What’s the best iPad for pilots?

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The original Apple iPad was released over seven 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.

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 the differences in each, 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 offers 4 different size iPad models.

The first question has to do with screen size. Apple currently offers 4 new models of iPad, each with a different screen size: the largest is the 12.9″ iPad Pro, then the 10.5″ iPad Pro, followed by the 9.7″ iPad, and finally the smaller iPad Mini 4.

The 10.5″ iPad Pro and regular 9.7″ “iPad” 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. They are nearly identical in size when comparing the exterior dimensions, but the screen on the 10.5″ model is 15% larger thanks to the smaller bezel around the screen.

Pilots looking to buy the best iPad available today should definitely steer towards the 10.5″ Pro. This new model significantly improves on previous full-size iPad designs by including a much faster processor, larger/brighter display and increased storage capacity. While still not perfect, the antireflective screen coating on the Pro model really cuts now on sun glare and you’ll appreciate the faster processor when working with charts and weather or synthetic vision. The 10.5″ iPad Pro also offers the option to upgrade the internal storage capacity up to 512GB, where the 9.7″ iPad is limited to 128GB.

The 10.5″ iPad Pro comes at a premium though, starting at $649 for the WiFi model with 64GB of storage space. Upgrade to the model with cellular data and increased storage and you’ll be out the door for just $900. For those that don’t need the top-end performance, the 9.7″ iPad represents an excellent value. It includes the same internal specs as the previous iPad Air 2, and costs only $429 when upgraded to 128GB of internal storage.

If you’re interested in an iPad with a smaller footprint, consider the iPad Mini 4. This measure roughly 8″ by 5.3″ and will be a better fit in cockpits with tighter constraints. Unfortunately the iPad Mini does not 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 A10X processor, but a significant improvement over the previous model. For that reason, we like the Mini 4 if you’re looking for a smaller tablet.

iPad Pro 9.7 inch screen
The 10.5″ 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 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.

LTE iPad GPS
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 of 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 10.5″ iPad Pro: 64GB, 256GB and 512GB, while the iPad Mini 4 only comes in a 128GB version. The basic iPad model is available in with 2 memory options, 32GB and 128GB. 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 256GB 10.5″ iPad Pro, or the 128GB 9.7″ iPad, both of which are a $100 upgrade over the base model. The 32GB model can work, especially if the iPad is mostly used for aviation, but we’ve found that a minimum of 128GB is a lot more comfortable for most pilots. 512GB is overkill for all but the most dedicated gamers or video producers.

Conclusion

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 10.5″ iPad Pro, WiFi-only, 256GB is the ideal choice if you’re looking to buy a new iPad or upgrade from an older model. For those on a budget, the 9.7″ iPad WiFi-only, 128GB is a great alternative, available for nearly half the price of the Pro model.

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.

Lastly, keep an eye on Apple’s refurbished iPad offerings. They will look brand new to you out of the box, and include a new internal battery and the same warranty as a new iPad. It’s a great way to save $100 or more on a higher-end model.

To compare the iPad models, or to purchase, visit Apple’s website.

10 COMMENTS

  1. For clarification, the Mini 4 has 128 GB capacity (the article’s implication is that all Minis are limited to 64 GB, which isn’t accurate). Its Retina screen is better (brighter, clearer) than previous generation Minis. With a MyGoFlight Armorglas anti-glare screen protector, there are no glare issues in the cockpit.

    After flying with an original Mini for several years and now the Mini 4, I can confidently recommend them as the ideal size for yoke mounting, to avoid unnecessarily blocking flight instruments. The only functional difference in size is that the Mini 4 is about 1/8″ taller than the older Minis (and slightly thinner), which might require a different or modified mount but is otherwise not a noticeable difference. That size is almost exactly the same as both Jepp and NACO approach plates.

    While a larger screen size might work for a kneeboard mount, I learned the hard way many years ago that trying to view an approach plate on a kneeboard while maintaining an instrument scan is a great way to get a terrific case of vertigo because of the up and down head movements that are necessary. So viewing approach plates on the yoke is a much better option.

  2. Regarding the older ipads, my ipad 3 hit a wall when I tried to load IOS 10, apparently IOS 9.3.5 is the last update available for it. So it is not even possible to run the latest IOS on the older models.

  3. I don’t know if this is a recent change of IPad features, but according to Apple’s website, the IPad mini 4 has the same anti reflective coating as the IPad Pro 9.7. Your article considered this “a major drawback” of the IPad mini 4. I am currently in the process of upgrading my IPad mini 2 and I will be staying with the new mini 4. As stated by other comments, the mini is the perfect size for yoke mounting and window mounting is not the best option in a Cherokee. Thanks for this always informative publication.

  4. The article is much appreciated, but some of the info is a bit old. Apple no longer offers a 9.7 inch iPad Pro, it’s only 10.2 and 12.9… Which for me begs the question of size in the cockpit. For my 1979 Piper Archer II, it can be a pain to see the instruments behind the yoke let alone an iPad.

  5. “but the screen on the 10.5″ model is 15% larger thanks to the smaller bezel around the screen.”

    What? How 10.5 vs 9.7 is 15% higher?

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