External iPad GPSs were one of the first accessories to appear for the iPad. After the iPad was released in 2010, pilots quickly realized the tablet was far more useful with an accurate position source—moving maps, terrain warnings, and so much more come into play. Initially, there were very few options for pilots, but the market rapidly expanded and now there are more choices than ever. How do you pick the right one? Let’s survey the market.
Do you need a GPS?
The first question some pilots may ask is whether you even need an external iPad GPS. If you own a WiFi-only model iPad, it’s simple—you have no built-in GPS so you definitely need one. However, LTE model iPads (ones with the cellular radio in it) have a built-in GPS receiver. Note that this GPS is completely separate from the cell service, so you don’t even have to have an active data plan for the GPS to work. You could buy an LTE model iPad, never activate your Verizon or AT&T service, and still have GPS data.
While the on-board GPS does work with all popular aviation apps, it was really designed for ground use and in our experience it’s not always as reliable in the air. It’s become much better in recent years (as our recent test flight showed), so it is a solid option that we use regularly. However, there’s nothing like a standalone backup, so many iPad pilots—even those with an LTE iPad—opt for an external GPS. It’s pretty cheap insurance.
More recently, with the exploding popularity of portable ADS-B receivers like the Stratus and Sentry, external iPad GPSs have faded in popularity. If you have a full-featured ADS-B receiver, you do not need a separate GPS, since all of them include one already. However, if you’re just getting started with the iPad and don’t want to spend $500 for an ADS-B receiver, a GPS represents a great way to get started.
Note that GPSs are app-agnostic—that is, they work with almost any app because Apple builds “location services” into its core iOS functionality. This is not true for ADS-B receivers, which are usually matched to specific aviation apps.
Choosing a model
All of the current GPS models on the market today are wireless, so they connect to your iPad via Bluetooth. That means they require some basic setup to pair the two devices, and there’s a battery to keep charged in the GPS. But there are plenty of advantages to a wireless GPS, including the ability to mount it out of the way or in a better place for reception. Popular wireless GPS models include the Dual Electronics XGPS150A, the Garmin GLO 2 and the Bad Elf Pro. The Bad Elf Pro even includes a small screen for status messages and basic GPS position data. Prices range from $99.95 to $249.99.
If you want to step up to the higher end of the market, there is one other option to consider: the Bad Elf Pro+ GPS. This adds a longer battery life, automatic data logging functions, and the ability to connect to multiple iPads simultaneously—a nice feature for two pilot crews or for connecting to a phone for backup. None of these are necessarily must-have features, but if you’ll be flying regularly with a GPS, the longer battery life is worth it alone. The Bad Elf Pro+ even includes an altimeter, and is available for $249.99.
Which one is best for pilots? None of these GPSs is really a bad choice, but we’ll offer two picks. For a good performer at a good price, the Dual XGPS150A is hard to beat. At just $129.95, it offers good battery life, reliable performance and a handy dash mount. It has been one of the best-selling models for years and gets good reviews from pilots.
For a deluxe model, or for pilots who fly with multiple devices in the cockpit, we like the Bad Elf Pro+. At $249.99 it isn’t cheap, but it’s very well made and has a number of great features: an incredible 35-hour battery life, handy built-in screen, altimeter, and connection to multiple devices. It’s useful outside the airplane too, for hiking or boating.
You can see the entire selection of iPad GPSs at Sporty’s.