Imagine a NASCAR-style race where only one car is built from the ground up by a pro team with heavy corporate backing. The rest of the field consists of modified street machines borne of garages where three gearheads worked through the night and drew straws to see who was going to drive. Would it be a surprise when the pro-team won?
The surprise would be if the little guys even came close, yet that’s just what’s happening with aviation apps for the iPad and the latest aera 796 GPS from Garmin. We don’t think any aviation app running on an iPad can truly supplant a 796. But not everyone needs the hottest vehicle or is ready to pay the price that comes with it.
The 796 was built for the cockpit. Its size was pegged to fit between the handles of most aircraft yokes in either portrait or landscape configuration, yet still be big enough for presbyopic eyes to read an approach plate. The iPad can fit most yokes in portrait mode, but it usually blocks part of the panel. It’s more of a lap device. Garmin kept the 796 thin enough to work that way as well.
The backlight on the 796 can run from a bright that bests the iPad’s glare-prone screen to so dim it works with night vision goggles. An aviation-grade GPS is built in. XM weather requires only the antenna, as power and receiver are also in the 796. Contrast that to connecting up external GPS units and weather receivers to the iPad and spaghetti tangle of power cables plus time spent pairing up devices over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
Charging cables are built into the 796 mount, and you get a dock for the desktop for easy updating. You can wire it to Garmin panel-mount GPSs for automatic flight plan crossfill and use it to drive experimental and LSA autopilots.
Hands down hardware winner over the iPad? Not so fast. The bigger iPad screen is a selling point for some. The iPad is thinner and lighter. The iPad’s battery lasts longer for equivalent operations. The 796 runs four to six hours; an iPad can do five to eight, depending on wireless and backlighting.
The biggest point for the iPad, however, is that it does a lot more than just fly. Even if you only use it for aviation, it’s a powerful preflight tool. The 796 is not. And, of course, you might already own an iPad. That knocks several hundred dollars off the total cost.
Here’s where the two systems really diverge, and it’s probably the right place to look if you’re trying to decide between investing in a 796 or being assimilated into the merry iPad-toting masses.
Garmin has been honing their aviation GPS software for over 20 years, and it shows. The operating logic mimics other aera GPS units and the GTN panel-mount avionics. Dedicated direct-to and nearest touchpoints do exactly what anyone who’s used an aviation GPS in the last 10 years expects.
While the 3D view is the flash of the 796, it’s the rest of the software that gets the job done in the real world. The 796 has all the major bases covered here: a high-resolution moving map with datafields, airport information, flexible navigation (flight plan, direct-to and nearest), vertical navigation, georeferenced charts and approach plates, taxi diagrams, pop-up terrain warnings and datalink weather if your subscription is paid up. The only iPad app that comes close to hitting all these points, in our opinion, is WingX.
“Our software also won’t automatically delete your data,” says Jim Alpiser, Director of Aviation Aftermarket Sales for Garmin. While said tongue-in-cheek, he’s got a point. Update 5.0 of the iPad software included a change that let the device delete data—like downloaded charts—from the iPad automatically (5.0.1 is fixing this). Conflicts and crashes are part of life with the open platform of the iPad. It’s astoundingly stable considering, but you will see programs lock or quit if you fly long enough with an iPad. You might never see that even with thousands of hours behind a 796.
Open software and an open market can offer huge plusses, and is why the iPad may be a better choice for some users. The first is development speed and variability. Our chart points out that WingX doesn’t have VNAV. We’ll bet it does within a month after Hilton Goldstein of WingX reads this article. All the major apps have either added or are testing major new features in response to user input. Competition drives this because it’s easy for a user to try several apps and stick with the one they like best—or change when the find a new one.
The open platform also means choice. We noted in October that one of the best new features of the 796 was in charts. But this is where the iPad is strongest—better than the 796 in our view. We pegged ForeFlight as our Gear-of-the-Year champion last summer for its terrific user interface, and much of the iPad market seems to agree. But if you prefer a split-screen setup, WingX might be your tool. If you want customized airport data and georeferenced taxi diagrams at 5000 U.S. airports (rather than the about 1000 of Garmin SafeTaxi), you can try Flight Guide. Just need some basic charts and the occasional approach chart? Try SkyCharts for cheap data or even Fltplan.com’s app for free.
Ongoing cost is another turn where the iPad pulls ahead. If you want current data for everything, the 796 will cost you $500 per year. Solutions for the iPad start at zero dollars and top out at $400 (excluding Jeppesen data). Aa middle ground of all the essentials but none of the frills is only $75 a year.
Tyson Weilhs, President of ForeFlight, stressed another place where the rapid development on the iPad matters: “2012 will be a tipping point for ADS-B adoption. I think we will play a role in making that a reality.” WingX already offers ADS-B weather and FlightGuide is hoping for late winter. ForeFlight hints theirs will be in the spring, along with some new hardware options. Garmin won’t confirm plans to make ADS-B weather available on an aviation portable, but subscription-free weather on the iPad will probably force their hand lest they get left behind.
The best help we can offer in trying to decide which way to go is ask: What do I want this device to do?
If your primary need is current charts with your GPS position and airport data, we think an iPad just makes sense. Even the cheaper 795 without datalink weather would be overkill. If your needs extend to flight planning, again the iPad would be our recommendation. If you want charts and a basic GPS navigator but don’t need datalink weather, the iPad solutions are significantly cheaper (especially if you already own an iPad), if a bit less capable than the 795/796.
However, the fat middle of the potential buyers are probably looking for a device that works well as a navigator, a chart library, a weather source and an airport database. Now the costs to acquire and keep current close to within a couple hundred dollars. Pay more and you get the perks of a purpose-built machine. Pay less and you’ve got a bit more user hassle with hardware, but you also get an iPad, which has all sorts of uses outside the cockpit. Considering that 796 sales are outstripping Garmin’s projections by 50 percent, quite a few pilots seem willing to pay the extra.
For the still undecided, Alpiser offered this option: “There may be an attractive opportunity to have both. People love redundancy.”
Or you can wait a week. Little companies adapt quickly. With new consumer hardware hitting the market all the time, Garmin will have to keep one eye in the rearview mirror if they want to keep their lead for the most complete and capable aviation portable.