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These days, ever more toy RCs have upgrades available for purchase from the original manufacturer, particularly amongst the smaller "micro" cars and trucks. These upgrades can range from different body kits to stickier tires to faster motors. They're generally very easy to install, requiring at most a small screwdriver (which is often included) and 15 minutes, and can dramatically change the look or performance of the vehicle. They're also great fun to install and let the owner add a bit of their own personality.
The most popular hobby RCs may have literally hundreds of upgrades available from many different aftermarket sources (companies other than the original manufacturer). Among the available upgrades may be anything from scale-realistic wheels to anodized aluminum struts in various colors to larger motors/engines to total conversion kits that fundamentally change the vehicle. Many hobby-level RC parts are reusable from one vehicle to another, especially electronic components and motors/engines. Popular RC models come with the support of other owners nationwide or around the world who share their experiences, tips, and home-grown modifications freely on the Internet.
Toy radio systems traditionally give you forward/reverse (or up/down) and left/right direction control. A growing number of cars & trucks these days now have "digital proportional" steering to boot, which gives you a number of steps between neutral and full turning, depending upon how far you turn the wheel or push the stick on the radio transmitter. Some, though, only let you go straight forward or to turn one pre-set direction in reverse. Toy helicopters are what you have to watch out for the most, as these sometimes give you only one axis of control -- go straight up, or come straight down. Most toy RC's are still only available on two frequencies (e.g., 27mhz and 49mhz in the US), with a few now offering 3 to 6 possibilities. This limits the number of vehicles that can run at one time, but more unfortunately it reduces the possibility of even being able to run two random vehicles together.
Hobby-class radio systems give you 64 to 256 (or more) steps of control in each direction for what feels like perfectly smooth turning & throttle control. These systems can also be easily changed between anywhere from 6 to 30 different frequencies, so even if the one person you want to race against or fly with has an absolutely identical radio setup, for around $20 and with a one-minute part swap, you're both in the clear. Still better, the most recent generation of radio systems, while expensive, operate on an extremely high frequency and use small computer chips to automatically search for and lock onto an open channel, ensuring that you'll never have a frequency conflict.
Toy RCs can be raced between siblings or friends around the neighborhood, but there's generally no sanctioned racing. Hobby-level RCs are raced around the world in local, regional, national, and even international events, even including multi-track tours.
When all is said and done, the purchase decision between toy & hobby-level RCs should always come down to who the purchase is being made for. You don't want to buy a $390, 45mph nitro-powered car for a 6-year-old. Likewise, a 16-year-old who wants to get into RC racing for sport wouldn't be well-served by a $39 toy. What's really interesting is the 26-year-old with a $25 micro-sized monster truck who would derive hours of fun from chasing his/her cat around the kitchen floor or gingerly driving around a makeshift desktop obstacle course during lunchtime at work. Before you buy an RC, know who you're buying it for and do a little research. That extra time spent up front could make the difference between tremendous fun and awkward disappointment.< Previous page