Purchase options for your first racing quadcopter
It can be exhausting trying to figure out how you want to assemble your first racing quadcopter. Do you buy the deal of the day off Amazon, a kit from an unknown vendor, or slowly piece together a list of parts? Let’s break down each option and give you some pointers on things to look for, and to be aware of, during the process.
Build From a Kit
Buying your drone as a pre-packaged kit is probably the cheapest way to get flying. Since you are buying several parts from a single vendor, they will generally pass some of the savings on to you – and those savings can be massive. What you need to look out for are kits that include subpar or untested parts. Make sure the ESCs you are getting, for instances, run BlHeli and that the flight controller supports CleanFlight. Failing to do this will restrict your two most important electronic components to using 2+ year old software – which really sucks when you consider that FPV miniquads have seen most of their development in the last year and a half.
Also try to find a kit that uses an already popular frame, such as the ZMR 250, the QAV 210 or similar. Remember that miniquads almost never come with a manual – and when they do, it’s in Chinese. Sticking with frames that already have a following on RCGroups will give you instant access to a great community that is always willing to help you out. It’s also a good way to guarantee you are getting a quadcopter that meets the durability standards of the community.
An example of a great kit that has been making the rounds on social media lately is the “Dubai racer” kit from gearbest.com. Most of the components in the kit are top notch – even if they are mostly clones. Coming in at $150 without FPV gear is an absolute steal. You would be spending well over $200 if you bought these parts by themselves.
You also get the experience of putting together your own quadcopter and knowing upfront that the pieces all work together. This helps with getting the “under the hood” knowledge that will be invaluable later on when you have your first bad crash and need to make repairs.
Build From Parts
Building your drone up from parts you individually selected is the best way to ensure you get exactly the quadcopter you want. Realistically, it is the only way to stay on top of technology and get the very best that the market has to offer. For instance, if you are looking to run BlHeli_S ESCs, you will have a hard time finding a kit or ARF drone equipped with them – at least for the next couple of months. There is also something intrinsically fun (at least to some of us) about doing your due diligence on all of the parts that make up a miniquad and selecting exactly those parts that you want. Not only do you end up with a great quality drone, but you also understand everything that you put into it a little bit better. When you inevitably crash and break something, you will already be familiar with the internal components and have a pretty good idea how the pieces come apart. This will be incredibly valuable, as it will save you hours of time researching relatively simple tasks and allow you to focus on the root problem.
Unfortunately, this is probably the most expensive route to take too. Even if you find some killer deals for all of the parts you need to buy, it’s likely that shipping costs from multiple vendors alone will kill any savings you managed to find. I’ve yet to find a single hobby shop that offers every part I want – though that’s admittedly because I’m picky about the frames I use, and most good frame shops don’t have great part selections. Similarly, this will be the slowest method for getting in the air. Waiting for multiple vendors to get you your parts can take a huge amount of time. Moreover, dealing with different return policies, customer service, etc. can make the process much more of a headache for someone completely new to the hobby. More often than not, you probably won’t be dealing with established vendors like Amazon – you will be ordering parts from China or some guy that started a private brand or import company in his garage. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but rather just something that first time builders should keep in mind when ordering individual parts for their first quad.
Pre-built, or Almost Ready to Fly (ARF – sometimes also referred to as RTF – Ready to Fly) quadcopters are the easiest way to get into the hobby. You will receive a relatively large box in the mail containing a drone that only needs one or two additional parts and a battery charge before you are tearing through the air. Surprisingly, you can often net some pretty hefty savings on ARF drones if you look around, too.
There are two big downsides to buying pre-built miniquads, though. The first is the variability. There are a few ARF quadcopters on the market that I can guarantee you will like. Among these are ImmersionRCs Vortex Pro and the TBS Vendetta. These are fantastic kits with tons of engineering and thought put into them. They fly great, they look great, and they have a great customer service team behind them. The problem? They cost a ton!
Chances are, when you are looking at pre-built quadcopters, you are looking at one of the insane deals you’ve found on Banggood, Amazon, Walmart, or some other site. That’s where variability comes into play. There are a ton of prebuilt quadcopters on the market that are utter junk – and that’s putting it politely. There’s nothing like plopping down a Benjamin or two to buy a fancy new aircraft that immediately flips over onto the concrete and never flies again. That’s how to instantly get turned off of the hobby. In fact, we wanted to link examples in this article, but decided not to in order to prevent someone from accidentally ordering one of these quads. If you are curious, just go to Amazon and search around for some of the pre-built quads. When buying a RTF or ARF drone, do your due diligence and search for “<drone name> rcgroups” on Google. Most options on the market will have at least one guy who gave it a try and posted some results – more often you’ll find full threads discussing the drone. From there you can learn about the issues, if any, that are present for your chosen aircraft.
The other downside is that you are putting off learning about maintenance by buying a pre-built miniquad. It is the nature of the hobby that you will need to fix you quadcopter – and when you do, it can really suck when you are not the one who built it. This is especially true for those parts that need to get hard-soldered on. This is not to say it is impossible, or even inadvisable – my first quadcopter was a Vortex 285 – it’s just you need to approach this purchase with the right mindset. Realize that you are going to crash and break things and that learning how to fix them may cost more time and money than if you had built the quad from the ground up yourself.
The upside is the polar opposite – you get a working drone in the mail! It provides an excellent reference platform for how a good drone should be built and configured. For me personally, learning all of the facets of how drones work on a piece-by-piece basis as I broke things or wanted to upgrade with my Vortex made the whole learning experience much more digestible.
Pros and cons of each purchase type
So now that we have gone over the different choices you have for purchasing a drone racer, lets look at the pros and cons:
|Build from kit||
|Build from parts||
|Pre-built / ARF / RTF||
Bottom line buyers recommendation
Build from a kit if…
- You want experience building your racer from the ground up.
- You don’t care about having top of the line / early adopter parts.
- Cost is a factor – building from a kit is likely the cheapest option.
Build from parts if…
- You like to tinker and want to dive into the building process and research each component.
- You care about having a top of the line quad with the latest and greatest.
- You know you love the hobby and don’t mind investing the time and money (this option will cost you both!).
Buy pre-built / RTF / ARF if…
- You wanted to be in the air like, yesterday.
- You are uncomfortable with the mechanical process of building a complete quadcopter… but understand you will have to make repairs in the future.
- You are totally OK with a bad crash costing you your entire quad, as some of the lower end pre-built options may be unsalvageable parts wise.
And no matter which option you go with, when you do start putting everything together, be sure to check out our post on improving durability when building your quadcopter. This should hopefully help prevent some damage and make your quadcopter stronger from the get go.