Top Hits & Misses of 2013

2013 was, in many ways, a boring year. The thrill of having survived the "Mayan Apocalypse" wanned quickly, and life went on as it always had. Suddenly, we're on the eve of the new year, wondering where the past 12 months has gone. It was harder to compile a list of the top hits and misses this year, because at first, it didn't seem like anything really happened this year. But as we thought about it, a few ideas sprang forth, and this year's Hits and Misses might just turn out to be as important as last years. So come along, then, and find out what I think the biggest successes and stinkers of 2013 are.

Miss #1: ECX Fails to Evolve

When ECX vehicles sold well after their reboot last year, we labelled them as the biggest hit of 2012. But now, a year later, ECX is largely the same. They did release a couple of brushless variants of their 1/10 Ruckus and Torment, but the electronics upgrade did nothing to help the core problems with ECX: handling, performance, and a lack of hop-ups. I recently wrote about this, so I won't repeat myself here, but the gist is this: the reboot of last year introduced promise into the line, but that promise never materialized.

Horizon Hobby has failed to evolve ECX, content (for now) to leave it as a purely beginner-oriented brand. Without some hop-ups and/or changes to the 2WD platforms, ECX will never gain mainstream traction as a hobbyist’s label. Horizon’s failure to morph ECX into a more polished brand is a big miss for 2013. Hopefully they can turn it around next year.

Miss #2: Traxxas' Wibbly-Wobbly Year

2013 was the year the giant stubled. Traxxas made a number of missteps this year, and, while it didn't cost them as much as it could have, they still have some work to do rebuilding the trust they had with dealers. Last year's biggest miss was the Traxxas QR-1 and DR-1 helicopters. This year, their mistakes aren't limited to a new line of products. This year saw Traxxas discontinue the NiMH-packaged versions of their trucks in lieu of versions equipped with LiPo batteries. Only after outcries from dealers, malcontent to carry Traxxas' overpriced LiPos, did Traxxas step back and introduce a new SKU, this time without any battery at all. Many dealers, including us, lauded this move. Then Traxxas discontinued most of these as well, reissuing the NimH versions once again.

In addition, Traxxas increased the price on most of their vehicles this year, cededing ground to ECX, Duratrax, and (*shudder*) Red Cat Racing. Their Velineon Brushless System increased to a street price of $200, astronomical compared to other options. Amd what's with LaTrax? The only thing that sub-company came out with this year was a sub-par 1/18th scale rally car and a quadcopter that should have been put out under Traxxas' name, not LaTrax. It's not at all clear what Traxxas was thinking, but 2013 was not a good year for them in the PR department. Traxxas' wibbly-wobbly year is a miss in 2013.

Biggest Miss of 2013: Horizon Hobby's Inventory Woes

It started in January... 2012. Horizon ran out of upper blades for their new and popular Scout CX. The wait would last two months, and we labeled that a big miss for 2012. Then, in May 2012, Horizon CEO Joe Ambrose apologized for their lack of available product, promising things would change. We’re now more than 18 months removed from that promise, and we’ve yet to see any substantial changes in Horizon’s inventory management. From Dynamite 15-turn motors to E-Flite 150mAh LiPo batteries to Tazer 3300kV brushless combos, key items have been backordered for extended periods of time, leading us dealers scrambling to keep customers happy. Worse yet were customers who were unlucky enough to purchase an Horizon product with a defective component - it's one thing for an upgrade part to be unavailable, but even warranty replacements were impossibly difficult to come by. One of our customers waited three months (his entire summer break) for a defective servo to be replaced.

It's hard to understand why a hugely successful distributor like Horizon can't nail down their inventory problems. The most surprising thing is that it isn't limited to their proprietary merchandise; even products from other manufacturers are routinely out of stock at Horizon, yet available at their chief comptetitor, Great Planes. Pro-Line tires, APC props, and Hitec chargers are just some of the items we've had to source from other vendors because Horizon was out of stock. I'm hopeful the sale of Horizon Hobby to Mr. Ambrose and a couple of investment groups will help ease the inventory problem. But for now, there’s no indication that anything will improve in the near future, and I decree that Horizon’s inventory woes are the biggest miss of 2013.

Hit #1: Dynamite's Reaction Line of LiPo Batteries

Ever since the Chinese companies realized they could market their wares directly to American consumers, hobby shops have been at a disadvantage. When we heard that Dynamite would be releasing a less expensive line of LiPo batteries, we had no idea how much that would help level the playing field. We’ve sold many more LiPo batteries this year than the last, and the Reaction Line of LiPos had a lot to do with it. In fact, they made it to number ten on our top ten products countdown.

The only thing keeping the Reaction line from being the biggest hit of the year is their refusal to bring their aircraft batteries to the US market (they are available only in the European market right now). Internal politics at Horizon play a part in that, I'm sure. Either way, though, the Reaction LiPo Batteries were a big hit in 2013.

Hit #2: SAFE Sells

When Horizon announced a new, beginner-friendly feature on their new Apprentice airplane, their claims on what it was capable of were met with incredulous responses. We’ve had experience with their ACT, or Anti-Crash Technology, which in some cases, caused crashes instead of preventing them. But when Horizon invited dealers, including this author, down to their facility in Champaign, IL, to test out the SAFE technology for ourselves, we became believers.

Since then, we’ve seen SAFE launch on five aircraft. The Apprentice S sold out almost as fast as we could get them in. The Blade nQX proved it works great on quadcopters. The HobbyZone Delta Ray opened up the technology for the 'Teach Yourself to Fly' crowd, and the Blade 350QX and 180QX use the technology to make camerawork easy and fun on a quad-rotor platform. While the technology is still young, I think SAFE will be making its mark on the industry for years to come. That makes Horizon's SAFE technology a great hit for 2013.

Biggest Hit of 2013: Quadcopter-palooza!

This is truly the year of the quadcopter. Between the success of the Helimax 1SQ last year, and Blade diving head first into the category this year, the quad rotor platform exploded this year. Specifically, the GoPro-equippable Blade 350QX brought hobby shops a mainstream quadcopter to compete with the DJI Phantom, and was a resounding success. While it didn't make this year's Top 10 Products of the Year list (mainly because it has only been out for a couple of months), I suspect the 350QX is destined to make next year's list. We've already sold many more they we anticipated.

On the other end of the spectrum, Blade released the Nano QX quadcopter in June. This was the first helicopter to employ the SAFE technology. I didn't realize just how well these were received until we looked at the end of year sales, and the Nano QX made our Top 10 list! I didn't expect that, but it's hard to be surprised. Blade is first class, and it shows.

Another big (surprise) hit was the Proto X quad from Estes. I don’t think anyone expected these to work, let alone be amazing! The Proto X would be a great deal at $50, but for their going price of only $40, they’re a steal. We've already sold more than 100 of these little quads, and they show no sign of slowing down.

And rounding out the year was Blade's 180QX HD, a solid entry in the quadcopter space with an included camera. While these have only been out for a few weeks, we've already sold through our initial shipment and have more on backorder, so it looks like the 180QX will be a solid contender as well.

No matter the maker, it was quadcopters that dominated in 2013, making them the biggest hit of the year.

Indeed, 2013 was an off year for some, but others had great success. The trends, missteps, stumbles, and streaks were as interesting this year as in the past, but for some reason they feel more poignant; as if the effects of this year's pros and cons will be felt for years to come.

That rounds on our list of the top hits and misses of 2013. Did you agree with them all? Think I was wrong on everything? Let us know on our Facebook page, and keep the conversation going!