This article was last updated on August 11th, 2017.
It can be confusing trying to figure out how you want to assemble your first racing quadcopter. Do you buy a drone that’s ready to fly out of the box? A kit from an unknown vendor? Or do you slowly piece one together from 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 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. 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.
Build From a Kit
Buying your drone as a pre-packaged kit is a great way to save some money over building from parts. 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 instance, run BlHeli and that the flight controller supports BetaFlight. 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.
Pre-built quadcopters are the easiest way to get into the hobby. They are assembled at a factory or retail location by experts, test flown, then packaged up and sent to you. You can be assured that when you take your new drone out of the box, it will fly great – at least until your first crash! Pre-built drones will generally come in one of two ways:
Almost Ready-to-fly (ARF) kits are generally quadcopters which do not include a radio control receiver, transmitter, batteries or a pair of FPV goggles. The reasoning is that these four items can be easily moved in and out of several different quadcopters – so why would you want to buy them over and over again. More importantly, a nice Radio Control system and a decent pair of FPV goggles are critical to enjoying this sport – you want to make sure you get something nice.
As a result, almost every pre-built quadcopter we can recommend comes in the ARF form. We recommend you start out by buying a RC transmitter like the FrSky Taranis and practicing with it on a Simulator. After you have some stick time, you can buy an ARF, bind it to your Taranis, and go!
Ready-to-fly (RTF) quadcopters are exactly how they sound – completely ready to fly. They will come in a box with a controller, batteries, charger and sometimes even FPV goggles. You only need to charge the batteries and go out to the field. The problem is that you will be paying $100 or more for a very poor radio system, charger, goggles, etc. You are much better off saving that money for something that will last you a long time.
Our long time stance, until 2017, was that you should probably go the kit-built or parts-built route for your first drone. Our reasoning was that buying RTF would get you flying faster, but when it came time to fix your pre-built drone, you would be in for a world of hurt. With an influx of incredibly well built and high-performance pre-built drones coming on the market in late 2016 and into 2017, we are starting to soften that stance.
The real trick to buying a pre-built drone is to make sure that it is built like a home-built one. This may sound strange – but the point is that there is no such thing as a drone that you never work on. If you are going to buy pre-built, make sure that you can repair it when you crash. Similarly, it is almost a guarantee that some of the parts will be outdated in a year or two. You want to be able to upgrade your drone with off-the-shelf parts.
Some examples of great drones that are difficult to repair or upgrade are the ImmersionRCs Vortex Pro and the TBS Vendetta. These are top-notch racing drones that have fantastic performance, but we cannot recommend them for beginners on a budget. Instead, you should be looking at pre-builts like the Eachine Wizard or Diatone Crusader.
Whatever you do, be aware that the pre-built drone market is full of absolute garbage that is peddled on suckers who don’t do their research. Read over our buyer’s guides to figure out what makes a good drone before making a purchase. Before you click the “check out” link, do a google search on the drone model you are buying and find out what social media or RCGroups has to say about it. If nothing is being said or the reviews are bad – steer clear! Every good drone we’ve ever seen has a good online following.
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
Buy pre-built ARF if…
- You primarily want to fly.
- You’re not on a budget.
- You are uncomfortable with the mechanical process of building a complete quadcopter… but understand you will have to make repairs in the future.
- You find the process of configuring and tuning the software on your quadcopter intimidating and want something that works to start with.
Buy pre-built RTF if…
- You wanted to be in the air like, yesterday.
- You’re not on a budget.
- You don’t mind wasting a bunch of money on gear that you will quickly outgrow and throw out.
Options to look at: Eachine Wizard RTF
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!).
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.