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Flying robots are a part of life now. At this point, it’s no secret that drones are burgeoning — despite a lingering sense of unease among parts of the general public, the miniature machines are carving out a spot in everything from commerce to agriculture to the military. Because they tend to be fun to fly, they’ve become increasingly popular with consumers, too.
What exactly qualifies as a “drone” is still a bit vague, though. Shop around online and you’ll see the market’s generally split into two parts: There are the cheaper, toy-like devices that are meant for casual flying around the house, and there are the pricier, higher-grade devices that, while still fun, are really made for aerial photography (and, occasionally, racing).
It’s the latter that’s really made drones a thing. While the smaller stuff can be good for learning to fly in the first place, you don’t get any real utility out of your unmanned aircraft until you drop at least a few hundred dollars. It’ll be pricey, and you’ll have to register with the FAA, but grab the right one and you’ll be able to take sweeping shots in a package that’s still very accessible for rookie pilots.
So which drones are those “right ones” today? Below we’ve rounded up a handful of higher-end, (mostly) consumer-oriented quadcopters that anyone looking to upgrade should have on their shortlist for the immediate future. There aren’t many of them, in all honesty, so your decision shouldn’t be too complex.
DJI Phantom 3
And that’s because DJI dominates the market. If you’ve seen a fancy-looking drone flying on TV or YouTube in the past few years, chances are it was made by the Chinese company. It’s easily the most popular brand of the bunch, but its popularity isn’t unwarranted — it’s simply made the best stuff.
We’ve previously called the DJI Phantom 3 Advanced ($769) the best drone on the market, and its step-up model, the DJI Phantom 3 Professional ($918), isn’t far behind. Both can be had for significantly less than their original going rate, and while they’re now a year old, they’re still excellent quads. (And probably worth it over the newer Phantom 3 4K ($649), what with its shorter operating range.) You just have to ask yourself if the Professional’s 4K camera is worth the extra cash over the Advanced’s 2.7K unit. Either way, have a look at our buying guide for a fuller rundown.
DJI Phantom 4
If you want the latest and greatest, though, you may want to wait a few days for the just-launched DJI Phantom 4 ($1,399). It starts shipping from DJI and Apple on March 15, then hits other retailers on March 23. It’s a ways more expensive than its predecessors, but that cash appears to get you some noticeable upgrades. It’s a bit better looking, it packs a bigger battery (which DJI rates at a very solid 28 minutes), and it features a new “Sport Mode” that lets more adept users race around at up to 45 miles per hour. All this comes alongside a touched-up 4K camera.
More notably, it appears to be idiot-proof. This is looking like the year where basic object avoidance hits the consumer drone market — if glowing reviews from The Wall Street Journal and The Verge are to be believed, the Phantom 4 can successfully sense 3D objects in the world around it, stop itself (if it’s moving forward), then let you move it to safety. A “TapFly” mode also leverages this tech, letting you double tap a point on your controls’ map, then have the drone fly there on its own.
We’ll test the drone in the coming weeks and try to verify DJI’s claims for ourselves, but if the company’s past successes are any indication, the Phantom 4 could equally accommodate novices and experts alike.
Yuneec Typhoon G
If all of that is still just a bit too much, the other manufacturer to keep tabs on is Yuneec. Its Typhoon Q500+ ($699) and Typhoon Q500 4K ($900) are both decent, slightly cheaper alternatives to the Phantom 3 family, and its forthcoming, six-rotor-packing Typhoon H ($1,799) aims to compete with more professional drones like DJI’s Inspire 1 (more in a sec) for much less.
We’ll highlight the Yuneec Typhoon G ($489) here, though. It’s become a relative bargain over the past few months, and, unlike DJI’s models, allows you to use your own GoPro camera to capture footage. Now, DJI’s integrated camera setup still results in better quality most of the time, but if you’ve already paid for your own action cam, the savings might be worth it. The whole thing isn’t too difficult to handle on top of that, though, again, you’re mostly picking this because the price is right.
DJI Inspire 1
Finally, if money’s no object at all, you may be willing to verge into the “prosumer” realm. The prices here are astronomical — this model is actually the cheapest in the Inspire series — but they’re the best suited to taking smoother, higher-quality video.
The Inspire 1 ($2,449) here is built like a piece of professional equipment, with a sharp 4K camera that’s upgradeable and fully rotatable. (Drones like the Phantom are fixed in a way that makes their cameras less nimble when turning side to side.) It can also give two people control simultaneously, with one managing the camera while the other angles the aircraft.
This is a big, heavy machine with just okay battery life — about 15 minutes — and an obviously limited market, but if you have professional aspirations and deep pockets, it does well. For most, though, the 4K camera on either the Phantom 3 Professional or Phantom 4 should be more than fine.
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