Welcome to our best drones for beginners buying guide. If you're looking to get started with one of these nifty little machines, you're in the right place. Providing the ultimate new perspective, drones have become a popular and sought-after tool for photographers in recent years.
But choosing the best drone as a beginner can be tricky. There a lot of options now, and all at varying price ranges. So how do you choose the best beginner drone for you?
Professional, and even high-end consumer, drones can cost many hundreds, or even thousands, so are not an impulse buy or a gift. There are, however, plenty of cheap drones which also have the potential to lift your spirits as you gain experience, all while leaving you with some money in the bank should you decide to upgrade to one of the all-singing, all-dancing best camera drones.
The best drones for beginners in 2020
When you’re choosing a drone, especially for someone else, to get started with, one thing to give thought to is regulation. Will you (or they) be happy to pay a small registration fee and take an online exam? If so, no worries, but if they’re opposed to all forms of government intervention, you’ll want to stick to one of the few drones under 250g (8.8oz). This low weight category is essentially considered toy level, and as such tend to be very safe .
Though the 250g limit is a fixed line, in practice you may find the compromises at camera level are not especially problematic, while some of the other tech offered by higher-end drones can actually detract from getting to grips with the core controls. Should you find yourself with a more sophisticated (more automatic) multicopter later on, you’ll be a better manual pilot already.
That’s good because you can really get to grips with the core controls – the sticks – and then, should you find yourself with a more sophisticated (more automatic) multicopter later on, you’ll be a competent manual pilot already.
The two-stick control method is nearly universal; even drones that don’t include controllers will put a touch-based equivalent on your phone screen. There is an arrangement called “Mode 2” which is now near-universal that puts the throttle (up/down) and rotation (yaw) are on the left stick, while the right lets you direct flight (roll & pitch).
As well as “Mode 2,” drones share many characteristics; rechargeable batteries, an even number of rotating props, some form of remote control receiver, and a processor to translate that input into the minor changes in the propeller speed which, in turn, move the craft.
For all drones, designers have to make different compromises depending on their goals. Speed and manoeuvrability is important for those who race; size and safety for those who play indoors. Camera quality and drone stability is naturally important for photographers and videographers, as well as flight times.
The selection below are all great drones for beginners, but their design goals, and prices, differ. So with everything from a drone that costs the price of a decent camera, down to a drone that costs less than a meal out with your partner, here is our rundown of the best cheap drones on the market today.
And if you're dipping your toe in the world of drones, you might be interested in the best dash cams available right now.
01. DJI Mavic Mini
A brilliant drone for beginners that balances cost, size, features and weight
Weight: 249g | Dimensions (folded): 140×82×57mm | Controller: Yes | Video resolution: 2.7K 30fps | Camera resolution: 12MP | Battery life: 30 minutes (2400mAh) | Max Range: 4km / 2.5 miles | Max Speed: 47kph / 29mph
Released just in time for the winter 2019 selling season, this drone has been deliberately engineered to come in just under the 250g cut off point for registration in the UK, USA & China. It nevertheless still packs 2.7K video (or 1080p at 60fps), GPS-based return to home and automated ‘QuickShots’ for easy (and very Instagrammable) video effects, just like some of its bigger brothers from DJI. Avoiding that registration fee does come with a potential cost though – the drone doesn’t have any collision sensors, save for a downward-facing proximity sensor it uses to land itself (though, cheekily, DJI have still put eye-like design features in the shell where the bigger Mavic’s do have collision sensors).
The claimed battery life and range are ambitious. In practice you should expect to fly for about 22 minutes in normal weather and still be able to land safely, and reaching 500m is the practical limit for the controller. That’s absolutely fine though – figures which would be praiseworthy. The software may seem a little limited to owners of much more expensive DJI drones (there is no ‘follow me’ and limited manual options for the camera) but again there is everything you need plus a nice guided tutorial mode and geofencing to avoid taking off too near an airport.
02. Parrot Anafi FPV
Parrot Anafi FPV
Weight: 310g | Controller: Yes | Video resolution: 4K HDR 30fps | Camera resolution: 21MP | Battery life: 25 minutes (2700mAh) | Max range: 4km / 2.5mi) | Max Speed: 55kph / 35mph
Parrot have done an amazing job of straddling the fun and the functional aspect of the drone market ever since they essentially created it ten years ago, and the Anafi (especially the new FPV kit) epitomizes that.
The Anafi is a professional drone, with a 4K camera capable of zoom (at least in video mode), with a gimbal-stabilized camera. In fact some surveyors choose this over DJI products because it can tilt its camera up and down to create 3D models or, for mere mortals, get some unique angles for action shots. But, with the addition of First Person View (FPV) goggles you can also flay it from inside the cockpit. Parrot’s goggles are included in the FPV kit, and at first they were the only ones supported, but a later software update means you can use other VR headsets.
The app is fully featured and great for ‘Arcade mode’ racing or settings-obsessed photographers. The only thing missing from a much more expensive craft (and admittedly this isn’t cheap) is a collision sensing system, but it’s surprisingly robust, especially the FPV version with improved legs.
03. Ryze Tello
A bit DJI, a little Intel. Feature packed and fun
Weight: 80g | Controller: via Phone, ideally with a Bluetooth game controller | Video resolution: 720p, 30fps | Camera resolution: 5MP | Battery life: 13 minutes (1100mAh) | Max Range: 100m | Max Range with controller: 60m | Max Speed: 36kph
With more than half of the global market, DJI have kept their tech at the serious end of the market. However, a friendly relationship with neighboring firm Ryze has led to the Tello, a compact drone that doesn’t skimp on the tech. It beams 720p video back to a phone in WiFi range (100m), or 5mp photos, which are recoded by the App.
This data link also provides you a battery warning, and the drone is capable of taking off and hovering using its 14-core processor and in-built sensors. That power makes for fun features like the “Throw & Go” launching and flips, but also supports Scratch, a simple, block-based programming language that means literally anyone (kids included) can have fun ordering the Tello about.
If you think your kids need a little more convincing that programming drones is as cool as flying them, look out for the Ryze Iron Man Edition. Programming tech seemed to work out pretty well for Tony Stark, after all.
04. Parrot Mambo FPV
Light, easy to fly and adaptable; a drone for all
Weight: 63g+10g (camera) | Controller: Via phone or supplied controller | Video resolution: 720p 30fps | Max Range: 100m | Max Speed: 29kphh
Parrot’s Mambo has been around a little while now, but this top drone for beginners just keeps delivering thanks to the LEGO-like studs for clipping on extras and the FPV goggles making this a little like an indoor Anafi.
First came a version with a pellet gun for livening up office warfare. Now an FPV camera which makes it into a mini FPV racer. In all cases build quality is great; the French company essentially started the consumer drone revolution with the AR.Drone and although this is a little pricier than other mini-drones, the quality of the device and the app is impressive.
The quad has three flight modes: Easy, Drift and Racing. The first will hover when you release the controls, Drift releases the horizontal stabilization and Racing puts the onus completely on the pilot. This is a great way to learn in steps, and to easy you through the learning curve to becoming Top Gun pilot.
05. Hubsan X4 Storm (H122D)
A beginners kit for drone-racing fans
Weight: 117g | Dimensions: 157 x 157 x 62mm | Controller: Yes | Video resolution: 720p | Battery life: 6 minutes | Range: 100m | Max Speed: 36 kph / 22mph
Drone racing is as close as you can come to pod racing (you know, the only good bit out of The Phantom Menace), and it’s a different world to the polished products of the bigger brands like DJI & Parrot. A little like Anikin Skywalker’s jet-powered pod, pilots tend to build and refine their own from parts.
With this drone Hubsan have provided some of the aesthetic and experience of that world in a pre-configured kit so you won’t have to spend the first hours trying to tune your monitor into your quad or fiddle with PID settings. They’ve also provided a monitor which can clip onto the handset OR onto a head mount for the FPV effect that the Drone Racing League stars choose, though the drone is even more compact than a typical racing quad, so you’ll want to use it in low wind or indoors.
The frame is robust, there is a beeper in case you lose it in a field, and it’s able to record video to an on-board card so you can relive your flights later without the occasional choppiness that comes with transmitted video. Just like a real racer, as you get better, you can adjust the pilot’s view camera – the faster you fly, the steeper you’ll want it.
06. Holy Stone HS100 Navigator
GPS camera drone brings video in at a modest price
Weight: 700g | Dimensions: 500x500x175mm | Controller: Yes | Video resolution: 720p @ 30fps | Battery life: 15 minutes (2500mAh) | Range: 500m | Max Speed: 30kph
This excellent drone for beginners introduces not just the experience of flying, but the basic feature set of a serious photography or videography drone for a fraction of the cost. That’s because it includes a GPS positioning system, and control is via a good quality phone app (a phone will clip into the radio controller and serve as a screen).
Together this gives higher-end features like ‘follow me’ (the drone will follow the location of the phone) as well as making the drone easy to fly – let go of the controls and the drone will just hover, at the same altitude, even in a breeze. It can also return to its launch point at the touch of a button.
The design is clearly inspired by DJI’s Phantom, right up to the 4-light intelligent battery. That said the battery has a Micro USB socket built right in for easy charging - DJI haven’t thought of that yet!
On the down-side the camera is not gimbal stabilized, so the drone's vibrations are certainly more than visible in the adequate but gloomy video, and, sadly, it sends back its signal via wi-fi, so it tends to drop out after around 100m, but clean video is recorded to the Micro SD card on the drone nonetheless.
Nice touches are the extra landing legs, prop guards and stylish pilot’s manual notebook in the box.
07. JJRC H36
As cheap as they come, but powerful (and safe) fun
Weight: 22g | Dimensions: 95x95x50mm | Controller: Yes | Camera: None | Battery life: 6 minutes (150mAh) | Max Speed: 30kph
This spectacular little ‘copter is ideal for indoor flight since all the props are protected with the almost turbine-like guards. No camera; just human learning to live in harmony with machine.
After charging the tiny Li-Po battery using any USB outlet, it is clipped to the bottom. Slightly fiddly, admittedly, but once connected there is the power to whizz around for several minutes and really get to grips with the experience of flight, honing your skills. It also offers a ‘headless’ (easy) mode and a flip function to wow spectators.
The controller, powered by 2 AA batteries, has the tell-tale sign of a real pilot’s drone: the left stick does not spring back to the centre vertically on release. That’s because this is the throttle and, in flight, you need to be constantly adjusting this manually to maintain altitude.
It’ll come easily enough, and the game-controller shape is natural to hold. The controller does include buttons to ‘trim’ (tweak) the drone’s drift as well as the option to adjust the speed (low rate or high rate). And the price means you can't really go wrong.
08. DWI Dowellin D7
Foldable mini-drone with camera and cage
Weight: 22g | Dimensions: 95x95x5mm | Controller: Supplied or phone | Video resolution: 720p @ 30fps | Camera resolution: 2MP | Battery life: 6 minutes (380mAh / 3.7V) | Max Speed: 20kph
The design of this drone makes it both portable and very safe, ideal for a bit of fun around the home.
The manufacturer calls it ‘crash-proof’ though it’s not that you won’t hit things – more that you needn’t worry about it. It packs a 720p adjustable camera which you can use for live FPV using the iOS/Android app. Indeed, you can control the drone entirely with the app rather than the remote if you choose, just by tilting the phone. You can also record the video the phone receives.
If you choose to use it, the controller is powered by 3 AAA batteries, and has influence over the drone at up to 50m (though the wifi video can drop out before then). A very neat touch is the flip-up phone holder.
Flying is enhanced with one-touch take off and land, an altitude hold function which makes hovering much easier (you need only compensate for wind drift), and there are pre-programmed flips to wow onlookers too.