The original Apple iPad was released nearly three 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 4 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 3 years ago. While this base 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 3 new models of iPad: the iPad 2, the iPad with retina display (commonly referred to as iPad 4) and the iPad Mini. The iPad 2 and 4 are 10″ tablets, and pilots will find that both the iPad 2 and the iPad 4 work very well with nearly every aviation app available. The iPad 4 improves on the iPad 2 design by including a much faster processor and increased screen resolution. With the iPad 4, there is also the option to buy a 4G version (see below). The increased resolution looks great and you’ll really appreciate the faster processor when working with charts and weather or terrain overlays. One thing to consider with the iPad 4 is that it uses Apple’s new lightning connector. But again, either model will work just fine and both are still available from Apple.
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. It runs at the exact same resolution as the iPad 2, so all the iPad apps currently available will run seamlessly on it. It has a similar processor to the iPad 2, and also includes the new Lightning connector, so your current iPhone cables and chargers will need to be upgraded.
If you’re using an iPad 1, it may be time to consider an upgrade. While almost all apps will run just fine on the iPad 1, the processor is noticeably slower. You may find map redraws and other higher end features to be frustrating.
Full iPad specifications are available from Apple.
But wait, what happened to the iPad 3? Apple offered this model for a short period of time in 2012, and while it includes the high resolution retina display, you will not experience a much faster experience over the iPad 2. The iPad 3 also uses the old 30-pin charging connector, and you can probably find one at a great price if you’re considering a used iPad. Apple sure makes this confusing…
Wifi-only or 3G/4G model
All iPad models offer 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 3G or 4G model that receives wireless data from AT&T or Verizon (for a monthly fee). The benefit to pilots with the 3G/4G 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 3G/4G model also allows you to download weather and file flight plans on the go (although it does not work in the air). But again, either model is fine for aviation use.
The internal GPS on an iPad 3G/4G is completely independent from the cellular antenna, and does not require 3G/4G service to be activated from AT&T or Verizon to work properly. You could buy a 3G or 4G iPad and use the GPS without ever activating your service.
Apple offers 4 versions of internal memory options for the full-size iPad: 16GB, 32GB, 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—so the 16GB model will work for most people. One 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 (the app automatically displays the new charts when they’re valid). 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, and should go with the 32GB iPad.
Also 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.
So which model do we recommend? Based on our experiences flying with every model of iPad, we think the Wifi-only 32GB iPad Mini is the ideal choice for use in the cockpit. The iPad Mini’s smaller footprint allows for plenty of mounting options, and the 32GB storage size allows you to store charts for the entire U.S. and still have room for your other apps and media. 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 3G/4G model. For the ultimate setup, we recommend adding a wireless ADS-B receiver, like Stratus, which provides subscription-free in-flight weather and WAAS GPS position data.