Unfortunately, there’s very little in the middle which can provide both good value and at a price that doesn’t break the bank. While you’d be hard pressed to find a decent drone under $500, luckily we’ve taken the time to hunt down the best of the best in this price range, and put together a list.
We’ll also make recommendations based on different user types and drone activities, so you can rest assured you’ll find the best drone available for what you’re looking to do. Enjoy!
DJI Phantom 3 Standard
Why should you buy this: It’s the most bang for your buck, and it flies like a champ.
Who’s it for: Anybody looking for an inexpensive but full-featured drone
How much will it cost: $400-$500
Why we picked the DJI Phantom 3 Standard:
DJI’s quadcopters are the cream of the crop, with some models fetching prices of close to $3,000. Have no fear though: With the Phantom 4 now its flagship mid-range drone, prices for the older Phantom 3 have fallen considerably – in fact some places sell it for as little as $400. And given that this drone was formerly one of DJI’s flagship models, you’ll get a UAV with features not normally found at this price point.
The Phantom 3 Standard has a built-in 2.7K camera capable of capturing video at 30 frames per second, along with 3-axis gimbal stabilization and the ability to live stream 720p video straight to your mobile device. It also touts 25 minutes of flight time, and an automatic return-to-home feature.
Another cool feature is that you can fly the Standard on a number of preset flight patterns. One is designed to continuously fly in a circle facing a set point of interest, one will track behind you, and a third allows you to map a series of waypoints, allowing you focus on your camera work while the drone flies in a preset pattern.
The best cheap drone for beginners
Parrot Bebop 2
Why should you buy this: Simple flight controls and outstanding durability makes this a great pick for novice pilots.
Who’s it for: Anybody looking for a drone that flies well and can take a beating
How much will it cost: $400-$550
Why we picked the Parrot Bebop 2:
The Bebop 2 is on the high end of the drones in our list, but we’ve started to notice some retailers selling the drones at about $500, with a few refurbished models selling for about $100 less. Several Digital Trends staffers are proud Bebop owners, and our own Drew Prindle gave the original Bebop a glowing review more than a year ago.
Like the original Bebop, the new model excels in simplicity, durability, and a really enjoyable flying experience. Instead of using a traditional joystick controller, the Bebop takes commands from your smartphone or tablet — which is limiting at first, but also pretty fun and approachable for beginners. A wireless connection provides you with a first-person view of what the drone sees, and you simply tilt your phone to steer it around.
The second-gen Bebop extends the flight time from 22 to 25 minutes, and adds a fish-eye lens and a flashing LED on the rear to increase visibility in darker scenarios, making it a better choice even though you’ll be able to grab the original model for around $350 at most places.
The best selfie drone
Why should you buy this: It shoots fantastic pics and videos, and is also highly portable.
Who’s it for: Those looking for a photography-focused UAV
How much will it cost: ~$390
Why we picked the Yuneec Breeze:
The Breeze is a smaller, lighter, and cheaper version of Yuneec’s popular Typhoon line. While it doesn’t have near the functionality of its bigger brethren, we think this is one of the best drones for the price when it comes to photography. Features like live streaming back to your mobile phone while in flight and autonomous filming modes such as Orbit, Follow Me, and Selfie are features you’ll find on drones many times this price point.
We also found super-cool features like GPS including indoor tracking useful for flying indoors (some more expensive drones we’ve tested haven’t flown as reliably indoors as we’ve liked, and despite its plasticky feel, the Breeze is surprisingly durable.
Add to this flight times that closely matched Yuneec’s 12 minute claims, and easy control via a companion app for both iOS and Android, and you just can’t do any better than the Breeze at this price point. Even our top rated Phantom 3 doesn’t have the quality camera than to the Breeze does.
The best cheap drone for kids
Why should you buy this: It’s stable and easy to fly, and it comes with a range of fun attachments.
Who’s it for: Kids and adults who want a drone that can shoot darts
How much will it cost: $120
Why we picked the Parrot Mambo:
Truth be told, you can get a cheaper drone that your kid will probably go bonkers over just the same, but they’ll actually be able to fly this one. There are a boatload of mini drones out there right now that you can get for under $50 — but in our experience, the vast majority of them are too squirrelly and difficult to master for your average kid.
Parrot’s new Mambo is different. Unlike most other mini drones, this one is actually designed specifically for kids. In addition to a boatload of motion sensors and advanced autopilot software that keeps the drone stable, Mambo also comes with a handful of attachments that make it more fun and engaging than a basic quadcopter. Inside the box you’ll find a cannon attachment, 50 foam cannon balls, and a grabber arm that can clamp and carry small objects.
And the best part? Parrot also gives you the option of piloting via smartphone or with a dedicated dual-joystick controller. The Flypad, as it’s called, is sold separately for $40 bucks, but it might be worth the extra dough if you don’t have a spare smartphone lying around and don’t feel like handing your kid your brand new iPhone every time he/she feels like flying.
The best for GoPro owners
Why should you buy this: GoPro owners should look no further than 3DR for great drone video.
Who’s it for: Aspiring drone pilots who already own a GoPro, and want something that works with it
How much will it cost: ~$410
Why we picked the 3DR Solo:
Our suggestions so far have essentially included some type of camera system on board. But if you’re a GoPro owner, there’s really no need for you to purchase a drone with another camera – the GoPro is a pretty good camera in and of itself.
For these folks, we suggest the 3DR Solo, which is specifically aimed at aerial photography. It has a range of flight modes including Selfie, Cable Cam, Orbit, and Follow, and the fact that you don’t have a built in camera means that once newer GoPro’s come out, all you need to do is swap out the old GoPro from the drone mount. We’re not complaining about the 20 minute average flight time either.
We were impressed with the manual flight controls, which should be sufficient for even the most experienced pilots, and a top speed of 55mph – one of the fastest consumer drones we’ve tested. Oh by the way, if you decide to fly this thing like a bat out of hell, it’s durable too. And if for some reason it malfunctions and crashes, 3DR will replace the drone AND your GoPro if it’s damaged. That’s great peace of mind.
The best cheap racing drone
Why should you buy this: Because you want a drone you can race and upgrade, but don’t want to build one from scratch
Who’s it for: Novice and intermediate racing pilots
How much will it cost: ~$420
Why we picked the Lumenier QAV250:
Lumenier’s QAV250 wins our pick for the best racing drone for a few different reasons, but the first and most important is that it is modular and customizable. You can buy it pre-assembled from Lumenier, and while the stock configuration should be more than enough to satisfy pilots who are new to drone racing, you are also not locked in to that configuration forever. If you ever feel like upgrading your drone, you can easily swap out any of the parts for newer, better gear.
This flexibility is crucial. If you look at the winners of most drone races, you’ll notice that most pros fly their own custom drone rigs that can be tweaked and tuned to boost performance. The technology that powers drone racing is progressing at a breakneck pace, and the last thing you want to do is dump a bunch of money into a pre-built racing rig that’ll become obsolete in a few months. The best course of action is to get a rig that’ll get you in the air and racing, but also allow you to evolve — and that’s precisely what the QAV250 will do.
How we test drones
Build quality & design
The first thing we do when we get a new drone is beat it up a little bit. We don’t kick it down the stairs or anything, but we’ll give it a few knocks, twists, and shallow drops to assess the build quality and durability. Does it feel flimsy, or does it feel like it could survive a crash landing in the park? We give each review unit a light beating (and usually a couple unintentional crash landings) before we give you a definitive answer on how durable it is.
Flight performance, range, and autonomy
To gauge flight performance, we put the drone through a number of tests to see how the manufacturer’s claims hold up. First we take it to a local football field and see how fast it can clear 100 yards, then do some calculations to get an objective reading on speed in miles per hour. After that, we do a similar test to assess ascent and descent speeds, and all the while, we’re also taking notes on how responsive the controls are, how stable the craft is, how far it can go before it’s out of range, and what the overall piloting experience is like compared to other drones.
Battery life and charge time
After we’ve taken the drone out to play for a while and jotted down a few notes about how long the battery lasts, we put it on the charger and grab a stopwatch to determine recharge time. Then we take it back out and do a hover test. By flying the drone in the least demanding conditions, we can get a sense of what the maximum flight time is. And finally, we take it out a few more good, hard flights to find out how long the battery lasts (on average) under normal conditions.
Camera, accessories, and upgradability
If the drone we’re testing happens to have a camera capable of recording, we capture as much footage as we possibly can. We’ll shoot in dark places, light places, and places with lots of color and contrast. This footage is then compared to all the highlight reels that we filmed with other drones, which helps us get a sense of the camera’s strengths and weaknesses. We also test any accessories that accompany the camera, like lenses, filters, gimbals, or FPV goggles. Finally, we’ll also let you know if the camera setup is upgradable, so you wont be stuck with an outdated shooter in two years.
We also do our research
When we don’t have the ability to test things ourselves, we start with a full assessment of the product’s specs. After that we’ll comb through any available reviews and forum posts online to check for outstanding problems, and usually try to find at least two videos of the product in action. We cannot physically review every drone yet, but we’re committed to helping you find a great quadcopter, regardless.