Looking to get in on the drone flying fun but don't want to break the bank? We drew on our experience testing expensive camera drones to find the best model you can buy for $100 or less. The technology developed in high end drones is slowly becoming cheaper and making its way into some of the more reasonably priced models, meaning you can now get some impressive flying ability without a triple-digit price tag. However, many companies are trying to capitalize on the current drone mania by offering low priced options, making it difficult to know which ones are actually worth buying and which are just dead weight. Luckily we've done the research for you, so whether you're looking for a fun toy, or a cheap way to learn some piloting skills, we have you covered.
Best Budget Drones Under $100
We just added the newly released Ryze Tello to the review. Honestly, this little drone blew us away. If your budget is $100, this is unequivocally the best drone you can get. You can read more about our experience flying this quadcopter below.
The recently released Ryze Tello completely changes the game for sub $100 drones. It is one of the only models you'll find in this price range that has actual flight stabilization sensors, and those sensors are actually made by the king of drones, DJI. The result is the only model we've ever seen in this price range that can take off and settle into a new perfect hover without any user input. Most of the other models in this price range require a lot of skill and joystick mashing in order to hover in place. This tiny but capable drone flies so similarly to the expensive camera drones that it is a perfect stepping stone for people looking to hone their piloting skills before making a big investment. It is also the most predictable and least frustrating flier of the sub $100 models we've tested, making it a great first drone for kids as well.
Our complaints about the Tello are very minor. The video can be a bit choppy, but it is still as good or better than the video produced by the other models in this price range. Also, it doesn't come with a physical controller, only a touchscreen-based controller that can be used on your phone. If you want to use real joysticks the app is compatible with many third-party Bluetooth gaming controllers. Finally, like any small drone, the Tello isn't a huge fan of wind. Bottom line, if your budget is $100, get the Tello, it blows everything else at that price point out of the water.
Read review: Ryze Tello
As we said, the Ryze Tello is revolutionary in that it has flight stabilization sensors while only costing $100. This allows it to achieve a stable hover at the press of a button and to fly very predictably. The rest of the sub $100 models we tested offer a more fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type of experience. Getting any of them into a stable hover will require some skill and a lot of feathering of the joysticks. Likewise getting them to fly a controlled pattern will take some practice. The added challenge of this kind of flying can be more fun (we've flown the EACHINE around for hours), but if you want something that is super easy to fly right out of the box, you'll have to get the Tello.
If you're looking for an introduction to aerial videography, the DBPOWER X400W FPV is the perfect first step. It utilizes the same remote control with smartphone video feed interface that full fledged camera drones use, so you can get used to flying with a camera. If you're having some trouble getting the orientation down, it also offers a beginner friendly headless flight mode. This essentially calibrates the drone so that the remote control always treats the side facing away from you as the front, which can be less confusing when you're flying around in circles. If you really want an immersive experience, you can pair this drone with third party first person view headsets and feel like you're actually flying.
The DBPOWER X400W FPV has two minor downsides. The first is that it ships in multiple pieces, so you have to do a little construction work before you can get it flying. This process is fairly easy, but it does rob you of that fun straight out of the box satisfaction. The camera is also quite small and thus fairly low quality. You can still take some cool shots and flying with the real time video feed is fun, but if you view those videos on anything larger than a smartphone they look quite grainy.
Read review: DBPOWER X400W FPV
There's nothing quite like buzzing a tiny quadcopter around your house, and the EACHINE E010 Mini provides that entertainment at a rock bottom price. The included remote control lets you fly with intuitive joystick controls. It has a beginner mode that ramps the power back a bit and makes flying much easier, and an advanced mode for once you earn your pilot wings and develop a need for speed. If you like to tinker, there are many online tutorials about how to add a camera to this drone and turn it into a first person view flyer if you start craving a new flying experience.
By far the least attractive quality of the EACHINE E010 Mini is its battery life. In beginner mode flight times top out at around 5 minutes per charge, and can be even shorter if you're flying fast. You can somewhat get around this by buying some spare batteries. Again, if you fancy yourself handy, there are also plenty of online tutorials for rigging the EACHINE E010 Mini with larger batteries.
Read review: EACHINE E010 Mini
If you're looking for something that is simple and fun to fly, you can't do much better than the Holy Stone HS170 Predator. This tiny firefly of a drone offers quick and responsive flight. With a little practice you'll have it weaving figure 8's around your furniture. The included remote control is fairly intuitive and mimics those of larger models. It also can stand up to some pretty nasty crashes, and comes with an extra set of blades in case you do manage to break a propeller. The maximum flight time of 8 minutes gives enough time for some fun aerial maneuvers before a 50 minute recharge cycle. If you're the impatient type, you can buy extra batteries to keep the fun rolling. Holy Stone also offers great and responsive customer service in case anything goes amiss.
The biggest problem facing the Holy Stone HS170 Predator is a tendency to lurch forward during flight. This can be fixed by properly calibrating the drone, which involves holding the joystick down and to the left before you take off. When this is done the quadcopter is quite stable, but if you are so excited to fly that you don't read the manual, you may be left thinking you've purchased a dud. It also lacks a camera, which may be a dealbreaker for some. If you like Holy Stone and want a camera you can upgrade to the Holy Stone F181, but it generally sells for just over $100 and thus was not included in this review.
Perfect for people who are on the go, the TOZO Q1012 X8tw folds down into a tiny package that can easily be tossed into a backpack. It also features a camera and a real-time video downlink that lets you see what the camera is seeing as you're recording. It also has three flight modes, including a beginner friendly headless mode that orients the drone based on which way the pilot is facing. All this functionality can give you a feel for what flying a higher end camera drone is like, but without the big price tag.
The TOZO Q1012 X8tw's biggest downside is its battery life. Most users get around 5 minutes of flight time before needing a recharge, whereas most models in this range can get 8-9 minutes. That may not sound like a big difference, but that extra 3-4 minutes can feel like an eternity, especially if you've had some not so patient kids waiting an hour for the battery to charge. Also, like all models in this price range, the video this drone produces is ok if viewed on a small screen, but quickly gets pixelated if you move to anything larger than a smartphone.
Nudging right up against our $100 limit, the UDI U818A carries one of the best cameras we've seen on a drone in this price range. It has two flight modes: a beginner and video friendly slow mode, and a full speed mode for whipping around the trees in the backyard. If you're having trouble staying oriented it also has a headless mode, which orients the drone based on the position of the controller, something many people find much more intuitive. Both the propellers and prop guards are very flexible, meaning the drone will bend rather than break in most crashes. Though the maximum flight time is an average 8 minutes, the drone comes with a spare battery and a portable battery charger, so you can keep the fun going for hours.
While the UDI U818A does have a relatively good camera, it still has quite a small sensor, so you have to keep your expectations realistic. The video and photos it produces are pretty good, certainly better than those from the DBPOWER X400X FPV and about even with those from the TOZO Q1012 X8tw, but they still look grainy on anything larger than a smartphone screen. You also don't get a real-time video feed, so you're essentially shooting video blind. The DBPOWER and the TOZO both let you see what you're filming while you're filming it.
While teeny tiny models like the EACHINE E010 Mini are fun to fly around the living room, sometimes you just want something that you can zip around the backyard and not worry about light breezes or minor crashes. That's where the Syma X5A-1 comes in. It provides fun, worry free flight in a size that makes it feel like you're flying a real piece of machinery rather than a tiny toy. It also has a headless flight mode so that beginners can more easily get oriented.
The biggest knocks against the Syma X5A-1 are its lack of a camera and its relatively short, 5-minute battery life. If you're just looking for a fun flying experience, you won't miss having a camera, but you might miss those few extra minutes of flying while you're waiting for the battery to recharge.
A relative newcomer to the inexpensive drone world, the Holy Stone HS160 Shadow provides a decent camera and a slightly lagging real-time video downlink (with the use of a smartphone) in a package that can fold down into a profile so slim you can put it in the back pocket of your jeans. It also boasts a maximum flight time of 8 minutes, and it comes with a spare battery, so you can keep the fun going. If you want something with a camera that you can toss in your bag just in case the urge to fly strikes, this is a great choice.
Like all models in this price range, the video from the Holy Stone HS160 Shadow is usable, but certainly not high definition. You also get a bit of a trade off in durability due to its small size, it feels a bit flimsier than most of the other models on this list. Finally, it does not have a headless mode. This is fine once you get used to flying, but many beginners appreciate having a headless mode when they're first learning to fly.
Read review: Holy Stone HS160 Shadow
Inexpensive Drone Buying Advice
Drones are becoming more and more common, and it probably won't be too long before a friendly, four-rotored flier delivers your pizza. Now you can get in on all the flying fun for $100 or less. However, like all inexpensive electronics, sub $100 drones vary widely in quality. We've curated a lits of our favorite inexpensive models (above) and have compiled some useful buying advice to help you in your ques for some inexpensive aerial fun (below).
This review focuses on drones with list prices of less than $100. In contrast, most consumer level camera drones list for anywhere from $500 to $2000. Spending more can open up whole other worlds of capabilities, namely producing video that is worthy of being watched on a big high definition screen, but starting with a sub $100 model is the perfect way to gauge if you want to take the leap and spend the big bucks.
Pros of Inexpensive Drones
Inexpensive drones have the advantage of being, well, cheap. This makes them great for people who want to learn some piloting skills before moving on to a more expensive model, and for kids that want a flying toy, as crashing and destroying one won't be a financial catastrophe. Also, some people prefer the more extra required skill, practice, and unpredictably that comes with flying a drone that doesn't have any stability sensors.
Cons of Inexpensive Drones
High end drones have an impressive amount of technology stuffed into their shells, which means they have a lot of capabilities that their cheaper siblings don't. Namely, they have sophisticated sensors that allow them to achieve a perfect, stable hover with no user input. With cheaper models you'll be doing a lot of feathering of the joysticks to get them to stay still. High end drones can also generally fly over a mile away from their controller and have batteries that last between 20 to 30 minutes. For sub $100 models those figures shrink to about 200 feet of range and 5-9 minutes of flight time per battery. Finally, high end models can produce beautiful, high definition video, while the footage from cheaper models generally doesn't fare well on anything larger than a smartphone screen.
The above video compares footage from one of the better sub $100 camera drones (left: Holy Stone HS160 Shadow) and one of the least expensive high end camera drones (right: DJI Phantom 3 Standard, lists for $500). You can see that the inexpensive drone video looks grainy and choppy compared to its high end sibling.
A Real Remote Control is the Way to Go
Many manufacturers cut costs by not providing a dedicated controller for your drones, instead offering a smartphone-based app. This is fine if you're using a very stable flier like the Ryze Tello, but most drones in this price range require quick yet subtle adjustments to fly well. Those kind of adjustments are incredibly hard to execute using a touchscreen based controller. Therefore, for most of these fliers, having a controller with physical joysticks is a must.
What is a Headless Flight Mode?
Most models have different color LED lights to indicate the front and back of the quadcopter but if you've never flown before it can be surprisingly difficult to keep track of those lights once you take off. Headless flight modes orient the drone so that pushing the joystick forward also makes it fly away from you, and pushing the joystick back makes it fly towards you. This is somewhat limiting if you're trying to do some intricate maneuvers, but it can often make flying feel much more intuitive when you're just starting out.
Do I Need a Camera?
This sort of depends on your reason for buying a drone. Are you using it as a test run before investing in a high end model? In that case you'll definitely want a camera, and a real-time video downlink, so you can get the full experience. If you just want to have some fun zipping a drone around your backyard, you might as well save a few bucks and go with a cameraless model. If you're looking for an inexpensive way to get some aerial photos and videos, then definitely get a camera (having a real-time video downlink will make framing those shots much easier too). Just be sure to keep your expectations in check. Sub $100 drones generally have cameras with tiny lenses and sensors. Even if it technically is a 720p camera, shoving all those pixels onto a tiny sensor is not going to create a true HD image.
Get Some Spare Batteries, You'll be Happy You Did
Most of these inexpensive models have maximum flight times of around 5-10 minutes and take about an hour to recharge. 5 minutes of flying followed by an hour of waiting isn't a great fun-to-boredom ratio, so you'll probably want to get a spare battery or 2 so you can keep the good times rolling. Some models actually come with 2 batteries in teh box, and the UDI U818A even has a portable charger so you can top up your batteries whilst on the go.
Sub-$100 drones can provide hours of entertainment for both kids and adults, and can provide a low cost 'trial period' before making a big investment in a high end model. However, like all inexpensive electronics, you can easily buy a promising looking model that ends up being a piece of junk. So tread carefully, check out our recommendations, and get flying!
— Max Mutter and Steven Tata