If you're looking to get a lot of fun for your toy-buying dollar, whether for yourself or if you're purchasing a gift, it's hard to find anything as affordable, accessible and purely fun as a remote-control (RC) helicopter. Like remote-control cars, helicopters are relatively simple in concept, with a helicopter unit and a remote controller that lets the operator pilot the copter. But, as with other radio-controlled vehicles and toys, their variety, complexity and prices vary greatly. Some radio-controlled copters are available with various special features that make them either better suited for a particular skill level or operating environment. There are plenty of smaller, indoor radio-controlled helicopters that are easy to fly for beginners, relatively durable and inexpensive, but not all models are created equal.
In particular, hobbyists and regular consumers both caution that the ubiquitous shopping mall kiosks that sell radio-controlled helicopters are to be avoided. First and foremost, many users and experts point out that these mall kiosks sell RC copters at high prices and that the copters are either counterfeit or just poor quality. Reviewers say these vendors often sell their overpriced helicopters with aggressive tactics, too, pressuring shoppers to make a quick purchase. Unhappy consumers note that when faced with a problem, the customer service telephone numbers displayed on the products can be phony and returns are not accepted since the kiosks are usually seasonal and temporary, leaving little recourse.
Internet forum threads discuss the pitfalls of these mall kiosks; many users on the RCGroups.com radio-controlled forum echo the sentiment that the RC helicopters offered at mall kiosks "sure looked overpriced" and that these types of sellers are "notorious" for their knock-off products. Check out our sources to read through what users have to say about these experiences.
With that said, the best source for finding information about specific models is user reviews from major consumer retailer sites and radio-controlled specialty stores. Sites like Amazon.com, ToysRUs.com, Target.com, Newegg.com and Overstock.com have a variety of models available and user reviews documenting buyer feedback. There are many smaller radio-controlled or hobby sites that carry the same models and more, and they can have useful user reviews as well.
There are a few important characteristics to keep in mind in when searching for the ideal remote-control helicopter. First, radio-controlled helicopters are either geared towards beginners or advanced users, and this largely depends on the control variables available to the operator. These controls are typically indicated in the specifications by the number of channels that the helicopter supports: each channel represents a specific piloting action that the radio-controlled transmitter can tell the helicopter to do.
For instance, most affordable radio-controlled helicopters will have three channels, meaning that they can control three functions of the helicopter's motion. For these basic models, this means that users can adjust the throttle (how fast the blades spin) and servos (to make the helicopter turn left or right). Four-channel helicopters do the same, but also generally have a tail rotor for more experienced pilots, and generally aren't found in the toy-grade helicopters we cover in this report.
Aside from the channel count, it's also good to consider whether you want to fly the helicopter indoors only or outdoors as well. Most toy-grade helicopters are very small, with simple coaxial blade designs that make them very easy to control and fly indoors. Radio-controlled helicopters designed for outdoor use need to be larger and more powerful in order to combat potentially windy conditions, and their transmitters must offer sufficient coverage to allow for longer-range flying. While toy-grade outdoor helicopters are available, they're less prevalent than the mini-sized indoor radio-controlled helicopters. Reviews for outdoor RC helicopters are also harder to come by, as they're generally less popular than the cheaper fly-anytime indoor models.
Battery life will be short for toy-grade helicopters (typically under 15 minutes of flying time), but some models still do better than others. Most come with a rechargeable battery pack and can be charged via a standard power cord or USB cable. The remote-control transmitters typically use multiple AA or AAA batteries (not usually included).
The same goes for durability: Some models can take hits better than others, meaning their rotors don't get damaged as quickly. Good battery life and durability are important to ensuring plenty of fly time in the long run.
A few models shine as examples of remote-control helicopters. Overall, the best toy-grade RC copter is the four-channel Blade mCX RTF (*Est. $80), which users say is well made, easy to fly and durable, making it a great choice for first-time pilots. If reviews are any indication, the appeal extends even to experienced hobbyists. One home pilot reviewing the Blade mCX RTF at Amazon.com says, "I have at least 8 RC helicopters and this is the best-flying one of all… the gyro is rock solid. Trim it and it stays on heading better than a train."
First-time hobby pilots are consistently positive in their reviews, too. One Amazon.com customer sums up other positive user feedback, saying, "This RTF helicopter is the first RC item I've flown and it's been great. I've had plenty of RC cars and trucks but have always stayed away from anything that would leave the ground." The other theme in reviews is that the Blade remote-control copter can take punishment and come out unscathed (and not wreck your house in the process). That same user adds, "This helicopter can take a beating. It may be easy to learn but there's no getting around some pretty fierce crashes. My copter has been crashed into walls, TVs and plants. It's held up well and didn't do any damage to the items I flew it into other than a shredded leaf or two."
Though user reviews indicate that the Blade mCX RTF is very much worth its $80 asking price, there are cheaper models available for buyers looking to spend less when getting into the hobby. The Syma S107G RC Helicopter (*Est. $30), with hundreds of user reviews posted, is the best bargain radio-controlled helicopter. Shoppers should know that the Syma copter isn't made of the highest-quality materials but still delivers very good performance for the price. In one very detailed user review, an owner writes, "The S107 takes almost no skill to fly. The gyro makes it laughably easy to control. Just use it indoors, get it about 4 feet off the ground so that ground-effects don't mess with it, fly it a decent distance from air conditioning vents and the thing moves like it's hanging from a string on a stick." And while one user says that the Syma S107G "might be difficult for young children to control," another reviewer says, "My 3-year-old niece was flying it and it took quite a beating and keeps on running. Replacement parts are cheap too!"
The Syma S107G comes with a rechargeable lithium polymer battery that charges via USB. Based on feedback from Amazon.com users, flyers can expect less than 10 minutes of runtime per charge from a 45-minute recharge. Many reviewers note that the copter doesn't use smart charging technology, so it's possible to overcharge the battery if it's left connected to the charger for too long. This can result in reduced battery runtime. Users say they get the best results by not letting the battery run completely dry between charges and promptly disconnecting the charger when a full charge is indicated.
The best-reviewed toy-grade outdoor radio-controlled chopper is the three-channel Syma S031G RC Helicopter (*Est. $70). At 24 inches long, it dwarfs the relatively tiny (by comparison) indoor remote-control helicopters, and it has a 100-meter operating range. Users posting reviews at Amazon.com say that while it's great for the money, the S031G could stand a little more power to deal with windy conditions: "A slight breeze is almost too much and you'll waste your battery trying to get it to fight the wind," writes one owner.
Overall, however, feedback from around 20 Amazon.com reviewers was very positive when we checked. As with the smaller indoor Syma S107G, owners say that the S031G outdoor radio-controlled copter is a snap to fly. "The gyro system is top-notch and only requires VERY minor trimming out of the box! Maiden flight was in a small kitchen area and stuck the landing perfectly! This model is the absolute, by far, the best I've used for beginner/advanced-beginner training," writes one owner, for whom the S031G is his first outdoor copter.
More than one owner comments on the helicopter's overall value. "The fact that it's $70 is pretty amazing! When I was younger, I couldn't imagine getting something like this for less than $500." Other reviewers comment that replacement parts are "cheap and easy to come by," and another review details a positive experience with a Syma customer service rep. Owners posting reviews observe around 15 minutes of flight time from a 60- to 90-minute charge.
Experienced users may want to consider purchasing a hobby-grade radio-controlled helicopter. Hobby-grade units can be very expensive, but also offer a lot more power, high levels of customization, advanced controls and even realistic single-rotor setups.
Toy-grade radio-controlled helicopters aren't typically reviewed by any dedicated publications, online or otherwise. The best sources for researching specific radio-controlled helicopter models are major retailer websites. The user reviews at these sites, such as Amazon.com, Overstock.com, ToysRUs.com and Newegg.com are very useful in determining how these helicopters perform in the real world, in the eyes of consumers. Reviews can also be found on smaller online retailers that specialize in toys and hobbies. Radio control-focused forums, like the ones at RCGroups.com can also be useful in discovering more about particular models, concepts and radio-control retailers.