How to choose the best GPS for your iPad

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External iPad GPSs were one of the first accessories to appear for the iPad. After the iPad was released in 2010, pilots quickly realized that the tablet was far more useful with an accurate position source – moving maps, terrain warnings and so much more come into play. Initially, there were very few options for pilots, but the market has rapidly expanded and now there are more choices than ever. How do you pick the right one? Let’s survey the market.

Dual XGPS150A GPS for iPad
An iPad GPS is a powerful tool for your iPad.

Do you need a GPS?

The first question some pilots may ask is whether you even need an external iPad GPS. If you own a WiFi-only model iPad, it’s simple – you have no built-in GPS so you definitely need one. However, LTE model iPads (ones with the cellular radio in it) have a built-in GPS receiver. Note that this GPS is completely separate from the cell service, so you don’t even have to have an active data plan for the GPS to work. You could buy an LTE model iPad, never activate your Verizon or AT&T service, and still have GPS data.

But while the on-board GPS does work with all popular aviation apps, it was really designed for ground use and it’s not always as reliable in the air. It has a tendency to drop offline occasionally, especially when switching between apps or when the iPad goes to sleep. It’s not necessarily a question of accuracy, but of reliability. You don’t want the GPS to be a little slow waking up right at the final approach fix in the clouds. For this reason, many iPad pilots – even those with an LTE iPad – opt for an external GPS. It’s pretty cheap insurance.

More recently, with the exploding popularity of portable ADS-B receivers like the Stratus and GDL 39, external iPad GPSs have faded in popularity just a bit. If you have a full-featured ADS-B receiver, you do not need a separate GPS, since all of them include one already. However, if you’re just getting started with the iPad and don’t want to spend $500-$1000 for an ADS-B receiver, a GPS represents a great way to get started. Some pilots who own an ADS-B receiver also keep an external GPS on hand, either because their model doesn’t include GPS (like the Scout), or for backup.

Note that GPSs are app-agnostic – that is, they work with almost any app because Apple builds “location services” into its core iOS functionality. Many of these GPSs are also compatible with Android devices.

Bad Elf GPS
The plug-in Bad Elf never needs charging or pairing.

Plug in or wireless

If you’ve decided to buy an iPad GPS, the first question to consider is a pretty simple one: do you want a small GPS that plugs into the bottom of your iPad or do you want a wireless GPS that can be mounted remotely? The plug-in model wins for simplicity since it runs off your iPad’s battery. Just plug it in and open your favorite app. There is no battery to charge, no wireless settings to adjust and not even a power button. The only downside is that it’s (by design) limited to one device and it does stick out of your iPad. That’s not a major problem – we recommend flipping the iPad around so that it sticks out the top – but some pilots don’t like this.

Bad Elf offers the only plug-in GPS model, and it’s available for any Apple device with the Lightning connector. This GPS costs $99.99.

Wireless GPSs connect to your iPad via Bluetooth, so they do require some basic setup to pair the two devices. There’s also a battery to keep charged in the GPS, which means a little extra work. But there are plenty of advantages to a wireless GPS too, including the ability to mount it out of the way or in a better place for reception.

Wireless GPSs are available from Dual ElectronicsGarmin and Bad Elf. The Bad Elf Pro even includes a small screen for status messages and basic GPS position data. Prices range from $99.95 to $249.99.

Bad Elf Pro+ GPS
The Bad Elf Pro+ is our top pick for deluxe GPSs.

Basic or deluxe

The next question is whether you want a basic, lower cost model or a deluxe model. The three main features of the higher end models are: longer battery life, data logging functions and the ability to connect to multiple iPads simultaneously – a nice feature for two pilot crews or for connecting to a phone for backup. None of these are necessarily must-have features, but if you’ll be flying regularly with a GPS, the longer battery life is worth it.

Two models are available in this deluxe class. Bad Elf offers their Pro+ GPS with all of these advanced features, plus an altimeter, for $249.99. Dual offers their XGPS160 model for $149.95.

Our picks

Which one is best for pilots? None of these GPSs is really a bad choice, but we’ll offer two picks. For a good performer at a good price, the Dual XGPS150A is hard to beat. At just $99.95, it offers good battery life, reliable performance and a handy dash mount. It has been one of the best-selling models for years and gets good reviews from pilots.

For a deluxe model, or for pilots who fly with multiple devices in the cockpit, we like the new Bad Elf Pro+. At $249.99 it isn’t cheap, but it’s very well made and has a number of great features: an incredible 35 hour battery life, handy built-in screen, altimeter and connection to multiple devices.

You can see the entire selection of iPad GPSs at Sporty’s.

11 COMMENTS

  1. I have a mini ipad with a built in gps but purchased a garmin for backup. I have yet to take a flight where the garmin does not disconnect and usually multiple times in one flight. I and several Vfr friends have NEVER had an iPad loose it’s gps signal at 10000 ft or below. Mmmm

  2. I have a iPad gps and use a status 2s. I have never lost connectivity. I get ADSB in, digital wx, metars, and situational awareness with foreflight pro on instrument approaches. I have ILS in the airplane but no GPS Garmin 430/530/GTN 650/750. This should be all the VFR pilot needs.

  3. I have a Dual XGPS160 that also lost connection with my iPad multiple times during relatively short (about an hour) flights. One of my students suggested the problem was interference with the Bluetooth signal between the iPad and GPS. The suspected source of the interference was the battery pack and cable I used to keep the iPad charged. Relying on only internal battery power suggested that this was the source of the BT interference. I bought a “heavy duty” Lightning cable from Sporty’s and a low-cost Faraday bag for my battery pack from Amazon. This seems to eliminate the signal interference while keeping my iPad charged. I haven’t had a chance to test using the ‘aux power’ charger with the heavy-duty (read: shielded) cable. The ‘aux power’ charger I bought from Sporty’s is supposed to be shielded as well, so it should work. The airplanes in which I’ve been flying haven’t had a functioning aux power outlet, but I’m pretty sure this will work.

  4. I have the Dual 150A GPS the IOS 11 is not supported by Dual app I have written to Dual with no response about this. I still have not updated my IOS for this reason. Will the GPS 150A continue to work with Foreflight after the IOS 11 update even if the Dual App does not? The App is nice to have to watch Barry level. but not totally necessary.

  5. As the article states, the vast majority of iPads have built in GPS. Buying an external GPS is unnecessary. Disconnectionissues are usually software related, not hardware related, and as such will not be improved with an external GPS. Additionally, the built-in GPS not only relies on GNSS satellites, but also uses cell towers to establish a position, thus actually giving a more accurate location.

    • Actually, most statistics I’ve seen show that about 2/3rds of iPads do NOT have a GPS built in. That’s why this question comes up so much.

  6. Actually 60% of the iPads do have GPS built-in. The iPad Pro only comes with GPS while the iPad and iPad mini can be bought as either with or without. Nor is this a new development. My iPad 3 which is six years old has cellular. Feel free to check the Apple website

    • We can debate statistics, but to be clear: every iPad ever offered has been available with and without GPS (that is, with or without 3G/LTE). It has nothing to do with the model. See the current lineup, where every one can be purchased with or without the LTE option: https://www.apple.com/ipad/compare/

  7. Actually the new iPad Pro is only available with GPS. I think the important point however is that many people do not realize their iPad has a built-in GPS and purchasing an external device is of little to no use. This seems to be a misconception among many people regarding their iPads as well as smart phones. Many people in my experience are unaware of the GPS capability of their smart device, and assume the positioning capability is based exclusively on cell coverage.

  8. My mistake, the new iPad Pro is also now available wifi only. However for the extra $150 the cellular version is definitely the way to go for GPS capability

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