It's hard not to be charmed by Snap's tiny, friendly drone and its desire to be your flying selfie camera. But beneath the Pixy's yellow paint job is a concept that tried and failed to take off five years ago – and has since been eclipsed by a better alternative.
Back in 2017, I was given a demo of the original AirSelfie, a very similar idea to the Pixy that's still going in the form of the Air Neo. It was novel and fun, particularly as it closely followed the arrival of the gesture-controlled DJI Spark. But it was also very apparent that it couldn't escape the laws of physics – the same laws that weigh on the Snap Pixy like an overweight pigeon.
No-one is expecting a palm-sized, $230 drone to take cinematic videos. The Snap Pixy is designed to take 20-second clips that live in your SnapChat memories, and that's perfectly fine. But the problem with tiny drones isn't image quality – it's all the other limitations that collectively saddle the user experience.
A 101g drone is great for portability, but it can't handle even the lightest breeze. There's also only room for the smallest of batteries, which means the Snap Pixy can only manage up to eight of those short flights. This means you better nail that video, or hope a breeze doesn't pick up, otherwise you'll be frantically hot-swapping backup batteries or waiting 40 minutes for a recharge. And that's assuming you haven't already sent your cat to fetch the Pixy from a tree, due to its lack of obstacle avoidance.
These are all issues that computational software, which has been the get-out-of-jail card for smartphones, simply can't solve. But five years on from the original AirSelfie, it seems software isn't able to help mini drones with video quality either. The Snap Pixy can shoot perfectly respectable 2.7k/30p video in good light, but the size of its sensor means that a hint of gloom is going to make your video look like it was blasted by a confetti gun of noise.
In fairness to Snap, it has added its own twists to the AirSelfie concept. There are software tools like Hyperspeed, Orbit or Jump Cut to play with, and it does do basic person-tracking. But the problem isn't really the execution, it's the flawed concept itself – and that's why it feels like Snap should have taken inspiration from Insta360's cameras instead.
Flying without drones
Insta360 has built a sizable social media following, albeit one that's dwarfed by SnapChat's user base, thanks to its unique video cameras. It's the master of 'how did you do that?' video tricks, and one of its best features is the 'invisible selfie stick'.
If you've seen a video that looks like it was shot using a mini drone shot recently, it was probably taken using a 360-degree camera like the Insta360 One X2 instead. These cameras have two 200-degree lenses, which means there's some redundancy to play with in between the two – and that means stitching software can automatically remove a selfie stick used to hold the camera.
It isn't a perfect solution, because you have to be careful about where you place your hand to make it look natural. But the effect is impressive and it's way more practical than a mini drone, because it solves most of the problems – like wind, battery life, obstacle avoidance and drone laws – that trouble flying cameras like the Snap Pixy.
I've no doubt that some SnapChat users will pick up a Pixy drone and find it a useful way of making the odd video, or even come up with an innovative new use case that no-one's considered. But its practical limitations mean the ceiling is low, and the scope for experimentation is greater with some of the best 360 cameras.
Snap has rebranded itself as a camera company, but the whole point of cameras is that they get out of the way to let you make cool stuff. The Snap Pixy feels more like piece of flying marketing than an attempt to solve a genuine problem – and like the company's mysterious vending machines from a few years ago, it'll likely be considered a success on those terms.
But the work Snap is doing with its Spectacles and AR feels far more interesting and innovative – the Pixy is really an idea that should have been grounded a few years ago.
Get daily insight, inspiration and deals in your inbox
Get the hottest deals available in your inbox plus news, reviews, opinion, analysis and more from the TechRadar team.
Mark is TechRadar's Senior news editor. Having worked in tech journalism for a ludicrous 17 years, Mark is now attempting to break the world record for the number of camera bags hoarded by one person. He was previously Cameras Editor at both TechRadar and Trusted Reviews, Acting editor on Stuff.tv, as well as Features editor and Reviews editor on Stuff magazine. As a freelancer, he's contributed to titles including The Sunday Times, FourFourTwo and Arena. And in a former life, he also won The Daily Telegraph's Young Sportswriter of the Year. But that was before he discovered the strange joys of getting up at 4am for a photo shoot in London's Square Mile.