The original Apple iPad was released over ten 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 top-end models currently available for sale today, and represent an enormous leap in performance over the original iPad.
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.
iPad Pro, iPad or iPad Mini?
Apple currently offers 4 models of iPad: the iPad Mini (7″), the iPad (10.2″), the iPad Air (10.9″), the iPad Pro (11″ and 12.9″). The iPad (good), iPad Air (better) and the iPad Pro 11″ (best) feature nearly the same external dimensions and pilots will find that all three work very well with nearly every aviation app available.
The 10.2″, 10.9” and 11” specs on the mid-size models refer to the screen’s diagonal dimension, meaning these models feature more screen real estate than the original iPad, while maintaining a similar form factor.
The flagship iPad Pro 11″ includes a large edge-to-edge display, high-performance multicore processor, and along with the iPad Pro 12.9″, is the only iPad to use FaceID for unlocking and USB-C for charging (read our PIREP on this model here). It also includes a bright, high-resolution liquid retina display with an anti-reflective coating.
The larger iPad Pro 12.9″ model represents a significant improvement over the original iPad Pro 12.9″ – it 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 GA cockpits. It comes at a premium price, but we can recommend this model now for those who want the most screen real estate possible.
It’s worth noting that Apple released updated versions of the iPad Pro 11 and 12.9″ models in March 2020. While the form factor and screen details remain identical, the 2020 models added a speedier A12Z processor, rear LIDAR camera and “studio-quality” microphones.
The latest version of the iPad Air was introduced in September 2020 and looks a lot like the iPad Pro with an edge to edge screen and no home button. It uses the latest A14 processor, which for most aviation uses will perform comparably to the A12Z processor in the iPad Pro. One unique thing in the iPad Air is that it incorporates TouchID in the home button at the top of the device, which many pilots find to be more reliable than FaceID in the cockpit.
The budget-friendly model referred to now as just “iPad” is no slouch and was recently updated with the more capable A12 processor. This is a great buy for much less than the Air or Pro models, and can handle all the demands of VFR and IFR pilots in the cockpit with ease.
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 was last updated in 2019 with the same A12 processor found in the regular iPad model. It also includes the anti-reflective screen coating which pilots will find useful in the cockpit (read our PIREP on this model here). For a sense of the size, here’s a picture of an iPad Mini in a Cessna 172 cockpit.
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.
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. If you frequently use your iPad on the ground in locations without WiFi, the upgrade to the LTE model definitely makes sense.
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 Mini and Air models feature are available in 64GB and 256GB sizes. The Pro models go even bigger, with the option to upgrade to 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. And then you have to consider that you might also want to store high-resolution terrain data, synthetic vision, charts for Canada, Mexico and Caribbean, and PDF documents.
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. If in doubt, go with either the 128 or 256GB option depending upon what is available for your model; 64GB may sound like a lot now, but it doesn’t leave much room for future growth as new aviation databases and features are introduced and your photo and music libraries continue to expand.
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 experience talking with pilots flying GA piston airplanes, the iPad mini is by far the most popular choice, primarily because of how well it fits in most cockpits. For this reason, our first choice would be the iPad Mini, WiFi-only with 256GB model as the best iPad for aviation.
We hear from many pilots too who prefer the larger screen size of iPad and iPad Air for improved readability in the cockpit. If you’re on a budget, we recommend the entry-level iPad, WiFi-only with 128GB of storage. For additional performance and screen real estate with the same footprint as the base-model iPad, we also recommend the iPad Air, WiFi-only, 256GB, as a more premium option. The flagship iPad Pro 11″ works great in the cockpit too, but it’s hard to justify its higher price unless you have a need for graphic-intensive applications or multitasking performance outside of the cockpit.
The one exception on the iPad Pro models is if you’re looking for the ultimate big-screen experience on the flight deck. If this sounds like you, check out the 12.9″ iPad Pro. 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, this model 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 Sentry 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.