What’s the best Android tablet package for pilots?

6 min read

While we focus mostly on the iPad here at iPad Pilot News (it’s in the name, after all), there are plenty of pilots flying with Android tablets too. We sometimes get asked about the best Android package to fly with, and it’s a fair question. Unlike Apple, the choices for Android hardware are vast, with dozens of manufacturers offering tablets across a wide range of prices.

So, which is the best tablet, app and accessory? Here are our latest suggestions:

Best Android tablet – Nexus 9

Google Nexus 9

The Nexus 9 is Google’s latest “pure Android” tablet.

When shopping for an Android tablet, the choices are truly mind-numbing. Step one is to avoid all the junky Android tablets that are often sold for $49 or $79. Most of these are poorly made, operate on old versions of Android or don’t have the horsepower to run sophisticated aviation apps. We think two features are worth considering instead: build quality and the ability to be updated.

On the first measure, the new Nexus 9 tablet from Google does well. This is a well-made product, with brushed metal sides and a nice coating on the back of the tablet to make it easier to hold. The screen is also outstanding – better than Apple’s Retina screen we think. It also has a super-fast dual-core processor, which is an important feature when using powerful aviation apps. Finally, the Nexus 9 has a built-in GPS, gyroscope and accelerometer, which can come in handy for some apps.

On the software side, the Nexus 9 is a “pure” Android experience, meaning there is no 3rd party skin layered on top of the core Android operating system. This means it’s generally faster and more reliable, and it’s also easier to get software updates. Many other Android tablets get orphaned by their inability to update to the latest operating system.

The Nexus 9 is a brand new tablet and it’s running a brand new version of the Android operating system: version 5.0 (called Lollipop). Because it’s so new, not all apps will work flawlessly initially, but as apps are updated stability will improve. We still think buying a device running the latest version is a smart investment for the long term.

One drawback of the Nexus 9 is that it’s only available in 16GB and 32GB versions. That’s not a lot of memory, compared to the iPad’s 64GB and 128GB versions, but it’s enough for even the most active pilot. The Nexus 9 also isn’t exactly cheap by Android standards ($479 for the 32GB version), but we think it’s worth the money. For more information on the Nexus 9, click here.

Honorable mention goes to the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4.

Best Android app – Garmin Pilot

Garmin Pilot Android

Garmin Pilot is our top pick for Android aviation apps.

While there are plenty of Android apps available for pilots, there aren’t that many that are truly full-featured–with full moving map options, flight planning, charts, weather and easy updates. Garmin offers what we consider to be the best overall aviation app for Android. It has a comprehensive airport page that offers practically all the information a pilot could ever want about a location, from diagrams and runways to FBOs and fuel prices. It’s well laid out and easy to read. There’s also a robust flight planning tool that mirrors Garmin panel-mount GPSs, making it easy to plan complicated routes. You can do all your pre-flight planning right in the app.

Once in the air, Garmin Pilot offers plenty of features that make it an all-in-one cockpit resource. There is a handy split screen feature, and the options for split screen are powerful–two of our favorites are the panel page, which shows GPS-derived instruments, and an ADS-B traffic display (see below). The app also has some great touch interface tools, like rubber band flight planning and the pop-up menu that appears when you tap and hold on an area.

Garmin is also committed to improving the app, which is a key consideration when you buy an annual subscription to something – some Android apps that look “too good to be true” never get updated as new versions of the Android OS come out. Our only complaint is that the Android version of Garmin Pilot has fallen behind the iOS version. Some pretty important features, like synthetic vision, have been available on iPads for months now but are nowhere to be seen on Android.

Garmin Pilot is $74.99/year for the standard subscription, or $149.99/year for the premium subscription, which adds nice features like geo-referenced approach charts. For more information on Garmin Pilot, click here.

Looking for an alternative? Honorable mention for best app goes to FltPlan Go and Naviator.

Best ADS-B Receiver/GPS for Android – Garmin GDL 39

Garmin GDL 39

Garmin’s GDL 39 is a full-featured ADS-B receiver with GPS.

ADS-B receivers (which always include a GPS as well) have quickly become a must-have accessory for many pilots, especially for IFR flights. The options for Android are a little more limited than for iPad, but there is still a good selection of ADS-B receivers that are compatible. Our top pick is Garmin’s GDL 39, which works with a wide variety of devices, including the iPad and Garmin portable GPSs. When it comes to Android, the GDL 39 only works with the Garmin Pilot app, but that’s not much of a limitation since we think it’s the premier app.

The GDL 39, which sells for $599, is a well-made product, as you would expect from Garmin. It features a highly accurate GPS that locks on fast and shows your airplane’s position on the moving map. It also receives subscription-free ADS-B weather, which is displayed quite nicely on the Garmin Pilot app’s moving map page. Information includes Nexrad radar, METARs and TAFs. The GDL 39 also includes a dual band ADS-B traffic receiver. As we’ve discussed before, ADS-B traffic is far from perfect, but when it works it’s a great thing and Garmin’s implementation of it is the best we’ve seen.

Garmin also offers a 3D model of the GDL 39 that adds a built-in Attitude Heading Reference System (AHRS) for backup attitude. Unfortunately, the attitude features are not supported in the Android version of Garmin Pilot (see above), so it’s not worth the extra money.

The GDL 39 runs off the cigarette lighter for continuous use, but a model is available for $50 more than includes a 3 hour rechargeable battery. For more information on the GDL 39, click here.

Honorable mention goes to the Dual XGPS170, a good value ADS-B receiver that works with Naviator.

The total package?

There are plenty of other accessories you can buy to dress up your Android tablet, from mounts and kneeboards to charging accessories. But in our view, a good tablet plus a good app, paired to a good ADS-B receiver, checks the critical boxes for most pilots. With the setup we’ve described here, you’ll have complete digital charts, moving map navigation, in-flight weather and traffic–plus a whole lot more. It’s an incredible tool, and the total price is just over $1000 for everything.

5 replies
  1. Greg Holbrook
    Greg Holbrook says:

    Any recommendation for an Android tablet similar in size to an iPad mini? I prefer a smaller tablet I can mount on the yoke.

  2. John
    John says:

    I would recommend the Galaxy Tab S 8.4 inch. They recently had a price drop and now are available for $299. Truly gorgeous display. It only has 16GB but you can inexpensively add a memory card (unlike the iPad) to boost the total memory way up. IMHO the Galaxy Tab S is the best tablet currently on the market. Note, it got an honorable mention in this article.

  3. Howard
    Howard says:

    If you plan to buy a minimal android tablet and then add inexpensive flash memory first make sure that the application you plan on using can access that memory for core functions.

    On my android tablet none of the flying apps access maps and databases on a flash card. Flash card is mostly only good for storing movies and music.

    • John
      John says:

      Good point Howard, you do need to be careful about whether the app can use card storage. I’m not sure what dictates this, seems to be some combination of app, android version, and tablet.

      However, on my Galaxy Tab S I can move Garmin Pilot and it’s data between device storage and card storage without any problems. I confirmed this last night.

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