Looking to get some unique aerial footage for your next cinematic adventure? After many hours of research we bought the 8 most compelling camera drones on the market into our lab for some rigorous, side-by-side testing. Drone technology has been rapidly changing in the last few years, making it very difficult to know the best way to spend your hard money. But don't worry, we've kept pace so you don't have to. Whether you're looking for something that has a good camera while still being small and portable, want a workhorse that can produce Hollywood quality video, or just something for fun flying and selfies, we can guide you to the latest and greatest flying machine for every application.
The Best Drones of 2018
Analysis and Award Winners
After the blockbuster release of the Mavic Air, the drone behemoth DJI decided to try something new. They recently teamed up with a small company called Ryze to make an inexpensive drone that still packs in enough electronic wizardry to achieve a stable hover and steady flight. The result is the Ryze Tello, far and away the best quadcopter you can get for $100 or less, and our the new winner of our Top Pick for Beginners and Kids Award. You can read more about our hands-on experience with the Tello below.
Best Overall Camera Drone
DJI Mavic Air
The DJI Mavic Air is an exciting option for those who want a portable drone that doesn't feel like a compromise on video quality or features. Drones enable you to take high-quality footage in many incredible places, but for most pilots, it is impractical to carry something as large, heavy, and expensive as the Phantom 4 Pro+. It is lighter than the Mavic Pro and produces better footage. The Mavic Air packs into a case that is the size of a large burrito and its controller has removable sticks that make it much more packable. The Air is truly in a class of its own and earned our Editors' Choice award for its stunning footage and outstanding portability.
Read review: DJI Mavic Air
Best Drone for High-Quality Footage
DJI Phantom 4 Pro+
The Phantom 4 Pro+ brings you one step closer to professional-quality footage. With a huge sensor, 4K resolution, mechanical shutter, and adjustable aperture, the Pro+'s camera delivers cinema-quality images with minimal lens flare (Sorry J.J. Abrams). It can also capture 4K video at an incredible 60 frames per second, which is double that of most models. This allows you to capture incredible slow-motion footage, or slow everything down if you captured that panning shot going a bit too fast. Its flight is stable and predictable. If you flip it into sport mode it will race around at 45+ mph and have you yee-hawing like Han Solo taking out some tie fighters. On top of all this, it boasts a controller with built-in 5.5" antiglare screen, field-leading 30 minutes of maximum flight time, and a 5-direction obstacle avoidance system. If you're looking for the highest quality aerial shots you can get without having to sell your car, this is the model for you. If you want a less conspicuous paint job, The 4 Pro+ is now available in an all black obsidian edition. If you want to save a little money and don't mind using your smartphone to view the live video feed, the Phantom 4 Pro is the same drone with a less fancy controller for $300 less.
Read review: DJI Phantom 4 Pro+
In keeping with their recent trend of minor updates, DJI recently released the Phantom 4 Pro V2.0. Like its predecessor, the V2.0 sells for $1500, or you can buy a plus version for $1800 that has a controller with a built-in 5.5" screen. The upgrades come in the form of updated props which are meant to be quieter and more efficient (and can be bought separately here) and a new OcuSync transmission technology that makes the V2.0 compatible with the DJI Goggles.
Best Bang for the Buck
While its footage can't match the exceptional clarity and color of some of its more expensive siblings, the DJI Spark is currently the least expensive way to get smooth, clear, truly high definition video. It is also quite simple to fly, and can take off and land right in your hand, making it great for grabbing a quick aerial selfie. If you add in the optional controller (for an extra $100) you get a great platform that allows for wel controlled flight and proper framing of your video. Also, DJI and many retailers have slowly been lowering the price of the Spark and its controller, so it is becoming a better and better deal by the day.
Read review: DJI Spark
If you want top-notch footage but $1800 is a bit steep, the $1200 Phantom 4 Advanced may be a good compromise. This model takes the camera of the Phantom 4 Pro+ and puts it on the body of the original Phantom 4 (DJI has been in the habit of mixing and matching parts lately). Bottom line: you get the video quality of the Phantom 4 Pro+, but with only front facing obstacle avoidance and without the integrated controller screen.
Best for Beginners and Kids
The Ryze Tello completely changes the game by somehow managing to outfit a drone with advanced flight sensors without pushing the price over $100. This means the Tello can, at the push of a button, take off and lock into a stable hover at about eye level. This is unheard of in sub $100 models, which usually require a zen-like trance of concentration to achieve such a result. This flight performance makes the Tello a perfect training platform for new pilots that want to eventually graduate to a more high powered camera drone. This also means the Tello can provide almost endless entertainment for young ones without the frustration of a steep learning curve. Sure, the small 720p camera isn't anything to write home about, but you can still capture fairly good photos and decent, albeit slightly choppy, video.
Read review: Ryze Tello
Top Pick for Autonomous Flying
The Skydio drone is unlike anything else available to consumers. It can autonomously follow you through dense woods, choppy waters, and down steep slopes regardless of whether you're on foot, skis, a bike, or boat. It's difficult for us to overstate how impressive its autonomous flight is. The Skydio can turn on a dime through obstacles that would stump even the most experienced pilots. None of the DJI drones have remotely comparable autonomous flight modes, which puts this in a class of its own.
Its camera cannot capture landscape shots or sweeping panoramas comparable to those of the DJI Mavic Pro and Mavic Air. The Skydio lists for $2500 and is far more expensive than anything we tested. Its major downfall is a short range of 300 feet and lack of a controller, which effectively make it only useful for autonomous flying, which again, is stunning. The Skydio is also too large to fit in a daypack and doesn't fold, which hinders portability and makes it difficult to travel with.
Analysis and Test Results
In recent years small unmanned aerial vehicles, more colloquially referred to as drones, have been getting less and less expensive. This has made them economical enough for some commercial applications and has even allowed the technology to be leveraged to do some real good in the world. This has also made camera angles and perspectives available to the amateur videographer that were once the sole domain of big-name directors working on grandiose, huge budget blockbusters. As a result, there is a whole new community of people producing footage that uses unique angles to highlight the innate beauty of the things us crazy humans do every day. Whether you're already engaged in this community or are excited to become a part of such a creative enterprise, our testing results and scores can guide you to the model that is going to give you the best possible experience.
All of our scores are based on real-world tests, which we designed around the goal of discovering which model can deliver the highest quality footage in the most reliable manner. For all of our tests, we flew and captured footage ourselves, and rigorously compared the results side-by-side. For more on our testing procedures, check out our how we test article.
The above chart compares each model's price and their performance in our testing (you can see names by hovering your cursor over each dot), so that you can easily find the best model in your price range. As you can see, not only is the Editors' Choice winning Mavic Air a top performer, it is also a realtively good value as its price is comparatively middle of the road. In comparison, the Phantom 4 Pro+ asks that you pay a very high premium for its field leading, but only slightly better camera. The Best Buy Award winning Spark falls a bit behind the top scorers, but also sells for significantly less, providing a good choice for fimlakers on a budget. Finally, the Ryze Tello is clearly inferior to the top models, but its incredibly low price still makes it a worthwhile purchase for kids and begginer pilots.
As fun as it can be to pilot remote-controlled aircraft, the resulting video footage is the ultimate end goal of most users, thus we made its quality our most heavily weighted metric. The resolution, sharpness, and color quality created by a camera is vital to creating a good image. To test this we took similar footage with each one of our models and carefully examined the resulting video files side-by-side on the same high definition monitor. The best resolution and most vivid colors can be ruined if the video itself is shaky and unstable, or if there are rotors impeding on the camera's view. We tested these attributes of video quality by recording both broad panning shots and fast-paced tight shots while following a fast subject. We then evaluated this footage based on how smooth and stable it was, how well the horizon was kept horizontal, and whether or not there were any visible rotors or rotor shadows present.
With the DJI Phantom 4 Pro+ and the Phantom 4 Pro truly professional looking aerial cinematography has become availble to the average consumer. Both of these models, with their large videos sensors, 4K clarity, impeccable colors, and ability to shoot full resolution at 60 frames per second, earned this models a rare perfect score of 10 out of 10 in this metric. These are also some of the few consumer level models that have an adjustable apeture, allwoing you to get good footage and minimal lens flare, even when filming into the sun. Bottom line, if you're looking for professional quality footage that won't cost multiple thousands of dollars, the Phantom 4 line is far and away you're best bet.
The above clip compares the DJI Phantom 4 Pro+, Spark, and Mavic Pro. The 4 Pro+ represents the best video quality you can get in a consumer drone, the Spark Is the smallest and most portable model DJI makes, and the Mavic Pro is a midpoint between the two that balances portability and video quality.
Coming in behind the Phantom 4 Pro models, the DJI Mavic Air earned an 8 for its video quality. The Air produces impressively accurate colors with appropriate levels of saturation and has the same camera sensor as the Mavic Pro. It has a locked focus which makes filming much easier in most situations, especially where you might accidentally focus on the wrong subject, which is liable to happen when you're basing focus off of what you see on a smartphone screen. Its gimbal is shakier than that of the Mavic Pro, which is the camera's main shortcoming when comparing the two drones. Aside from that, it records 4K footage at a bitrate of 100 Mbps and doesn't have any of the automatic post-processing (excessive sharpening and saturation) that plagues footage from the Mavic Pro.
This video compares unedited side-by-side footage from the DJI Mavic Air, Mavic Pro, and Spark. These models offer different levels of portability and camera performance. In our opinion, the Mavic Air has the best camera and is the most portable of the three.
The DJI Mavic Pro earned a score of 7 in this metric and produced less impressive footage than the Mavic Air. It had nearly no issues with propellor intrusion in our testing. Despite its small size the gimbal was surprisingly stable but did shake a bit more in quick maneuvers than the Phantom 4 Pro models. The 4K footage is generally crisp, and the colors look bright. The Mavic Pro's camera does have a relatively small sensor, and to make up for this the camera plays some tricks with exaggerated sharpness and saturation. This results in very vivid colors and a seemingly crisp image, but often with a sacrifice in quality. This results in footage that looks spectacular upon first glance, but doesn't quite stand up to scrutiny and cannot be extensively edited. For example, when first viewing some footage from the Mavic Pro we thought, "Wow those trees look so green and crisp," and then when we watch again with more discerning eyes we thought, "those trees kind of look like they're made of playdough." Bottom line, it's footage that is fantastic for a Youtube highlight reel of your adventures, but not worthy of a visually stunning documentary or professional work. DJI addressed many of the Mavic Pro's camera issues in the newer Mavic Air.
The DJI Spark produces footage at the low end of what we would call good, which earned it an average score of 5 out of 10 in our video quality testing. It sports a 2-axis gimbal, which makes its footage much steadier than that of other models in this size and price class, but we did start to see some shake when flying fast. The 1080p resolution looks perfectly clear on almost any screen, but it does lack that over-the-top sharpness many of us are becoming used to as 4K becasue more and more common. The colors are quite good and don't suffer from the over saturation of the Mavic Pro footage.
As you can see in the footage above, the Ryze Tello's video is slightly pixelated and somewhat choppy, but id more than adequate for some goofy selfies and young kids dreaming about a future sitting in a Hollywood director's chair.
The Ryze Tello was the only model that earned a 4 out of 10 in our video quality testing. It produces surprisingly stable and smooth footage given its price. The resolution from the 720p cmaera looks less than high definition, but is perfectly adequate when viewed on a smartphone screen. The resolution actually gets noticeable better when taking still images, so you can still get a decent selfie from the camers. The one thing that really hurt the Tello's video quality score is its choppiness. It often drops frames, causing the video to suddenly jump forward 1-2 seconds. This is fine for goofy homes videos and just playing around, but it certainly isn't a cinematic machine.
The above video displays the kind of propeller intrusion that is possible when flying fast and aggressively. This is one of the few weak points of DJI's Phantom line, though this really only occurs at speeds that exceed what you would hit during normal aerial filming.
At the bottom of the leaderboard in our video quality scoring were the YUNEEC Breeze 4K and the Parrot Bebop 2. These models both scored a 3 in our testing. Lacking proper gimbals, these devices just were not able to produce the smooth footage of the other models. The video was inevitably jumpy, both due to a lack of camera stabilization and the inevitably jerkier flight of these smaller models. Additionally, their small size and lack of heft meant wind significantly affected their flight performance. Even a light breeze was able to push them around, a problem we didn't experience with any of the gimbal models. The footage these models produce might be fun for kids to look at after they have fun zipping these little helicopters around, but really would not be suitable for any sort of filmmaking venture.
While fun to fly, non-gimbal models, like the YUNEEC Breeze, tend to produce quite shaky footage.
Ease of Use
It's easy to forget how much much technology is stuffed into these little quadcopters, and just how complex the required algorithms are that bend that technology to the will of the user. Effectively distilling all of this technology into a simple yet versatile user interface is a challenging task, and some manufacturers certainly do it better than others. Our ease of use testing covered every facet from opening the box, getting in the air, landing safely, and downloading footage. We evaluated initial setup, including charging batteries, installing rotors, downloading apps, and linking each model to the requisite controllers and smart devices. We also considered the controllers themselves, determining how they felt in our hands, how intuitive they were, and the usability of on-screen menus. Finally, it is not a good feeling to realize the battery is about to die when the drone is still far away, or that a connection was lost and you no longer have control. We thus scored each model on how adequately they warned the user of such less than ideal situations in order to avoid a catastrophic ending to the flight.
In general, we found that the gimbal models we tested were all relatively easy to setup and get in the air, and had nice controls. The non-gimbal models were also easy to setup but tended to have less streamlined user interfaces. The DJI Phantom 4 Pro models, DJI Mavic Air, and DJI Mavic Pro all earned the top score of 9 out of 10 in this metric. All had seamless initial setup processes and were in the air within 20 minutes of them arriving in our eagerly waiting hands. The Phantom 4 Pro+'s built-in control screen streamlines use as you don't need to fumble around with connecting a smartphone. The Mavic Air is so much easier to transport than any of the other gimbal models that we always felt pleasantly unencumbered when carrying it around.
Apart from the Phantom 4 Pro+ nearly all of the DJI models we tested were identical in their out of the box setup and controller design, thus most of them shared the same score of 9 out of 10. Setting each copter up out of the box and installing the rotors was easy using the quickstart guide. Downloading the DJI GO 4 app onto your mobile device of choice and making it talk to the controller and drone was similarly painless. The DJI models did require downloading an update on a computer and transferring it to the drone, which was less than ideal but not particularly troubling. Most of these models share very similar controllers, which our testers generally enjoyed. They felt good in your hands, the joysticks felt solid and responsive, and are long enough to accommodate flying with just thumbs or using the more advanced technique of pinching with thumb and pointer finger. The only downside to the controller interface was the menu present on whatever mobile device was in use. While it allowed navigation through DJI's expansive catalog of options and adjustments, it felt a bit crowded on the screen and was not super intuitive upon first use. DJI controllers are quick to provide clear warnings about low battery, loss of signal, or flying in a poor RF environment, all of which made us feel confident we wouldn't unknowingly wander into a sticky situation.
The DJI Spark earned a 7 out of 10 in this metric. After initial setup, it was incredibly intuitive to fly and we think beginners would have fun with this quadcopter within 10 minutes of opening the box. The only reason we didn't give it a higher score was some difficulties getting the hand gestures to work, and initially connecting the optional remote controller (which we highly recommend) can be a little confusing.
The Ryze Tello fell slightly behind the top scorers in this metric, earning a 6 out of 10. We found getting it out of the box, setup, and flying to be very straightforward. However, it lost some points becasue adjusting advanced settings with the app was slightlt more difficult. Also, Ryze does not offer any alternative to the phone based controls on the app. However, if you'd rather fly with some physical joysticks, some third party Bluetooth gaming controllers are compatable with the app.
The worst scorers in our ease of use testing were the Parrot Bebop 2 and the YUNEEC Breeze, both of which earned a score of 3. We found both of these models to be a bit finicky when connecting them to a smartphone. Both also use only a smartphone or tablet as a controller. This means virtual touchscreen joysticks that provide no tactile feedback, making flight feel much more tenuous and much less controlled.
Over the past few years, consumer models have become increasingly compact and lightweight, with pilots no longer having to choose between camera quality or portability. Traveling with a drone ensures that you'll never miss a shot and enables you to get footage in locations that several years ago would not have been feasible. The Air sets a precedent for high-performance travel drones, furthering what DJI began with the Mavic Pro.
The Ryze Tello easily took home the top score of 10 out of 10 in our portability testing due to its fit in the palm of your hand size and its feather light weight of 0.2 pounds. However, it also isn't powerful enough to fly outdoors on any but the calmest of days, so it's not exactly a usable tool for the filmaker on the go.
The DJI Spark and Mavic Air tied as the most portable full fledged camera drones in our review with scores of 9 for portability. The Spark is lighter and can be flown out of your hand. In its case without a controller, it weighs only 1.8 pounds and takes up as much space as the Mavic Air does in its case with the controller separate. Both can be flown without controllers but the Spark's controller is an accessory that must be purchased separately, while the Air includes one.
It's almost hard to believe the combination of performance and portability found in the Mavic Air. We liked its camera more than that of the Mavic Pro and found it to be just as portable as the Spark.
Drones that are more responsive and fly in a more predictable manner don't only result in better footage, they reduce the stress of buzzing your $1000 investment around trees and over rivers. Additionally, being able to maintain solid flight control at higher speeds increases your possible repertoire of shots. Takeoff and landing are some of the riskiest points in an aircraft's flight, so in our testing we closely evaluated the stability of each model during these possibly tenuous maneuvers. We also determined how steadily each model was able to hover in variable conditions, and how well and smoothly each responded to the commands from the remote controls. We also tested each model's various autonomous flight modes and automatic return to home functions (note: it is our opinion that return to home functions should only be used as a last resort, click here for our full thoughts). Most models also have a follow function that will automatically follow a particular subject. This function works well but can become finicky for high-speed activities like mountain biking and skiing.
The DJI Phantom 4 Pro+ and Phantom 4 Pro both shared the top score of 9 out of 10. Across the board, these models are incredibly stable and flight always felt solid and locked in. Both have sport modes that allow them to break 40 mph and fly like they were designed to race rather than capture footage. No other model was able to match this combination of strong stability and sporty maneuverability. Combine that with rock-solid takeoffs and landings, reliable autonomous flight functions, and incredible responsiveness, and you've got a fleet of top-notch fliers.
Despite its small size the DJI Mavic Pro also earned a score of 9. We found it to be impressively stable in all aspects of flight, and it also has a sport mode that allows it to hit 40mph. The only slight downsides were due to its size. The smaller quadcopter did feel a bit less maneuverable in high winds, and its short stature meant we had to be very careful of high grass during takeoff and landing.
Coming in just behind the Mavic Pro, the Mavic Air received a score of 8. It was just as maneuverable as the Mavic Pro but felt a bit less stable in windy conditions, which was not a significant issue since we generally avoid flying during periods of high wind.
Orbit point of interest functions fly a circle around a determined point.
The DJI Spark scored a 7 for its flight performance. Its small size limited its acceleration, top speed and maximum flight time (16 minutes) slightly, but we were enamored with the fact that it could take off and land in your hand. The Spark could only reach 31 mph in sport mode and was otherwise very slow, maxing out at roughly 7 mph. It feels fairly responsive, and being able to fly it with simple hand gestures is great for taking selfies.
The DJI Spark can perform some basic maneuvers using only hand gestures. This is great for framing and taking a quick photo.
In this metric, the non-gimbal models were again at the bottom of the scoreboard, with the YUNEEC Breeze, the Parrot Bebop 2, and the Ryze Tello all picking up a score of 5 out of 10. The YUNEEC and Parrot were shakier on takeoffs and landings than most of the other models, and drifted more during flight. The Tello was actually more stable than both of these much more expensive models, providing much more predicatble flight behavior. However, the YUNEEC does have some automnomous flight functinos that the Tello does not, and the Parrot's maximum flight time of 25 minutes is much longer than the Tello's 13 minutes. The YUNEEC maxes out at a surprisingly short flight time of 12 minutes.
Video downlink refers to the live video feed that streams from the camera. For most models, this is displayed on a third party smartphone or tablet, but some do have a screen built into the controller. A smooth, real-time, high-quality video downlink allows you to see exactly what is being recorded at any moment, meaning you can react quickly and effectively to get the exact shot that you want. For the more imaginative amongst us, it can make you feel like you're actually hanging outside of a helicopter with a video camera pressed to your face. If the video downlink is choppy or low quality, getting the perfect shot becomes a crapshoot. This is because instead of flying based on what the camera is seeing, you have to look at the drone itself, infer which way the camera is pointing, and guess at what the shot looks like. This disconnect can easily lead to subpar footage. Video downlinks are also very important for framing shots. If the downlink isn't showing exactly what the camera is seeing, or parts of the downlink are obscured by on-screen menus, you can end up with things in the edge of your shot that you didn't want there. We evaluated video downlink quality by taking all of the models on a long flight while noting the quality of the picture and any glitches we experienced in flight.
Here again, we saw a clear split in performance between the gimbal and non-gimbal models. The DJI Phantom 4 Pro+ led the field in this metric with another perfect 10 out of 10. Its downlink remained crystal clear and lag free throughout all of our tests. DJI claims the built-in controller screen is twice as bright as a smartphone and we believe it. It was the only downlink we were able to easily see even when bright sun was glaring down at it.
The DJI Phantom 4 Pro, DJI Mavic Air, and DJI Mavic Pro all held the second step on the podium with a score of 9 out of 10. These models provided consistent, high definition video to their controllers throughout our testing with no glitches or drops in quality. The only minor complaint we had with the downlinks of these models, as well as the other DJI models we tested, had to do with the design of the DJI GO 4 app. The menu bar at the top of the screen obstructs a small part of the video feed, making it difficult to see exactly what is at the very top of the shot. Swiping on the screen removes the menu and lets you see the entirety of the video, but then you can't monitor things like the amount of battery remaining. The Mavic is slightly better in this regard because its controller has a small built-in screen that displays some things like battery life.
The DJI Spark picked up a 6 out of 10 in our video downlink testing. The downlink was very steady and we never experienced interruptions, but it did look a bit grainy at times. Also, when using a smartphone alone you have to cover the actual video feed with your fingers to use the virtual joysticks. This problem is completely rectified by getting the optional remote controller.
During our flights the Ryze Tello's video downlink provided a surprisingly clear, only slightly pixelated picture. However, occasionaly the feed did freeze up for a second, and the app forces you to cover most of the pictture with your thumbs when flying. These downsides lowered its score to an average 5 out of 10.
The YUNEEC Breeze and the Parrot Bebop 2 both scored a 4 in this metric. This steep drop-off in scores was mostly due to their interfaces. Both of these models use only a third party mobile device as a controller, utilizing virtual touchscreen joysticks to fly. Having your thumbs on the screen inevitably means you're blocking at least half of the video downlink from view. This makes it nearly impossible to effectively use the downlink to frame a moving shot. It works fine if you want to slowly maneuver the camera into place to take a still selfie, which is really what these models are better suited for overall. The resolution of the downlink of both of these models was also significantly lower than the rest of the field.
A Note About Return to Home Functions
We'd like to take this opportunity to share our thoughts on return to home (RTH) functions. These functions, available on most of the $300+ consumer drones, allow you to press a button that prompts the drone to use its internal navigation to autonomously fly back to its starting point and land. This function should only be used as an absolute last resort, like if a controller malfunction prevents you from piloting the drone back yourself.
We feel the need to point this out because letting your drone fly home and land autonomously increases the chance of hitting people or things (we have a graveyard of fliers that crashed into trees while we were testing the RTH function). Also, some manfucaters advertise models that can, "…come home at the push of a button," as if this is a feature that can be used everyday, even though the manuals of those same models say the RTH funtion is strictly for emergencies.
Drones are incredible pieces of technology that have brought some of the tools of professional filmakers into the hands of creative hobbyists. We think the Mavic Air is the best option for most aspiring aerial filmakers, as it offers great video in a very portable package, at a price point that isn't too ridiculous. If you want truly professional looking footage you can shell out for the Phantom 4 Pro+, but you do sacrafice some portability. We know buying a drone can be stressful and confusing, but we believe we've completed the most exhaustive and scientific side-by-side comparison of the current models available on the market, and we hope this has helped you decide which one you will use on your path to spreading awe on Vimeo, Facebook, and Instagram.
Still not sure? Take a look at our buying advice article for more info.