The original Apple iPad was released over five 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 2 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 5 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 Air 2, the iPad Air, the iPad Mini 3 and iPad Mini 2. The iPad Air and and Air 2 are 10″ tablets, and pilots considering a new iPad should definitely steer towards the iPad Air 2. This new model significantly improves on previous full-size iPad designs by including a fingerprint ID sensor in the home button, much faster processor and antireflective screen coating. While still not perfect, this new screen technology really cuts now on sun glare and you’ll appreciate the faster processor when working with charts and weather or synthetic vision. The iPad Air 2 also offers the option to upgrade the internal storage capacity up to 128GB, where the iPad Air maxes out at 32GB.
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 new iPad Mini 3 and previous-generation iPad Mini 2. Neither iPad Mini models include antireflective screen featured on the iPad Air 2 and both contain the same A7 processor. The primary difference is the iPad Mini 3 includes the new Touch ID sensor in the home button, and can be upgraded to the larger 128GB storage capacity.
If you’re currently flying with an iPad 1, 2 or 3, it’s time to consider an upgrade. There’s a noticeable decrease in performance when running the latest iOS software on these devices, and you’ll appreciate the lightning fast response when using advanced aviation features like synthetic vision and ADS-B weather on the newer iPad Air models.
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 3 internal memory options for the iPad Air 2: 16GB, 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, synthetic vision, 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 mid-range 64GB 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 64GB iPad Air 2 is the ideal choice for use in the cockpit. The high-performance processor runs all apps at lightning speeds, and the new antireflective screen is a welcome addition to the cockpit that enhances readability on sunny days. 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, Stratus ADS-B receiver, which provides subscription-free in-flight weather and WAAS GPS position data.