What’s the best iPad for pilots?

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The original Apple iPad was released over eight 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 Pro is the latest and greatest model currently available for sale today, and represents an enormous leap in performance over the original model, like going from a Cherokee to a Learjet.

While this 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 the differences in each, 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 offers 4 different size iPad models.

The first question has to do with screen size. Apple currently offers 4 new models of iPad, each with a different screen size: the largest is the 12.9″ iPad Pro, then the 10.5″ iPad Pro, followed by the 9.7″ iPad, and finally the smaller iPad Mini 4.

The 10.5″ iPad Pro and regular 9.7″ “iPad” are so-called “10-inch class tablets,” which is the most popular size, and a good place to start for a new buyer. This a good compromise between a screen that’s large enough to read and a size that’s portable enough for the cockpit. They are nearly identical in size when comparing the exterior dimensions, but the screen on the 10.5″ model is 15% larger thanks to the smaller bezel around the screen.

Pilots looking to buy the best iPad available today should definitely steer towards the 10.5″ Pro. This model significantly improves on previous full-size iPad designs by including a much faster processor, larger/brighter display and increased storage capacity. While still not perfect, the antireflective screen coating on the Pro model really cuts now on sun glare and you’ll appreciate the faster processor when working with charts and weather or synthetic vision. The 10.5″ iPad Pro also offers the option to upgrade the internal storage capacity up to 512GB, where the 9.7″ iPad is limited to 128GB.

The 10.5″ iPad Pro comes at a premium though, starting at $649 for the WiFi model with 64GB of storage space. Upgrade to the model with cellular data and 256GB of storage and you’ll be out the door for just over $900. For those that don’t need the top-end performance, the latest 9.7″ iPad represents an excellent value. It was recently updated in March with the higher-performance A10 processor and support for the Apple Pencil. It’s essentially the same size as the iPad Air 2 and 9.7″ model from 2017 and costs only $429 when upgraded to 128GB of internal storage.

If you’re interested in an iPad with a smaller footprint, consider the iPad Mini 4. This measure roughly 8″ by 5.3″ and will be a better fit in cockpits with tighter constraints. Unfortunately the iPad Mini does not include the anti-reflective screen featured on the iPad Pro, which is a significant drawback. The Mini 4 includes Apple’s A8 processor – not as good as the Pro’s A10X processor, but a significant improvement over the previous model. For that reason, we like the Mini 4 if you’re looking for a smaller tablet.

iPad Pro 9.7 inch screen
The 10.5″ iPad Pro features an anti-reflective screen that really cuts down on glare in the cockpit.

The last option is the 12.9″ iPad Pro, Apple’s largest tablet ever. It’s a great performer and has a huge screen, but it’s simply too big for most airplanes. Anything smaller than a business jet will preclude its use, so we don’t recommend it for most pilots.

If you’re currently flying with an early series iPad (the original 1-4), it’s time to consider an upgrade. There’s a noticeable decrease in performance when running the latest iOS software on these devices, and you’ll appreciate the lightning fast response when using advanced aviation features like synthetic vision and ADS-B weather on the newer iPad models.

WiFi-only or WiFi + Cellular model?

After choosing a size, it’s on to the connectivity question. This is pretty simple, but there are some confusing terms thrown around, so let’s start basic.

LTE iPad GPS
iPad models with LTE built in also have a GPS.

Every iPad model ever built offers 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 cellular model – called LTE – that receives wireless data from AT&T or Verizon (for a monthly fee). The benefit to pilots with the cellular 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 minor limitations). The cellular model also allows you to download weather and file flight plans on the go, but don’t count on this cellular data connection to work in the air. In our experience, it just isn’t reliable. It’s also technically illegal.

The internal GPS on an iPad with cellular data is completely independent of the cellular antenna, and does not require that you activate a data plan from AT&T or Verizon to work properly. You could buy a cellular model iPad and use the GPS without ever activating your service.

So which is the right choice for pilots? Either one, really. The GPS that comes with the LTE model is nice, but for the price of this upgrade, you could buy an external iPad GPS that is more reliable in some ways. We’d advise you choose the cellular model iPad only if you think you’ll use that mobile data connection a lot.

Storage capacity

Apple offers 3 internal memory options for the 10.5″ iPad Pro: 64GB, 256GB and 512GB, while the iPad Mini 4 only comes in a 128GB version. The basic iPad model is available in with 2 memory options, 32GB and 128GB. Downloading all the VFR & IFR charts in ForeFlight for the entire United States takes up about 8GB of storage. And then you have to consider that you might also want to store high-resolution terrain data, synthetic vision, charts for the Canada, Mexico and Caribbean, and PDF documents. That makes the older iPad models with only 16GB of storage barely adequate.

Storage full
Not what you want to see.

Another 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. 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.

Finally, 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. For all these reasons we recommend you go with the mid-range 256GB 10.5″ iPad Pro, or the 128GB 9.7″ iPad, both of which are a $100 upgrade over the base model. The 32GB model can work, especially if the iPad is mostly used for aviation, but we’ve found that a minimum of 128GB is a lot more comfortable for most pilots. 512GB is overkill for all but the most dedicated gamers or video producers.

Conclusion

The good news is that any iPad model will work for pilots, so there’s not a bad choice here. But some are definitely better than others. So which model do we recommend? Based on our experiences flying with each model of iPad, we think the 10.5″ iPad Pro, WiFi-only, 256GB is the ideal choice if you’re looking to buy a new iPad or upgrade from an older model. For those on a budget, the 9.7″ iPad WiFi-only, 128GB is a great alternative, available for nearly half the price of the Pro model.

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 cellular model. For the ultimate setup, we recommend adding a wireless ADS-B receiver, Stratus ADS-B receiver, which provides subscription-free in-flight weather and WAAS GPS position data.

Lastly, keep an eye on Apple’s refurbished iPad offerings. They will look brand new to you out of the box, and include a new internal battery and the same warranty as a new iPad. It’s a great way to save $100 or more on a higher-end model.

To compare the iPad models, or to purchase, visit Apple’s website.

21 COMMENTS

      • And because to use and external requires you to use Bluetooth or Wifi on your iPad which is an additional drain on the battery, PLUS you have one more device (the GPS) with a battery that you need to maintain. The internal GPS is ALWAYS available and the additional benefit of having data available on your iPad is worth its weight in goal. My Verizon plan costs me $10 a month to share my cellphone plan data. It’s well worth the cost.

    • I’ve had both and rarely use the data either the ground, or in the air. Especially considering I can always use the phone as a source for a internet either as a hotspot or by itself.

  1. If you have a tight cockpit or already have a recent version in your pocket, an iPhone running ForeFlight provides just as much functionality as an iPad…

  2. It’s all personal preference, but I can say that my son and I (both pilots) use and love the size of the ipad mini (we generally fly Archers and 172s). We use a yoke mount that allows the ipad mini to be held just in front of the yoke (between the grips) so it doesn’t block the view of the “steam” gauges. As for the supposed glare issue my son installed an easily found (on Amazon) anti-glare screen protector. I bought one too but haven’t felt the need to install it yet.

  3. Great Article, only refinement is I strongly suggest DO get cellular if you can afford it. Correct, not much help in the air, but fantastic everywhere else on ground when not at wi-fi. Its a savior at small airports without wifi to get latest weather, or look at the latestwhile youre wifes driving you to airport, etc .

  4. I have the 4 Mini and the glare / hard to see in cockpit on sunny days only drawback. Any suggestions on overlays for that most welcome.

  5. Buying an ipad without cellular/gps is foolish. The primary usefulness of an ipad in flight is, among other things, to display your position. Yes you could buy an external GPS, but they are not more reliable than apple’s internally wired gps system. To suggest that an external third party gps, which either relies on a cumbersome cable or battery sucking bluetooth, is a better option, is someone who is, in my opinion trying to sell you a product!

    • I strongly agree. I have both, and was EXTREMELY disappointed in the non-cellular iPad. It CAN NOT get a location position without a wifi connection, and then it’s approximated be triangulation to cell towers. The cellular iPad has GPS built in, and you don’t have to have a data plan with it unless you just want data for the iPad (I do because I like being able to get weather through the cellular link when on the ground).

    • An iPad with GPS receiver is great on the ground, but the GPS signal alone does not provide traffic and weather. The ability to link iPad-hosted aviation apps with an off-the-shelf ADS-B receiver/transmitter maximizes the iPad’s utility. When people mention linking an external GPS receiver, they are normally referring to Stratus or Stradux systems that do much more than just receive a GPS signal. Add in the fact that you can connect most modern aviation headsets to the iPad via Bluetooth, now you have a system that provides moving map, weather, traffic alerts, and your favorite 90’s music playlist.

  6. There were times when my iPad’s GPS would lose reception (particularly in Alaska) until I bought a Bad Elf GPS receiver. My iPad is always plugged in, so battery life doesn’t concern me. My current avionics setup provides external GPS reception for ForeFlight and AHRS, which is optimum.

    Given all that, I would still insist that my iPad had cellular capability for GPS and for those times when a cellular data connection is necessary.

  7. Two follow-up thoughts: 1) I understand that having the built-in GPS on a cellular equipped iPad could be a great plus. However for those actually paying the monthly subscription fee for an ipad cellular data plan – why don’t you just use your smartphone’s wifi hotspot to have the ipad automatically connect to your phone? That allows you to use your phone’s data plan which you have already paid for. 2) Tech Armor makes an anti-glare screen protector for the ipad mini (likely the other iPads too) that my son and I like. Maybe Sportys carries it or a comparable produce – if not check Amazon.

    • You don’t need the cellular data turned on to use the internal GPS on the cellular iPad. You just need the iPad version that is cellular capable, that gives you the GPS chip. You don’t need the cell service for it to work in the cockpit with your foreflight or whatever you use.

  8. Some comments from experience. 1. The Apple Pencil is a great tool in cockpit. 2. Pencil means either Pro or the new budget 9.7 – no longer mandatory to go Pro. 3. Mounting an iPad to the yoke is not adviced if you either fly IMC (vertigo risk by turning map) or use an autopilot (none is certified to be used with an uncertified object possibly obscuring the control balance). 4. The bigger the better, I now use a 12.9 Pro as charts replacement and got rid of all smaller ‘panel-mount-GPS’ replacements. Yes, I did use Mini and 9.7/10.5 before and it is a cramped cockpit – for me, mounting an iPad is no longer an option.

  9. I use a Mini 4 with a MyGoFlight glass anti-glare screen protector, mounted on the yoke with a forpilotsonly iPro Navigator mount. I have never experienced the slightest hint of vertigo that way, unlike horrible vertigo with plates in my lap. I find mine to be a perfect setup for me.

  10. Mini on the yoke with an appropriate mount. LTE for easy georeferencing. Even if you use an external GPS/AHRS device. It’s called back-up.

    Activate your cellular service on at least the mini. You’ll be surprised how often it comes in handy. I am in the cockpit 500+hours a year. Connectivity has paid for itself many times over. Clearance doesn’t have your flight plan? Less than 60 seconds it is in the system. Pop up TFR for firefighting? There it is on the map checked before takeoff. Final nexrad check? Still a wide margin of safety to depart. Etc.

    At $10 a month for an extra device on my Verizon, it’s a no brainer. I have seen cheap cost more in the long run on a regular basis.

    10.5 pro for back up and planning. Approach in actual? Pro has the SID and the mini has the geo references plate. If one fails, I have the other and the panel.

    For purely VFR, clear and a million guys, feel free to teather to phones and fly single device. Heck, just look out the window for that matter. It’s more fun. If your going a long way, expect weather and be as prepared as possible. Complacency and ignorance kills pilots on a regular basis.

    Connectivity and proper training to interpret and act on the data our avionics provide, keeps us much safer.

    Food for thought.

    Best.

  11. I bought wifi-only the first time and quickly learned the benefits of the cellular. My last three upgrades have all been cellular and I would never recommend wifi-only to anyone.

  12. Being a Apple proponent, and an iPad user since first introduced, it is beyond me how anyone could recommend a “WiFi Only” iPad for aviation use. Even if the pilot connects to a Stratus, Stratux, or any other external GPS/Weather/ADS-B device, he/she is blind to data updates at the field where no WiFi is provided. While bigger may be better for some, please also consider whether you’re going to mount the device. Trying to mount a 10.5 inch device is an arduous task. Additionally, no matter which iPad you choose, if you’re going to mount that puppy in the cockpit, you need to keep it cool. Picture mounting a 10.5″ using a suction cup without a cooling fan. Arrrggh. I have owned six different iPad iterations. I fly with two iPads, one, a Mini is mounted by suction cup to the side of the windscreen out of instrument obstruction; the second, an iPad Air (9.7″) as a backup if needed. Also, save some money and consider buying a “full warranty” iPad from the Apple “refurb shop.” Apple does an exceptional job at refurbing units bringing them to brand new condition. Since my first iPad back in 2010, I have consistently purchased from the Refurb Shop with resounding success.

  13. I fly VFR only. Just switched to Apple products a year ago and here’s my experience. I use an iPad mini4 on a RAM swivel mount in my RV6 (meaning not much room). Had the iPad overheat once, and will fix that with a moderately expensive fan-cooled Naut mount. IPad is wifi only, and conncects to Stratus 2, and is augmented by iPhone8 hotspot on ground when needed. Already have other GPS from Garmin, so don’t need cellular iPad. IPhone is used as backup to iPad, using Foreflight software, augmenting Garmin Aera 660 GPS. So far, very happy with performance of everything.

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