Way back in 2012 (seems like forever ago, doesn't it?), Traxxas announced not one, but two helicopters would be their entrance into the radio controlled helicopter market. I, for one, was pretty excited about Traxxas' arrival in the R/C heli world; we've had such good luck carrying their R/C cars and trucks, and that success seemed destined to carry over to the helicopter world. Unfortunately, things didn't work out that way, and we had some bad experiences with Traxxas' quadcopters when they came out. And when Traxxas announced the LaTrax Alias, we hesitated on it. Blade was coming out with their Blade 180QX HD, a similarly-sized quadcopter that came equipped with a camera. And while the new Blade quadcopter was a bit pricier than the Alias, we felt that Blade had a better track record, and opted toward them.
We had the Blade 180QX HD for a while (and still do - you can see our first hands-on video here), and it became obvious that the higher price point was preventing some people from purchasing it. Other features were lacking as well, namely navigation lights. And so we decided to give the Alias another look, to see if Traxxas had stepped up and fixed the issues that plagued our first batch of helicopters. Here's what we found.
Traxxas... I'm sorry, LaTrax, gives you everything you need to start flying in the box. The manual is a basic manual - not really up to Traxxas' usual full color offerings. The quick start guide is nicer, and does a good job of going over the basics. Other than that, there's a battery, USB charger, AAA batteries, the transmitter, extra blades, an Allen wrench, and the quadcopter itself.
The Alias looks like a Traxxas product. Unlike the QR-1 to come before it, the Alias' frame is made of the same high-quality nylon composite material Traxxas' trucks are made with. It looks and feels very rugged. The "feet" are covered with rubber dots, both giving good grip for landings and protecting the motors. The gears are well protected (though I would have preferred a direct-drive setup - it's quieter). The prop shafts are held in place in a clever way; no e-clips to fuss with, just a simple pin and screw. The hardware is all hex throughout - Blade could learn a thing or to from Traxxas on hardware quality. Almost everything is labelled, which should help with any repair work you'll need to do. The motor plugs are easy to get to. It's a clean and efficient design. And then there's the little Traxxas touches, like the clip to hold the ESC plug in place; reminiscent of the VXL-3S speed control for their 1/10th vehicles. This is obviously a product Traxxas, I mean LaTrax (I don't think I'll ever get used to that), thought a lot about during the R&D stage.
The battery is a single cell (3.7V) Lithium-Polymer battery, rated at 650mAh. I like that the battery has a bit more capacity than is standard on other similar-sized quads, and I like that it comes with a JST connector, as that's a common plug in the industry. If you have a multi-chemistry charger, you can easily get a charge lead for this battery, which is nice, because this LiPo has a 2C charge rate (check out our Guide to LiPo Batteries if you don't know what that means).
The included charger is a USB charger; they're all the rage these days. I get that everyone has USB adapters nowadays, but I wish this was a more traditional AC-powered charger. With all the devices I have, I'm running out of high-output USB ports, and the manual says to use a USB port rated for at least 1 Amp for best results. As for the charger, it's dead simple to use; plug the battery in, the light comes on. When the light goes out, the battery is charged. Yay.
It's worth noting that, like most included chargers, this one does not have any LiPo storage functionality, making it difficult to maintain LiPo batteries' health over time. Another good reason to invest in a proper LiPo charger down the road.
The transmitter feels great in the hand. For anyone used to video game controllers, this will feel right at home. Out of the box, the sticks have a wide, concave pad at the top and serrations (for want of a better word), both acting to keep your thumb in place. There's no antenna to break, as the antenna is contained within the transmitter's case. I only have one minor complaint about the radio: it uses AAA batteries instead of AA, and while LaTrax gives you batteries in the box, replacing them down the road means making a special trip to get some batteries I don't use in anything else.
I fly with my thumb and forefinger, not just thumbs. But the transmitter's thumbpads aren't set up to easily allow for that method of control. However, LaTrax kindly includes a more traditional stick setup that you can quickly swap out. I flew the Alias both ways, and much prefer the traditional sticks. Newbies might like the thumbpads, though, so I'm glad the Alias has a one-size-fits-all mentality.
I plugged the charger into an old Apple iPad USB adapter, which is rated for 2.1 Amps. The battery charged while I was typing up my initial impressions, and I didn't keep track of the time. The manual says it should take around 40 minutes to charge, which seems about right. The battery slid into the undercarriage just fine, no problems there.
One of the unique things about the Alias is that after you plug the battery in, you have to arm the motors by pushing in on the left stick while the throttle is at zero. The props (yes, they are props, not blades. Blades only have one side; props have two) won't spin before you arm it. The quick start guide also warns that if the throttle stick is left idle for more than five seconds, or the helicopter detects an impact, it will disarm the motors again. I foresee a handful of customer service calls about that.
Now it's time to fly the Alias.
The Alias handles exactly like I expected it would; that is to say, like a quadcopter. There isn't really anything different in its flight characteristics from anything else I have flown, which is good. I don't like surprises where the basics are concerned. If you're looking for a solid flying quadcopter, the Alias fits that bill as well as anything else could.
The transmitter is a mixed bag. There are some great things about it, and some not-so great things. With the thumbpads, I felt the sticks were a little bit too sloppy. The throttle in particular seemed inconsistent, forcing me to constantly adjust much more than I am used to on other quadcopters (or helicopters in general, for that matter). Since the controls feel a little loose, the helicopter, by extension, feels a little loose. If this is your first quadcopter, it won't diminish your enjoyment of it at all. But if you're coming from other helis, it takes some getting used to.
With the traditional sticks, I had much greater control of the helicopter. I still had some problems with throttle (which might be related to another problem I had, but we'll get to that in a second), but otherwise, the Alias was almost like a whole different helicopter. The added length of the new sticks gave me much more leverage, and I was able to make smaller movements and more precisely control the quad.
The constant disarming of the heli when the throttle is at zero for five or more seconds I found annoying, but that's only because I was flying it on and off, landing, checking things out, and flying again. It's a neat feature for the average consumer, but again, anyone coming from other quads will find it frustrating until they get used to it.
The telemetry feature is neat, but I'm not sure how accurate it is. The indicator for the flight pack goes from full to empty pretty much right away, leaving me with no actual indication of what the battery's charge level is. The Low-Voltage cutoff does work as advertised, though - something I wish more beginner-focused helicopters and quadcopters would do.
On the first, and most basic, difficulty level, the Alias is easy to fly around, though it's slow to react if you need to stop suddenly (if you were heading toward, you know, a wall). It self-corrects nicely, and is very stable in basic flight. Not really any frills, but a great start for the absolute quadcopter newbie.
Things really start heating up when you get to the second level. This level also includes an envelope limiting system that will automatically return the Alias to stable flight when you let off the sticks. Unlike level one, though, this level allows for more aggressive directional flight, speeding up the quad and adding quite a bit of maneuverability. You can also perform tricks in this level. Flips, rolls, and more are all accomplished in the push of a button, making it easy for just about anyone to do some YouTube worthy aerobatics.
The final level is expert mode. Here, the self-stabilizing system goes away. You need to return the quad to level flight on your own. This is by far the most challenging mode, and also the most rewarding. The Alias can easily get out of control; being able to rein it in is a fun test of skill - albeit one that most pilots shouldn't attempt right out of the box. This mode is my personal favorite, and I'll be spending more time with it in the future.
One troubling problem arose with our Alias during testing. On my second flight, I started noticing what I'll call a "power drift", where the throttle output will vary greatly while the throttle stick is stationary. Sometimes it will be at 100% throttle, and the Alias can't lift off. A quick bump of the right stick, however, and the Alias shoots up into the air. The two sticks shouldn't interact with each other this way. I'll also have random losses of throttle - not overall power, just throttle - which crashes the helicopter. The odd thing about this issue is its inconsistency, and apparently, its rareness. I looked all over the Interwebs for complaints of a similar problem, and found none.
To find the average flight time, I flew straight through for five flights, going from a full charge to letting the low-voltage cutoff disarm the helicopter. On the first flight, I just did some hovering and general moving around - no tricks, just some plain jane flying. The second flight was more of the same, but with some flips and stunts thrown in. Flight three was pretty much all flips, loops, and rolls. For flight four, I backed it down some, with minimal tricks and mostly even flight. And the final flight was about half general flight and half tricks. Once I'd completed the flights, I averaged their times out. I have to say, I was impressed with the duration of each flight, and even the average of them, about 11 minutes, is a pretty long flight time for this class of quadcopter. That 650mAh battery is a great feature.
Interestingly, I had some of the aforementioned problems during the first duration test flight during the first three minutes of the test, and experienced no more problems for the rest of the flights. Flights two through five were issue-free. Weird. Even stranger, when I took the Alias to a local gym during an eFly event, I suffered from the "power drift" problem again. Once I got my hands on another Alias, though, it became clear that whatever the problem with my initial Alias is, it isn't something that is widespread. The second Alias I flew worked fine for five flights in a row, with my flying transitioning from stable flight to stunts and back. I will consult with Traxxas on our demo unit to get it fixed, but I am pretty confident after flying a separate quadcopter that the problem I had is limited to our first Alias.
The Alias has proven to be as durable as it looks. Through my testing, I have banged in into chairs, walls, ceilings, and counters. It took it all in stride without even so much as denting the props. One nice feature is the over-current protection the Alias has. When it detects a larger-than-normal load on the system (if, for instance, a chair leapt out in front of the quad and the prop struck the chair), the system will shut itself down, preventing damage to the electronics. This feature should save many circuit boards from frying.
Versus The Competition
The Alias' main competitor, as I mentioned in the introduction, is the Blade 180QX, at least on our shelves. Comparing the two is kind of difficult, though, because they don't really serve the same consumer. The Blade 180QX is more polished in its flying characteristics - when I want to put it somewhere, I can do that, and keep it there. The Alias will go where I want, but keeping it in a stable hover is much harder. It feels like the Alias is built to move, not stay stationary.
I like the Blade 180QX's ability to be flown with many different Spektrum radios; the versatility is welcome. I personally prefer to fly with a more traditional radio transmitter, so I like that I can bind our Spektrum DX7S transmitter to the 180QX and fly it. The Alias is stuck with the transmitter LaTrax includes. You can buy a new one, but you can't make a different brand radio work (or at least a brand that is, in any way, an improvement).
Overall, the Blade 180QX is more polished and more... upscale... than the LaTrax Alias, which is reflected in its higher price point. It also comes with a camera, something the Alias is lacking. But none of that really matters, because I don't think a quadcopter aficionado is really the market Traxxas was shooting for. Rather, the Alias is really aimed squarely at the R/C car consumer - someone that prizes speed and agility over polish and shine. The Alias screams speed; the lights and flips and loops attracting a consumer that may not ordinarily buy something that flies. The Alias is a great quadcopter for the average person new to helis and quads. But if you're looking for something super precise and polished, the Blade 180QX is probably more your style. But either way, you can't really go wrong.
Update :: November 4th, 2014
We reviewed another competitor to the Alias, the Dromida Ominus. Check out our review and see how the Alias stacked up against the new challenger HERE.
I honestly wasn't expecting much from the Alias. Our aforementioned issues with the QR-1 quadcopters from Traxxas put us in a position where the Alias really had to shine to make us consider picking it up. It took us a few months to even consider getting one in to review. But I'm glad we did.
Is the Alias a perfect quadcopter? Not at all. It's not even close. But it is very good - as good as it has to be to serve its purpose. And its purpose is to introduce a whole new demographic to radio controlled flight. When looked at through that lens, I find that the Alias is a charming and fun primer to the world of R/C helicopters. Like a good Mel Brooks movie, the Alias is at its best when not taken seriously, but instead viewed as an outlet for fun and good times. And with Traxxas' fantastic customer support and service, not to mention parts support, I think the Alias is a great way for anyone to transition into R/C quadcopters. It's hard to know if something will come out to best the Alias - the industry changes very fast nowadays - but for the time being, the Alias is a winner in my book.
Brian Schneider / Brian is the manager, webmaster, & social media guru for Roger's Hobby Center. He's been in the hobby industry over a decade, teaching people the essentials of the R/C world. He's written a number of helpful guides, including A Guide to LiPo Batteries.