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 11″ and 12.9″ are the newest models currently available for sale today, and represent an enormous leap in performance over the original iPad, like going from a Cub to a Learjet.

While these high-performance pro models would suit (and honestly exceed) 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.

The 11″ iPad Pro features an edge-to-edge screen and high-performance processor.

iPad Pro, iPad or iPad Mini?

Apple currently offers 5 models of iPad: the iPad Mini 4, the iPad, the iPad Pro 10.5″, the iPad Pro 11″ and the iPad Pro 12.9″. The iPad, iPad Pro 10.5″ and the iPad Pro 11″ feature nearly the same external dimensions and pilots will find that all 3 work very well with nearly every aviation app available. The 10.5” and 11” specs on the iPad Pro models refer to the screen’s diagonal dimension, meaning these models feature more screen real estate than the standard iPad while maintaining a similar form factor.

The iPad Pro 11″ improves on the iPad Pro 10.5″ design by including a large edge-to-edge display, high-performance processor, and FaceID to quickly unlock the device (read our PIREP on this model here). It also includes a bright, high-resolution liquid retina display with an anti-reflective coating. The latest iPad Pro 12.9″ model represents a major improvement over the original iPad Pro 12.9″ and is 25% smaller while retaining the same display size, thanks to the edge-to-edge screen. The footprint is about the same as a sheet of paper, so it’s a good fit now in most G.A. cockpits. It comes at a premium price, but we can recommend this model now for those that want the most screen real-estate possible.

The budget-friendly model referred to now as just “iPad” is no slouch and features Apple’s powerful A10 Fusion Processor. This is a great buy for less than half the price of the Pro model, but there’s no doubt the iPad Pro is the most powerful iPad available today.

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 full-size iPad model, so all the iPad apps currently available are compatible with it. It is several years old now, so while it can run all the aviation apps, you won’t see nearly the same performance as the iPad or iPad Pro models.

If you’re using an iPad 3, 4 or Air, it may be time to consider an upgrade. While most apps will still run on these models, the processor is noticeably slower. You may find map redraws and other higher-end features to be frustrating. Plus, the latest version of Apple’s iOS platform won’t run on the iPad 1 – 3, so you’ll be stuck on an older version.

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 multiple versions of internal memory options for iPads: the entry-level iPad is available in two sizes, either 32GB or 128GB, while the newer Pro models feature 64GB, 256GB, 512GB, and 1 TB storage options. Downloading all the VFR & IFR charts for the entire United States across multiple data cycles can take nearly 20GB, so even the smallest option available can work well. 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 additional 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 for the iPad Pro models, 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 11″ 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.

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 had previously tried to shoehorn the original 12.9″ model in the cockpit, the new one is worth a second look.

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, like 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.

17 COMMENTS

  1. Having used iPads from the very beginning as moving map device in cockpit I always discussed the need for memory with people believing they need all their gear with them. Do you travel with all your household in your car, every time? I guess not, but most people carry loads of stuff for “I may have a use for it sometimes” without ever using it. So, short – think low on memory and I advice not to keep your family video archive on the iPad you use for flying.

    If you go for the latest iOS there certainly is a minimum size now, which I would set to 64GB size. I agree 32 is a now bit low for things like fully loaded Foreflight plus all other things. Also decide on how long you are going to use the iPad. If you know you will be using it for typical 2 years before you want a new one, go for the minimum memory at the time of purchase. This is what I do, mainly due to the high resell value: after 2 years I get enough for the not-so-old one to jump to the overnext generation on my budget. If you go the forever until it breaks road you may go up one in memory size. Full memory loading is IMHO a waste of money spent.

  2. A huge advantage of the new 11″ and 12.9″ iPad Pros is the new Apple Pencil which attaches to the side of the iPad magnetically and charges wirelessly. This makes it much easier to use in the cockpit. The iPad will also wake up instantly and go into the notepad app as soon as you touch the pencil to the surface.

  3. Cellular users be aware! I ran into an incompatibility issue with the iPad Pro 11 and Verizon in the New England area. After 3 hours and 4 techs on the phone with Verizon, 1 hour and 2 techs on the phone with Apple Support and 2 hours and 3 techs at the Apple Store, the solution was to drop Verizon and switch to the AT&T network. Verizon just would not work with this particular product.

  4. I do not understand the apparent aversion to the cellular model. Years ago my Dual GPS failed on a flight and I had taken advice to buy a WiFi only. I will never do it again. The additional cost is insignificant in my opinion considering it gives you a backup GPS and the advantage of using for non-flying purposes when no WiFi is available. I am of the use if forever mentality when so I also go with the most memory available. Been flying with iPad since the first one and it still works. However, apps out grew it so I had to get new one.

  5. Putting an 11 or 12″ ipad in the cockpit of a Piper Archer is really not practical. Way too big whether you mount it on yolk or elsewhere. The Ipad Mini 4 is best size at 7.9″ is perfect but unfortunately old and slow. Apple has not upgraded this device in the past 3 years and it runs considerably slow on the latest versions of Foreflight and Garmin Pilot. Apple has made no announcements on what they will be doing with the MINI but if you talk to Apple store employees, they all think the announcement of the Mini’s discontinuation is inevitable. If you use Garmin Pilot, you have other alternatives in the 8″ tablet size which I have already switched over to. If you are a Foreflight user, you will have no other option but to use the “oversized” 11″ and 12″ sizes. I believe this is a upcoming dilemma for those pilots. Perhaps this would warrant another article….

    • AMEN! We’re all slowly being sucked into a Foreflight/Apple abiss, to be held hostage to oversized and way overpriced iPads. Warrants another article indeed!

  6. I have been using the mini 4 for some years. It has the cellular option with gps. Having gps is worth the extra cost and as far as I can tell has always worked well in flight with Garmin Pilot or FlyQ. A question I have is how does one know which gps is being used when there is a second gps source such as comes with ADSb receivers?
    I have found the Mini 4 to be fast enough and never noticed significant lags in redrawing charts, etc. while a larger screen is nice, it will be hard to not block aircraft instruments if mounted on the yoke.

  7. I own an IPAD AIR Model A1474 EMC 2646 that my wife gave me for Christmas a few years ago so I could have an EFB. I have Wing X and Garmin Blue tooth on it and find both very useful but the IPAD does not have an internal GPS receiver.
    I can make it work like a real tablet by connecting to a DUAL GPS 160. If the DUAL GPS 160 is charged and is with me and is turned on after the IPAD so it can find it when it starts. It only bothers me every time I use it.
    I don’t know if anyone else sells a tablet that doesn’t have an internal GPS but if they do it should have a warning label.

  8. I would advise not wasting your money buying an ipad without cellular. The internal GPS is very reliable. Ask yourself how often an internal component of your apple device has failed, vs an external plug in type. If for some bizarre reason your internal ipad gps fails, you are still flying vfr right? I also always have my iphone as a backup to the ipad unit itself anyway.

  9. Is anybody use Ipad pro 2018 cellular 11’ for foreflight or flight plan go?
    One of my friend bought new model and trid to use it for foreflight by using internal GPS.
    However GPS was not working or it takes too long time for recogzinging posion.
    On ground, he does not have any problem about GPS.
    Thank you.

  10. I suspect I could make a larger iPad work, but it would be tight in my P172D’s cockpit, so I’ll stick with my Mini 4, which I have connected to a Stratus 2 and Verizon. I also have a Brydge keyboard, which I recommend regardless of which iPad one has—it turns the tablet into a viable laptop, much easier to use than the virtual keyboard of the tablet, and it protects the screen very well.

    A suggestion for those running older iPads: make sure all other apps are definitely “off”, ie, force closed, when running an EFB app—the EFB app will run faster. It’s also a good idea to permanently remove any never used apps.

  11. Using an external GPS is important for accuracy, for example during taxi, as well as for post-flight debrief. I would suggest that every EFB user uses one.

    However, like several replies above, I am also of the opinion that the iPad _must_ have an internal GPS, i.e., a cellular model. It’s important first of all for redundancy, when the external GPS stops functioning. But it’s also good to leave yourself the option of buying a data plan that will allow you to brief and file when you stop at a remove airport with no WiFi. Even if you think today that you do not want to pay for cell data, you may change your mind in the future.

  12. Apple should man-up (if that’s not too P.C.) and let the folks know the future of the Mini-4.
    Or, ForeFlight could consider an android platform as well. IMHO.

  13. Why would anyone want to use a large iPad in a general aviation aircraft? I fly a Mooney and formerly used a 10″ iPad, but I switched to two yoke-mounted iPad Mini 4’s (128GB, WiFi only, latest model, available for $279 each on Amazon). Each runs Foreflight — which allows 2 devices per subscription. Each receives GPS and displays full ADS-B traffic info via Bluetooth connection with my Garmin GTX-345. Battery level is never an issue; I run them both off a USB power source, formerly via the cigarette lighter outlet but now via built-in USB charger ports. Just perfect!
    You can see a photo of them here (first pic in the series): https://www.jpinstruments.com/pilots-pics/
    As a backup, I still have the little red Dual GPS 150A I used before the GTX-345/ADS-B upgrade.

  14. Just my impression after using a new 12.9 with FaceID for some weeks: the iPad is gorgeous, the screen magnificent, power beyond needed – But, FaceID is the greatest BS I ever encountered. I am happy I got one of the last iPhone 8 and hope this shit ends before it needs replacement. FaceID is not working or slowly working exactly when situations are rough, it often complains on ‘covered camera’, recognition is solala. My best guess – the declining sales numbers of Apple are for a part related to FaceID.

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