It’s the #1 question we hear at Sporty’s: “I’m looking at the ForeFlight, Garmin and WingX apps, but I don’t know which one to buy. Which is the best?” Sorry to disappoint, but there’s no quick answer. Each of the three apps has a lot to offer, but often in different ways and with different emphases. Personal preference plays a big part in the decision–do you like Coke or Pepsi?
So while we can’t pick a winner that is best for every pilot, we can offer a side-by-side comparison of the core features, and offer some (completely biased) opinions. Let’s dive in.
One of the first things you’ll notice about any app is the way it’s structured and how you navigate through the various features. This is an important issue for ease of use, and each of these three apps has a unique style, so consider which approach you prefer.
- ForeFlight uses a series of tabs across the bottom that give you access to the main features of the app: Airports, Maps, Plates, Documents, Imagery, File & Brief, Scratchpad and More. This takes up some screen real estate, but it makes it fast and easy to switch between features. You can read an approach plate, then pop over to the moving map page without using any menus or back buttons. What’s the downside? These tab buttons are smaller than the buttons in both Garmin and WingX.
Garmin uses a Home button that’s always in the top left corner for navigation. Tapping this reveals a drop-down menu that will look familiar to users of the company’s aera and GTN series navigators. Icon-based menu options include: Map, Active FPL, Trip Planning, Airport Info, Charts, WX Imagery, Downloads and Settings. This is very easy to navigate, and features like the Active FPL page are just like a panel-mount GPS. The only downside is that you have to hit the Home button a lot, which adds an extra step for some commonly-used features. One final feature that a lot of pilots will appreciate is the dedicated “direct-to” button that’s always visible at the top left–think of this as a “get out of jail free” button if you find yourself lost.
- WingX has a main menu, similar to Garmin, but it is on its own dedicated page, not a drop-down. The advantage here is that a lot of features can be displayed, and each has a big button that you can hit even in turbulence: Moving Map, A/FD and AOPA, AeroNav Charts, Route Planning, Wx Text, Wx Images, DUATS, TFRs, Documents, Utilities, Databases & Subscriptions and Help. The downside is that you need to keep hitting Back to return to this menu. You end up jumping around some, although the split screen options for the moving map eliminate some of this.
Verdict: ForeFlight and Garmin tie.
Most of these apps began life as pre-flight planning tools, helping you research airports, plan routes and check weather. All three are excellent at this, although they approach it in different ways. Let’s look at how you might plan a flight and get a weather briefing in each app.
- ForeFlight–there are a number of ways to plan a flight, depending on the information you want. A good place to start is the Maps tab, where ForeFlight recently added some impressive new features. Here you can enter a route, see suggested ATC routes, wind-optimized altitudes and view your track on a map (sectional, IFR en route, etc.). You can also overlay weather and TFR maps and use the “rubber band” feature to graphically edit your route around weather or airspace (just tap and hold your course line until it turns blue). You can even view fuel prices on the map, so you can choose a fuel stop or destination with that in mind. The Maps tab gives you a nice visual overview, but to review detailed airport information, you’ll need to tap the Airports tab. This page includes runway information, frequencies, text airport weather and NOTAMs. There are some nice add-on features here too: the full Airport/Facility Directory page is included, which is the only place to find some information; FBO information includes updated fuel prices; and users can submit comments for added detail. You can save a list of favorite airports by tapping the star symbol. Finally, to review weather before takeoff, tap the Imagery tab for radar pictures, prog charts, AIRMETs, icing forecasts and much more. When you’re ready for an official DUATS briefing and to file a flight plan, tap the File & Brief tab. One interesting note: ForeFlight recently received QICP certification, which means it can be an approved source of weather for commercial operators.
Garmin–this app has a dedicated Trip Planning page (accessed from the Home menu), that makes it easy to plan a flight. Here you can enter your trip information and get complete stats or review a really nice-looking nav log. You can also get a DUAT(S) briefing, file the proposed flight plan and make this the active flight plan in the app–all right from the Trip Planning page. Tap the Map page to view your route on a sectional or IFR chart (rubber band flight planning is an option here, as well). Garmin Pilot also has Airport Info and WX Imagery pages that are very similar to the Airports and Imagery pages on ForeFlight, and provide the same basic information. One benefit over ForeFlight here is that Garmin Pilot shows forecast icing maps at each altitude (3000, 6000, 9000, etc.), whereas ForeFlight only shows maximum icing potential. Garmin Pilot does include fuel prices, including a handy feature that displays the lowest price in the vicinity of the selected airport, and the full AOPA Airport Directory. This is handy for finding hotels, restaurants or rental cars at your destination. There are no user comments here or A/FD data, which isn’t critical, but they are nice to have.
WingX–like Garmin, WingX offers a dedicated Route Planning page that will display basic trip data. The overall presentation isn’t nearly as refined as Garmin or ForeFlight, but there are some unique features here. The Optimize Altitude button will show you the ideal cruising altitude based on current winds aloft (internet connection required), and will show estimated fuel burns as well. Tap on the Wx Text button to see METARs and TAFs for the airports along your route. For more airport information, tap the menu button to return to the main menu, then select the A/FD and AOPA page. You can enter specific airports or select one of your flight plan airports and view all the detailed information you would expect, including hotels, restaurants and even a Google Earth map. The amount of information here is impressive, but it’s organized in numerous data blocks, so spend some time learning the different tabs. Also note that fuel prices requires a $29.95 annual subscription. To learn about the weather, tap Wx Text or Wx Images buttons. One major missing piece on the Images page is the icing forecasts graphics that are included in both ForeFlight and Garmin. When you’re ready to file, tap the DUATS button.
Verdict: ForeFlight and Garmin tie. Each app covers the essentials: briefing new airports, planning routes and checking weather. The differences are mostly in the usability and some of the higher end features. ForeFlight is probably the easiest to use, and does not require a DUATS account for flight plan filing. Garmin wins points for having the most comprehensive weather maps.
The second core feature, and the one that has caused pilots to really embrace the iPad recently, is in-flight navigation and digital charts. For the first time, a portable device really can replace all your paper charts and even some of the functions of a portable GPS (when connected to an external GPS).
ForeFlight–the Maps page looks fairly simple at first glance, but it packs a lot of in-flight features into one screen. At the top, tap the button with three lines to display a nav log. This drop-down box shows each leg of your flight, with heading, distance, fuel burn, time en route and other details. Next, you can bring up what ForeFlight calls an HUD across the bottom, with four user-customizable data fields (like groundspeed, track, GPS accuracy and more). Between this and the nav log, it’s easy to keep track of important data. The map itself is quite powerful, with multiple layers to select. Tap on the top left menu to display a basemap (world map, street map, sectionals, IFR en route), then choose additional layers (like radar, TFRs and airport weather). Your aircraft position and flight plan route is displayed on this map, and you can tap any item on the map for more information. The iPad really shines here–if you want more information about an airport or some airspace, just tap it. One nice feature here is that ForeFlight has an optional subscription package that includes Canadian IFR charts–an exclusive feature. Plus graphical flight plan editing is a breeze with ForeFlight, using either rubber band editing to drag your route to a new point, or try the new Edit Route feature at the top of the screen. This allows you to move waypoints, insert arrivals or departures and reverse a trip.
Garmin–the Map page can be configured in four basic ways on Garmin Pilot: full screen map, split screen with a second map view, split screen with widgets and split screen with panel instruments. Full screen map view is similar to the ForeFlight layout, including six data fields at the top of the screen (tap on them to change). The unique features of Garmin show up when you tap the arrow button in the bottom right of the screen and bring up split screen mode. The first option is to display two maps side by side, perfect for a sectional and taxi diagram. The next option is widgets, which are small data blocks across the bottom of the screen. These can be set to show METARs, airport info, airspace and more, and you can scroll across the length of your flight to see how the information changes. Alternately, you can choose to view a combination of data fields and Garmin’s much-loved panel instruments. These instruments use GPS data, so they’re not a replacement for your airplane’s panel, but they are a nice backup and an aid to situational awareness. Two other features make Garmin Pilot a powerful navigator: the dedicated direct-to button, and full-fledged flight plan editing from the Active FPL page. Garmin GPS users will be at home here. Finally, Pilot includes Garmin’s SafeTaxi charts that show detailed taxiway diagrams at hundreds of airports in the US.
WingX–this app has often led the market on higher end navigation features, and was the first to offer a split screen view. This allows the pilot to view up to four separate screen areas at the same time, like a moving map sectional, airport diagram, text airport information and flight plan route. The options are almost limitless for customizing this display–including a full screen map view–and all of these can be selected with the Route, View and Options buttons at the bottom of the screen. WingX is also the only app to offer three advanced navigation features: track up display, synthetic vision and terrain views. Track up presents sectional charts or IFR en route charts oriented to match your heading, a much-requested feature. While the text on the charts is upside down in some cases, it’s still a nice enhancement. The terrain and obstacle view adds another helpful layer, especially for pilots who fly in mountainous areas. This can be overlaid on top of a VFR or IFR chart. Finally, synthetic vision takes the terrain view to the next level, with a 3D presentation of the surrounding area and flight data (including attitude) overlaid. It’s not quite a Garmin G1000 panel, but it’s impressive for a portable device. Note that for complete synthetic vision features, including pitch information, additional $100 annual subscription and an external AHRS sensor are required.
Verdict: ForeFlight and Garmin tie. ForeFlight’s overall ease of use is superior, and the new Route feature allows for powerful flight plan routing in flight. Garmin Pilot includes robust flight plan features just like a panel mount GPS, and the famous panel page looks gorgeous. WingX has some advanced features that aren’t available on other apps, but the interface is not as intuitive, and many of the unique features require an additional data subscription. For these reasons, we think it comes up just short.
Beyond pre-flight briefings and in-flight navigation, these apps are also great for other tasks, like organizing publications and making calculations. These features aren’t the reason to buy one of these apps buy they’re a nice bonus.
- ForeFlight has a powerful Documents feature, which makes it easy to find, download and view reference items right in the app. This is ideal for POHs, weight and balance data or FAA publications. Because this feature includes a catalog, finding documents is easy. There’s also a handy Scratchpad tab in ForeFlight that is perfect for copying clearances or ATIS information. Pilots can draw with their finger, or type in information.
- Garmin probably has the least amount of features here, as the app emphasizes the core pre-flight and in-flight tools.
- WingX also has a documents function, although it’s not quite as robust as ForeFlight’s version. One feature that is exclusive to WingX is its built-in E6B flight computer, which can really help when making performance calculations. There’s even an N-number search function.
Verdict: ForeFlight and WingX tie here. The Documents feature in ForeFlight is the most powerful, but the E6B features in WingX are a handy tool in flight.
An unexciting–but incredibly important–feature is the ability to keep all of your charts updated with the tap of a button. This is a major benefit of the iPad, since you can always have the latest charts, even when you’re away from home. Spend some time understanding how your preferred app stays up to date.
- ForeFlight leads the pack for simplicity here, and this is a big reason the app is so popular. Once you’ve selected the charts you want to keep updated, simply tap a button and walk away. New charts are downloaded and automatically made active as soon as they are valid. The app will let you download new charts up to four days early, so there’s no need for last-minute updates. ForeFlight even prompts you on the home screen app icon to update your charts.
- Garmin has a similar process to ForeFlight, although not quite as intuitive. To give them credit, they’ve recently streamlined the process and made some improvements here. For example, the app icon now notifies you when updates are available. One unique feature with Garmin is the option to choose areas of coverage by chart (e.g., the Cincinnati sectional), and not just state.
- WingX also offers one button updating, so you can tap a button and walk away. One complaint here is that there is less detail about what is being updated. Whereas Garmin and ForeFlight show which states/charts are being downloaded, WingX just shows a single status bar for all Sectional/Low/Hi charts. It’s not a major problem, but a difference in philosophy. The options for areas of coverage are also different for approach charts–select either the entire US, 1/3rd sections of the US or an individual state. This isn’t quite as flexible as Garmin or ForeFlight, where you can pick state-by-state coverage areas depending on your flying.
Also consider how often the app itself is updated. This is an under-appreciated benefit of the iPad for aviation–the app you buy is not static. Most app developers are constantly improving their product and adding enhancements. Examples of these updates include ADS-B weather recently coming to ForeFlight and Garmin, or Track Up coming to WingX. The best news is these upgrades are almost always free. Just tap on the App Store app on your iPad and select the Updates tab. It’s like Christmas for your iPad.
Verdict: ForeFlight beats Garmin by a hair for overall ease up updating.
All of these apps work well with external GPSs like the Garmin GLO, Dual XGPS150 and Bad Elf. These devices are nearly universal, and a great investment for any serious iPad pilot. But in the last year, the number of new accessories has exploded, especially with the popularity of subscription-free ADS-B weather.
- ForeFlight–the big news here is Stratus, a wireless weather and GPS receiver that ForeFlight helped to design. It’s totally portable and receives the FAA’s free ADS-B weather. Because ForeFlight helped to design Stratus, it’s seamlessly integrated with the app for a great in-flight experience. The device can be mounted out of the way, with all status monitoring done through the app. Stratus does not show traffic at this time.
- Garmin–it’s been a busy summer for Garmin. First, they announced their brand new GLO GPS, a Bluetooth receiver that boasts a 12-hour battery and fast lock-on times. Then, just a week later the company introduced the GDL 39, a GPS and ADS-B receiver similar to Stratus. It delivers GPS position, ADS-B weather and even traffic to the Garmin Pilot app. This is an impressive product, and while ADS-B traffic is fairly limited right now, the presentation (with Garmin’s TargetTrend) is the best of the bunch. The GDL 39 also allows for the radar to be animated. One difference from Stratus (besides the traffic) is that a battery is not included standard, so it requires a cigarette plug. A snap-on battery is an option.
- WingX–this app wins hands-down for integrating with the most accessories, including multiple ADS-B receivers and even Zaon portable traffic systems. ADS-B options include devices from SkyRadar, Dual, Clarity and others. This is great because pilots have the option to choose the receiver they prefer, and the variety of prices and features is wide. The downside is that, in contrast to Garmin and ForeFlight, the integration isn’t quite as complete and seamless.
Verdict: Too soon to say. ForeFlight integrates beautifully with Stratus and popular GPSs, but offers fewer options. WingX supports the most accessories, but the experience can vary from device to device. Garmin’s GLO and GDL 39 announcements have given their app a real boost. This market is changing quickly, so stay tuned.
The price of these apps is surprisingly low on the list of things to worry about. That’s because each of these apps is a tremendous value, especially when compared to a portable GPS or paper charts. You can easily save over $1000 with an iPad and one of these three apps. Each app works the same way: download the free app and then buy an annual subscription:
- ForeFlight–$74.99/year for the Basic package, which includes all charts for the entire US (sectionals, IFR hi/lo en route, approach plates, A/FD pages). The Pro package, $149.99, includes everything from the Basic package, and adds geo-referenced approach plates and airport diagrams (shows your airplane on the map, when GPS is available). Note that both plans show your airplane on sectionals and IFR en route charts–the Pro only adds geo-referencing to approach plates and airport diagrams. There’s also an option for Canadian IFR en route charts and approach plates, which is $149.99 additional.
- Garmin–this is structured much like ForeFlight, with a $99.99 standard subscription plan that includes all charts, and a $149.99 Pro plan that adds geo-referenced approach plates and taxiway diagrams. Garmin is running a special right now so those plans are only $49.99 and $129.99/year for a limited time.
- WingX–the base $99.99/year package includes all charts, plus terrain and geo-referenced airport diagrams. The $174.99/year package adds geo-referenced approach charts. For $99.95/year in addition to a chart subscription, WingX adds Synthetic Vision; and fuel prices from 100LL.com (accessible in flight) are $29.95/year. For $299.99/year you can get it all.
We’ve covered a lot of ground here, and some of it may seem overwhelming. Beyond all the flashy features and new accessories, though, some more boring considerations should be at the top of your list. The most important feature of any app, in our opinion, is ease of use. After all, the most powerful app is useless if you don’t know how to use it. These apps are maturing, and as they do, the features are becoming similar. But it’s the way those features are implemented that matters. Much of this decision is personal opinion, so the right app for you is the one you are comfortable with.
Two other things to consider when choosing an app: customer support and reliability. There will come a time when you need help from the app developer, whether it’s help with a new feature or changing your subscription. If they are responsive and helpful, it can make a big difference, so ask around and find out what kind of service other pilots are getting. Reliability is obvious, but it’s critical. You simply can’t tolerate repeated app crashes during critical phases of flight.
With all that information in mind, how do you make the choice? It’s actually quite easy: Try before you buy! Each of these apps offers a free trial (OK, WingX is $0.99) that shows off all the main features. Get all three of them and go flying. Only you can decide which app works for you.
What do you think?
Tell us your experience–which app do you prefer and why? Add your comments below.