iPad 1

When is an iPad obsolete for flying?

3 min read

The iPad is decidedly middle-aged now, at least for consumer technology, which means there is a busy used market for older tablets. An original iPad, which came out in 2010, can be purchased on eBay for under $50—a great deal, right? Or maybe you can use that old iPad mini 1 that’s been sitting in the kitchen drawer for a few years, as a cheap way to have a dedicated aviation tablet?

iPad 1

An iPad is an iPad, right? Wrong.

Not so fast. Most aviation apps have specific requirements that eliminate some older tablets from consideration, so before you buy that used iPad, read on.

When answering the question, “how old is too old for an iPad in the airplane?” you have to consider two related issues: hardware and software. Start with hardware. Older iPads have much less powerful processors and far less memory than the latest generation—the latest iPad mini (hardly Apple’s most powerful tablet) is roughly 12 times faster than the iPad mini 2, for example. The new iPad Pro models are even more powerful. These are massive differences.

That leads to the software issue. Every year, Apple releases a new version of its operating system, the base level of software (now called iPadOS). As this gets ever more capable and resource-intensive, older models of iPads simply can’t keep up, so Apple cuts off support at some point. If you have an iPad mini 3 or an original iPad Air, for example, it will continue to work but you are not able to update iPadOS beyond version 12. That’s a problem, since most apps have minimum iPadOS levels in order to run the latest version and get the newest features.

So here’s the domino effect: older iPad doesn’t have enough computing power -> can’t update to the latest iPadOS -> can’t update to the latest version of aviation apps.

The result is your older tablet will be frozen in amber, able to run older version of apps, but unable to update. And eventually developers may cut off support for those older app versions. Your older iPad isn’t instantly junk, but the clock is ticking.

Here’s the current state of the market:

  • The latest version of ForeFlight (14.4) requires iPadOS 14 or later.
  • The latest version of Garmin Pilot (10.7) requires iPadOS 14.2 or later.
  • The latest version of FltPlan Go (5.0) requires iPadOS 11 or later.
  • The latest version of WingX (9.2) requires iPadOS 12 or later
Synthetic vision

More advanced features like synthetic vision require more computing power—there’s no free lunch.

As you can see, the minimum varies by app, so consider which one you use when making an iPad decision. Theoretically, a FltPlan Go pilot could get away with a much older iPadOS version than a Garmin Pilot user (although there are definitely tradeoffs to this strategy!).

Now it’s a matter of matching your hardware to the software minimums. Which iPads can run which versions of iPadOS? It varies:

  • iPadOS 15 or later: all iPad Pro models, iPad Air 2-5, iPad 5-9, iPad mini 4-6.
  • Maximum of iOS 12: iPad Air 1, iPad mini 2-3
  • Maximum of iOS 10: iPad 4
  • Maximum of iOS 9: iPad 2-3, iPad mini 1
  • Maximum of iOS 5: iPad 1 (the original one)

Given all that information, when is it time to upgrade your iPad? We think any model that can run the latest version of iPadOS (top bullet point above) is a valid option for pilots. That’s everything that has been released in the last seven years, so that includes a lot of older tablets. For example, if you find a great deal on an iPad Pro 10.5″ (which was released in 2017), that’s a reasonable choice for flying—it may not last forever, but it probably has some life left. If you’re still hanging onto an iPad mini 3 or an iPad Air 1, it’s definitely time to make the upgrade.

Remember that we’re talking about the bare minimums here. For best performance, especially when it comes to features like synthetic vision and animated weather images, you’ll want a newer device with better performance. The iPad mini 6, iPad Air 5, and iPad Pro 11″ are our top picks. Read this article for more information on choosing the right model.

8 replies
  1. Bruno Gagnon
    Bruno Gagnon says:

    This whole tread is valid info. There is one more thing you need to consider. There are 2 ways of thinking.

    1. You can use your iPad until you can no longuer update it and make very little money selling it because of that and also the fact that the battery has been used for so long that there is not much life left in it.

    2. You buy refurbish on Apple website and keep it no longuer than 18 to 24 month max. Then you sell it an re buy refurbish.

    With the later, I always have a decent machine an I only invest 40-60$ every 2 years.

  2. Rodney Dykhouse
    Rodney Dykhouse says:

    I’ve been a pilot for 53 years and an instructor for 46 years and I have some real concerns. Pilots are supposed to fly the aircraft and keep their eyes outside of the aircraft when VFR. A pilot should not be playing with some glowing screen and a whole bunch of apps and updates with his head down, but this is what I am seeing more and more of when doing flight reviews. This is dangerous!!! Who is watching out for traffic? ADSB, not all aircraft have ADSB. Who is watching where they are going to? The answer I’m seeing is no one! I have come to believe that we have too much computer distraction in the cockpit and it is not enhancing safety, it’s become dangerously distracting from the basic job of flying your aircraft.

    • Marilyn
      Marilyn says:

      So, you never look down to tune a radio? You never reference a sectional or enroute chart or approach plate? Yes, one can linger too long looking on an iPad and that should be rectified. But there have always been distractions in the cockpit.

      • Carl
        Carl says:

        There’s always distractions, but we need to mediate them. The iPad is a great to and I fly with one every day, but it is a tool not a crutch. I see pilots head down while the fumble with the iPad changing from on screen to another while the plane drifts into a spiral. Even the most iPad efficient pilots can have trouble. The key I have found is don’t rely on the iPad for everything. Have something else to write down clearances on. Print out approaches you may use on a flight. It may take a little time, but it is nice when the iPad fails.

  3. Richard
    Richard says:

    When I purchased my iPad mini 2 I was told I needed one with cellular, but did not need the cell service activated?
    Was that correct and is that still the case?

    • Tom
      Tom says:

      Yes and No.
      You only need the cellular version if you want GPS availability. If you have a ADSB in device like Stratus or Stratux it will have GPS built in and you can use that on your Ipad.

  4. Eric
    Eric says:

    Later this year, Apple will release iPadOS 16 which will drop support for the iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 4 devices. I would not recommend buying one of those just before they get stuck at version 15.

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