The best iPad for pilots
Flying a plane is no easy feat, even with the aid of GPS and autopilot. In order to fly safely and effectively, pilots are master multitaskers. Throughout the course of a flight, a pilot will do regular checks of weather patterns and check positioning charts. Pre-flight and post-flight procedures also require lengthy checklists to ensure a plane is mechanically sound.
With so much information, student and commercial pilots are strongly encouraged — and often required — to have an iPad for efficient cockpit management, easy-to-access resources and real-time flight-tracking apps.
Though much is based on personal preference, the features and size of the Apple iPad Air make it a top pick.
What to know before you buy an iPad for pilots
One of the most important uses of an iPad for pilots is GPS, so it goes without saying that pilots need an iPad that can access a cellular network. Cellular iPads come with a GPS chip already installed in the device. It makes the cost of the iPad a little higher, but it saves you the bother of having to buy both an iPad and a GPS. Additionally, without the GPS chip, satellites won’t be able to locate your aircraft and you can get lost easily.
In order to get cellular set up on an iPad, you have to purchase a network plan through your cellular service provider. The benefit of this is that pilots are able to access the internet even when WiFi is out of reach.
iPads come in several sizes — iPad, iPad Pro, iPad Air and iPad Mini. Depending on where a pilot is in their training and the kind of plane being flown, iPad size can be a major consideration for convenience and comfort.
Most student pilots, CFIs and single-engine pilots are flying smaller planes and opt for a smaller iPad, such as the iPad Air or iPad Mini. These iPads fit nicely on kneeboards without taking up too much space. Private or commercial pilots may opt for iPads with larger screens to improve multitasking capabilities and a larger display for their GPS.
Student pilots may wonder when is the best time for them to get an iPad, or how long can they last before getting one. A new student who’s certain they won’t be continuing their studies after their private pilot test can get by without an iPad. Student pilots won’t likely need an iPad until they surpass 20 flight hours.
As student pilots continue their training past their solo flight, an iPad can prove critical to successful flights, especially as they begin VFR, IFR and cross-country solo flights.
iPad for pilots features
While not the most crucial feature, advanced pilots may want an iPad with higher processing power in order to handle detailed chart rendering such as a Synthetic Vision System that creates an informative 3D rendering of the current flying environment.
Apple has their own line of CPU chips: A10, A12 and A12Z. A10 is the lowest quality but is appropriate for most users. A12 delivers ideal performance, especially for watching videos and high-powered apps. A12Z is the best CPU chip and can easily support the tools a pilot needs for a successful flight.
Pilots can benefit from an iPad with sufficient storage. A pilot’s iPad houses innumerable large formatted charts that need to be accessed at a moment’s notice, meaning the charts need to live on the iPad and not in the cloud. iPads are available with up to 1TB of storage, but most pilots will do just fine with 128GB.
iPads now come with fantastic OEM accessories like keyboards, cases and pencil styluses. Equipping an iPad with a protective case can be a good idea for a pilot on the move, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of your kneeboard or mounts. Keyboards are largely unnecessary for pilots unless they plan on using the tablet for personal use.
An Apple Pencil can help with IFR planning, jotting down clearances and while using popular flight apps like Foreflight.
iPad for pilots cost
The cost of an iPad can change depending on size and storage. Cellular data plans also add to the overall cost. A smaller iPad Mini with average storage space can start at $400, with larger feature-packed iPads costing up to $1,900.
iPads for pilots FAQ
Do I need an iPad if I can just print out charts?
A. Many pilots will agree that as a student advances through their training, there are too many necessary charts needed throughout flights to maintain proper multitasking and organization if using paper charts. An iPad also serves several other purposes beyond housing charts that a pilot can’t fly without.
What apps do I need as a pilot?
A. There are several apps that pilots can use pre-, during and post-flight that can improve cockpit management and navigation. The most commonly used app is Foreflight, which can be used for flight planning, airport information, logging flight hours and more. Pilots also use MyRadar for weather mapping and forecasts, CloudAhoy for flight instructions and recording debriefs and Far/Aim for a reference guide during flight.
Should I get an iPad if I don’t own other Apple products?
A. Yes. While this might be inconvenient for product compatibility, there are many must-have apps that are only available in the Apple App Store. It's possible that these apps will be available in the Google Play store in the future.
Which iPad for pilots should I get?
Best of the best iPad for pilots
Apple iPad Air: available at Amazon
Our take: The iPad Air is a smaller, lighter version of the powerful iPad Pro that saves on space, weight and price.
What we like: Vibrant display that’s big enough for reading, writing and navigation. Contains updates that support multitasking. Extremely lightweight compared to other 2020 models. Long 10-hour battery life. Even the camera is high-quality for out-the-window pictures.
What we dislike: Speakers aren’t great, and some pilots may prefer a smaller device.
Best bang for your buck iPad for pilots
Apple iPad Mini: available at Amazon
Our take: This iPad is great for a cockpit’s tight spaces and can fit well on any pilot’s kneeboard.
What we like: The most affordable model in the iPad line, but still powerful and compatible with Apple accessories like Apple Pencil. Exceptionally lightweight at less than 1 pound.
What we dislike: Smaller display may not be as enjoyable for pilots planning on using the iPad for personal use as well.
Honorable mention iPad for pilots
Apple iPad Pro: available at Amazon
Our take: One of the most powerful iPads available, but it comes at a price.
What we like: This Pro has a powerful A12Z chip for excellent performance, super-smooth handling and fast rendering. Great for seeing details on the screen and running high-performance apps. Charges very quickly compared to older versions. Improved camera.
What we dislike: Larger than the iPad Air and iPad Mini with a much higher price tag.
Daisy Kelly is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money.
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