Mavic mini in the air
Derek Skinner/Shutterstock.com

What to Look For in a Drone in 2021

While all multirotor drones are similar-looking at first glance, there are significant differences under the hood. Thankfully, you only need to scrutinize a few key areas before settling on a purchase.

Let’s start with the drone’s camera. The same general rules apply here as with any digital camera purchase. Make sure you look for drones that offer the resolution and framerate you want—the better the picture and video you want to take, the better resolution and framerate you’re going to require. If you’re looking to do more professional work, it’s also worth noting if the drone can take RAW photos or videos that have a flat color grade so that they can be graded later.

Sensor size, aperture, and other features are also important if you plan on taking great pictures, but a lot of this requires knowingΒ how photography worksΒ to make full sense of these specs. All of our drone recommendations specify their use case so you don’t have to worry too much about these aspects unless you’re a picture aficionado.

Next up is drone size and weight. Drones vary from tiny nano-drones that fit in your hand to massive flying machines that are powerful enough to haul cinema cameras into the air. What size of drone you’re happy with will depend entirely on your needs.

As a general rule, smaller drones won’t have the professional specs or features of larger ones, but you may be surprised at how good small drones have become. But it’s also important to keep in mind that in some countries, drones below a certain weight are exempt from licensing or registration. If you’re taking your drone abroad, be sure to look up the laws!

Flight performance and transmission technology are also central concerns. Drones that use standard WiFi connections have limited ranges and are more prone to interference, ruining your view. Proprietary systems usually perform better and reduce the chance that you’ll have a flyaway drone or lose contact.

You should also pay attention to how fast the drone can fly, what altitudes it can operate, and how much wind it can handle. If you buy a drone that can’t handle the environment you want to fly in, it’s just going to spend its time on the ground photographing the local insect life—if it doesn’t get broken entirely.

Finally, we have flight endurance, or essentially the drone’s battery life before it needs to return to home for a new battery. The latest drones are zeroing in on 30 minutes, but larger or older drones will offer less time in the air. You need to move out of the consumer drone space and into the professional realm if you want more, so expect 30 minutes to be about the limit.

With all this in mind, here are our best drone recommendations.

Best Drone Overall: DJI Air 2S

DJI Air 2S on gray background
DJI

Pros

  • Amazing price for what you get
  • Excellent 1-inch camera sensor with 4K/60 capability
  • Supports 10-bit Dlog-M format for professional color correction in post-production
  • Next-generation active obstacle avoidance

Cons

  • No sensors covering lateral movement
  • The Mavic 2 Pro still shoots noticeably better photos and video

The original Mavic Air caused an upset to the DJI product line by being so good, making people question why the Mavic Pro was worth the extra money. With the release of the improvedΒ DJI Air 2S, you need to be an absolute stickler for image quality to justify the additional price of the (also improved) Mavic 2 Pro.

While the Air 2S might not have the Hasselblad technology built into the Mavic 2 Pro, it still sports a massive one-inch camera sensor and can record high-quality 5.4K video, compared to the Pro’s 4K limit. The 2S also brings a newer version of DJI’s OcuSync technology, offering transmission at distances up to 7.5 miles compared to the Pro 2’s 6.2-mile promise.

The areas the 2S falls short of the more expensive Pro 2 are speed and obstacle sensing. The Pro 2 is just over 2 miles per hour faster than the S2 flat-out. The Mavic Pro 2 also offers omnidirectional obstacle sensing, whereas the 2S has four directions only. Granted, with all the features the Air 2S packs in, it’s going to be a great drone for nearly everyone.

Best Drone Overall

DJI Air 2S

The Air 2S is more affordable, yet a nearly as good alternative to the flagship DJI Mavic 2 Pro. Its features make it a great purchase for most people!

Best Budget Drone: DJI Mavic Mini 2

dji mini 2 on grey carpet
DJI

Pros

  • Fixes most shortcomings of the original Mavic Mini
  • Incredibly compact
  • Same wind resistance as bigger DJI drones

Cons

  • Only downward obstacle sensing, so not for beginners
  • 4K video is limited to 30fps
  • Faster than the original, but still significantly slower than other DJI drones

The original DJI Mavic Mini was undoubtedly revolutionary, bringing serious drone technology to below the magic 250g weight limit separating drones that need to be registered and those that don’t. This means you could, for example, take this drone on holiday to another country and most likely have no obstacle to flying it other than finding the space to pack it.

Of course, the DJI Mini 2Β isn’t really about shaving off as much weight as possible to fly through a legal loophole; it’s about making the smallest practical drone you’d want to use for serious content creation. With that being said, the Mini 2 manages to drop even more weight off compared to the original Mini, down to 242g.

The Mavic Mini was undoubtedly the best drone in its price and weight class, but it also had some serious flaws. The video quality was limited to 2.7K footage, it has lackluster wind resistance, and relied on standard WiFi for video transmission.

Thankfully, the Mini 2 fixes many of the image issues with the superior DJI OcuSync system. The drone also has improved wind resistance and finally offers 4K video, albeit at 30fps. While its image quality isn’t quite up to the one-inch sensors you’ll find on the Air 2S or Mavic Pro 2, it’s far from shabby.

DJI’s Mavic Mini 2 is undoubtedly the best budget camera drone on the market, but do bear in mind that it only has downward obstacle sensing, so the Mini 2 requires more advanced piloting skills than its more expensive family members.

Best Budget Drone

DJI Mini 2

The Mini 2 stands toe-to-toe with bigger, more expensive drones in most respects while being tiny in both size and price. It may be a more affordable alternative, but don't mistake this drone for a toy.

Best Photography Drone: DJI Mavic 2 Pro

Mavic 2 Pro in the air
DJI

Pros

  • Hasselblad camera is class-leading in the consumer drone space
  • Fast and powerful
  • Omnidirectional obstacle sensing

Cons

  • Not as good as drones that carry DSLR/mirrorless cameras, but much cheaper
  • The Air 2S is nearly as good besides the camera

The Mavic 2 ProΒ is the flagship photography and videography drone from DJI in its compact, foldable range of drone products. The star of the show here is the Hasselblad L1D-20c camera. While the camera’s raw specifications are essentially the same as the less expensive Air 2S, this model includes advanced color technology, improving the look of images in both subtle and dramatic ways.

While the Mavic 2 Pro is an excellent video drone in its own right, it’s photography where this product really shines. Thanks to the large sensor and color technology, there’s a noticeable difference in still picture quality over many other drones on the market.

Apart from its photo and video chops, the Mavic Pro 2 is a supremely capable drone with both a high 44.7 mph Sport Mode top speed and omnidirectional obstacle sensing. Although, as with DJI drones in general, you can’t use Sport Mode and obstacle sensing simultaneously, so be careful not to crash into anything when using it.

If you want to take great photos with maximum convenience and portability, the Mavic 2 Pro is hard to beat. The DJI Phantom Pro V2.0 is perhaps betting looking on paper, but you’ll lose all of the compactness, portability, and ready-to-shoot nature of the Mavic 2 Pro, making it difficult to recommend to all but the most discerning of photography nerds.

Best Camera/Photography Drone

DJI Mavic 2 Pro

DJI's flagship consumer drone really shines in its photography, where you'll have to spend much more money on a large, clunkier drone to get better results than this Hasselblad-infused camera can provide.

Best Video Drone: DJI Inspire 2

DJI inspire 2 on green background
DJI

Pros

  • A proper cinematic camera drone without the high cost
  • Supports 6K 30fps CinemaDNG and 5.2K Apple ProRes
  • Can hover precisely indoors without GPS signal
  • Fast enough for cinematic action videography

Cons

  • Cheap for a professional cinema drone, very expensive compared to consumer drones
  • Doesn't support the camera and lens variety of professional high-end cinema drones

Before we go any further, it’s important to know that the Inspire 2 was released all the way back in 2016. There are persistent rumors of an Inspire 3, although it missed the purported 2020 release date. As such, the Inspire 2 is definitely less advanced than the latest compact drones from DJI. You won’t find as much intelligence here, and you’ll definitely have to be a sharp pilot to get the most out of the Inspire 2 safely.

So why consider it for videography when an Air 2S or Mavic 2 Pro can spit out impressive video content? The simple answer is that the Inspire 2 is a professional video monster, even five years after release. It offers 6K RAW video recording and can create 6K CinemaDNG and 5.2K Apple ProRes footage. If you want footage that can be professionally graded for color in post-production, this is the drone you want.

The next most important feature here is the ability to quickly and easily change out cameras. The Zenmuse X7Β is designed to provide that cinematic Super 35 equivalent look. You’re not getting that from a Mavic drone or any of its competitors. You also have the option of the Zenmuse X5S, a less expensive option with a somewhat smaller sensor. However, both cameras offer the all-important option to use different lenses, so even the technically less-capable X5S makes great cinematic-grade footage.

The main downside of the Inspire 2 is cost. You need to buy the drone, buy the camera of your choice and then pay for a ProRes license. Add your preferred selection of lenses, and the price goes up almost as rapidly as the drone lifts off.

The other thing to look out for is the lack of obstacle avoidance. The Inspire 2 can only detect obstacles directly in front and above it. That’s a far cry from omnidirectional obstacle sensing in the latest Mavic 2 Pro, but it’s not a major issue given how cinematic camera drones are generally flown.

Best Video Drone

DJI Inspire 2

Although it's getting a little old now and an Inspire 3 might be around the corner, the DJI Inspire 2 is still the best cinematic-grade video drone you can buy at this price. The next-best option is thousands of dollars more.

Best Drone for Beginners: Ryze Tello with Controller

kids playing with ryze drone
Ryze

Pros

  • Very inexpensive, but not toy-like
  • Programmable
  • Doesn't require a controller and supports smartphone control

Cons

  • The camera is basic and not suitable for content creation
  • A physical controller is a separate purchase

The Ryze Tello is an interesting product. It’s not meant to be a traditional camera drone; instead, it’s a platform to teach you about drones and perhaps create some new uses for them. The 5MP, 720p camera isn’t going to win any awards, but as a casual bit of fun that can be shared on social media, it’s just fine.

This is not a DJI drone, like the other picks on our list, although some marketing and packaging mention the company. Instead, some of the software and the flight controller is provided by the drone giant while Ryze carves out its own niche in the industry.

But, if you want a physical controller for the Tello, you’ll have to pay extra for it and learn proper manual flight skills. Otherwise, you’ll be restricted to the smartphone app, which doesn’t prepare you for real drone flying.

Even with the additional cost of the (optional) controller, the Tello is still amazing value for the money—if you’re realistic about what the drone’s hardware can actually do. Thanks to the Scratch programming language, you can also create software for your Tello. That means it’s a great way for kids of all ages to get into basic programming and robotics, and the Ryze Tello is just beginner-friendly in general.

Best Drone for Beginners

Ryze Tello Drone

The Tello is an excellent educational drone and one made for those who like to tinker. If you buy the optional physical controller, you'll have advanced drone technology for toy-drone money.

Best Racing Drone: DJI FPV

DJI FPV on table in sand
DJI

Pros

  • Offers a gentle learning curve
  • No assembly required
  • Better video transmission than any other racing or FPV drone
  • Can actually create great footage

Cons

  • While very fast, the FPV isn't as fast or light as typical racing drones
  • The optional motion controller is a little gimmicky
  • Generally not suitable for official competitive use

Drone racing is a growing sport that’s still quite a niche, and so there aren’t many mainstream products that really fall neatly into the category. At this point, if you actually want to race drones competitively, you’re much better off buying or building a custom racing drone. But if all you want is to satiate the need for speed and feel like Superman tearing around the sky, then what you want is the DJI FPV.

While it’s not the fastest or most maneuverable FPV (First-Person View) drone you can buy, the DJI FPV is the most polished and complete product in this category. DJI has offered FPV experiences using headsets before, but sadly support for the DJI Goggles was dropped and are no longer in production. So if you want the immersive drone experience, the DJI FPV is the official answer from the company.

The FPV is an amazing machine with a properly good 4K, 60fps camera, cutting-edge low-latency video transmission technology, and an option motion controller. There’s really nothing quite like it! This DJI drone represents the next generation of FPV drone flight and offers a new way to create drone content. FPV footage and the sorts of shots you can get with the FPV range from difficult to impossible with more traditional camera drones.

DJI has gone a long way to ensuring that you don’t trash your expensive drone out on your very first flight, as well. It has automated protection systems, an emergency brake, and a hover feature.

While the FPV may not be as fast as the most barebones carbon fiber custom racer, it’s about twice as fast as a Mavic 2 Pro with superior wind resistance. So, despite all the safety nets DJI has included, you can still wreck it with ease if you’re not careful. But if you’re a solid pilot and want to take your drone content to the next level, the FPV is the drone to get.

Best Racing Drone

DJI FPV

The DJI FPV is the only properly polished first-person view racing drone on the market today. It requires no assembly and offers massive speeds and crystal clear video transmission to your headset.

Profile Photo for Sydney Butler Sydney Butler
Sydney Butler has over 20 years of experience as a freelance PC technician and system builder. He's worked for more than a decade in user education and spends his time explaining technology to professional, educational, and mainstream audiences. His interests include VR, PC, Mac, gaming, 3D printing, consumer electronics, the web, and privacy. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Research Psychology with a focus on Cyberpsychology in particular.
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