Prices given for these items reflect the listed retail price at the time of publication.
Just before the holidays in 2010, I reviewed a bunch of flying toys—planes, helicopters, and UFO-like drones that could take to the air indoors and out. That year turned out to be a turning point for radio-controlled flyers. Before then, RC planes were a trudge to assemble and very difficult to fly. Today’s models, by contrast, are tiny, agile, and packed with sophisticated electronic flight stabilizers that make them ideal for beginners.
Flying toys are now ubiquitous, and each year they’ve gotten better. A couple of weeks ago I called up Peter Li, who owns the flying store ThinkRC, to ask about the latest trend. “Quadcopters,” he said. These birds have four rotors and a gyroscope that keeps them stable in the air. They’re slightly more expensive than traditional choppers, but because they’re bigger, they’re more airworthy outdoors. (Most tiny RC flyers can’t deal with wind.)
This year, I decided to try out more airborne toys, including two quadcopters. I evaluated the flyers according to these criteria:
Batteries: How long does it last on a single charge?
Airworthiness: How well does it fly?
Fun: Does it make you smile?
Each category is worth 10 points.
Air Hogs Heli Replay, $69.95 on Amazon.com
The Heli Replay is a standard tiny RC chopper with one trick up its sleeve—in addition to an RC controller, you can also fly it with your phone. The helicopter comes with a small infrared transmitter that you plug into the audio jack of your iOS or Android device. Once you install the Air Hog app, you can pilot the bird by tilting your phone.
That’s the theory, anyway. In reality, the smartphone control is worthless. The app didn’t work very well—it crashed often on my iPhone 5—and even when it did, using the touchscreen was less intuitive than the real controller.
But even with standard RC controller, the Heli Replay was hard to fly. I could get it to go up and down easily, but it had trouble going forward. (It would fly at odd angles and then slam into the wall.)
Batteries: 6 points. The controller uses four AAs. You plug the helicopter into the controller to charge it up—a 30- to 40-minute charge gives you about 5 minutes of flying time.
Syma S107, $25.98 on Amazon.com
Back in 2010, the S107 was my favorite tiny RC helicopter. It was well-built, cheap, and because it has an on-board gyroscopic stabilizer, it is exceptionally easy to fly. For a beginner pilot, there’s nothing better to start with.
Li, of ThinkRC, told me that not a lot has changed in the last couple years. The S107—which ThinkRC sells for $24.95—remains his best-selling entry-level RC flyer. Its everlasting popularity has made it even better: If you fly your bird enough you’re bound to crash it fatally, but now there’s an endless supply of spare parts that will allow your S107 to last forever.
Batteries: 7 points. The controller uses six AA batteries. You can charge the helicopter either by plugging it into the controller or into a standard USB adapter (like your smartphone’s charger). A 20- to 30-minute charge gives you about 5 minutes of flying time.
Syma X1 RC Quadcopter, $35.99 on Amazon.com
I loved this thing. Like its helicopter, Syma’s quadcopter is very stable and easy to fly, but it’s got a couple advantages that make it worth the extra $10.
First, it flies pretty well outdoors—it keeps relatively steady even in a slight breeze that would down standard RC choppers. (In a stronger wind, though, it’s toast.) Second, it’s more maneuverable. Because it has four radio channels, it doesn’t just fly up and down and forward and back—it also goes sideways. (Most tiny RC helicopters can only fly forward. Some, including the S107, can do reverse, too, but only the few with four channels can also go sideways—and they’re often difficult to control.)
Finally, the quadcopter can do midair flips with the push of a button. Your friends will drool!
Batteries: 7 points. The controller takes four AA batteries. You charge the quadcopter by plugging it into a computer or a standard USB adapter, which isn’t included. A 30-minute charge gives you about 5 minutes of flying time.
Air worthiness: 8
Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 Quadricopter, $299.99 on Amazon.com
Two years ago, I decreed that the Parrot Drone far and away my favorite flying toy. “This thing is insane,” I wrote of its spectacular specs—two on-board cameras, a bevy of flight sensors, stabilizing gyroscopes, and even an auto-pilot computer. Now Parrot has updated the Drone with better components. The new drone has a high-definition, front-facing camera (spy on your neighbor with better fidelity!), an altitude sensor that allows the bird to fly more than 100 feet high (the old version topped out at 20 feet), and a new flight-control system that allows for even more intuitive control. It even does midair flips.
You control the Parrot Drone with your phone or tablet—it works with iOS and Android devices. Flying is like playing a video game: While holding down an on-screen button, you tilt your phone in the direction you want the device to fly. All those sensors and processors keep the drone extremely stable, so unlike every other remote-controlled flying toy, the drone goes exactly where you want it to. When you let go of the controls, it keeps its position fixed in the air. It can do so even in a slight breeze—and when a stronger gust pushes it off course, the drone will usually recover to its former position. (I mainly flew the drone outdoors; it’s technically capable of flying indoors, but it’s so big that you’d have trouble doing so even in a McMansion.)
In the first version of the AR.Drone, you did have to remember where the drone’s nose was pointed—if you tilted your phone right, the plane went to its right, not your right. But thanks to an on-board magnetometer, the drone now knows how its orientation compares to yours. After you enable a flying mode called “Absolute Control,” when you tilt your phone to the right, the plane will go toward your right, even if that’s different from its own right. This makes flying drop-dead easy. There is essentially no learning curve with the new drone.
And that gets to my only slight problem with it: It can sometimes be a bit boring. Because it’s so capable by itself, it doesn’t even really need you. Even its tricks are CPU-powered—double-tap the screen and the bird rises up a few feet, does a somersault in the air, and returns to its original position. I suppose there are some ways to challenge yourself: The plane’s app shows you a live on-screen image from the drone’s cameras, so, theoretically, you can fly it even while it’s out sight. I didn’t try that, but it could be a good way to scare your neighbors.
What I’d really like from the next version of the drone is full autonomy. Let’s make it a drone worthy of its name—I give it some GPS coordinates, it flies there by itself, then returns. I’ll be right here at my phone, watching the show.
Batteries: 6 points. The Parrot Drone comes with its own rechargeable battery, which gives you a 10- to 15- minute flight after a 90-minute charge. Extra batteries sell for $40 each.
Air Hogs Battle Tracker, $69.88 on Amazon.com
I expected the Battle Tracker to be a worthless gimmick. It’s an RC chopper and a robotic anti-aircraft turret. It’s your job, as the helicopter pilot, to disable the gun by shooting little yellow discs at it; all the while, the turret tracks your chopper, locks on to its location, and pelts you with Nerf-like foam missiles. (There’s also a two-player mode in which your friend controls the turret.)
I thought the whole thing sounded too good to be true. The anti-aircraft gun, I suspected, wouldn’t be able to target the chopper accurately, and the chopper wouldn’t be able to fly straight while loaded down with shooting discs.
Happily, I was wrong. Not only is the chopper pretty airworthy, it also shoots really well. Those flying discs fly straight, fast, and far. The turret, meanwhile, is a marvel of toy robotics. It tracks your bird’s position with frustrating precision, knocking you out of the sky even if you’re five or six feet away. Best of all, it has sound effects—it reports on its status in a robotic whine, and when it shoots a missile, there’s a frightening, thunderous snap.
Of all the flying toys I tried, the Battle Tracker was the most fun. It addresses the central dilemma of RC flyers—once you’ve gotten it to fly straight, what do you do now? What I like best is that the game is just difficult enough to keep you playing. Even if you’re a good pilot, getting your chopper to hit the turret dead on will take many tries. (The turret has a sensor that can detect when it’s been shot—when it does, it theatrically shuts itself down.)
My only gripe with the Tracker: It comes with too few missiles and shooting discs. Because they go quite far, and because the tracker can follow your bird for a full 360 degrees, the ammo ends up everywhere. Air Hogs doesn’t sell any replacements, either, so if you lose them, the toy becomes useless. So don’t lose them.
Batteries: 6 points. You need 10 AA batteries to power the tracker and the remote control, which is also the charging pad for the helicopter. After about 30 minutes of charging, you get about 5 minutes of flying.