Christmas Drone Buying Guide

By Rob Enderle November 18, 2014

As we approach the Christmas buying season I figured you would find it handy to look at several product categories for gifts you might want to give or receive. This week we will talk Drones, which are pretty cool as long as you don’t use them in a creepy way to look through neighbor’s windows.  A friend of mine uses his drone to herd his chickens, which I’m sure does wonders for their egg laying capability but looks like a ton of fun. 

Drones used to be really hard to fly but the better ones have both GPS positioning (which holds them steady in the wind) and downward facing ultrasonic sensors so they can auto land and hold a consistent altitude.   DJI is considered the top provider of personal drones this year so I’ve included a cross section of their line.   

Let’s start with high-priced and work down to more cost-friendly models.

DJI Inspire 1 Drone

The Inspire 1 just came on the market at nearly $3K ($2,899) and sets the bar for a top of the line product.   It can record at 4K (ultra HD) at 30 frames a second onboard and transmits 720 P to the controller so you can fly it from a first person perspective.  Recording on-board is important because video transmission can introduce noise and you are paying a lot for a spectacular picture.  This has both GPS and downward firing sensors making it very easy to fly for a big drone and the camera will pan 360 degrees and tilt 135 degrees giving you nice overhead shots (which can be the most spectacular with a drone). 

What makes this product unusual and drops it into the pro level is it will take a second controller to operate the camera alone so one person can fly and the other person can work on capturing the perfect shot.  This is in line with what is used to actually shoot professional movies.  It’ll fly up to 50 MPH and has a follow me option (about $350 extra), which will allow it to follow you while you are driving or flying, with about 18 minutes of flight time you’ll want to make sure you remember to stop and pick it up once the battery runs down (it does have an auto land feature).  

One cool feature is that it is articulated both the rotors and the landing gear move to give the camera an unblocked shot at most all angles and this part looks really cool. If money is not an object this is the drone for you. 

DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ 2.0

The Phantom 2 Vision+ 2.0 is a more reasonable $1,300 and it has a reported 25 minute flight time allowing it to say in the air longer (note some reviewers have only gotten 15 minutes but it appears the drop may have been due to extra cold weather).  This has an automatic return-to-home feature much like military drones if for any reason it loses the remote control signal. 

The latest software update has a no-fly zone feature, which will help keep you from getting cited for flying in controlled airspace (like around an airport). You use your smartphone and an app for the screen, but it comes with a full controller. It has GPS positioning but no downward facing sensor so this requires more skill to fly but it will over stable in place. Like the Inspire above it has a fully gimbaled camera and can shoot pictures straight down. The DJI offerings in general have an operational range approaching a mile so you can fly them pretty far (it also makes that “return to home” feature rather important. 

DJI Phantom 2

The Phantom 2 is the basic starter Drone from DJI and costs around $500, but doesn’t come with a camera (it is designed to use a Hero).  This introduces a number of limitations in terms of camera angles, but this is likely the most popular of DJI’s line. It is lower in performance, as you would expect for a basic model, but if you already have a Hero camera it may be the best deal of the bunch for enjoyment per dollar. If I was to start over this would likely be the Drone I’d start with. DJI suggests a number of accessories for this so you can increase the Drone’s capability over time and approach if not exceed the capabilities of the Vision+ in some instances.  The Phantom 2 is likely the best starter Drone on the market today if you think you’ll want to augment a starter product.   

Parrot AR Drone 2.0

The Parrot AR Drone is how I started and it begins at a very affordable price of just under $300. It has downward facing sensors that work ok for station holding and a downward facing sensor making landing easy.  You fly this with your smartphone, which would be a far bigger challenge if it weren’t for the two sensors.  I’ve found that the best controller for this is actually NVIDIA’s Shield Game controller but you are limited to about 35 yards (compared to nearly a mile with the Phantoms) of range. There is an optional addition that ads GPS that will have the drone come back, but reviews on this $125 addition suggest it really isn’t ready for market yet. This Parrot is a good starter Drone, it is relatively easy to fly but most that have purchased it seem to immediately wish they’d spent a bit more and bought one of the DJI offerings.  

Hubsan H107D Quadcopter

The Hubsan H107D at $156.90 on Amazon (it lists for $250) is certainly the bargain of this group but it is also the most limited.  It has a built in 720P camera but won’t record on-board so your image quality is reduced.  It is small, mostly handheld, and doesn’t have positioning so it is relatively hard to fly stable, and if you are flying it outdoors pick a day where there is no wind.  Products in this class are far better indoors but use the optional (only $2 and I also suggest the crash pack for under $20) propeller protectors or you’ll end up having to buy new blades. It is small and arguably the most portable of the drones, but it is also the most challenging to fly.  Granted if you break it you’ll likely not have the coronary you’d have if you broke either of the products at the top of this list.  

Wrapping Up:  A Ton of Fun

Flying Drones are actually a ton of fun and a great way to capture pictures and videos you couldn’t have gotten any other way. Be aware these things can be dangerous, and folks have been getting into a lot of trouble flying them over sports events and private property without permission; if your drone falls and hurts someone you likely will be liable and the bigger ones could do a lot of damage.  If you get one, practice with it in a remote area or near empty room (for the smaller ones) first so you don’t break it or worse, something you can’t afford to fix.  

I expect we’ll see these improve a lot over the coming months and prices will continue to drop but you can still get a lot of fun and value form what is in market today.  Fly safe!

Edited by Maurice Nagle

President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

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