Drones are everywhere these days, filming dramatic reveals and awe-inspiring scenery for social media platforms. The problem is, they’re not exactly approachable for beginners who have only ever used a smartphone. Last month, Snap debuted the $230 Pixy drone exactly for those people. It requires very little skill and acts like a personal robot photographer to help you produce nifty aerial shots.
You don’t need to pilot the Pixy. In fact, you couldn’t if you wanted to. Rather, it flies by itself, performing pre-programmed patterns that put the focus on you, the user. It has great potential for things like parties or tourist activities, grabbing awesome aerial shots with almost no user intervention.
Snap calls itself a camera company, but its other photo-centric products like Spectacles have met with limited success. To me, the Pixy drone holds more promise because it could help users get more interesting content than they could with a phone or regular camera. I’ve had one for the last week in the French countryside, so let’s see if it’s as versatile as I hope.
Hardware and setup
At just 3.6 ounces (101 grams), the Pixy is small enough to throw in a bag or wear around your neck using the supplied protective case with a strap. It’s pretty cute – I even heard some oohs and aahs from friends and bystanders – though it does look a little flimsy. However, it proved to be surprisingly resistant to falls and accidents, emerging from several such incidents without a scratch.
The four propellers are in a protective cowl, so they can’t buzz any tree branches or fingers. On top is a start button and mode dial, with the battery compartment and charge indicator lights underneath. You’ll also notice a camera on the bottom, but it’s strictly for detecting your hand and not taking photos or video. A USB-C port at back lets you charge the drone and transfer files to your phone or PC.
The main camera takes 2.7K video at 30 fps and 12-megapixel images. It shoots in 16:9 landscape mode, which is a bit odd considering the Snaps are vertical. However, a cropping tool in the app lets you convert your captures to portrait mode.
The first thing to do is sync it up to your account via Bluetooth by placing it in standby mode, then pressing and holding the start button. From there, Snapchat detects the Pixy and syncs everything up over WiFi. In my tests, the process was seamless on both an iPhone 12 and Samsung Galaxy S10.
Then, you set the dial to one of four flight modes: Hover, Reveal, Follow and Orbit. They’re pretty self-explanatory, with Hover keeping the drone in place and letting you do any actions in front of it. Reveal starts tight on your face and zooms away to 10 to 30 feet in height, revealing the background. Follow tracks you around (it works best if it can see your face) and Orbit does a 360 circle at about head height and at a distance between 10 and 30 feet.
Each of those can be tweaked in the app with different flight times, distances and more. If you often use a flight mode like Reveal with a specific setting, you can save that to the Favorite dial for easy access, using the app.
Once the flight pattern is selected, just hold the Pixy up so its camera can see your face and press the start button. It’ll take off and perform the selected maneuver, saving video and/or photos to the 16GB of fixed internal storage. That’s enough for around 100 videos and 1,000 photos, depending on the mode and settings.
All of the flight patterns worked well, though as mentioned, the Follow mode works best if it can see your face. It doesn’t detect specific people, but it did seem to lock on tenaciously to the same face even if multiple people were in a shot.
When it’s done, you just hold your hand underneath and it’ll land directly on it, which is where the bottom camera comes into play. It worked pretty reliably, but sometimes I had to move my hand around a bit to catch it or keep it from falling.
Afterwards, when you jump into the Memories section of the Snapchat app, it’ll tell you that you have some Pixy clips ready to import. You can also copy them over to your PC via USB-C, but you have to adjust a Snapchat setting in the Pixy section (“Import via USB”) first.
Once you have some clips, you can get started editing them. If you want to post on Snap, you can use the auto-crop function to convert to vertical video while centering your subjects. You can then trim the video, add music and use special Pixy AR lenses, like “Flame Aura,” “Multiples” (making three of you) and Record, an old-timey VHS tape effect. It also comes with two special speed ramp effects, Jump Cut and Hyperspeed.
So far so good, but there are a number of things it can’t do. To start with, there are no obstacle detection sensors at all, so if something gets in the way, the Pixy will crash right into it. Leaves and twigs didn’t always stop it, but walls, branches and human bodies certainly did. Luckily, as mentioned, the Pixy is pretty tough.
Since it can’t go very far or high (up to 30 feet at most) the lack of obstacle detection shouldn’t be an issue for most people. To avoid any issues, though, you should test each maneuver in a wide open area to get a feel for how far away it travels.
Another significant limitation is flight time. Snap told me that the Pixy can fly for four to five minutes on a charge, or between five and 10 flights. You can buy extra batteries for $20 each, and get a portable dual-battery charger for $50. If you think you’ll need that extra flight time (you will), your best bet is the Pixy Flight Pack, which adds the charger and two extra batteries for an extra $20.
It also lacks a gimbal and relies strictly on electronic stabilization, so you might get some shaky footage if you’re flying in a lot of wind. Speaking of which, the Pixy’s light weight means you can’t really fly it outside at all in gusty conditions.
Image and video quality isn’t amazing, but it does the job. When I showed it to a professional photographer friend, he was pleasantly surprised. The exposure levels were good, and it adjusted well when going from shade to sunlight. It worked fine indoors provided I had a reasonable amount of light.
When you open videos or photos on a PC screen, it’s clear that it can’t compare to a smartphone or other drones, particularly in low light. But even when you reduce the resolution by cropping vertically, it looks decent on a smartphone – so it’s absolutely good enough for most Snapchat users.
My photographer friend took it to a wedding and he found it great for grabbing some extra shots or to show behind-the-scenes goings on. Since it requires almost no setup or piloting, all he had to do was just launch the Pixy and it would do the rest – ideal for a busy photographer if quality isn’t a concern.
I enjoyed it too as a quick and easy drone and I feel like it would be something I’d take with me while traveling to get some nice reveals and aerial shots. I was curious to see how it compares with other Snapchat camera products like Spectacles, and what ambitions Snap has for it, so I asked Engadget senior editor Karissa Bell, who covers social media.
“If you think about what they’ve done with Spectacles… there was a lot of interest in the beginning, but once you start to use them they’re more of a novelty,” she told me. “The Pixy’s interesting because it really does seem to have more possibilities.”
“If you’re somebody who’s really active on Snapchat [or] making videos for Spotlight, which is their take on a TikTok-like feature, you can get really creative. But $230 is not a small amount of money, especially for younger people in Snapchat’s core demographic. So I think it could be more of a success than Spectacles, but there are a lot of drone companies out there if you’re just looking for a drone.”
In fact, it already looks like it’ll be a challenge to get one, as the wait time has stretched out to four whole months after pre-orders started on April 28th. That could be down to demand, but Snap CEO Evan Spiegel also told The Verge that the company “should have made more.”
Still, it does look like Snap is onto something with the Pixy. It’s not nearly as capable as pricier drones from DJI and others, but that’s not really the point. Rather, it’s a way for social media users to get some cinematic shots without the need to be a drone expert.
You can also turn over photo and video chores to the Pixy and focus on creating your Snap content. If you’re on a night out with friends, you can send it off to grab some shots without the need for a selfie stick or other gear.
It’s not perfect, as battery life is pretty poor and image quality merely passable. And at $230, it’s also quite expensive considering that you could buy a decent drone for that kind of money – we’ve seen DJI’s Spark Mini on sale at $250, for instance.
But Pixy isn’t designed for avid drone users who might balk at that price. It’s made for social media creators who might even consider it to be cheap considering what it could do for them. The reactions I saw from passersby and friends were overwhelmingly positive, with a number saying they might buy one. If that’s any kind of sign, the Pixy might become a hit.