Air Hogs Hawk Eye, Parrot AR.Drone Quadricopter, and four other flying toys.

What to eat, drink, buy, and think during that special time of year
Dec. 14 2010 6:42 PM

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's a Parrot AR.Drone Quadricopter!

The best flying toys on the market.

Prices given for these items reflect the listed retail price at the time of publication.

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Batteries: 4 points. The Geospace's charging pod requires an unconscionable eight AA batteries. A 10-minute charge gives you about three minutes of flying time.
Air worthiness: 5
Controls: 5
Fun: 6
Total: 20/40

Air Hogs Sharp Shooter.

Air Hogs Sharp Shooter, $28.26 on Amazon.com

The Sharp Shooter is a traditional remote heli with a twist: It shoots missiles. Press the big red button on its controller to discharge one of two spring-loaded plastic darts from the hull.

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This sounds gimmicky, and I assumed that the darts would throw off the chopper's balance, rendering it unstable in the air. But after a bit of practice, I found the Sharp Shooter to be surprisingly graceful—and pretty easy to fly, too. It takes off without a hitch, it recovers well after small crashes, and although there's a small delay between when you press the red button and when the missiles shoot off, it's easy to line up a shot. (The Sharp Shooter comes with flimsy targets to shoot, so I'd favor a dogfight—get two Shooters and battle your friend in the air.)

The Sharp Shooter's only limitation is lack of maneuverability. It can't hover in place; like a shark, it's always moving forward, which means that you're always turning big circles in the air. It's also extremely light, making it unworthy in even the slightest breeze. The Sharp Shooter is only going to be fun if you've got a big, empty room to fly in.

Batteries: 6 points. The Sharp Shooter's controller requires six AA batteries. You plug the chopper into the controller to charge it up. A 20- to 30-minute charge gives you about five minutes of flight time.
Air worthiness: 7
Controls: 6
Fun: 8
Total: 27/40

Syma S107.

The S107 is the RC chopper of my childhood dreams–and considering its low price, the best value in the air. It's easy to get the hang of, deliciously maneuverable, and quite forgiving of crashes. It can do nearly everything a real chopper can do—fly forward, turn while flying, hover in place, turn on its axis while hovering, and even fly in reverse. (But it can't fly sideways, unlike real choppers; see this Comanche Attack helicopter.) The controller fits well in your hands, and the sticks move smoothly, letting you make very tiny adjustments to the flight pattern. The S107 is also very durable—I crashed a lot at first, and the chopper emerged unharmed.

The only problem is that it's a bit slow; even at full speed, it'll take the S107 many long seconds to cross a large room. The speed feels just right for beginners, but it can get dull as you become used to the controls. When that happened, I moved outside, where I found a fresh challenge in pushing the S107 to stay aloft in a slight breeze.

Batteries: 8 points. The S107's controller requires six AA batteries. But the chopper can be charged with a USB cable that you plug into your computer or an iPod-type USB wall plug; a 20- to 30-minute charge gives you about 10 minutes of flight time.
Air worthiness: 8
Controls: 8
Fun: 9
Total: 33/40

Parrot AR Drone Quadricopter.

Parrot AR.Drone Quadricopter, $299.99 on Amazon.com

This thing is insane. The Parrot Drone carries two live-streaming video cameras (one faces forward, the other toward the ground), two internal gyroscopes, an accelerometer, and an onboard auto-piloting flight computer (it runs Linux and has 128 MB of RAM).

You control the Drone over Wi-Fi through your iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad—Android support seems imminent—in pretty much the same way you'd maneuver a plane in a flight-sim video game: Tilt the phone forward, backward, or side to side to move the Drone in that direction. The phone's screen shows you a live view of what the Drone sees at that moment, opening up the possibility of flying when the Drone is out of view (a possibility I didn't explore; I was too scared of someone calling the cops on my terrifying UFO).

The Drone comes with two different snap-on hulls meant for either indoor or outdoor flight, but most of the time I used the indoor hull (the one with four big circles to protect the plane's four rotors) while flying outdoors. Flying indoors, I found, was pretty much impossible—the Drone is so big that you won't have much room unless you live in a shopping mall.

Yes, the Drone was vastly more expensive than any other toy I tried. But the moment you power it up, you'll see that it's worth every penny: Flying the Drone is a thrill. There's no learning curve, and I was able to perform spectacular maneuvers right out of the box. As I got more comfortable with the controls and tinkering with the Drone's computer settings, I found even more amazing and surprising features. When it goes over a hill, it adjusts its altitude accordingly; when you get a call on your phone, it stops and hovers in midflight; when it gets blown away from its stationary hovering position by the wind (or if you push it out of position), it'll fly back to recover its spot.

I did notice a couple of bugs. A brick ledge in my backyard seemed to confuse the Drone's altimeter. A few times when it flew over the ledge, the plane would suddenly begin to rise high up by itself. Another time as it flew over the same spot its engines suddenly cut out and the Drone crashed to the ground, very nearly taking out my wife standing below. Because the Drone's software is completely upgradable over the Internet, though, I expect such bugs will get ironed out over time. Even better, there are soon to be more phone-based apps that will allow the Drone to perform more tricks—one that I'm particularly excited about will let you play a kind of laser-tag with other Drones.

Batteries: 7 points. The Drone uses a removable lithium-polymer battery; one is included in the package, and you can buy extra batteries for $29.99 each. I'd recommend extras: A full charge takes 90 minutes but gives you only about 10 minutes of flight time.
Air worthiness: 10
Controls: 10
Fun: 10
Total: 37/40

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.