I teach quite a few of the The iPad Revolutionized Cockpit seminars each year, most recently at the AOPA Summit in Palm Springs. And as a CFI, I also teach my students how to use the iPad in their cockpit. But, whether at a presentation or at the flight school, one question that I’m often asked is “Which one do I get?” So I thought I would spend some time to give you my recommendations on which iPad to use in the cockpit. And since it’s recently past the holidays, perhaps Santa left a nice Apple Store gift card with your name on it.
Apple now has quite a few models to choose from: iPad 2, iPad w/ Retina Display and the iPad Mini. (For those of you still with first generation iPad models, they’ll still work… sort of. That said, I’d highly recommend that you think about upgrading to a newer model, as the iPad 1 is being obsoleted with a lot of the newer updates for aviation apps.) Now, of the currently shipping models, all of them are workable. But let’s break it down to a few things for you to consider when making a purchase decision (or gift decision for that pilot in your life).
First and foremost is storage capacity. 16G, 32Gb or 64 Gb? This is hugely important as a pilot using an iPad, but is not often considered at first glance. Almost all charting apps out there are using raster chart images. Simply put, that means that the images are a scan of what is printed on paper. The other method is called vector driven which means the iPad is computing what information to display to you as you interact with the chart. As far as I am aware, the only app that does vector driven display is Jeppesen’s Flight Deck. So why does this matter? Well it all comes down to storage size. Downloading all of North America in Jeppesen’s software takes up close to 1Gb of storage. However, for the same coverage area in a raster style app, you’re looking at close to 8Gb! And if you need more than one application to cover your chart needs, then you may be filling up the smallest sized iPad sooner than you wanted to. Not to mention those of you that still want to take a ton of photos, music, movies, etc with you when you are on the road. So consider storage capacity in your decision choice. I personally recommend that pilots start with a 32Gb model at the minimum.
Next, lets consider WiFi or WiFi + Cellular models. Now this comes down to personal choice, but it also comes down to whether or not you want to use a GPS with your iPad in the cockpit. The WiFi + Cellular models do provide an onboard GPS (which, btw, you do not need to have an active cellular plan for it to work properly). This has the benefit that you always have a GPS with you, but added complexity in that the GPS signal, depending on your airplane, may not have good line of sight to the satellites and may not provide you with enough accuracy or a signal at all.
The WiFi only model does not have a GPS with it, however, there are some great options for you that are relativley inexpensive to have an external GPS device. The Dual XGPS150, for example is ~$100 and connects via bluetooth. The advantage to this set up is that if you find that your cockpit has GPS interference, you can place the receiver in other locations in the aircraft and have pretty good accuracy and reception.
I personally like having the WiFi + Cellular models. This means that I don’t have to rely only on FBO WiFi to file my flight plans or check weather, email etc. I can do any of those tasks over cellular. As for GPS reception, as a CFI, I am in and out of all sorts of aircraft. So I do carry a Dual XGPS150 with me to use instead of the onboard GPS. Both work just fine, but if you are $ challenged then the WiFi with an external GPS is a great way to go.
Lastly, lets consider mounting. Under all regulations in the US, the iPad must be stowed or secured for critical phases of flight. So you’ll need to secure the iPad, because stowing this wonderful aviation device just seems silly! So what works best for your cockpit organization? Is it an iPad kneeboard solution, or leg strap? What about a window mount, or yoke mount? This question is highly dependent on the cockpit you fly and the answer may be very different if you are flying a Cessna 152, vs a taildragger with a stick, or a large turbine with a nice roomy cockpit. So consider your set-up when you are selecing and iPad. The iPad 2 and iPad with Retina Display are the same size, but the iPad Mini does have its advantages and mounts better to yolks and windows than the larger models.
So for most pilots, I recommend the 32Gb capacity. Then it’s a question of whether or not you’d use/can afford the Cellular in addition. And then lastly the physical size, Mini or regular to fit in your cockpit.
Which ever iPad you choose, or which ever Santa chose, I’m certain you will find it a great asset to your flying. Happy New Year!