Choosing the right radio controlled product can be tough. Whether your interests lie in airplanes, helicopters, boats, cars or trucks, deciding which vehicle from which brand can be a very difficult thing to do for any beginner. This task is made even harder with the plethora of toy manufacturers that would have you believe their products are on par with hobby products. How can you tell the good from the bad? What’s the difference between a toy and a hobby product?
Most toys are designed to break. They are traditionally built with brittle plastics that break instead of flexing to absorb shocks. You can tell if the plastic is pliable or brittle by looking at the plastic itself. If it is glossy, chances are it will break easily. If it has a flat finish, it is more likely than not some sort of nylon composite material, and won’t break as easily. While this isn't always the case (a perfect example is the polycarbonate bodies that hobby-grade R/C cars use), it's a good rule of thumb. This is mostly applicable to R/C cars and trucks, but will also have some relevance with R/C helicopters.
To be sure, it’s still very possible to break or damage a hobby-grade R/C vehicle. They are not indestructible. But instead of breaking on the first hit, hobby-grade R/C cars and trucks are designed to take more of a pounding.
This is where the differences between the two industries really show up. The toy industry’s business model is to sell you a toy R/C vehicle, have you play with it for a short while, and then it breaks. There are no parts available to fix it, so you are forced to go buy another one if you want to continue enjoying it.
The hobby industry is pretty much the exact opposite of that. We’re set up so that when you do manage to break your R/C vehicle, you can come in to a hobby shop and pick up the parts to fix it. So long as the vehicle you own hasn’t become discontinued (usually meaning it’s an older vehicle), parts should be readily available for your product. Whether it’s a car or truck, boat or helicopter, parts support is a big part of the hobby industry.
Also unlike the toy industry, most R/C vehicles are built in a modular way. This means that you don’t need to buy a whole bunch of things that aren’t broken to replace the part that is. This is most noticeable on electronics – toy companies save money by combining all of the electronics onto a single circuit board. If one component on this board stops working, you would have to replace the whole thing! But that’s not how the hobby world works. There are exceptions to this rule, but it holds true for the most part.
So if you can’t get parts for your new R/C vehicle, it’s probably a toy, and not hobby-grade.
Ever wanted to make your toy store R/C car faster? Or maybe upgrade the handling? It's nearly impossible to do. They simply aren't built to allow for modifications.
This isn't a problem for hobby-grade R/C vehicles.
In addition to having replacement parts available, hobby-grade R/C vehicles frequently have optional parts you can purchase and install as well. This is especially the case in the R/C car and truck world.
Some of these optional parts may be things like aluminum versions of the stock plastic parts, to strengthen the vehicle even further. Or they could be different tires for different surfaces. From light kits to bodies to better radios to performance accessories like shocks and sway bars, hobby-grade R/C vehicles can offer way more things to do than their toy counterparts. You can install faster motors and longer lasting batteries. If you want to be able to upgrade your vehicle, make sure it’s from a hobby shop and not a toy store.
Toy companies are always trying to dazzle consumers with their gimmicky technology. I had a Tyco R/C car as a child – its claim to fame was the ability to transform from a low riding buggy to a high ground clearance monster truck at the push of a button. Cool, huh?
Well, that feature was great and all, but it didn’t make it drive any better, or make it faster, or really impact the performance of the vehicle in any meaningful way. That’s what I mean by a gimmick – all sizzle and flash, no substance.
But hobby manufacturers are constantly coming up with new technology that makes a difference. Horizon Hobby has developed a technology called SAFE (Sensor Assisted Flight Envelope) that has allowed many, many more people to experience the joy of R/C flight than could have before - and safely at that. The technology blends 3D gyroscopes with accelerometers and limits the pitch and roll of the place in beginner mode. It also includes a panic button on the radio to get the pilot of out most sticky situations.
This technology isn’t simply a selling point – it actually changes the behavior of the aircraft, and makes it more accessible to beginners. And now they’ve taken the technology to the R/C car world, with AVC (Active Vehicle Control). AVC offers steering assistance and throttle management in a non-intrusive way. You’re still in control, but AVC is helping to make you a better driver.
There aren’t any toy companies innovating like that. If you like your technology fresh, up-to-date, and relevant, a hobby-grade vehicle is what you want.
Here’s the thing about hobbies. They’re hard! As accessible as the industry has become, it’s still not easy to break into. And when toy companies masquerade their products as hobby-grade, but offer nothing in the way of customer service and support, it doesn’t damage the toy world – it gives the hobby a bad rap.
In the hobby world, hobby shops are not some massive corporation that don't care about you and your problems. They are small, independent and local businesses that have a personal stake in each and every one of their customers’ success. As such, they are much more than a portal from which you purchase your products – they are your support staff as well, helping you as best they can with whatever problems arise with your hobby product.
Hobby manufacturers are also not corporations the likes of Tyco, Toys ‘R Us, or Nicco. Most are smaller, nimble companies that also want to ensure their customers have a positive experience with their products. Companies like Horizon Hobby and Traxxas have a proven track record when it comes to customer service that has no equal in the toy market.
When the help and support from a hobby shop isn’t quite enough, or when an avid radio control fan wants to go beyond what is available and fabricate his own parts, inevitably he’ll end up on one of the many R/C community message boards online. There are hundreds of them, all with hundreds, if not thousands of users. These fanatics all post and comment and support each other. Peruse the RCCrawler site for build threads and pictures of modified rock crawlers, and see the comments. They are mostly positive – showing what a wonderful community springs up around the hobby.
Even locally, R/C enthusiasts gather for races, bash fests, or just running around in the backyard. They meet at hobby shops, become friends, and enjoy their hobby together. It’s rare to see that level of engagement in a toy-grade R/C vehicle.
These are the differences between the toy world and the hobby world. Obviously, we think the hobby world to be the superior of the two, but that’s not what matters. It’s what you think that is relevant. And now that you know the differences between the two, you can make an educated decision on which world you want to live in.