Move over, selfie sticks. The HoverAir X1 is a flying camera that captures photos and video of you from mid-air, and does so whether you're standing still, running on the beach, biking a trail or the like. It's a pretty remarkable device, especially considering that it can fold in half and ride along in your pocket. And did I mention it's unusually easy to use?
There's no other drone quite like this one, though you'll have to decide whether the features justify the relatively high price. Me, I'm putting it in the top spot on my holiday wish-list. Here's my HoverAir X1 review.
HoverAir X1 design
Available in black or white, the X1 weighs just 4.6 ounces — and that's with its battery installed. When folded, it measures roughly 3x5 inches and a little over an inch thick. I had no trouble slipping it into the back pocket of my jeans; it really is that portable, which is a huge part of the appeal.
That said, I certainly wouldn't want to sit down with the X1 in that pocket. Although the propellers are fully enclosed to prevent both damage and injury, the plastic caging around them does feel a little flimsy. Indeed, because the X1 is so small and light, you get the impression of something rather toy-like, not a "serious" drone. That makes the price tag a little tougher to swallow.
The bundle I tested includes two batteries, a charger and a drawstring carrying case. I'd prefer a hard-sided case for this, but there are plenty of small, inexpensive options on Amazon that will do just fine. Here's one $13 example; it's designed for an external hard drive but fits the X1 and charger very nicely.
You can also buy just the X1 and a single battery (which charges inside the drone via USB-C) for about $50 less. But I think the extras are worth the slightly higher investment.
HoverAir X1: What it can do and how it performs
Any qualms about the quality of this product disappear once you start using it. The X1 is designed to take off from your outstretched palm, perform a selected action, then land on your palm whenever you're ready. The thing has just two buttons: power on/off and mode select. Press the former, then the latter, then the former again to take off. It's that simple.
Notice I didn't mention your phone? Or an app? Neither is required for basic flight functions, making this one of the most novice-friendly drones I've tested. For sake of comparison, DJI's Mini SE 2 is a much more sophisticated quadcopter for around the same price, but it requires you to master a remote controller and relies heavily on DJI's complicated app — without which you get no intelligent flight modes.
Suppose, for example, you've hiked to the top of a peak and want an orbit video (in which the drone makes a full circle around you) to share on social media. With the X1, you pull it out, tap a couple buttons and presto: orbit video. With something like the Mini SE 2, you need the controller, your phone, the cord to connect the two, the wait while the drone connects to GPS satellites — get the picture? Plus it's more and bulkier gear to carry.
This is not to say your phone and the HoverAir app don't have a role here; the latter is used for things like downloading video from the camera, checking available storage space, modifying settings and installing firmware updates. I'm happy to report the app is just as easy to use as the X1 itself, with clearly labeled icons and an admirably intuitive interface. (OK, the radar-screen theme is a little strange, but points for doing something different without adding complexity.)
The X1 offers the following autonomous flight modes:
Hover: It stays in the same position after take-off, optionally rotating to follow you
Zoom Out: It flies up and away a set distance, then returns
Follow: Walk, run, bike or whatever; it follows you from behind
Orbit: It flies away a set distance, then makes a 360-degree circle around you
Bird's eye: Like Zoom Out, but it flies straight up, directly overhead.
Custom: Your choice of Snapshot, which simply snaps a photo after you've been still for three seconds, and Dolly Track, which is like Follow but it stays in front of you instead of behind
After you log a handful of flights in these stock modes, the app will unlock another one called Manual, which lets you pilot the X1 using your phone. Although the modes are all fairly straightforward, I like that the app has an entire section devoted to them, complete with little animations, instructions and videos.
For any given mode, you can adjust options like video duration (30 seconds, 5 minutes, continuous, etc.), altitude (high, low or "flat") and distance from you (10 feet, 20 feet, etc.). The X1 also offers three different video quality settings: 1080p at 30 frames per second (FPS) with HDR, 1080p at 60 FPS and 2.7K at 30 FPS.
It would be nice if the camera could record 4K video, but with only 32GB of non-expandable storage onboard (and only about 24GB of that actually available), that resolution would consume the space fairly quickly. Even at the default 2.7K, you get only about four minutes of 2.7K video per gigabyte. It's enough, but given the price of the X1, I'd like to see at least 64GB, if not a slot for a microSD memory card.
The good news is that the X1 captures sharp, colorful video even at 1080p, a resolution that's perfectly fine for the likes of phone and social-media viewing. Only if you're shooting for the big screen would I bother with 2.7K. Either way, the onboard image stabilization works extremely well; I flew in some fairly windy conditions, and the video always came out silky-smooth.
It's important to note that while onboard altitude sensors help the X1 locate your palm (and the ground), it can't avoid obstacles in its flight path. That means if there are tree branches along your route or you instruct the drone to "zoom out" while too close to a building, a collision can happen. Whether or not that results in any damage depends on whether it then falls to the ground and from how far up. Anecdotally, I've heard from users who flew into trees and the drone came away unscathed. Your mileage may vary. (Word to the wise: Avoid obstacles if you can.)
One little perk I really like: Although you can switch into Snapshot mode if you're looking for still photos, the X1 is smart enough to automatically grab a few at various points during videos — like at the apex of a zoom-out. That not only saves you from having to remember to do so manually, but also from trying to pull a frame out of video, which can be a hassle.
That said, Snapshot mode comes in handy if you want to, say, photograph a group — you can fit a lot more people into the frame than you can with your phone and outstretched arm. Plus, because the lens is up above, everyone will look better, too. (No double-chins!)
Although the X1 itself has no microphone for recording audio (fine because it would just be the sound of whirring blades anyway), the HoverAir app can tap your phone's microphone if you want to narrate your flights. It even employs noise cancelling to help isolate your voice. When you're done flying, the app will merge the audio and video files together. Neat!
HoverAir X1: Where it needs improvement
Zero Zero Robotics promises up to 11 minutes of flight time per battery, which isn't too surprising given their size and weight but also less than ideal for long outings. In my testing, I was lucky to get 10 minutes; overall runtime will depend in part on selected flight modes and how windy it is: The more the X1 has to fight the breeze to maintain its position, the more power it will consume.
The onscreen controls for manual flight mode aren't great; the two virtual joysticks are stacked one on top of the other instead of side-by-side. Interestingly, however, you can purchase an inexpensive gamepad-style controller (here's one $20 example) and use that for manual flight.
I think my only real complaint is the lack of obstacle avoidance. A drone that's meant to fly autonomously should be able to steer clear of branches, buildings and, especially, people. (If you task it to follow you down a crowded boardwalk or bike path, be prepared for some, er, colorful utterances.) As noted above, I'd love to see 4K video and more onboard memory as well; wish-list items for the HoverAir X2.
HoverAir X1: Should you buy it?
Heavens, yes. I've flown a lot of drones in my day, and I've rarely been as impressed as I am with the HoverAir X1. (The closest rival was DJI's Avata — a totally different animal, of course, and far more expensive.)
This flying camera does one thing and does it well: capture high-quality video of you from above, whether you're moving or standing still. It's equal parts fun and practical, great for capturing a scenic hike, narrating a Sorkin-style walk-and-talk or shooting movie b-roll without a crew.
Yes, it's on the pricey side, but right now there's no other flying camera that's as smart and easy to use as this one.