Prices given for these items reflect the listed retail price at the time of publication.
I've always been a sucker for flying toys. When I was a kid I'd go mad for radio-controlled planes, helicopters, blimps, backyard rockets, and anything else that went up in the air. These toys always seemed to offer the purest expression of fun—a sense of liberation, of being able to do something that shouldn't be possible for kids.
At least, that's what I imagined. My youthful lust for flight was never requited, as my parents considered flying toys too dangerous, expensive, and intricate for children. And they were right. From afar, an RC plane looks like the world's best toy, but when you go looking for one, you discover that you need to learn about servos, balsa, radio waves and all manner of epoxy before you can get behind the wing.
In the last few years, however, flying toys have gone mainstream—you no longer need to be a hobbyist to get one or to fly one. This is especially true of mini-RCs, planes and helis that are small enough to fly indoors. Recently, I tested lots of different such toys. I was open to any toy that didn't require loads of assembly or a steep curve to fly. What I found was both maddening and mesmerizing: Some toys can't fly worth a lick, but a couple were good enough to suck up every waking hour. When I wasn't flying them, I was thinking about flying.
I evaluated the toys on the following criteria:
Batteries: How do you power the toy, and how long does it last in flight?
Air worthiness: How stable is it in the air? How well does it handle crashes? Can it take off and land cleanly?
Controls: How much control do you have over its flight? How well does it respond to your direction?
Fun: Is it a blast to fly, or a bother?
Each category is worth 10 points.
Air Hogs Hawk Eye, $76.98 on Amazon.com
The Hawk Eye is basically a digital camera wearing a propeller beanie. In theory, this is a can't-lose mashup—men of all ages dream of the pleasures to be had in taking wing with a tiny, silent, all-seeing eye. (Imagine how such a contraption could revitalize the plotlines of Porky's-type college skin flicks.)
As a camera, the Hawk Eye is much better than you'd expect. You hit one button on the controller to take a picture and another to start and stop recording video; it connects via USB to your PC or Mac for quick image downloading. Sure, the Hawk Eye's videos and snapshots are tiny and grainy, but they're clear enough to give you a good look at, say, that strange shack in your neighbor's yard covered in Do Not Enter signs.
The problem is that, as a bird, this thing is more chicken than hawk. The Hawk Eye can't do anything you'd like a helicopter to do—it can't fly straight up at takeoff , it can't hover in place, it can't fly in a fixed direction, and it can't land without crashing. Worse, instead of radio waves, the Hawk Eye uses cheaper and much less reliable infrared light to talk to its controller—the same technology in your TV remote. As a result, the copter only responds when you're standing relatively close by, and when there's no obstacle between you and its sensor. Even then, I noticed a constant, frustrating lag between when I mashed the joystick and when the Hawk Eye would deign to respond. This made for dozens of three-second-long flights that ended in spectacular crashes—and then a final five-second, uncontrollable voyage to the top of my roof, where the Hawk Eye remains to this day, unmissed.
Batteries: 4 points. The controller uses three AAA batteries. The copter charges up while plugged in to your computer; a 30-minute charge gives you about four minutes in the air.
Air worthiness: 1
Air Hogs Vectron Wave, $39.95 on Amazon.com
The Vectron Wave is the Steve Reich of flying toys—aggressively minimalist, nearly to a fault. The Wave only goes up and down. If you set it on the ground, and turn it on, it'll fly up and hit the ceiling. After a while it falls nearly to the floor. It goes on like this for about 20 seconds, up and down and up and down, until it settles into an unsteady hover.
At this point the fun, such as it is, begins. The Vectron has a sensor on the bottom that can detect your hand. Place your outstretched palm underneath the hovering craft and it shoots up—remove your hand and it falls back down. That's all. Other than by force—batting it with your palm, blowing on it—the Vectron can't be made to go in any direction. Its remote control offers a single option—a big red button marked Stop, which comes in handy when the Vectron gets stuck in some out-of-reach corner of your house. This will happen often, by the way, because however big a room you have, the Vectron seems drawn to walls and ceilings—and when it crashes, it goes skittering all over the place as if it's been shot.
Still, because the Vectron takes no skill to fly, it could be a great choice for young children who can't yet get the hang of a controller. Or for older people who are really, really high.
Batteries: 3 points. The controller uses six AA batteries. Plug the Vectron into the controller to charge it up. A 30-minute charge gives you about five minutes in the air.
Air worthiness: 4
Geospace Unmanned Recon Air Vehicle, $28 on Amazon.com
Like the Vectron Wave, the Geospace just goes up and down. But the Geospace's controller works much better than the Vectron's hand-based system. The tiny, keychain-sized remote has a single slider that sets the Geospace's motor speed.
I found this surprisingly fun. To get the Geospace where you want it, you've got to take into account acceleration, gravity, and the thermals floating about your house; the toy could be a good way to teach kids about these unseen forces. It's also got several flashing LEDs that make for a trippy effect as it spins in a dark room. (Be careful when flying in the dark, though: My Geospace's rotor broke after one violent confrontation with a wall.)
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
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.
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
Syma S107, $29.50 on Amazon.com
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
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