The Syma X400 Is a $55 Camera Drone That Fits in Your Palm
I’ve always wanted to buy a drone, but I could never justify actually doing it. Professional drones, like those from DJI, are expensive. To use one for work (I’m a photographer), I’d have to get a complex license from the FAA.
I’ve also always assumed that if I bought a drone, I’d crash it. At the start of the pandemic, my personal trainer told me that he found a broken drone in his apartment complex’s trash room. He lovingly restored it — adding new propellers, sourcing a remote online, and swapping out its depleted batteries. After a month of work, he finally took it out to fly. On his first flight, it sailed over a fence, landed in oncoming traffic, and got crushed by a car. That story didn’t inspire confidence in the benefits of drone ownership.
I was excited, then, to discover the X400 drone from Syma. The X400 has many of the features of its bigger, pro-quality brethren. But at just seven inches square (about the size of your outstretched palm) and with a retail price of $54.99, the X400 provides a cheap, low-risk way to test out drone flying. (Syma provided me with a review unit of the X400 to test).
Syma’s Amazon page for the X400 says that the drone has a “professional camera” with “an HD lens that is natural and realistic.” It is not.
Professional camera drones can get hefty, weighing 10 pounds or more. At 14.4 ounces, the minuscule X400 weighs less than an iPad. It would make a great stocking stuffer — or if you’re like me, an adornment for your Chanukah bush. The drone comes with propeller guards, a wireless remote, two rechargeable batteries (each provides around six minutes of flight time), and a USB charger. Like most small drones, it has four propellers, which counter-rotate for stability. The X400 also has an onboard 720p camera.
Syma’s Amazon page for the X400 says that the drone has a “professional camera” with “an HD lens that is natural and realistic.” It is not. The quality of the videos and skills are more like a jerky home movie from the 1950s than the beautiful, high-resolution footage captured by a DJI Mavic. But for a tiny drone that costs $55 bucks, the fact that it has a camera and live video capabilities at all is impressive.
The X400 packs some other surprising features into its tiny frame, too. It includes a Wi-Fi chip, which lets you pair the drone with Syma’s mobile app to control its flight and see a real-time video feed from the camera. It also has gyroscopes and accelerometers, allowing it to hover relatively stably when you take your hands off the controls (you may need to adjust the drone’s trim functions if it drifts from side to side). Convenience features (like an auto takeoff and landing button) work well and make using the X400 easy for first-time fliers like me.
To begin a flight, you pair the drone either with Syma’s mobile app (to fly from your phone) or with the included physical remote. This resembles the remote for an RC car.
A third mode (the one I like best) allows you to see and record the drone’s video feed on your phone while flying it with the physical controller.
You then place the drone in a safe area, push the takeoff button, and after a momentary pause, the drone rises upwards to a height of about four feet and settles into a stable(ish) hover. You can then use the physical or virtual controls to fly up or down, rotate the drone around its axis, or move backward or forwards.
I find that the mobile app is too finicky for accurate flight. But with some practice, controlling it with the physical remote is relatively easy. Once you’re in the air, there are a few bonus functions you can use, like a stunt loop mode that causes the drone to execute an automatic barrel roll.
Syma says that the X400 is designed for indoor use. I can confirm that it works well flying around the lofted ceilings of my two-story home. With practice, I’ve learned to navigate it through doorways, to fly up and over a balcony on my second floor, and to hover above my dog Lance, who seems to view the X400 as a confusing but benign new presence in our home.
I’ve also found that that X400 works reasonably well outdoors. I’ve flown it around my backyard, and in a field at my local park (check for drone regulations and airspace restrictions in your own community before flying outdoors).
Syma says that the X400 has a range of 84 feet, but I’ve found that it’s more like 20 in reality. Still, that’s more than enough to buzz around tall trees and take aerial selfies. Be careful flying the X400 if there’s any wind at all, though — its tiny motors don’t have the power to fight even a light breeze, and several times my X400 has gotten caught in a gust and blown several hundred feet off course.
My favorite thing about the X400, though, is that I can crash it with impunity. If I had a $600+ professional drone, I’m sure I’d be carrying it around in a padded case, taking extensive flight lessons before I ever lifted off, and restricting myself to slow, level flight. No one wants to see six hundred bucks plummet into a lake or get stuck in a tree.
With the X400’s low price and simple design, I don’t have to be so protective. I can throw the drone in my son’s diaper bag unprotected, and have it ready when there’s a few idle minutes at the park. When questions occur to me like “Hmm, I wonder if this thing can fly under my patio table?” I can actually find out. If I damage the X400, it’s relatively easy to swap out a propeller (I’ve crashed it at least a dozen times during my testing). And if I totally destroy or lose it, I’d still only be out about the cost of a laptop charger.
For many of the same reasons, the X400 is a great drone for kids (with supervision). Syma’s promotional materials show a five-year-old gleefully flying the drone with its physical remote. I would not attempt this. But my son loves pressing the Auto Takeoff button, giving directions as to where I should fly his “little helicopter,” and then retrieving the X400 when it lands.
Syma’s X400 is definitely not a replacement for a professional drone. It lacks the stability, power, safety features, and video quality for professional use. But for a toy that costs less than a week’s worth of lattes, it packs a surprising amount of tech. And if flies into traffic (or gets mauled by a Bichon Frise) I won’t be too heartbroken.