Let's be honest: this is going to be a controversial category. For one thing, there are lots of great frames out there, so I'm going to offend somebody by leaving out their favorite. But the whole point of this page is to help you narrow down your options, so I've picked just a few that I think are great.
When I first made this List, I struggled over whether to include “clone” frames. On the one hand, original frame designers deserve to be compensated. On the other hand, some people just don’t have the money to buy a premium frame. Today, I’m glad to say that you don’t have to compromise on price to get a high-quality, first-party frame. Manufacturers like Armattan, Rotor Riot, and Team Blacksheep have released high-quality frames, priced to compete with cheap “clones”.
The other argument people make is that many first-party frames ship from the United States, which is expensive if you’re anywhere else. Both TBS and Armattan (SabotageRC) ship from Asia, and Armattan offers free shipping on the whole Sabotage line of frames.
Based on this, I’ve pulled all the “clone” frames from this list; and I encourage you to support these manufacturers with your business. (EDIT: I am in the process of updating the page to remove clone frames, so if you still see one, come back in a bit.)
Freestyle is like dance. The goal is to move the quad through the environment in interesting, exciting, and beautiful ways. A freestyle quad may have power, but raw speed is not its end goal. Freestyle frames are usually larger and heavier than frames focused on racing. They're simpler to build, since the pilot isn't focused on shaving every single gram of weight that they can. Freestyle frames are always designed to carry a High-Definition camera such as a GoPro.
If this is your first build, you should definitely buy one of the "freestyle" frames on this page. A "racing" frame is probably too challenging for a novice because the electronics will be harder to install.
High-quality frames; Budget Prices
The CL1 is a basic, affordable frame for freestyle racing. It features interchangeable arms so you don’t have to pull out all your electronics when you break an arm. It’s fairly roomy, which helps if this is your first build, and you haven’t yet figured out how to cram ten gallons of electronics in a two-gallon frame.
The Dingo carries on Armattan’s tradition of innovative frame design. It doesn’t look like anything else you’ve seen, but don’t let that turn you off. The rounded edges mean that the force of impacts is spread out, which increases durability.
The Dingo is a little bit compact for a beginner builder, so think carefully about the parts you’ll use in your build. Or just have Armattan select it for you! Yep. That’s right. You can buy everything you need for your Dingo build right from the product page above. Armattan will even build it for you if you want!
The TBS SourceOne is the first totally open-source, community-designed frame. Literally. It’s got a github repo! A community of contributors are working right now to improve the frame, and every so often a new version is “released” and the product in stores is updated.
Accessories for the SourceOne are plentiful. You can buy them from the TBS store, or you can download the .STL files and print them yourself. Heck! You can cut the whole frame for free if you’ve got a carbon fiber cutting machine. How’s that for a bargain?
The Strix Screech is designed by ReadyMadeRC, a stalwart of the U.S. RC hobby industry. It's a great freestyle frame (although you could race it if you really wanted to). And it's under $40.
Although Rotor Riot, Armattan, and TBS may be better known, ReadyMadeRC deserves credit for being one of the first to release a high-quality, first-party frame at clone-killing prices. It comes with a 3D printed GoPro case, which should be factored in when comparing price.
The Reverb is the sequel to the ImpulseRC Alien, possibly the most successful mini quad frame ever. The Reverb keeps everything that made the Alien so successful, while adding modern design touches like reduced weight, lower top deck for tighter center of gravity, and smaller wheelbase for better agility.
There's a reason that the original Alien stuck around as long as it did: it's easy to build, durable, easy to maintain, and flies amazing. With the Reverb, ImpulseRC has brought the Alien's success into the modern era.
In terms of popularity and innovation, the Chameleon may be the only legitimate contender to the Alien's throne. It has an innovative aluminum front end that protects the FPV camera and provides a mount for the HD camera with integrated uptilt adjustment. No need for a 3D-printed GoPro mount on this frame! The Chameleon has a low-deck design that centralizes weight, making the quad more nimble. The low deck makes it more of an intermediate build, since there is less room to fit all the equipment in the frame.
If you're at all interested in the Chameleon, you must watch this video review, by Soma, the developer of the Alien. This may be the best frame review I've ever seen.
The goal of a racer is to go fast and finish first. Racing frames are built as light and aerodynamic (thin) as possible. They're also more compact and difficult to build.
Durability is a challenge for racing frames. If the racer crashes out, he's not going to win the race. But additional strength usually equates to additional weight. The best racing frames strike a fine balance between these considerations.
One defining characteristic of today's racing frames is the Stretched-X motor layout. These frames have the motors farther apart front-to-back than side-to-side. It's hard to tell whether this offers any legitimate benefit, or whether it's just another fashion trend. Enough top racers are flying Stretched-X that maybe there's something to it.
Racing frames are more likely to use an under-slung battery. They can usually carry a GoPro if need be, but may be designed with the GoPro as an afterthought, rather than a necessity.
All of the "racing" frames on this page are intermediate to advanced builds. If you're a beginner, you should buy one of the "freestyle" frames above and enjoy racing it. You won't be as competitive as someone with a purpose-built racer, but you'll still have a great time.
CHEAPEST WORTH HAVING
OWLRC DRAGON DSX-5
The OwlRC Dragon was brought to me by its designer, Grisha Lutsenko, for help in bringing it to market. Something about it really struck my fancy. The four arms come together to form a solid plate, so you get many of the best characteristics of a single-piece bottom plate, while still being able to change an arm if you break one. But you probably won't break one! The quality of the carbon used on this frame is top-notch. It's one of the stiffest frames I've ever seen, too. The main body is compact enough that the quad handles great, but roomy enough that you won't struggle to fit everything into it. To be honest, I'm not even sure how it's possible to sell it for the low price they do, but I'm not complaining!
Light. Fast. Simple.
RDQ Mach 1 Stretch X
The Mach 1 is one of five frames selected for MultiGP's prestigious Spec-Class racing league. Frames like the Mach 1 reduce weight by minimizing the amount of carbon in the frame. The "frame" consists of little more than a base-plate and a top plate. Fitting all of your electronics in this frame will require a lot of thinking ahead. Some components simply won't fit, so you might want to look up somebody else's parts list before proceeding. But you'll be rewarded with an incredibly nimble and fast quad. The centralized weight will make it turn on a dime, and the small surface area minimizes drag.
Purebred Racing Machine
Superlight 5" Norris
Catalyst Machineworks pioneered this style of frame, with full-sized arms but a smaller chassis. This keeps weight centralized for nimble handling, while giving just a little bit more breathing room for build and maintenance compared to ultra-compact frames like the Reaper.
With the right components, this entire quadcopter can come in under 200 grams. It's ridiculously strong, light, and fast. But you have to be careful in your parts selection. If you build this frame too heavy, it won't be durable at all. Check out Catalyst Machineworks product page for a list of suggested parts.