A lot of early ARF/RTF quads used proprietary and specially-engineered parts. These days, manufacturers are finding it easier to assemble starter kits with off-the-shelf components. One of the best benefits to this for a hobbyist is that many of these parts now work well together with others on the market. If you get into the sport at the low end of the price spectrum, you don’t have to purchase a completely new rig when you start outgrowing it.
Here’s how you can get into the hobby with a starter quad, and slowly turn it into a high-end racing machine.
Fix Outright Problems and Improve Durability
One of the better starter quads we’ve looked at is the original Wizard X220. There are still several in use at our local race group after having been flown for multiple race seasons each. We noted in our review that there are a couple weak points that need addressed right away. That’s always going to be your number one priority—fix the problems the manufacturer missed.
Take a look at our guide on Inspecting Your ARF Racing Drone if you’re just getting started. You want to focus on areas that will eventually fail in normal use, or those that might cause damage to your other equipment, like batteries.
For the Wizard, we had to fix the VTx connector and secure the frame screws (both detailed in our review). Other simple modifications were adding a Velcro pad to the top to secure the battery in place during flight and covering up exposed solder pads on the LED boards. Both improve safety and durability of the quad as a whole.
For any quad, ARF or a build of your own, look at every component and think about how it might be stressed in a crash and whether you might be able to improve it. You might be interested in our build tips to improve durability.
Make Use of What’s Available
Since the components are largely off-the-shelf, you can look them up individually and find out what capabilities they have. When you do this, you can find features that exist which may not be in use or take minimal parts and effort to get running.
In the case of the Wizard, we found several easy upgrades. The flight controller supported battery voltage monitoring, which required soldering just two wires. It supported adding a buzzer, which is a $3 part and makes finding a craft lost in tall grass much simpler. We also hooked up telemetry (which required a bit more effort but no parts purchases) so the quad could send the battery voltage data back to the radio.
Identify Upgrade Priorities
Budget frames are compromises. Obviously, for low cost, you’re not getting top-of-the-line components. Some of these will be better than others. As you fly and get familiar with your quad, you’ll learn which of these bother you and which you can defer until later. Keep a list going and prioritize it so you don’t forget. If you jump ahead of your list on an impulse buy, you won’t improve your flight experience as much as you might have hoped.
For the Wizard, the priority upgrades were the video system. The weakest component was the camera, with its poor color and dynamic range. I measured the included camera and got one with the same form factor so installation was as simple as swapping it out and soldering a new connector. The second priority was the video transmitter. It transmits okay, but it’s poorly documented and hard to use. Flying with other people is a chore when you have to make guesses and flip tiny DIP switches to manage video frequencies. We installed a TrampHV, which is still among the best video transmitters available today, and set it up with remote configuration.
You’ll notice that I didn’t jump directly into powertrain components for my first upgrades. Neither of these changes gave the quad more power or better handling. Since the video system was so poor before, upgrading them made a huge improvement to the amount of control—and fun—that I had with the quad. Making use of the power that’s available is almost always more important than simply increasing it.
Going for Performance
Once the quad is safe, strong, and flies well, it’s time to focus on features and performance! Here we break down our thoughts and things to look out for on some of the main components you might upgrade.
Additionally, we highly recommend checking out our buyers guides for each component. These articles have a wealth of information on each component, upgrade information, and specific recommendations!
The SPRacing F3 (clone) flight controller that the Wizard ships with is a capable board, but the current crop of flight controllers almost all offer faster F4 processors as well as on-screen displays (OSD) that make important flight data available to view. Newer flight controllers like the Riot Control offer built-in dampening which reduces vibrations and a very convenient pad layout which simplifies the build process. A flight controller upgrade mostly brings new features, but can also save weight: the Wizard’s dedicated power distribution board is no longer needed and can be removed.
With many starter builds, you’ll want to consider upgrading the ESCs before you replace the motors. 20A ESCs should be enough for the 5040×3 props that the X220 ships with on 3S, but using bigger batteries or more aggressive props may burn them out. Some users did this very quickly. We replaced ours with name-brand 30A ESCs. On these, we were able to punch out with RaceKraft 5051 props on 4S. ESCs won’t usually give you a very notable performance increase, but they sometimes bring additional features like DShot and telemetry, and can improve battery efficiency. Most importantly, they give you a platform on which to run other more impressive components that you add later.
Different props are an easy buy, and inexpensive. That makes them tempting to pick up right away. As long as you’re using a prop with fewer blades or lower pitch, it’s fine to experiment. You’ll want to be careful fitting a more aggressive prop, though. Budget gear often operates at the upper end of its performance envelope, and pushing it hard can lead to failure. If your quad came with 5040s, stick with 5040s until you’ve at least upgraded your ESCs. It wouldn’t hurt to wait until your motors are a bit stronger as well.
Motors are another area you can expect your starter quad to lag behind in. Budget options often lack power or efficiency. Remember that the other components you use like flight controller and ESC need to be able to handle the power draw that your motors will ask. If you load up your stock ARF with monstrous 2407 motors, you’re likely to eventually set something on fire. Despite itching to add power to your budget build, these factors make it one of the last targets for an upgrade.
Frames on budget quads are hit and miss. Sometimes they are large and heavy, other times small and fragile. They can be reasonably well constructed, or have big flaws. Since there’s such a large variation, it’s harder to say when the best time is to make the switch. Frames define the look of your build, but also the amount of space and available mounting points. It’s probably time to consider a frame if you can’t fit a component you want to include, or if you’re ready to shave a lot of weight so you can be a more competitive racer.
The Wizard’s frame is generously sized, providing a lot of room for components, but it’s massively heavy and has a few structural weaknesses: thin slots in thin plates cause hairline breaks, side panels pop out, and the VTx connection point is one bad crash from cracking off. We selected the Hyperlite FLOSS 2, a very lightweight frame. By carefully planning the layout, we shed considerable weight here: the dry weight of a stock Wizard is nearly 400g. After a frame transplant and some component upgrades, we’ve cut ours down to about 240g.
Our build doesn’t look much like a Wizard anymore, because there’s nothing at all left of the original. When you upgrade like this, you can build up a highly competitive race frame, one piece at a time, while getting in lots of flight practice and learning how different component changes affect performance and the flight experience.
At this point, though, check your parts bin. There might be enough in there to build up a second quad that looks a lot like your original Wizard. Having one around that you can play with without having to worry about wrecking your premium race quad is a pretty great benefit, too.