Admit it: You've always wanted to fly a helicopter. Well, at least we have. And while most of us won't be getting behind the controls of an Apache anytime soon, we can enjoy it on a small scale with the Griffin Helo TC. This $49 appcessory pairs a miniature remote-control helicopter with an iOS app, letting you pilot the craft using your iPhone (or iPad). But does this device have the right stuff?
Unlike more exotic-looking toys such as the Parrot AR. drone, the Griffin Helo TC looks like a traditional helicopter--a single rotor above the body for lift, and a tail boom with a second, smaller rotor to control direction. A black plastic shell and bare metal chassis underneath give the chopper a spartan but sleek look. The metal frame and landing skids were also reassuring, given our propensity for crashing.
On the left side of the chopper are a tiny power switch and a small port to charge the helicopter's battery (a USB-powered charging cable is included).
Also in the box is an RF transmitter that attaches to your iPhone or iPod touch using two plastic clips. The transmitter is powered by four AAA batteries and plugs into the iOS device via the headphone jack. When the transmitter is connected, the combined weight and size of the two feels much like an XBox 360 controller. You can also use the transmitter with an iPad, but it works best with an iPhone or iPod touch.
Setup and Controls
Before connecting the transmitter to our iPhone, we downloaded the Helo TC app from the App Store. Then we attached the transmitter and launched the app.
The controls on the app are pretty basic: On the left is a throttle and the right has a circular d-pad for direction. Between them are controls for recording flight plans, Settings, and Auto Land. Atop the d-pad are buttons to adjust the trim, and below is a button to activate the lights on the chopper. Under Settings, you can adjust flight controls and turn on Expert mode.
As with any remote control helicopter, there's a bit of a learning curve. We channeled our inner Airwolf and started by using the d-pad as a traditional joystick. After a few minutes, we were able to move the helicopter around where we wanted it, for the most part.
A neat feature of the Griffin app is that you can change the controls so that tilting your iOS device will change the direction of the helicopter. We found the motion controls to be much more sensitive than the traditional joystick. However, once we got the hang of it, we were able to move the helicopter around very fluidly. In some ways, we preferred this control method, as we didn't have to worry too much about our thumb placement on the iPhone.
Regardless, we found that keeping the Helo TC in the air required constant minute adjustments of the throttle. We recommend using this device in a room with a high ceiling. Unfortunately, you can't really use the Helo TC outdoors--even a slight wind sent the helicopter well off course.
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It was neat seeing the Helo TC helicopter flying around our living room, with its red, green, and blue lights blinking on and off. We only wish that we could get more than 10 to 15 minutes of flight time before we had to recharge the chopper, but that's typical of devices this size.
You can also record up to three flight plans to have the helicopter fly a pre-programmed route. However, it was difficult enough to control the device precisely enough to fly a route we liked.
The Auto Land feature worked perfectly, bringing the helicopter to a soft landing. However, by the time we found ourselves in a situation where we'd need this feature, the helicopter had already crashed. Fortunately, the design is very forgiving. And in the event of an accident, Griffin bundles replacement rotor blades.
The Griffin Helo TC is one of the most fun iPhone accessories ever. At $49, it's about the same price as similar remote-control helicopters, making it a killer toy for those with iOS devices and flights of fancy.