Should pilots buy an iPad with built-in GPS?

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It seems just about every electronic device pilots buy these days includes a GPS, including your phone, watch, ADS-B receiver and personal locator beacon. When you go flying, the odds are good that all these devices are with you in the airplane, so does it really make sense to spend the money for an upgraded iPad that includes GPS? Here are some things to consider.

The Facts – Apple’s iPad GPS option

Google the phrase “does the iPad have a GPS” and prepare to be overwhelmed. More than ten years after the iPad was introduced, lots of people are still confused about whether the tablet actually has a GPS in it. And if it does have a GPS, is it a “real” one? Let’s bust some myths and settle the issue once and for all.

First, some simple facts. Every iPad ever made has both WiFi and Bluetooth, two wireless technologies for connecting to nearby devices (in the case of Bluetooth) and the internet (in the case of WiFi). The only additional option is to add cellular service, which allows the iPad to connect to the internet anywhere your cell phone works.

This comes at a premium though, costing an extra $130 to upgrade to the WiFi + Cellular model. It’ll allow you to browse the web while driving down the interstate, or check the weather and update your flight plan when WiFi isn’t available (but it won’t work in flight).

There’s more to the story, though. In addition to the cell data service, the cellular models of the iPad also include a built-in GPS receiver. But it’s important to note that the iPad does not require the cellular connection for the GPS to work. In fact, you can purchase an iPad with cellular data, never sign up for service with Verizon or AT&T, and just take advantage of the built-in GPS for reliable navigation in any aviation app.

Should I upgrade to the model with GPS?

So now it’s decision time. Let’s assume you have no interest in using the cellular data component and are strictly weighing the pros/cons of paying the extra $130 for the GPS receiver in the upgraded iPad model. If cost is no object and you want the best of the best, we’d say go for it. Many prefer the peace of mind knowing their iPad is a fully self-contained navigation device which can provide backup navigation guidance if everything else in the panel goes dark.

On the other side of the equation, many pilots these days are flying with an ADS-B receiver, like a Sentry or Garmin GDL 50 for datalink weather and traffic, and these devices also include a GPS to show your location on the iPad’s moving maps. When you factor in that your iPhone or Android phone also includes a GPS (in addition to the GPS in the panel), many pilots find that it’s not worth the extra cost to add the GPS feature when buying a new iPad.

If you do end up making the decision to buy the WiFi only model without GPS, you can always add an inexpensive external GPS later. They start out at under $100 and wirelessly connect to your iPad (here are some tips for buying an external GPS).



14 replies
  1. chuck shavit
    chuck shavit says:

    Thanks Bret.

    Personally, I would never buy a WiFi-only iPad. Even if you use a device like Stratus or Bad Elf, the internal GPS is a good backup. If you plan to keep the iPad for 4 years, that’s about $30/year insurance. And as a bonus you’d be able to use the GPS in car rides or on a commercial flight, when your flight bag is not near you.

  2. Kent Shaw
    Kent Shaw says:

    All of my IPads are WiFi only but I carry a Bad Elf as backup and I also carry a Samsung tablet which has GPS. I have only had to use the Bad Elf one time when my ADS-B flat-lined, but I really appreciated having it.

  3. tkoff
    tkoff says:

    What?? Why is there any question about the cellular vs. WiFi only? I realize there is advertising revenue from the stand alone GPS manufacturers, but adding yet another device to carry around is nutz! As an instructor and active pilot, I’ve found having cellular capability enhances the usefulness of the iPad immeasurably. Of course, you can futz around with setting up a hot spot on your phone every time you need cellular, but having extra steps and complications greatly detracts from focus on job 1: flying the airplane. The extra cost amortized over the life of the device is ZERO! Yes, flying isn’t inexpensive; I learned on a shoestring budget. But having the right equipment is important to both the safety and enjoyment of your flying experience. A good noise cancelling headset and cellular iPad are investments every pilot should make.

  4. Henry C Dittmer
    Henry C Dittmer says:

    I’ve been exploring this question myself recently. This summer I drove to Oshkosh for Airventure and wanted to use my non-wifi iPad for a map. No GPS, so no map. I want to use my iPad for both flying with a Stratus and driving. If I look at the cost difference between an iPad with cellular/GPS capabilites, and not subscribe to any cell service, the difference is nearly zero. Particularly when I consider an iPad that would require an off-board GPS the hassle of remembering to have it when I discover I need it, not to mention having it charged and dealing with the additional cable for charging.

  5. Jeff Evans
    Jeff Evans says:

    I am on my fifth iPad now, and I stopped buying built-in GPS functionality several iterations back. Instead, I purchased a Bad Elf dongle that can be used with any iOS device. This has saved me several hundreds of dollars already, and will continue to take the sting out of future iPad purchases going forward. Granted, built-in GPS is slightly more convenient (though also slightly less accurate), but I have grown accustomed to attaching my Bad Elf dongle prior to taking flight, and it is not that much of a chore. In my case, I am happier to apply the savings to airplane upgrades, maintenance, and/or fuel. To each, his or her own, I guess.

  6. Barry Borella
    Barry Borella says:

    For a little extra (you are already spending a lot) get the GPS. It shows your altitude as well and is a great backup if all else fails. Unfortunately, the iPad often fails in a hot cockpit. A wise pilot will keep a paper chart handy.

  7. Cary Alburn
    Cary Alburn says:

    I am presently using an iPad Mini 4, with cellular, connected to Verizon for an extra $10/month. It is my “go to” moving map device, EFB, web-surfer, junior laptop, etc. In the airplane, I have a Stratus 3 connected to it. In camp, whether in my Class B van or a tent, it’s how I connect to the Internet using Verizon. I’m using it right now as I type this—I have a Brydge keyboard connected to it via Bluetooth—although it’s on my home WiFi network right this minute.

    I still have my original Mini, although I dropped the cellular connection for it. It’s my backup EFB, as I keep it current with ForeFlight along with my iPhone, which is also current. I’ve never had to use it as a backup, because I’ve never had an overheat failure of either iPad—mounting each on the yoke of my airplane with a “skeleton” type mounting has prevented either one from overheating.

    To my way of thinking, saving the little bit of money by having a non-cellular version is shooting oneself in the foot, because the iPad is so much more useful in so many different ways with cellular/GPS, and with a cellular connection. It’s being penny wise and pound foolish, to use a trite phrase.

  8. David T
    David T says:

    One other thing to keep in mind. If (when) you leave your iPad somewhere and don’t remember where, having (active) cellular service will enable you to find it. There are many cheap cellular options, starting at $10.00 for 5 months, or $2.00/month. Gives you a total of 5 GB of data.

  9. Jerry
    Jerry says:

    I have used an iPad with GPS / Cellular for the last 9 years. The GPS is accurate enough and the cellular service means that with Sky Demon I get airspace updates affecting my route right up to the moment I take off. If my track is so close to, say, airspace that the GPS accuracy is a function, then my pre-flight planning was sub-optimal. In the US there has been discussion of the perils of late notice TFRs – avoiding the potential consequences of infringing one of those and the concomitant dance with the FAA is worth paying the extra cost on the tablet.
    My panel GPS would not recognise the TFR so the iPad’s enhanced functionality with cellular could save you far more than just money.

  10. Blaine Nay
    Blaine Nay says:

    I’m on my third tablet. The first was an Android device issued to my by the airline I flew for. When I retired, I bought my own Android tablet, which I used until I got a corporate flying gig that necessitated an iPad to access the electronic POH. So, I now fly with an iPad. Every device has had a cellular plan and an internal GPS. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    • Samuel Joseph Brunetto
      Samuel Joseph Brunetto says:

      Just taking a shot here Blaine—I don’t have an Ipad and what is the best one to buy–forget money—and I like the 11 or 12 inch size– so what would you buy as the latest—GB etc
      Thanks for the time

  11. George McNeil
    George McNeil says:

    It is my understanding that All current iPhones and iPads use both GPS and GLONASS satellites to improve positional accuracy especially near the North and South Poles where GPS is not accurate because of its satellite orbits. If you are flying using ForeFlight you have the benefit of receiving all the satellites from both GPS and GLONASS.
    Therefore using the iPad inbuilt GPS will allow continued positional availability ( redundancy) when there are GPS outages due to Notam notifications or any other cause of satellite failures. I am on my 6th iPad since Foreflight was made available on iPad in 2010 and we used it to fly into Oshkosh that year and since. No need for separate receivers or dongles or any of that stuff. Seems a no-brainier to get a cellular/GPS iPad especially since in an emergency you could use it to get any internet based services with a cell signal which exists almost everywhere above a few thousand feet.

  12. Thomas Waters
    Thomas Waters says:

    I noticed you said cellular doesnt work while flying seaplane pilots taught me it is entirely dependent on altitude and a little on speed ,low and slow works well.

  13. William Goral
    William Goral says:

    I thank George McNeil for the information on dual GPS & GLONASS reception with Apple products. Just last month while flying west out of Truth or Consequences, NM and in the middle of nowhere, the military decided to scramble GPS. My Garmin 530W went into dead reckoning mode and I started to hear all sorts of complaints from other aircraft while monitoring Albuquerque Center. My iPad Air (dinosaur version 1) with cellular capability but without cell service remained perfectly happy and appeared to lose no accuracy until GPS was reactivated about a half hour later. Just ordered iPad 4 to replace the dinosaur and definitely sticking with cellular model.

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