There have never been more options for pilots looking to add an iPad to the cockpit: 22 different models are available from Apple, a truly confusing mix. Which one is the right choice for pilots? Are there certain models to avoid? Here are our recommendations.
The decision comes down to four main questions: size, generation of iPad, cellular connectivity and storage capacity. There are details to consider within each of these main topics, so let’s consider each one independently for now.
Air or Mini
The first choice is between a 9.7″ screen (iPad Air) or a 7.9″ screen (iPad mini). Both models are almost identical other than the screen size–they run the same apps, they are available with the same options and they are both excellent in the cockpit. The decision depends a lot on what kind of airplane you fly. The mini is nice for tighter cockpits like a Cessna 172 or a Mooney. It’s much more convenient to mount on a yoke, and it takes up a lot less room. The screen is smaller, but all aviation apps run well on it, and the easy pinch-zoom feature of the iPad makes it simple to read the fine print. The iPad mini is also $100 less than the Air.
However, if you fly a larger airplane, like a Piper Malibu or a turboprop, the iPad Air does offer a larger display without too much of a size and weight penalty–about 1.5″ more height and width and about 4 oz. of weight. If you don’t plan to yoke mount your iPad, the Air is an excellent choice, and it’s still amazingly light.
After choosing between Air and mini, you next have to choose which generation. Apple currently offers the original iPad Air and the new iPad Air 2, plus the iPad mini, mini 2 and mini 3. Compared to the original iPad Air, the new Air 2 adds a faster processor, an antireflective coating on the screen (although it’s a subtle difference) and a barometric pressure sensor. Each of these features are desirable for pilots, so we think it’s worth the extra $100 for the latest generation.
The original iPad mini, starting at just $249, seems like a good deal but we would stay away from it. It has the much older A5 processor and a lower resolution screen. It will probably not be supported for too much longer by many apps. For only $50 more you can buy an iPad mini 2, which is a solid performer. The latest model, the iPad mini 3, is not much of an upgrade. It is basically identical to the mini 2, but with Apple’s new fingerprint sensor. At a $100 premium, we would advise you to save your money.
WiFi or LTE
The next choice concerns wireless connectivity options. All iPads include both Bluetooth (for connecting to external devices like a GPS) and WiFi (for connecting to the internet and some aviation accessories). The only question is whether to add a cellular radio, called LTE, which allows you to get online anywhere your cell phone would work. This is nice for power users, since you can always check the weather or file a flight plan on the go, but we think it’s overkill for many pilots. WiFi is available at almost all FBOs and hotels, and in a pinch most pilots still have a cell phone in their pocket. Since LTE is both $130 more to buy up front and requires a monthly subscription, it’s significantly more expensive over the lifetime of an iPad.
There’s one other consideration when debating WiFI-only vs. LTE. The LTE models include a built-in GPS, which is an easy way to make your favorite app a moving map navigator. Note that the internal GPS on an iPad with LTE 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. This is a great backup, but for the price of this upgrade, you could buy an external iPad GPS that is more reliable and accurate. If you fly with an ADS-B receiver, as thousands of pilots are doing, the built-in GPS is redundant anyway. We would advise pilots to choose the LTE model only if you think you’ll use that mobile data connection a lot. Buying it for the GPS alone isn’t a great value.
One last comment: don’t count on your LTE iPad to work in the air. For one, it’s against the law. More practically, we’ve found it very unreliable in flight so it’s simply not a good datalink.
Next up is the storage capacity–that is, how many apps and how much data you can store on your iPad at one time. There are a number of options here, from 16 gigabytes (GB) all the way up to 128GB. Note that you can’t change your mind later on and add more capacity, so choose wisely. In general, more is better, so buy as much capacity as you can afford.
Here’s an example. Downloading all VFR and 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 Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, plus PDF documents–causing you to quickly approach the 16GB limit of the base model.
Another thing to keep in mind is that many apps 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 an 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.
We consider 32GB to be the minimum, and this model does work well–we often fly with a 32GB model. But if you can afford the extra money, the 64GB model is preferred. 128GB is really overkill for all but the most hardcore iPad user.
In the end, which iPad is the best for general aviation pilots? For the ultimate setup, we like the iPad Air 2 with LTE, 64GB. This gets the latest generation processor, a slightly less glare-prone screen, a handy barometer and full LTE connectivity. This model, at $729, is a powerful tablet that will last for years.
If you’re on a budget, we think the iPad Mini 2 with WiFi only, 32GB, is a good buy. At just $349, you get a sharp Retina screen, a solid A7 processor and all the important options. At less than half the price of the loaded up Air 2, it offers great utility in a convenient size.
Full specifications are available from Apple.