source flight controller that has been tuned and revised by a huge community of pilots.
You will need to pick up a headset to view the feed from the X-Racer and I recommend the Hobby King Quanum V2 DIY Kit ($65) with a battery, video receiver, and antenna. All in this will be around $250.
~$500: Low-End Serious Camera Drone
This is an interesting category as it is the price point most people are looking to pay for a great camera drone gift. Luckily, there are several good options that deliver incredible video quality in an easy to use package. The only compromise this category makes is range.
DJI Phantom 3 Standard ($400)
The DJI Phantom 3 has been the workhorse of the drone industry since its release in Spring 2015. Fall of that year DJI released the P3S, with the same 12mp stills and 2K video as the Advanced model (P3A) but with a 1km range instead of the 5km supported by the Advanced (P3A) and Professional (P3P) models. To get the most out of this drone I highly recommend a hard shell backpack and extra battery. All in this puts you at $550.
3DR Solo ($350)
3DR has been through quite the roller coaster since the announcement of the Solo in March 2015 and that coaster went right off the tracks this fall with massive price reductions from the $1400 launch price to $1000 last Christmas, $800 in the spring, $500 in the fall, and the final “get rid of all these drones before they are completely obsolete so we can pay off our manufacturing debt” price of $400. If, and only if, you have a GoPro Hero compatible with the Solo, it’s an enticing option that matches or betters the Standard in every category. Keep in mind that 3DR will likely not be supporting the Solo once all of the remaining units are sold. Like the P3S, I recommend you a get a bundle with an extra battery and pick up a carrying backpack. The price on this one is really volatile so you are shooting for their best deal to date: $350 for the drone, gimbal, extra battery, and extra props plus the $50 case bringing your total to $400.
Hover Camera Passport ($600) *Caution: Novelty*
This is a pretty cool concept and it actually performs rather decently for the price. The Hover Camera is extremely simple. Grasp from the top, press the power button, let go, and it hovers in place! The drone is able to run some onboard computer vision to track your subject and the downward facing camera is used to keep it hovering over the same spot on the ground. It’s basically a floating smart tripod. There is a mobile app to position and maneuver the drone but it’s much more fun to grab and just place it where you want. Warning: while the still images are just passable, the video quality is SD and shaky despite the digital image stabilization and thus will be obsolete in no time at all.
~$1000: The Real Deal (TOP PICK)
DJI Mavic Pro ($1000) *Ships after Xmas*
The Mavic Pro is the current state of the art for consumer drone technology. It boasts forward-facing obstacle avoidance, active subject tracking/autonomous follow, a 4K camera, 27 minutes of battery live (5min more than Solo and Phantom 3), and a 4.3mi range — all in a foldable body the size of a water bottle. The size of the Mavic is a huge advantage as it makes the whole flying experience so easy. The benefit is not just the about the portability of this small drone body, it’s how much easier it makes everyday operations. The small takeoff area, quieter rotors, and un-intimidating size greatly reduce the chances of someone taking offense to your drone flying. Get the bundle with the extra battery for $1080.
DJI Phantom 3 Professional ($800)
Deciding between the P3P and the P4 is a tough choice. The P3P was my top pick in 2015 and it is still a very capable camera drone a year later. The P3P is identical to the Phantom 4 in every aspect except for the obstacle avoidance, active tracking, and sport mode. The obstacle avoidance is like the first generation Siri, when it works you’re sure to think, “wow this is the future!”, but after hearing “sorry, I didn’t catch that” a few times, you realize the tech has a ways to-go and you carefully remove your drone from that tree it is now lodged into. Active track and sport mode are also nice features, but 95% of the time you won’t use them.
Now here is where it’s really tough to decide on price. Like the P3S, having a hard shell backpack and extra battery are worth the cost as they drastically increase the overall usability of your drone. This improvement is actually more than the combined impact of avoidance, active track, sport mode, and slight bump in range/battery life. The extra battery and backpack bundle will cost you $1080.
DJI Phantom 4: ($1000)
Like the P3P, the P4 is a great drone because where it counts, it’s the same. However, the P4 comes in a lockable styrofoam case that obviates the need for a backpack, if you’re not going to beat it up too much. You can also get it with an extra battery and backpack for $1300.
DJI Phantom 4 Pro ($1500) *Ships after Xmas*
Unlike the P4 and the P3P, the recently announced P4P is truly an upgrade over its predecessor. With improved avoidance software and 5 sensing directions, the P4P is like moving from that cruise control that locks onto the car in front of you, to a Tesla. We’re not in the world of self-driving Ubers or drones, but boy does it feel close.
Next, the P4P boasts a 1-inch image sensor over the P3/P4/Inspire 1. In the graphic below the P3/P4/Inspire all use the smallest blue sensor which is the same as the GoPro Hero 4. The sensor in the P4P is shown in orange and it’s not far off from the micro 4/3 sensor in the X5 on the Inspire 1 Pro.
This larger sensor gives the P4P 20MP stills and 4K video at 60fps! This comes on top of the 4.3mi range and 30min battery also offered by the Mavic Pro.
That’s all for this year. Let me know if you find any new exciting deals in the comments and I would be happy to point you in the right direction.
Happy Holidays, good luck, and fly safe!
About Drone Mapping and DroneDeploy
Some of the more inexpensive drones listed above are just for fun, while some can provide professional-quality photo and video. But did you know you can even use a drone to make a high-quality map or 3D model? Using DroneDeploy, it’s easy to automatically fly a supported DJI drone to capture imagery. Then, upload your imagery (from any drone, as long as the imagery is geo-tagged) to DroneDeploy and we’ll stitch it into a map using a process called photogrammetry.
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