Which iPad should I buy?

5 min read
The iPad Mini's lighter weight and smaller size will make it an ideal fit in the cockpit for many.

The iPad Mini’s lighter weight and smaller size make it an ideal fit in the cockpit for many.

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.

Storage capacity

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.

10 replies
  1. Tyson Weihs
    Tyson Weihs says:

    After flying with the iPad mini for three months now, I do prefer it in the cockpit of the DA-40. Space is constrained, a center stick made fold out kneeboards cumbersome, and the mini is at home in the ’40 in either in a kneeboard cradle or on a side window mounted suction cup.

    The big *but* is lack of a retina display on iPad mini. I borrowed one of my officemate’s retina to read an article, and the larger screen and sharp retina display reiterated that absence does in fact make the heart grow fonder.

    Maybe this April we’ll get an iPad retina with less chrome around the edges, making its footprint smaller, or an iPad mini with retina? First world problems …

  2. Jean-Francois Reat
    Jean-Francois Reat says:

    I’ve had and used a first-gen iPad with internal GPS for over two years, running Foreflight, with only one complaint (see below). The internal GPS works well enough that I rarely use the Bad Elf add-on GPS in my plane. I get the same 10M accuracy with either. Bad Elf is more sensitive, and will give me a GPS lock in an airline window seat.

    I have not tried an add-on ADS-B unit like the Stratus. I shut off Bluetooth in flight to save battery. I use a kneeboard mount with folding clipboard cover to copy clearances.

    I have had the iPad overheat and shut down briefly, in full sun, when plugged into the charger (this makes it run a bit warmer). Cabin temp was ~70F. That’s the other reason I rarely use the Bad Elf -it runs the battery down faster, requiring charger plug in, which makes the iPad warmer. My kneeboard case may have something to do with it as well.

    I am intrigued by the iPad mini. but even given the smaller footprint I don’t know where I could mount it in my C182. As a kneeboard its smaller size isn’t a big advantage. I have a yoke-mounted Garmin 496 which I plan to keep using till it dies.

  3. Ronald Beitel
    Ronald Beitel says:

    I use a Ram yoke mount for my iPad 2. Mr. Reat, the Ram mount could hold your iPad on the copilot yoke, and angle it to where you would easily see it.

  4. Leonard Ellis
    Leonard Ellis says:

    I have an iPad1 16GB WiFi-only which is fine in my lap but is far too big on the Ram Yoke Mount as it blocks the view of engine instruments & the DME in our C210 when mounted on the co-pilot’s side. We have a 396 with XM/WX on the pilot’s yoke. Am waiting for a Retina mini, hopefully soon!

  5. Dave Main
    Dave Main says:

    Purchased a mini last fall, 16gb, no 4G. Loved the size, full size iPad not feasable in my RV4. But the BadElf I bought to go along with it was not reliable. Maybe defective, not sure. Replaced it with a new Mini with 4G and now I have the perfect setup. VERY quick to boot up and reliable. Highly recommend it! Note: sold my 3 month old Mini on eBay for almost full price.

    • Tommy
      Tommy says:

      just a note. I purchased a wi fi only 6 weeks ago. It is the new style with the lightning cable. I also purchased it with a Dual gps. I had many problems where I would not have any geo referencing from Foreflight. I went with the external gps, figuring that I would get more run time from the ipad. I upgraded to the cell with gps chip, and I now have not had one problem. There is definetly a problem when using the Dual gps, but if you have the built in gps it reverts back to that. I did various testing. Foreflight was very responsive, and knows that something is going on. Dual has poor customer service.

  6. Bernie
    Bernie says:

    I have an original iPad 3G, 16GB, and a Dual XGPS150, which I have used successfully in my C170B, running AirNav Pro (Had a big problem with ForeFlight which no one seemed to be able to answer.

    My wife just bought me a Mini 16GB WiFi only. What problems should I expect with this unit, or should I upgrade to a 3G/4G model?

  7. Troy
    Troy says:

    Have a back-up in the air.I have a 2and a mini. The 2 has locked up and went to black screen one time each. Keep the clean side up,good flying!

  8. Jean-Francois Reat
    Jean-Francois Reat says:

    Just upgraded to iPad 4 “with retina display” 4g version. I have it in a kneeboard with folding cover, the iPro Aviator. The cover doesn’t interfere with GPS reception and has a clipboard on which to write clearances, weather, etc.

    The iPad’s internal GPS works great and I don’t use my Bad Elf at all (though it’s in the flight bag). Battery life with Foreflight running seems to be about 4 hours, just a little better than the iPad 1.

    The iPad 1 was getting a little dodgy with the ever-increasing size and complexity of Foreflight- occasionally froze or kicked out. Plus it’s not compatible with Stratus (which I don’t own-yet). I can’t say the Retina display is a big improvement for my aviation uses. The 4 downloads data updates much faster than my old 1.

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