Our support team receives many inquires as to which iPad we recommend, especially near Oshkosh and during the holiday season. In this post I try to offer some advice to help readers decide which iPad is best for them.
To begin, most pilots want to know what screen size they should get. While this is a important consideration, there are other factors to consider, too.
Screen size: This is more of a personal preference and cockpit management style than a technical decision. Here’s why: I learned to fly with paper charts when the art of origami chart folding was a prerequisite. Today I can safely let those skills fade but I still treat my iPad and FlyQ EFB like a paper chart. I pull my iPad from the map pocket or off the seat, look at it, and put it back. This works great for me and my style of flying. On the other hand, at trade shows I hear from many pilots that they prefer to mount the iPad on the yoke or on the panel for use like a glass panel. In that case, you may need an iPad with a smaller screen size (an iPad mini) to fit. The screen size also has to do with the amount of visible chart while at the same zoom level. With a larger screen model, less screen gestures are required to move or scale the chart image. It’s a minor point but one worth consideration. The last consideration is the obvious — text and graphics are easier to see on the larger iPads. As many of us wear glasses when we fly, this may be a very important consideration. Put differently, the smaller iPads are generally better for the plane while the larger iPads are better for our eyes. Oh, and don’t bother with the new iPad Pro. Unless you’re a graphic designer or fly a minivan, you just don’t need the gargantuan iPad taking up all the space in the cockpit
Storage space: Let me say this upfront – when I purchased my first iPad, I said it was for flying only. Yeah, right! Boy was I wrong! Today I use it for everything — Email, Messages, Pictures, Movies, and the occasional game but mostly for flying. Why is this important? Unlike a traditional computer, iPad storage space cannot be expanded; your iPad is forever stuck with the storage it had when you bought it so “round up” and consider that you’ll probably use it for more than flying even if you promise yourself it will live in your flight bag. For example, the first iPad I purchased was 16GB. Six months later I sold it for one with more storage. When you factor the space that the operating system uses up, you’re not left with much. I recommend 64GB as the minimum.
Wifi Only or WiFi + Cellular: Not to sound like a broken record but my first iPad was WiFi Only (have you figured out yet that I’m cheap?). It was a pain trying to find free WiFi everywhere I went. And if you fly into a backcountry airport, forget about it! My point is having Cellular Data Service is it’s a nice safety feature to have. While on the ground it allows me to check weather, file a flight plan for my next leg, and send a few messages while the lineman tops off the tanks. And remember that, unlike a lot of phone service plans, no 2 year subscription is required as iPad data plans are month-to-month. Depending on your phone carrier, you may also be able to add the iPad on to your current plan for about $5-$10/month. Having a iPad with Cellular also includes a internal GPS that WiFi only models lack, but it’s subject to dropout and accuracy issues (it’s a consumer device not an aviation-grade instrument). In this case, a portable ADS-B receiver is recommend. This provides weather (METAR, TAF, Nexrad, winds-aloft) and traffic (other airplanes sharing your airspace) updates while flying. Your tax dollars already paid for the service so get your money’s worth.
CPU and RAM: Apple doesn’t publish much in the way of technical details like the rest of the computer industry. Not that it’s wrong but what is lacking in my mind is the publishing of CPU Speed and System RAM. Thankfully Web sites such as EveryMac.com come to the rescue. Currently the iPad Pro is the king of System RAM at a whopping 4 GB but the iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 4 come in at a very respectable 2 GB. More RAM means the system runs smoother, faster, and can have more apps open simultaneously. As for CPU the iPad Air 2, iPad Pro and iPad Mini 4 have the fastest CPU. For reference most iPad’s have between 512MB and 1GB.
Looking back at all the computers I’ve purchased over the decades, I’ve come to learn that when given a choice of buy CPU and RAM, more is better. It runs better and in someways your future proofing yourself by delaying the next upgrade to a certain extent.
Bottom Line: So what do I recommend? iPad Air 2 or iPad Mini 4, 64GB or more storage, WiFi + Cellular, with a portable ADS-B receiver. The iPad mini 2 with 32 GB is a good budget-friendly alternate choice at about $300.
Hope this helps!