Saving you agony
I previously wrote about toy grade vs. hobby grade RC aircraft, and talked about the problems I've had with toy grade aircraft with failure rates, customer support and the like. However, that doesn't really help if you can't tell the difference. So here, I'm going to tell you how I recognize toy grade vs. hobby grade RC aircraft.
One point I want to make now is that all RC aircraft - at least, the ones I buy - are toys. They don't do real work, like drones. I don't make money off the hobby, other than a few pennies from ads on the blog. I buy them to have fun flying them. I don't enjoy toy grade quads for a number of reasons, but that doesn't mean there isn't a place for them.
To me, the real distinction between toy grade and hobby grade is in the product strategy. Is the point a single sale, and once you've bought the thing you're on your own? Or is it to build a relationship with you, so they can continue selling you things for years to come? If it's the former, you can expect the aircraft to have problems sooner rather than later, and very little help from the manufacturer. If the latter, they hope it'll last long enough to sell you supplies, and make you think buying replacements and upgrades is a good investment. All of the differences noted below can be explained in terms of which strategy the company is using.
So, with that in mind, let's start looking at things you can check on.
Or the web page, which now serves this function.
One thing you can check on easily in the store is the box. A toy is more about looks than performance or durability, so does the box have a clear plastic cutout to show off the aircraft? Does it feature images of people having fun with the aircraft? If so, then the packaging or web site was designed to make a quick sale, so expect it to be a toy.
Hobby grade aircraft will have information about performance featured just behind the aircraft in importance. After your first aircraft, you're probably looking for some kind of upgrade, so you need to know what kind of performance an aircraft will give you. If these things are featured or easy to find, they're hoping to sell to a more experienced pilot, which is part of a the long-term, hobby grade strategy.
You might be wondering what name could have to do with this. But names are chosen by the marketing department to communicate something to the consumer in hopes that it will help sell the aircraft.
Hobby grade aircraft tend to have names related to an important specification. So a 450 something could indicate that this is a 450 size aircraft, for some measure of size. This is moving the specification information up in importance, again catering to an experienced pilot as part of the hobby grade strategy.
A toy would have a name suggestive of fun or experimentation or excitement, to help with that quick sale. A name with little or no relationship to the model or other models in the line is a minor hint that it's a toy grade aircraft, as that does make the name more like a hobby-grade aircraft name without the benefits of using such.
Most likely is a name with no meaning at all. With no meaning, there's no information to help you choose.
One easy test for toy vs. hobby grade is whether or not you can replace the battery. The LiPo's used in these things have a relatively short lifespan. Especially when used with an off-the-shelf USB charger, which can charge them at a high enough rate to damage them.
If the manufacturer expect the battery to outlast the aircraft, the aircraft is clearly a toy. Selling batteries to make extra money is clearly a long-range plan.
Spare parts is another major clue. If the manufacturer expects you to throw it away rather than repair it, then they aren't planning to make money from you beyond the first sale, so it's a toy. If they hope you'll enjoy the thing enough to want to spend money repairing - or upgrading - it, then they're in it for the long haul.
The existence of spare parts also means that there are more likely to be hop-ups from third parties, that you can use to improve the performance, looks, or durability of the aircraft. Having the option of buying these instead of building them from scratch is a good thing.
Similarly, lack of spare parts is an indication that they don't expect you to work on the aircraft, so doing so will be more painful.
But the existence of spare parts isn't a guarantee that you've got a hobby grade aircraft. Some toy grade aircraft have become so popular with hobby pilots that the demand for spare parts became to large to ignore. So the manufacturer started selling spare parts after the fact. This will solve some of the problems mentioned here, but not all of them.
These days, RC aircraft flight controllers have lots of advanced features. Things like auto-leveling and pre-programmed maneuvers are fairly common. Naturally, they are used to further the goals of the company. Since the two classes of product have radically different goals, these are good things to use to differentiate between the two.
Toy grade models tend to come with features that make doing cool things easy, because that sells toys. Things like reversing the controls when you invert the aircraft (a practice abandoned by hobby pilots decades ago), or some kind of automated stunt are common.
Hobby grade models use those advanced features to make the model as easy to fly as the toys. However, they will also have an expert mode that lets you do those cool things. Doing them is harder because you actually have to be able to fly them, making them a less attractive toy. But working with the expert flight mode will help you move on to more advanced maneuvers and hence more capable aircraft, which furthers the companies long-range goal.
This may just be the grumblings of an old man, but the toy grade systems just don't seem to take safety considerations into their designs. While many of these design decisions aren't necessarily unsafe, they either encourage bad habits or fail to encourage good ones.
For instance, I've never seen what I'd otherwise consider a toy grade controller that has a throttle hold feature. This locks the throttle against accidentally spinning up the aircraft propellers while you are working on them. For the very small aircraft that toy companies use to enter the market, this isn't much of an issue, as a blade strike will at most sting. On the hobby grade side, there is at least one recorded instance of someone being killed by the blade of a large hobby grade aircraft.
Similarly, hobby grade radio systems are designed so you turn on the transmitter first. This design is intentional, as it means the receiver won't start accepting controls from some other radio source, which could cause unexpected and uncontrolled flight. Probably not an issue with digital radios, but still a good habit to have. Toy grade systems either don't care, or require you to turn on the aircraft first, which is a dangerous habit to get into.
You should also ask what the aircraft does when things don't work right. What if the radio quits working, or it runs out of power when it's 300 feet in the air? A hobby grade aircraft should have documented behavior in those cases, or possibly the ability to control what it does with a failsafe feature in the receiver. Since mentioning such failures would scare away potential buyers, not doing so is a sign you have a toy grade aircraft in your hands.
This also goes back to batteries. Hobby grade aircraft should come with a warning about proper care of LiPo batteries, pointing out the potential for them to explode. But that warning will again scare away potential buyers, so is likely to be omitted from toy grade aircraft.
Now we're getting to the really vague. But his gets to the heart of the question about what the companies strategy is.
Is this a stand-alone aircraft with little or no relation to other aircraft from the company? If so, then they probably don't expect to see you after the sale, and it's likely a toy.
On the other hand, does it share parts with other aircraft, and is clearly part of a line that will let - or even encourage - you to buy better aircraft from them as your skills improve? If so, then it's likely a hobby grade or better aircraft.
Checking these things requires looking at more than one model, but if you're thinking about getting into the hobby instead of just buying a toy, you'll want to do that anyway.
Controllers (aka transmitters)
Hobby grade aircraft tend to come both with and without controllers, and the manufacturer will provide a list of their controllers they recommend to fly the aircraft. Their better controllers will be able to remember settings for multiple aircraft, allowing you to fly multiple aircraft with one controller.
A good controller - which will have gimbals with smoother movement and higher resolution, as well as the ability to set a wide variety of things that affect the flight characteristics of aircraft - can easily cost an order of magnitude more than a cheap aircraft, and makes more than that much difference in flight! So selling you a good controller is one way of keeping you as a long time customer. You'll prefer buying aircraft you can fly with that controller to buying another expensive controller or using a cheap one with someone else's aircraft.
Toy grade aircraft tend to be available only with a controller (but again demand can change that), and the transmitter may or may not work with other aircraft from that company - you'll have to try it and see. The goal is to make as many sales with as much profit as possible, not to encourage you to buy lots of things over years.
Related to this and the emphasis on quick sales are controllers with non-functional buttons or bolts. They get added to make the controllers look more like hobby grade controllers, even though they do nothing - because looks are an important part of the fun of a toy. Or possibly the manufacturer recycled a controller from another aircraft, and the button may actually be functional, but have no function with the aircraft you're looking at.
Hobby grade aircraft may come with controllers with buttons that don't do anything with the aircraft that they come with, but the controller should have its own documentation, saying what they actually do. This makes the controller more useful on other aircraft, which they hope you'll buy. The toy grade company doesn't plan on them being used with other aircraft, so won't document what the button does much beyond "no function". And even the cheapest hobby grade aircraft don't have the fake bolt heads I've seen on toy grade controllers.
Once you get past the very smallest aircraft, you'll start seeing receivers as a replacement part on hobby grade aircraft. And you'll see them used on other aircraft. In fact, you may well see "receiver-ready" or "plug-n-play" or similar designations on hobby grade aircraft. The manufacturer expects you to provide a receiver that will work with your controller, and should tell you what type of wiring you'll need to connect things to it.
This one really requires checking out multiple models from the company. I particularly like this one, as toy companies I'm familiar with don't produce aircraft in the sizes where this is at all common. I've never seen anything smaller than a 200 size helicopter that did this, and not even all the hobby grade aircraft in this size do it. The largest helicopter I consider toy grade I could find was a 250 size helicopter. These are considered micro or mini helicopters by hobby grade standards, but are called "large" in the toy grade world.
These are just the things I watch for - and try to avoid. I don't believe any of them are conclusive by themselves, but will check on multiple things. And knowledgeable people I respect disagree about this list, and the conclusions I've drawn from it. But getting a lot of these on either side of the line is a good indication about which side a particular company or aircraft will land on.
Unfortunately, you can't judge an aircraft by the company that made it. The hobby and toy companies are now clearly in competition, and adopting practices from each other. Sometimes this makes a toy grade aircraft seem more like a hobby grade aircraft, and sometimes it does the reverse. But it also causes companies to produce aircraft that aren't of the same grade as their previous products.
Bottom line: Decide which of the things above you really care about. If you've decided a company tends to produce toy grade aircraft, decide how important build quality and customer support will be for a particular purchase. Then buy something that fits your goals. I hope I've provided some clues to help you do so in a more informed manner.