What’s the best iPad for pilots?


The original Apple iPad was released over six 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 Pro is the latest and greatest model currently available for sale today, and represents an enormous leap in performance over the original model, like going from a Cherokee to a Learjet. Even with this improvement, the base model iPad Pro starts at $599 – just $100 more than the original iPad sold for 6 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?

Three iPad screen sizes
Apple offers three screen sizes for the iPad.

The first question has to do with screen size. Apple currently offers 5 new models of iPad, essentially in three screen sizes: the largest is the 12.9″ iPad Pro, then the 9.7″ iPad Pro and iPad Air 2, and finally the smaller iPad Mini 4 and iPad Mini 2. The 9.7″ iPad Pro and Air 2 are so-called “10-inch class tablets,” which is the most popular size, and a good place to start for a new buyer. This a good compromise between a screen that’s large enough to read and a size that’s portable enough for the cockpit.

Pilots considering a new iPad should definitely steer towards the 9.7″ Pro. This new model significantly improves on previous full-size iPad designs by including a much faster processor and anti-reflective 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 9.7″ iPad Pro also offers the option to upgrade the internal storage capacity up to 256GB, where the iPad Air 2 maxes out at 64GB. We’d stick with the Pro unless you’re really searching for a deal.

If you’re interested in an iPad with a smaller footprint, consider the iPad Mini. These versions measure roughly 8″ 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 4 and two generation-old iPad Mini 2. Neither of the iPad Mini models include the anti-reflective screen featured on the iPad Pro, which is a significant drawback. The Mini 4 includes Apple’s A8 processor – not as good as the Pro’s A9X processor, but better than the A7 processor found on the Mini 2. For that reason, we like the Mini 4 if you’re looking for a smaller tablet. Having said that, the Mini 2 is a great value – starting at just $269. While it’s definitely getting older now, it’s still a reasonably good performer if you plan to use it mostly for aviation.

iPad Pro 9.7 inch screen
The 9.7″ iPad Pro features an anti-reflective screen that really cuts down on glare in the cockpit.

The last option is the 12.9″ iPad Pro, Apple’s largest tablet ever. It’s a great performer and has a huge screen, but it’s simply too big for most airplanes. Anything smaller than a business jet will preclude its use, so we don’t recommend it for most pilots.

If you’re currently flying with an early series iPad (the original 1-4), 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 Pro models.

WiFi-only or WiFi + Cellular model?

After choosing a size, it’s on to the connectivity question. This is pretty simple, but there are some confusing terms thrown around, so let’s start basic.

iPad models with LTE built in also have a GPS.

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 minor 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 that is more reliable in some ways. We’d advise you choose the cellular model iPad only if you think you’ll use that mobile data connection a lot.

Storage capacity

Apple offers 3 internal memory options for the 9.7″ iPad Pro: 32GB, 128GB and 256GB. 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. That makes the older iPad models with only 16GB of storage barely adequate.

Storage full
Not what you want to see.

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 recommend you go with the mid-range 128GB iPad, which is a $150 upgrade over the base model. The 32GB model can work, especially if the iPad is mostly used for aviation, but we’ve found that 128GB is a lot more comfortable for most pilots. 256GB is overkill for all but the most dedicated gamers or video producers.


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 9.7″ iPad Pro, WiFi-only, 128GB 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.

To compare all 5 models, or to purchase, visit Apple’s website.


  1. Thanks for the great article!

    Does anyone know if the new 9.7″ iPad Pro handles heat any better than previous iPads? I have an iPad 3 which was rather notorious for overheating. Here in SoCal, our ground temperatures have already exceeded 100°F.

    Also, the following sentence is somewhat misleading. “The 9.7″ iPad Pro also offers the option to upgrade the internal storage capacity up to 256GB…” That implies that the storage capacity can be user upgraded, after-the-fact. It can’t. The article does further clarify, “The iPad’s memory is not upgradeable, so you have to commit to a size up front.” True!

    Dan Kap,
    Whittier, CA

  2. Although an external waas gps is preferable and the best choice, you can’t beat having that internal gps as a backup. I highly recommend getting the cellular model even if you don’t activate the service for that reason alone. If your external gps battery fails, the iPad gps connects.

  3. I’ve been using Foreflight and IPads for over 4 years. I’ve used standard and minis. I recommend the mini with maximum memory. Youk mounts work well in most aircraft. Because of the screen zooming feature, the mini’s size is plenty big and easy to read.

  4. Being hesitant to discard a working ppiece of gear, I have an iPad2. That generation had the GPS receiver in the non-cellular version and no GPS in the cellular link.

    • Joe, I’m not aware of any non-cellular iPads (that is, with WiFi only) that have GPS. Likewise, every cellular model iPad (3G and now LTE) have had GPS in them. I think you might have it backwards.

  5. I strongly recommend a cellular capable iPad. Having an internal GPS is great for those times when you forget your external, or it runs low on battery. Another major reason is the Find my iPhone app. If you misplace the iPad and it has a cellular connection, you can find it and display a message on it to call you, along with a sound, even if the sound is turned off. I recovered a lost iPad that way.

    Additionally, if you don’t want data, an option is to activate T-Mobile’s FREE data plan. You can get 200MB of data FREE every month. No credit card on file. When the data runs out, it stops. Now you may think that 200MB is not a lot of data, and you would be correct. However, it is 100% more than no data. If you don’t text, email, update apps, facebook, tweet, etc. and just use the data for weather, you probably won’t run out. At an airport with WiFi, use that. In locations without WiFi, you can get weather and file flight plans.
    These make the cellular iPads a best buy in my book.

  6. I’ve flown with just about every iPad out there over the years (yes even the giant one once) and by far the 9.7″ iPad Pro is the best. It handles the SoCal heat better than any others by far, although it did overheat once before I realized it was in the direct sunlight and moved my visor. The best additional investment I made with the iPad Pro is the Apple Pencil. I usually fly with my iPad yoke mounted in my Bonanza and a kneeboard for note taking. After several flights taking notes in Foreflight, I realized that I simple wasn’t touching my kneeboard and stopped wearing it. I still have a notepad and pen available for backup of course, but the speed of the iPad and the accuracy of the Apple Pencil make it a great all EFB solution for the first time with Foreflight.

  7. Does anyone know if the downloads overwrite the data already there such as when charts and procedures are updated on their regular cycles? I use FltPlan Go and Foreflight. I believe Foreflight will let you delete old data when new data is downloaded. I don’t see this option with FltPlan Go.

    • Yea it replaces the old charts or data when it updates if it didn’t you would run out of memory eventually

  8. I have the mini 2 it’s a big step up from the original with Retna display and significant faster processor if you have the money go with mini 4 but as a student I went with mini 2 got it for 369 32g with cellular Apple website refurbished and you can’t beat that deal . Of course the mini 4 is faster but the 2 runs it smoothly and is the best bang for your buck for a student it’s not that much of a difference between the 4 and two except a little faster chip and Touch ID which I could careless about for fore flight . The pro is the best performance wise but I have found the mini to be perfect size you can use in any aircraft just my opinion .

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