Apple introduced two new iPad Pro models last week, available in 11″ and 12.9″ sizes, which are now available for sale. The new Pro models join the existing 10.5″ iPad and 9.7″ iPad models in the lineup and add powerful new processors and an edge-to-edge screen. Like with the iPhone X series, they also no longer have a home button and use FaceID as the primary form of unlocking the device. We’ve been using them here in the office and took them up on a few flights in a Cessna 172 and Cirrus SR22 – here are our initial thoughts.
Getting started on the ground
Apple has made the transition process from an old device to a new one easier than ever. First, verify that you have a recent iCloud backup on your older devices (it will automatically back up each time it’s plugged into the charger and connected to WiFi). Then, set the 2 devices side by side and the new iPad will automatically recognize the old one and begin the migration process. Once that begins you can walk away and let the new iPad download all your apps and preferences.
The physical size of the 11″ iPad is very close to the 10.5″, but the display itself is noticeably larger since it goes nearly edge-to-edge. It’s 3 mm wider, 4mm shorter and a hair (a noticeable hair) thinner. But none of those specs really matter as all you’ll see when you first power it up is the large, immersive screen. Without a home button to worry about, the surrounding bezel is a fraction of what it used to be, providing a lot more real estate for Apple’s liquid retina display.
The upgrade from the original 12.9″ Pro is good news for pilots too, as the bezel has been significantly reduced allowing for a much smaller footprint. It’s about the same size as a standard sheet of paper and 1 mm thinner than the previous 12.9″ model. This makes for a 25% reduction in total volume. We took it flying in a Cirrus SR22 and it worked out very well – more on that later.
Since TouchID is no longer an option with the removal of the home button, the new iPad Pro uses Apple’s high-tech FaceID facial recognition system to effortlessly, and securely, unlock the device. This uses small cameras and sensors located at the top of the screen to instantly analyze your face and unlock the screen. We’ve been using FaceID on the iPhone X for nearly a year now, and this technology works great. It takes less than 5 seconds for the device to scan your face, and then it’s just a matter of tapping the screen while your face is in relative proximity to unlock it. There are few new gestures to learn to interact with the screen and apps without the home button, but they quickly become second nature after some use.
FaceID on the iPad Pro worked great in the airplane, even while wearing sunglasses and a headset – and it’s noticeably faster than FaceID on the original iPhone X. While the camera is located at the top of the screen when in portrait orientation, it will also recognize your face and unlock when in the landscape orientation (something the iPhones can’t do). Just make sure that your kneeboard or mount doesn’t cover the sensors at the top of the screen when using this feature. It’s worth noting that you’re not required to use FaceID and can still use the traditional passcode method if you’d prefer.
Flying with the new iPad Pro
Since the new iPad 11″ has nearly the same footprint as the iPad Pro 10.5″ and iPad 9.7″, it’s naturally a great fit in the airplane. The biggest benefit from the upgrade is the larger, edge-to-edge screen, which looks and feels really good in the cockpit. The processor is also noticeably faster at rendering charts and other graphics in aviation apps, but that’s more of a luxury at this point. The less-expensive iPad models that Apple currently offers are more than powerful enough to run all the features found in common aviation apps.
In addition to the new 11″ iPad Pro, Apple is also shipping a new 12.9″ iPad Pro. This size has been available for a few years now and while it made a great laptop replacement, it was simply too big for most GA cockpits. That has changed with the latest version – it’s a solid option for pilots who want the biggest possible screen.
Like the 11″ model, the screen goes almost edge-to-edge with no home button, so while the screen is still quite large, the overall size is noticeably smaller: a full one inch less in width, 1/4 inch less in height, and about 15% thinner than the previous model. That’s a lot, and we had no trouble flying with it in a Cirrus using the MyClip Kneeboard.
The screen is the product here, and it’s gorgeous. Apple uses lots of catchphrases like ProMotion and True Tone but the result is a bright, high-resolution screen that looks great in the cockpit. In the Cirrus, with direct sun, we found the screen to be completely readable. There is some glare, but it’s far less than earlier iPad models.
We also tried out the new Apple Pencil 2 (don’t call it a stylus!). This turned out to be a pleasant surprise, and might actually be a useful tool for pilots. While the first generation Pencil was easy to write with, charging it was a pain and there was no place to store it – we’ve lost count of how many times we lost ours in the cockpit. The new Pencil 2 attaches to the side of the new iPad Pro via magnets, and it charges while it’s attached. It just makes sense: attach the pencil to the side when not in use and when you need it you’ll have a full battery. For copying ATIS or a long IFR clearance, it’s a handy tool.
We’ve heard some concerns from some pilots over the potential for 90+ magnets in the new iPads interfering with the airplane compass. These are used for the smart cover, pencil, keyboard connector, and other accessories. The reality is they are very small (remember, the iPad 11″ weighs less than the iPad Air), and we experienced no side effects or interference in flight with the compass or other avionics.
One thing you may notice though is that most apps will need an update to display full screen on both new iPad Pro models, otherwise you’ll see black bars at the top and bottom. ForeFlight and Sporty’s Pilot Training app were recently updated to provide full iPad Pro support and they look very nice on the larger screens.
iPad Pro Accessories
The next the thing to consider after upgrading to the new iPad Pro is how you will secure it in the airplane. If you prefer to use a kneeboard and go with the 11″ iPad Pro, there’s both good and bad news. On the plus side, it will fit perfectly in most kneeboards designed for the 10.5″ iPad Pro, like Sporty’s Flight Gear iPad Kneeboard, Flight Outfitters iPad Kneeboard, MyGoFlight’s Folio C kneeboard or the slimline iPad Rotating Kneeboard.
The caveat here is that because the new screen extends further towards the bezel, the clips or bands used to secure it in place end up covering the corners of the screen. It’s not a deal-breaker, but something to be aware of. As an alternative, you could use the MyClip iPad Kneeboard strap to secure either the 11″ or 12.9″ model to your leg, which uses two side clips that do not interfere with the screen.
There are also existing RAM mount options that work with new iPad Pro 11″, including the RAM 10″ X-grip and the RAM 10″ universal cradle. These can then be used with any of RAM’s attachment fixtures, like a suction cup or yoke mount. The small updates to the exterior dimensions of the iPad Pro 11″ model are just different enough though that the form-fitting cradles for the 10.5″ and 9.7″ models from RAM, MyGoFlight and Pivot will not work with the iPad 11″.
Another big change with the new iPad Pro models has to do with charging. Apple switched the port on these from the traditional Lightning connector to the more capable and widely-adopted USB-C type (the same charging port used by Stratus ADS-B receivers). Apple includes a USB-C to USB-C cable and 18W charger in the box, meaning you won’t be able to use the traditional USB-A wall plugs that came with previous iPad and iPhone models. There is an option here though if you’d prefer to charge using your existing wall-plugs – purchase a USB-C to USB-A cable, which will allow you to charge the iPad Pro from traditional USB ports or cigarette lighter adapters.
Many pilots like to carry spare battery packs for extra power insurance in the airplane, and the Flight Gear Battery Pack works great with the iPad Pro. This 20,000 mAh battery includes the same USB-C charging port as the iPad Pro (in addition to 3 USB-A ports), allowing you to directly plug your iPad Pro right into this battery pack with the included USB-C cable for fast charging.
Should I upgrade?
Both iPad Pro models are available with 64GB, 256GB, 512GB, and 1TB storage options. The 11″ model starts at $799 ($150 more than the 10.5″ iPad Pro) for the WiFi only option and goes up to $1,699 for the 1TB model with cellular data. The 12.9″ model starts at $999 and can reach a jaw-dropping price of $1,899 with 1TB and cellular data. Like all previous iPads, you’ll need to buy the model with cellular data to get the internal GPS.
These new iPad Pro models join Apple’s entry-level “iPad” that was updated earlier this year. This basic model retains the familiar 9.7″ size and features Apple’s modestly-powerful A10 Fusion processor. Best of all it starts at a fraction of the price of the new iPad Pros at only $329. Apple is still selling the same iPad 10.5″ iPad Pro too, starting at $649.
So which model is best for pilots? For those on a budget, you can’t go wrong with the less-expensive iPad model. You can upgrade to the larger 128GB model and still keep the price under $430. This features a bright retina screen and a processor that will effortlessly run all the high-end features in today’s aviation apps.
For those who want the latest and greatest and a truly incredible screen, it’s worth considering the new 11″ Pro. This iPad will provide the best user experience available today with a noticeably larger display, high-performance processor and FaceID, all while maintaining a form factor that is easily manageable in the cockpit.
And for the ultimate big-screen experience on the flight deck, we can now recommend the new 12.9″ iPad Pro thanks to its 25% smaller size. It’s not cheap, but for those who like the big display and unsuccessfully tried to shoehorn the original 12.9″ model in the cockpit, the new one is worth a second look.