Multicopters are one of the hottest consumer gadgets on the market, and for good reason. They're cheap, easy to fly, a ton of fun, and by far the easiest way to get into radio controlled flying. This Drone School series is our way to help new flyers get off the ground, and over the next few weeks we'll get into some exercises to build your skills and capabilities for maximum fun with minimal crashes. For starters, let's look at how to pick a good beginner quadcopter.

What's the best learner drone?

You've probably heard that camera drones like the Phantom 3 and the 3DR Solo are super easy to fly. It's true! But it's true because they're doing a bunch of the work for you. GPS-locked hovering, auto takeoff and landing, return-to-home failsafe modes – these are all replacing basic skills you really should master if you're gonna get into this thing.

The other issue is that they're pretty big and heavy, with large, fast-spinning props, so they can do some pretty serious damage when they crash. Yes, when they crash, not if they crash You'll be amazed how many creative ways you'll find to bin your first quad – so buying a thousand-dollar, kilogram-plus camera drone is kind of asking for trouble. It's part of the reason why beginner Phantom flyers tend to have, shall we say, a bit of a reputation in the multicopter community.

Start small

Ideally we suggest you start out on something light and cheap that you can fly indoors. Ideally something with prop guards to protect your rotors in a crash. Cheap, lightweight quads tend to bounce much better than the big boys.

Do you go for one with a camera? Well, cameras add complexity and expense, as well as enough weight to significantly impact a lightweight drone's aerial performance. Not to mention, cameras suck power, which along with the extra weight will reduce your flight time per battery. What's more, most cheap camera drones have pretty rubbish cameras with crappy lenses. You'll get a bit of vibration in your image, and without gimbal stabilization the video feels like it's jumping around all over the place. Don't expect to get any useful footage, they're toys.

But … toys can be fun! So get a camera drone if you want one, just be aware of its limitations and that you don't need one to get going.

Our favorite beginner quadcopters

My two current favorite learner drones are the Syma X5 and the Air Hogs Helix X4 Stunt.

The Air Hogs Helix X4 Stunt is a smallish quad with a US$65 price tag and big foam bumpers with ducted fans, making it as close to crash-proof as anything we've seen. It looks like more of a toy than some quads, but it can take a beating. Fly this indoors with no fear – unless you own a dog or cat. Then, there will be fear. Lots of fear.

The Syma X5 is larger and more stable, but very, very lightweight, and you can pick it up for $40 or so with a heap of spare parts and bonus batteries. Its bigger size and bright lights make it easier to get your head around the orientation stuff we'll talk about in Drone School 4, and although I must have crashed mine a thousand times, it still flies steady and stable. The prop guards help a lot as you're getting started.

There's camera-carrying versions available like the Syma X5SW above – but remember, those cameras aren't all that great, and they add weight and tax the battery. The X5SW does give you the ability to fly it with first-person view, though, streaming video back to your phone as it flies. That's good fun, and the camera is detachable while you're getting started.

There are plenty of other options; any light, cheap drone is a good one to start with. But remember these key criteria when you're buying:

  • Cheap
  • Lightweight
  • Propeller protection
  • Larger sizes tend to be a little steadier and easier to control, as long as they're lightweight!

Whichever you go with, you'll want a couple of extra batteries, because they'll only fly for 5-10 minutes at a time. Transmitters for these cheapies tend to take AA or AAA batteries, which should last for ages.

And shop around – prices vary wildly on these cheap, fun quadcopters. And if you've got some cash spare and a friend, two is always more fun than one.

Stay tuned for Drone School 2: Know your transmitter in the next few days!