Should I buy an iPad 3? A pilot’s perspective

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New iPad screen
The new iPad 3 features a gorgeous Retina display.

The original iPad was an instant hit when it debuted in the spring of 2010. The combination of a high-resolution screen, intuitive software interface, long battery life and large selection of apps appealed to just about everyone. And Apple released this attractive tablet at a very reasonable price. While the average consumer found the iPad ideal for browsing the internet, reading books, watching movies and playing games, pilots found it as a great solution for displaying charts and moving maps in the cockpit.

Just before the iPad arrived on the scene I predicted that eBook readers, like the original Kindle, would become very popular among pilots as a simple and effective low-cost electronic solution for displaying instrument approach charts. The iPad quickly ended this possibility as app developers immediately released dedicated aviation apps designed specifically for the iPad’s large color screen. Prior to the iPad’s arrival, ForeFlight offered a popular iPhone app that displayed sectionals, IFR en route and approach charts in an easy-to-use application. They saw the potential in the iPad’s large screen and appealing feature set, and released ForeFlight Mobile HD for the iPad. Hilton Software recognized this too and quickly optimized WingX Pro to run on the iPad.

After the initial launch in 2010 general aviation pilots purchased iPads at rate arguably faster than any other specialized group. Accessories for mounting the device in the cockpit became widely available, and for the first time ever GA pilots had a viable option for abandoning paper charts and safely moving towards a paperless cockpit. The iPad wasn’t perfect, but it was the best option for the price to  display digital charts in-flight.

Apple released the iPad 2 in the spring of the 2011, and this new model had a faster processer, weighed less and was slimmer in design. Many pilots upgraded to take advantage of the faster software and lighter weight, but a good percentage also stuck with their iPad 1 and saw no reason to upgrade. Battery life was similar, and all the popular apps still ran just fine on the original iPad.

Fast forward to now, where Apple recently released a new iPad model (let’s call it the iPad 3). And remarkably this improved version is available at the same price that the iPad 1 sold for two years ago – $499. The iPad 3 adds several new features:

  • 4x increase in screen resolution over iPad 1 & 2
  • significantly improved HD camera
  • 4G wireless connectivity option (AT&T or Verizon in the U.S.)
  • voice dictation
  • nearly identical weight, form factor & battery life as iPad 2

So now to the all-important question – should you buy an iPad 3? We’ve been flying with the iPad 3 for about 2 weeks now, and feel that answer depends on your situation.

I don’t own an iPad, but I’m considering: there’s never been a better time to make the move to electronic charts in the cockpit. The iPad 3’s improved high definition screen shows every map and chart in great detail. It still provides an exceptional 10 hour battery life, and runs the high-performance navigation apps like ForeFlight very quickly. We recommend at least a 32GB model to make sure you have room for all your charts and still have room for other applications and media.

I own the original iPad: simple answer – it’s time to upgrade. You’ll find significant improvements in weight, thickness, speed and screen resolution. And as the iPad’s specs are improved with each new model, app developers are also updating their apps by adding new features to take advantage of the faster processor. Features like in-flight ADS-B weather, terrain awareness, synthetic vision and traffic depiction require more horsepower to process and display the information. Yes the iPad 1 will still work, but you may not be able to take advantage of the latest features and accessories. If you’re using the tablet as a basic chart viewer, however, the iPad 1 will continue to work very well.

I own an iPad 2: if you’re happy with the performance of your iPad 2, we suggest holding off on the upgrade to an iPad 3 (unless you’re drooling over the new Retina screen). While the iPad 3 has a faster graphics processor to support the higher resolution screen, you won’t see a significant increase in overall speed. And your iPad 2 will work just fine with the latest accessories and app features.

Because the iPad 3 is basically the same shape and size as the iPad 2, most of your iPad 2 cases, kneeboards and mounts will still fit nicely. The Bad Elf and Dual XGPS 150 GPS accessories are still compatible, and the new Stratus ADS-B in-flight weather receiver integrates perfectly with an iPad 3 running ForeFlight.

The iPad 3 battery has about 70% more capacity than that of the iPad 1 and 2, so it takes an hour or two longer to charge a fully depleted battery (approx. 6 hours to fully charge). We’ve noticed it runs slightly warmer than the iPad 2, and this is most likely because of the larger graphics chip. The extra heat is only slightly noticeable, though I’d be careful about operating it in direct sunlight for extended periods of time to avoid it overheating from the sun.

All in all the iPad 3 is a good upgrade to an already great tablet. We’ve been very happy with the performance, and the new retina screen really makes the chart details easy to see without having to zoom in excessively.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Pilots should be very aware that the new screen resolution may dramatically increase the data required to draw maps and chart displays. One can very quickly burn through their cellular data plan using the latest iPad hardware. See http://bit.ly/yQofnj

  2. Jim, there are several third-party charging solutions for the iPad. These can also be used to power it continually in-flight if the aircraft has a “cigarette-lighter” type power port.

  3. DK, in practice there is really no issue with excessive cellular data use for in-flight charts. All of the popular aviation apps for iPad download the charts, approach plates, etc. for offline use since in-flight access of the cellular network is, um, discouraged.

    Therefore, you can download all of those beautiful retina-resolution charts (when they’re available) while connected via wifi at home, hotel or FBO and incur no cellular data charge at all.

  4. It looks as if the Bad Elf GPS would be cumbersome and could break easily. Anyone have an opinion?
    Is this a durable device or would the blue tooth unit be better?
    Thanks

    • Ron, the Bad Elf is very durable. One good trick is to flip the iPad upside down (and let the screen rotate). This way, the Bad Elf is sticking out of the top and is less prone to breaking. In the end, the Dual vs. Bad Elf debate is really personal preference–they offer the same performance at the same price.

    • I have my iPad in a RAM mount on the yoke, and the Bad Elf GPS sits on top of the iPad with a good view of the sky and no danger of being bent or broken.

  5. Wayne,
    Your comment about downloading charts offline is correct as far as the Foreflight charts are concerned. But the issue I refer to has to do with any maps that are drawn by an application using downloaded data (e.g. Google Maps, SkyVector, AOPA Flight Planner, etc.) As you mention, if the only map displays the pilot uses are those that were downloaded via Foreflight using Wifi, the new high resolution will not be a factor.

  6. Is it possible to get an iPad 3 without the 4G connectivity? I like the graphics, and would like to couple the Stratus with Foreflight. Can I do this with just wifi? Will the higher resolution graphics make any difference with Foreglight?

    • Bernie, absolutely, the iPad 3 wifi-only model works great with Stratus and ForeFlight. Since Stratus also has a built-in WAAS GPS receiver, you’ll also get all the benefits of ForeFlight’s moving map and navigation features. And yes, ForeFlight was recently updated to support the high-resolution iPad 3 display.

  7. Readability in sunlight is difficult for me with the iPad2. I also have issues with the fact that the O/S is still not multitasking (eg download of charts stops when you switch to another app etc.) Have either of these issues been addressed with the iPad3?

  8. I’ve had the stratus and ipad3 for several weeks. The battery of the ipad3 is not lasting more than a couple of hours. This is disappointing as the Ipad2 with the badelf would run a full 8 hours. Does anyone else have this problem? I am not running anything in the background and am not running the stratus wx at the same time. Also the stratus was directed to be placed on the glare shield and overheated in a matter of minutes and shut down completely. It’s only 75 degrees in May! What to do?

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