One year ago, we posted an article titled “Navigation App Showdown.” After ducking the issue for a long time, we finally faced up to the number one question we get here at iPad Pilot News: which aviation app is the best? We had been avoiding the question because it’s almost impossible to answer–what works for one pilot may not work for another. But we gave it our best shot, and compared the top three apps (ForeFlight Mobile, Garmin Pilot and WingX Pro 7) side-by-side. Our main suggestion was to try all three, since personal preference plays such a big role.
This article went on to become our most popular ever, and generated over 290 reader comments (they’re still coming in today). Some agreed with our conclusions, some disagreed, but we received hundreds of comments thanking us for at least addressing the subject.
A year is an eternity in the life of an app, so we thought it would be fair to check in on the apps and see what’s changed. In writing this article, we avoided the app developers and went straight to the pilots who use these apps day in and day out. We talked to hundreds of them about what they liked, didn’t like and what they would like to see added. We also combed through app reviews in the App Store. This feedback (pilots have strong opinions!), combined with our reporting on these apps over the past year, shows just how far these apps have come and where they might be headed in the future.
Read on for more.
Still the top 3?
A fair question to ask–even before starting the debate–is whether ForeFlight, Garmin and WingX are still the top three apps. There have been a number of new entrants in the past year, from Bendix/King’s myWingman to Fltplan.com to AOPA FlyQ. Have any of them displaced the traditional favorites?
In short, no.
Our most recent reader poll showed that ForeFlight retains a dominant position as the top app, with WingX second and Garmin third. There was a rise in the “other” category, but this included a wide variety of apps with no clear winner. Recent surveys at EAA Airventure seminars generally back up these statistics.
For a final check, we looked at the iTunes App Store’s Top Grossing ranks. This is the one place where all apps are shown together (not separated by category), and it measures how much revenue is generated from purchases within the app. It’s possible to buy these apps outside the App Store as well, so this doesn’t show a complete picture. But the majority of sales still come this way, making it a good indicator of trend at least.
Here are the average rankings for the last 30 days for ForeFlight, Garmin and WingX (no other apps regularly appeared in the top 300):
As the chart shows, ForeFlight seems to be in the top spot, with Garmin and WingX battling for second. All of these statistics seem to indicate that these are still the big three apps. With that in mind, let’s look at the features.
While sometimes forgotten in the hype about the latest moving map feature, all of these apps really excel at pre-flight planning. From choosing an airport to selecting a route and checking the weather, the iPad makes it easy to plan your next flight. It’s simply incredible how much information is available in these apps. Here’s a review of the recent changes.
- ForeFlight – This app began life as a pre-flight briefing tool, so it only makes sense that it has a strong list of features for this purpose. Most planning is done one one of three tabs:
- The Airports tab is the best place to start planning in ForeFlight, as it includes a wealth of information about facilities, runways, weather and procedures. Most of these features are unchanged since last year (there wasn’t much to add), although the FBOs feature recently got a major overhaul. There is more detailed information about FBOs, including pictures, which is a big help at larger airports with multiple FBOs. We expect to see more features added to the FBOs list in the future. There’s also a handy wind components feature that automatically calculates the headwind/tailwind and crosswind components for each runway (given current weather conditions). This is great for choosing the best runway and calculating performance numbers.
- After visiting the Airports tab, the Maps tab is a great place to go for a big picture look at the weather and route options. There are a large variety of weather overlay options, and you have the ability to view multiple at the same time (e.g., radar and TFRs and METARs). This is a small but important feature. Pilots’ favorite feature on the Maps tab seems to be the Route and Altitude Advisors, which automatically suggest the best route and altitude for your proposed flight. ForeFlight has recently added a Google Earth-style layer as a basemap option, which is useful for learning about unfamiliar airports. You can view a variety of weather graphics on the Imagery tab, but we prefer the Maps tab for the big items like radar and METARs.
- Finally, the File & Brief tab is the place to get an official weather briefing and file your flight plan. ForeFlight recently integrated these features directly with Lockheed Martin’s AFSS program, so there are some new features possible. One is called Flight Alerts. These pop-up messages alert you when your expected flight plan route has changed, and make it easy to insert that new route into the active flight plan.
- Strengths: Powerful Route and Altitude Advisors, lots of weather overlays, flight plan filing integration, best FBO information, all-in-one search box.
- Weaknesses: Needs more options for customizing performance profiles (especially for turbine aircraft). Limited icing forecasts on the Imagery tab (right now there is no ability to view the CIP/FIP product at individual altitudes, only the max).
- Garmin – Whereas ForeFlight started out as a pre-flight tool, Garmin Pilot is related to the industry-leading GPS navigators. That means the app has usually had an in-flight bias, but the essential features for good pre-flight briefing are definitely here. It’s set up much like ForeFlight, with an Airport Info page, Map page and File & Brief page.
- Garmin’s Airport page is very similar to ForeFlight’s presentation, just with a slightly different layout. Complete runway, frequency and weather information is available here, so it’s a good first stop for any planning session. Garmin also offers its exclusive SafeTaxi diagrams on this page, which consist of detailed airport diagrams for hundreds of airports. More than just a FAA diagram, these scalable charts include hold short lines, taxiway labels and much more–it’s great for situational awareness. Recently, Garmin added A/FD information as well which, while not essential, is still the only place to find some airport information. Another nice addition is the ability to draw on FAA approach plates and airport diagrams, something we use frequently to trace a complicated taxi route. These plates can be added to a binder right from the Airport page, something you can’t do in ForeFlight. Finally, we like Garmin’s fuel prices tab, which shows nearby airports with cheaper gas.
- The Map page in Garmin Pilot is mostly for in-flight use, so you won’t spend as much time here as you would in ForeFlight (there’s no route editor here, for example). But there are a number of good options for charts, maps and weather overlays. You can view your proposed route on a chart, then add weather radar, satellite, TFRs and METAR symbols. This combination of data is powerful. Garmin also offers the option to view Widgets in the lower panel of its split-screen setup. Widgets are good way to brief the weather or airspace for a flight, as you can scroll through your entire flight and check information at points along your route. There is also a Wx Imagery page, but like ForeFlight, we prefer to view weather on the moving map display.
- The final page for pre-flight planning is the File & Brief page, and it’s all new. This is the place to enter your proposed trip then see a detailed nav log with estimated time en route and fuel burn. Garmin recently added a Preferred Routes too, and it’s a major upgrade. Using their own database of flight plans, this shows frequently-used routes for your proposed departure and destination airports. It will even show how often these routes are cleared, so you get a good idea of which routes ATC prefers.
- Strengths: Exclusive SafeTaxi diagrams, solid fuel price information and the only app with widgets. The new preferred routes tool is also a major enhancement.
- Weaknesses: No user-generated comments, a feature we like in ForeFlight for checking on FBOs, and less detailed FBO information overall. No altitude advisor in the File & Brief page. No graphical turbulence forecast in WX Imagery.
- WingX – This app is known for its sophisticated in-flight features, but there’s plenty of good pre-flight data here as well. Information is broken up among several pages: A/FD and AOPA, Route Planning, Wx Text, Wx Images, DUATS and TFRs.
- Probably the most requested pre-flight feature on WingX was the ability to view internet weather overlaid on the Moving Map page. While radar has been available in the Wx Images page for a long time, it’s often helpful to see the radar on top of your route and with other weather data as well. With the release of version 7.0, this feature is now included, through a partnership with Baron. The Moving Map page also offers a side view of your route, complete with terrain.
- The A/FD and AOPA page is similar to ForeFlight’s and Garmin’s Airport pages, and is the place to find complete details about runways, facilities, navaids and FBOs. This includes the full Airport/Facility Directory information (not the scanned page) and the AOPA Airport Directory information. This AOPA Directory includes additional taxi diagrams and hotel information. Fuel prices are available here as well, although it’s worth noting that this requires an additional subscription.
- To plan a route and get estimated time en route, visit the Route Planning page. Here, you can enter your proposed route and see a nav log on the bottom portion of the screen. Tap download weather to get the latest winds aloft included, then tap Optimize Altitude to find the best altitude based on time or fuel burn. One minor limitation here is that fuel burn can only be entered in gallons per hour, so turbine pilots will have to make the conversion. While there is an option to use Seattle Avionics’ WebPlan tool, there is no built-in route optimizer or preferred routes feature like Garmin and ForeFlight offer.
- For pre-flight weather information, use the Wx Text and Wx Images pages. To get a full briefing or file a flight plan, the DUATS page can handle these requests.
- One final new feature is FlightShare, which allows pilots to share flight plan details between devices, even without an internet connections. This is especially helpful for multi-pilot cockpits.
- Strengths: Good radar imagery overlays, extensive airport data, updated fuel prices available in flight, E6B calculator built-in.
- Weaknesses: Route advisor lacks preferred routes, no graphical TFRs, no icing or turbulence forecasts, fewer weather overlay options.
Using an iPad in-flight once seemed like a pie-in-the-sky dream. But it’s a reality now, and app developers have been racing to make their products less of a static reference and more of an interactive co-pilot. This has driven some fairly significant changes recently, especially from ForeFlight and Garmin.
- ForeFlight – A year ago, we concluded that ForeFlight had the essential in-flight features, but lacked some high end navigation tricks of its competitors. Since then, this app has added a slew of new in-flight features, closing the gap or taking the lead in many cases.
- An all-new map engine was introduced with version 4.9, which unlocked a number of new capabilities. The app now offers a worldwide basemap with great circle routing, so you can plan a flight between any two airports in the world.
- The new map engine enabled track up navigation, probably the most-requested feature of the past year. While not everyone loves track up (see our poll), the feature has been well-received. ForeFlight does two things here that make it a particularly good feature. First, pilots have the option to view track up with the airplane centered or with the airplane at the bottom of the screen, looking ahead. Secondly, the app uses some smoothing techniques so the map doesn’t jump around with every 1 degree change in track–a welcome feature.
- Another major addition was the option for terrain and obstacle alerts. By turning on the Hazard Advisor, ForeFlight will color-code both terrain and obstacles yellow or red depending on their relative altitude. The map overlay is smooth and detailed (ForeFlight claims their terrain database is significantly better than most others). Note that the Hazard Advisor feature requires a Pro level subscription.
- Just this month, the option to overlay an approach plate or taxiway diagram on the chart was added. This is a nice enhancement for situational awareness, as you can view your plate, terrain map, weather overlay and flight plan route–all on the Maps tab.
- A variety of other map enhancements were added, including extended runway centerlines, scalable range rings around your aircraft, and a track vector that projects your aircraft’s position ahead. All of these make the Maps tab more of a navigation screen and less of a static chart.
- Canadian and Helicopter charts were added as well, expanding the number of pilots who can use the app. ForeFlight is the only one of these three apps with complete Canadian coverage.
- Another great feature, Runway Advisor, was added last Fall. This automatically warns you (via pop-up message and audio) every time you cross a runway on an airport. It’s a great tool to help avoid runway incursions. There’s also a new option to automatically display your airport’s taxiway diagram upon landing, which minimizes heads-down time.
- All of these new features are in addition to the popular tools like the rubber band flight planning tool, the ruler tool and the powerful routing options using the search box.
- Strengths: Smoothest track up display, best rubber band flight planning, handy ruler tool, detailed terrain maps.
- Weaknesses: No split screen options like Garmin and WingX offer, no synthetic vision display, no data-driven maps.
- Garmin – This app has always been at home in the air, with its strong similarity to Garmin portable GPSs and panel-mount MFDs. Accordingly, the majority of the updates over the past year have focused on making the app more powerful for navigation, and more similar to existing Garmin products.
- The most significant change may have gone unnoticed by many pilots–Garmin added data-driven maps in April. “Data-driven” means the chart is dynamically drawn as you zoom in and out, and all features appear right-side up. It’s a true moving map display, not just a scanned sectional. There’s nothing wrong with a sectional (many pilots still prefer it over the data-driven alternative), but Garmin now offers pilots the choice. In some situations, the actual chart is what you want, but we’ve found that in crowded airspace, the data-driven maps are great. Airspace redraws quickly, waypoints automatically declutter and text sizes up and down.
- Like WingX and ForeFlight, Garmin now offers a complete terrain and obstacles feature as well. This is modeled on Garmin panel-mount navigators, so it provides a crisp display and solid features. We like the pop-up obstacle alerts in particular. There’s also a dedicated terrain page so you can see an uncluttered view of nearby terrain threats. Like ForeFlight, this requires a higher subscription level.
- Garmin also added new overlay and opacity options, which makes it easy to customize the moving map to your liking. For example, you can select a basemap of sectional charts, then add weather layers like radar then add further data points like Pilot Reports. The overlay options let you adjust the opacity of these overlays. There’s even a night mode for the data-driven maps, which turns the screen mostly black to preserve night vision.
- Track up is now an option in Garmin Pilot, so all three major apps now offer this feature.
- While not new, Garmin Pilot still offers great split screen features, with the option to view widgets, flight plan route, approach plates or ADS-B traffic in the second window. This is also the only app with a full panel page, which uses GPS data to simulate a six pack of instruments. If you’ve flown with a Garmin portable GPS, you’re familiar with this view–it’s a great backup.
- Whereas ForeFlight provides route editing features on the Maps page, Garmin has a dedicated Active FPL page that’s very similar to a GTN 750 flight plan page. It’s not necessarily better or worse than the ForeFlight approach, but it is quite easy to enter and edit routes. We also like the dedicated Direct-to button that’s always present in the top left corner. This is a great tool for emergencies.
- Strengths: Pop-up terrain alerts, good split screen options, only app with panel page, only app with data-driven maps.
- Weaknesses: No synthetic vision, no aerial map, no Canadian or helicopter charts.
- WingX – Long the leader in these features, WingX was first to introduce track up, obstacles and split screen. As a result, there are fewer new features to talk about, but that doesn’t mean there’s been no progress.
- The first page in WingX is Moving Map, and that’s where the focus is for all in-flight functions. A variety of views can be turned on here, from sectionals and IFR en route charts to terrain and approach plates. Tap the View 1 or View 2 button at the bottom to select different options. Track up navigation is an option here as well, when connected to a GPS source. There’s also a handy night mode for turning white charts black, although this does not work on sectionals or IFR en route charts.
- WingX offers three complementary tools for terrain and obstacle alerting. The most recent addition is their GPWS feature that was added last Fall. This offers a familiar red and yellow overlay on the map to show nearby terrain, but the app also looks ahead to warn of potential threats–a nice feature. Below that is the profile view, which shows the terrain along your route from the side. Finally, there’s a Passive Radar Altimeter feature that continuously shows the approximate distance between your airplane and the terrain below, which is a nice safety enhancement in mountainous terrain or on an instrument approach.
- Synthetic vision is WingX’s signature feature, showing a pilot’s eye view of the terrain ahead of you with simulated glass cockpit tapes for speed, track and altitude. This works well with only a GPS source, but when paired to a portable AHRS, it will also show pitch and bank information for a more realistic backup view. Synthetic vision does require an additional annual subscription.
- WingX also enhanced their approach chart feature in version 7.0. Now, when viewing an approach chart, you’ll see three buttons on the bottom of the screen. Pencil allows you to draw on your chart, useful for highlighting a taxi route or obstacle. Route overlays your active route on top of the approach chart. Trail will show your previous track on the approach chart, which is a good feature for instrument instructors.
- It may not be a feature most pilots use, but WingX does offer some features for search and rescue pilots, including grids. Many of these features were upgraded recently.
- While it’s not new, one of the app’s defining features is a split screen view. WingX has always offered more split screen options than any other app (indeed, some pilots complained that the number of options was confusing), allowing you to view up to four different screens at once. Options include VFR charts, IFR charts, a notepad, terrain, route information, airport information and more. A popular setup is to have a moving map chart on the top right, synthetic vision on the bottom right, route information on the top left and airport information on the bottom left. It’s a busy screen, but it presents an incredible amount of information.
- Strengths: Most options for split screen, full synthetic vision, good terrain and obstacle features.
- Weaknesses: Track up isn’t as smooth as ForeFlight, no international charts, no data-driven maps, split screen can be confusing.
Ease of use, stability and support
If you plan to use an iPad as the primary source of charts, especially for IFR flight, these are critical factors. After all, great features don’t matter if the app is unusable due to bugs or if you don’t know how to operate it.
ForeFlight has a sterling reputation here. Pilots rave about how easy to use the app is, with thoughtfully-designed menus and automatic chart downloads that make updates simple. These downloads can be done with the screen off, a nice enhancement that was added this year. The app also boasts rock solid stability–in our experience, we’ve never seen the app crash. If there is a problem, ForeFlight prides itself on outstanding customer support, available 15 hours per day, 7 days per week. There are also a variety of training resources, from ForeFlight’s helpful blog to complete video training courses.
Garmin is no small start-up, and has a large team behind their app with a good reputation for support as well. They have also invested some serious effort into making their download process easier and more robust, and it copes well with intermittent WiFi connections. The app is also thoughtful about how it uses storage space. Garmin shows your iPad’s overall capacity at the bottom of the downloads page, which is handy for planning coverage areas, and it also offers three different terrain resolutions depending on how much space is free on your iPad. The only knock on Garmin is that lately we’ve heard some complaints about app crashes in the most recent version.
WingX has always taken a more aggressive approach to adding new features, which users clearly love. However, this rapid pace of innovation does seem to occasionally come at the expense of ease of use and stability. We heard some complaints about a steep learning curve for new users, although Hilton Software has released a series of training videos to help. Some pilots also mentioned seeing occasional app crashes, and we’ve experienced this too. When it comes to downloads, WingX does a number of things to make its file sizes smaller (and its downloads faster). Having evolved from an early Windows CE app, the company had to learn to deal with limited speed early on, and it shows here.
It’s worth pointing out that all three of these apps are pretty reliable, so these reports of app crashes wouldn’t affect our confidence in any of the apps. The decision should be based more on which one you think is easy to use and which one you have confidence in.
These apps usually don’t operate alone in the cockpit; a variety of accessories are used to get more out of them, from moving map navigation to terrain alerts to in-flight weather. GPS receivers are universal. Because it’s built into iOS in the form of location services, all the popular GPS units like the Bad Elf, Dual XGPS 150 and 160 and the Garmin GLO work with all three apps automatically. This is simple and easy, and these wireless GPSs are among the most popular iPad accessories (even pilots with 3G/4G iPads will often use one for reliability).
One recent change worth pointing out is that ForeFlight connects directly to Bad Elf and Dual GPSs. This has been added as a workaround to the iOS 6 location services bug–an Apple bug that has caused some serious headaches. If you’re using one of these GPSs, you’ll immediately appreciate this feature.
ADS-B receivers are a different story. Since there’s no built-in Apple standard for receiving datalink weather, each device must be integrated individually with each app–it’s not automatic. As a result, the app developers take different approaches. Garmin and ForeFlight integrate with a single ADS-B receiver that they helped to design (GDL 39 for Garmin and Stratus for ForeFlight). These companies argue that, by building the hardware and software as an integrated system, the end result is more features, more stability and more options for upgrades in the future. Some pilots disagree, and would like to see more options for ADS-B receivers on these apps.
WingX takes a different approach. By using a common standard, the app supports a number of ADS-B receivers, including the Dual XGPS 170 and the Sagetech Clarity. WingX emphasizes the flexibility of choosing among different receivers. The only downside to this approach is that the integration isn’t always seamless, as our initial flight test of the Dual XGPS 170 showed (many of these bugs have now been fixed).
The GDL 39 offers WAAS GPS, subscription-free ADS-B weather data and dual band ADS-B traffic. It plugs into a cigarette lighter, or is available with a 4-hour battery pack. Stratus 2 includes GPS, ADS-B weather, dual band traffic and a built-in AHRS. Stratus 1 includes GPS, ADS-B weather and single band traffic. Both Stratus units include and 8-hour battery. The Dual 170 includes GPS, weather and single band traffic, while the Clarity includes GPS, weather, dual band traffic and AHRS. For complete details on ADS-B receivers, see our Buyer’s Guide.
In the end, we wouldn’t choose an app based on the accessories it works with. You have to live with the app every day whether you’re using an ADS-B receiver or not. Pick the app first, then the hardware.
All of these apps are a great value, saving you hundreds of dollars per year over paper charts. We don’t consider this to be a reason to buy or not buy. With that said, here are the current prices:
- ForeFlight – $74.99/year for all charts (including moving map sectionals and IFR en route charts), pre-flight planning features and obstacles (but not obstacle alerts). $149.99/year for everything in the Basic package, plus geo-referenced approach charts (showing your position on the charts), Hazard Advisor and cloud document storage. Canadian subscriptions start at $224.99/year.
- Garmin – $74.99/year for all charts, pre-flight planning and obstacles (but not alerts). $124.99/year for everything in the Standard package, but adds geo-referenced SafeTaxi charts and terrain/obstacle alerts. $149.99 for everything in the Standard package, plus geo-referenced SafeTaxi and approach charts, and terrain/obstacle alerts.
- WingX – $99.95/year for all charts, pre-flight planning and moving map features. $99.95/year additional for synthetic vision. $74.99/year additional for geo-referenced approach charts. $29.95/year additional for fuel prices (through 100LL.com).
So which one to go with? We’ll dodge that answer just like we did last year–there’s no single right answer. The right app is the one that you like, the one that makes sense to you and the one you can use safely in the cockpit. The best advice is still to download all three and try them for yourself. ForeFlight and Garmin are free to download and use for 30 days; WingX is only 99 cents. It’s worth an afternoon on the couch and a trip around the pattern with each to see which one is best for you.
Overall, we would encourage you not to buy an app based on a feature list or a flashy ad. We believe these apps are becoming fairly similar in terms of features–they all offer great pre-flight and in-flight tools. There are still differences, for sure, but we see these becoming smaller and smaller as time goes on. It’s a sign that the app market is starting to mature. Future pilots will most likely decide based on “softer” issues like reliability, ease of chart updates and support. These issues are harder to judge than just features, but they matter much more over the long haul.
Let’s hear from you: what’s your favorite app? Why? Add a comment below.