Syma

Review: The Syma S107 R/C Helicopter Is The Coolest Thing $20 Can Buy

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If you’re one of the brave souls who dares follow me on the Twitters, you probably know exactly where this post is going. I haven’t been able to shut up about this thing for over a day.

As someone who writes about shiny electronic things for a living and just generally spends far too much time rummaging around the Internet, I’ve come to be wonderfully adept at spotting up-and-coming awesome crap that no one really needs trends. When three unrelated individuals from all walks of life all started talking about this little $20 RC helicopter (the Syma S107) within a few days of each other, I figured it was something worth looking into.

It arrived yesterday. Any time it’s left my hands since, it because it had either run out of juice or had been commandeered by someone else. It is, without a doubt, the coolest little gadget I’ve nabbed for under $20 in a really, really long time, and I fully intend to convince AOL we need a fleet of these for the office.

Insanely Easy To Fly
All metal chassis, with a surprisingly high build quality
Charges over USB, making it a killer office toy
It’s sub-$20!
Replacement parts are equally dirt cheap

You’ll only get about 7 minutes of flight per charge, but that’s not really a surmountable issue; current battery tech is just too heavy for anything that lasts much longer.

Doesn’t work outside (Too light for even the slightest of breezes, sun kills infrared signal)
No wall charger included

Flying:

Now, this isn’t my first trip to the ol’ air show. While I’m not about to be crushed to death by the weight of my helicopter collection or anything, I’ve picked up a flyer or five in my days. From Air Hogs, to the pricier $200-$300 Walkera choppers, to one random little junker that we quite literally bought up out of the back of some dude’s van, I’ve flown (and totally wrecked) more of these things than someone who doesn’t consider himself a hobbyist probably should.

If only in terms of learning curve, the S107 is king. Of the five people who have blasted this thing all around my office since it arrived yesterday, not a one took more than a minute or two to figure out the basics. Sure, you’ll crash plenty. Yeah, you’ll probably get your directions reversed and send this thing spinning toward your face at LEAST five times on day one. But, like a good video game, the difficulty comes from things inherent to the act itself (that is, flying a friggin’ tiny helicopter around your house) rather than things introduced by poor design.

When we first opened it, our goal was to fly from a table to an ottoman without careening into a wall or clipping a ceiling fan. By the end of the day, we were launching from the desk and landing on an iPad case (that we convinced ourselves looked just like a landing pad) across the room. For a group that was mostly made up of ne’er-flyers, that’s one heck of a nice learning curve. Hell, I took the above super-classy photo while I was flying (Note the camera lens hiding in the nook of my elbow.)

The controller has three primary parts: two control sticks and a central knob. The leftmost control stick accelerates the propeller, sending you up or down. The right control stick allows you to lean forward or back, or turn left or right. The center knob can be twisted left or right to cancel out any subtle but constant turning tendencies — if your Chopper always seems to be turning slightly to the right, for example, you can bump the center knob to the left to compensate.

Though it’s simple enough for anyone to learn, I’d still consider this something of a big-boy toy. The plastic blades don’t hurt too bad when they clip skin (it’s like stopping a battery powered hand fan), but they’re by all means sharp enough to at least scratch the hell out of a bare eyeball. Add in the fact that animals seem to be incredibly intrigued by this terrifying little creature flying around the living room and that a brief skimming of the ceiling will send it hurdling toward whatever’s below it, and it’s probably best to keep this one to sober/supervised play time.

It’s also worth noting that the S107 cannot be flown outside. It’s light enough that even the slightest gust of wind will send it spinning out of control, and the Infrared-based control system doesn’t play friendly with sunlight.

Build Quality:

For $20, I completely expected to open the box to find a wonky, styrofoam-core piece of junk. Nope.

Though the blades and body are plastic (“Thank God”, says my skin and every other surface that we clipped with a propeller last night), the inner construction of the helicopter is all metal.

By the time we called it quits last night, we’d sent this thing into walls, lamps, windows, couches, and door frames. This morning, it still looks and flies like it just came out of the box — which is considerably more than I can say for similar products I’ve tried that come at twice the price. You shouldn’t go and drop kick it, but it should fair well with reasonably responsible use. And if you do crack a blade or lose a tail rotor, replacement parts can be found all around the Internet for cheap.

The only thing that feels a bit chintzy? The provided USB charging cable. Speaking of which..

Charging:

As with most helicopters of this size, you don’t get a ton of flying time out of each charge — but that’s really just a limitation of current battery tech. Batteries are heavy, and spinning a motor fast enough to get something off the ground and keep it there takes a good amount of juice. You’ll get around 7 minutes of fly time for every 40 minute charge. There are apparently mods that can get you around 30% more fly time in exchange for a $7 replacement battery and a bit of solder, but I can’t speak to how well they work.

There are two ways to charge the S107: via the provided USB cable (which rocks if you’re using this thing as an office toy), or, if you’re on the go, through a pull-out cable built into the controller. The controller itself requires 6 AA batteries, which seems pretty steep. The USB cable feels reaaaally cheap — which is too bad, because it’s not a very common type. Lastly, it’s a bit annoying that they don’t include a USB wall charger. It’s acceptable at the price-point, but sacrificing a USB port isn’t always convenient. Fortunately, most phones these days come with USB wall chargers so it shouldn’t be too much of a bother to track one down.

The Wrap Up:

If you have kids that you want to introduce to the basics of aerodynamics and physics, buy this. If you’ve tinkered around with other wallet-friendly RC helicopters and were left disappointed, buy this. If you’ve got $20 bucks to burn and have ever wanted to experience the joys of sending a little spinning chunk of terror screaming around your house, buy this.

At just 20 bucks on Amazon, this is going to be my go-to stocking stuffer of 2011.