The original Apple iPad was released nearly four years ago on April 3, 2010. Since then Apple has continuously improved the tablet, making upgrades to its storage capacity, screen resolution, processor, connectivity options and form factor. The iPad Air is the latest and greatest model currently available for sale today, and starts at $499 for the 16GB version–the same price that the original iPad sold for 4 years ago.
While this model would suit most pilots’ needs in the cockpit, there are some other options and features worth considering when purchasing an iPad for use in aviation. Here we’ll break down each option, and give some insight for those looking to buy a used or refurbished iPad, which is a great way to save some money.
iPad or iPad Mini
Apple currently offers 4 new models of iPad: iPad 2, the iPad Air, the iPad Mini and the iPad Mini with retina display. The iPad 2 and Air are 10″ tablets, and pilots considering a new iPad should definitely steer towards the iPad Air. This new model significantly improves on the iPad 2 design by including a much faster processor and increased screen resolution. The allows you to see every chart detail, and you’ll really appreciate the faster processor when working with charts and weather or terrain overlays. Apple also has a history of ending iOS software updates for older hardware 3 or 4 years after its initial release, so its safe to say that support for the iPad 2 will come to an end within the next year or two.
If you’re looking for an iPad with a smaller footprint consider the iPad mini. This version measures 7.87″ by 5.3″ and will be a better fit in cockpits with tighter constraints. There are 2 versions of the iPad Mini: the original and the iPad Mini with retina display. Just like with the iPad 2/Air comparison, the iPad Mini with retina display has a much faster processor and higher resolution screen. Our recommendation is also the same here, as we expect that Apple will stop releasing software updates for the original iPad Mini during the next year or two as new iPad models are released.
If you’re using an iPad 1 it’s time to consider an upgrade. The device is limited to iOS 5, and Apple now requires all apps in the app store to run on iOS 6 or higher. Because of this, software companies like Garmin and ForeFlight are only able to release new software updates for the iPad 2/Mini or newer.
Wifi-only or Wifi/Cellular model
Every iPad model ever built offers Wifi connectivity to the internet, so you can connect to your home network, your office network, a local coffee shop, etc. But you can also buy an upgraded cellular model–called LTE–that receives wireless data from AT&T or Verizon (for a monthly fee). The benefit to pilots with the cellular model is that it also contains an internal GPS receiver, which is useful for showing your aircraft’s position on aviation map applications (although it has some limitations). The cellular model also allows you to download weather and file flight plans on the go, but don’t count on this cellular data connection to work in the air. In our experience, it just isn’t reliable (it’s also technically illegal).
The internal GPS on an iPad with cellular data is completely independent from the cellular antenna, and does not require that you activate a data plan from AT&T or Verizon to work properly. You could buy a cellular-model iPad and use the GPS without ever activating your service.
So which is the right choice for pilots? Either one, really. The GPS that comes with the LTE model is nice, but for the price of this upgrade, you could buy an external iPad GPS. Choose the cellular model iPad only if you think you’ll use that mobile data connection a lot.
Apple offers 4 internal memory options for the full-size iPad: 16GB, 32GB, 64GB and 128GB. Previous-generation iPads and the iPad Mini max out at 64GB. Downloading all the VFR & IFR charts in ForeFlight for the entire United States takes up about 8GB of storage. And then you have to consider that you might also want to store high-resolution terrain data, charts for the Canada, Mexico and Caribbean, and PDF documents, causing you to quickly approach the 16GB limit of the base model.
Another thing to keep in mind is that many apps like ForeFlight allow you to download the next cycle’s charts approximately 4 days in advance. If you plan to keep charts for the entire U.S. on your iPad, you’ll need and additional 8GB of free space during this transition period each month.
Finally consider that you may use the iPad for more than just aviation (e.g., pictures, videos, other apps), so you’ll want to leave open some free space for those items. The iPad’s memory is not upgradeable, so you have to commit to a size up front. For all these reasons we highly recommend you go with at least the 32GB iPad, which is a $100 upgrade over the base model. 128GB is overkill for all but the most dedicated gamers.
The good news is that any iPad model will work for pilots, so there’s not a bad choice here. But some are definitely better than others. So which model do we recommend? Based on our experiences flying with each model of iPad, we think the Wifi-only 32GB iPad Mini with retina display is the ideal choice for use in the cockpit. The iPad Mini’s smaller footprint allows for plenty of mounting options, and the 32GB storage size allows you to store charts for the entire U.S. and still have room for your other apps and media. We’ve found the reliability and performance of external GPS receivers to be far superior to the internal option, and they’re available for under $100–less than the upgrade to the cellular model. For the ultimate setup, we recommend adding a wireless ADS-B receiver, like Stratus, which provides subscription-free in-flight weather and WAAS GPS position data.