Sunday, April 11, 2010

The iPad EFB: One Week of Use

There is so much to say about the iPad it's hard to know where to start, but the first thing pilots should know is that the iPad is simultaneously very cool and it's not the perfect electronic flight bag. In spite of it's problems and limitations, the iPad is probably the best performing piece of portable hardware I've used to date in the cockpit. The iPad's suitability for use in the cockpit is due in large part to the availability of some very good aviation apps. The apps the post will consider are ForeFlight Mobile 3, Skycharts Pro, and GoodReader. In the process, I'll try to address the issue of screen readability as well as the usability of the iPad itself and these three apps.

Screen Quality and Readability

Before plunking down $500 or more for an iPad, skeptics rightly want to know if the screen can be read easily in the cockpit. The answer is yes, it can. No display is perfect, but I demonstrated the iPad in flight to several pilots with a wide range of experience (from student to airline pilot) and the conclusion was unanimous: The screen is very readable, though you may have to adjust the position in bright sunlight or other lighting conditions. Here are some samples, but keep it mind it's hard to capture the quality of the screen in a photograph. If you disagree, fine, but please, no drive-by comments: We're all adults, right?

Low-wing aircraft, bright sunlight, but shaded.

High-wing aircraft at dusk.

At night, the lowest screen brightness was a bit too bright.

In bright sunlight the screen is hard to read, but then so is a paper chart.

Software Makes the iPad

Kudos to the developers at Skycharts, ForeFlight, and Goodiware for having versions of their apps ready when the iPad became generally available. This was no small task, so keep that in mind before complaining about plunking down some cash to buy their products. A complete review of these apps is not going to follow, just a brief overview of some of the features and needed improvements.

Both Skycharts and ForeFlight allow you to enter a route and have that route depicted on a VFR or IFR chart. They will both calculate rough performance numbers based on airspeed and fuel consumption, but keep in mind these are ballpark numbers: There's no allowance for time to climb, fuel to climb, or winds aloft.

Skychart Pro's subtle, blue course line doesn't obscure important chart details, but it's also hard to see. On an IFR low-altitude en route chart, the course line looks a lot like a T-route. Skycharts will remember your last route if you exit the app, which is important given the iPad currently doesn't support multi-tasking.

ForeFlight's course line is more prominent, but it also can obscure chart details. ForeFlight will not remember your last course if you exit and return to the app later.

ForeFlight can superimpose a course line over other types of displays like radar (assuming you have WiFi). You can see there currently is a bug when you change map displays - you have to resize the image to get the course line to redraw correctly. 

At US$0.99, GoodReader is the app for accessing and reading long PDF documents. You can use GoodReader to download and use terminal procedures from PDFPlates or Nacomatic. You can also use GoodReader to download and store PDF versions of the FAA's publications, even aircraft flight manuals. The user interface in the iPad version is a bit different than the iPhone version, but the app really shines with the iPad's bigger screen.

In addition to these apps, Mac users can access their email accounts, their calendars, and browse the web provided they have WiFi connectivity. Kinda makes me wonder if I'll continue to use an iPhone when my contract runs out. The iPhone has never been a very good phone, after all.


Both ForeFlight Mobile 3 and Skycharts Pro need to provide a way to store and retrieve a route: Currently neither app supports multiple routes, which becomes tedious very quickly. At least Skycharts remembers what you entered the last time you ran the app.

ForeFlight tries to do a lot of needed tasks and it does a reasonable job. Without multi-tasking, switching tasks is time-consuming and that leads some apps to try to do a lot of different stuff so a user doesn't have to exit. ForeFlight really needs to partition its features into pre-flight tasks and in-flight tasks. As it stands now, navigating between say an IFR chart display and a terminal chart display requires too much fiddling and head-down time for single-pilot operations. ForeFlight on the iPad currently doesn't support filing flight plans, animated radar displays, or support for different aircraft, but that was a time-to-market issue and will undoubtedly be addressed in a future release. Last but not least, if you were already a FFM3 subscriber with the iPhone app you automatically get access to the iPad version at no extra charge. A very classy thing to do, if you ask me.

With its chart-centered interface and tap-to-zoom feature, Skycharts Pro gets high marks for usability in the cockpit. No more fumbling to unfold a paper chart, or searching for your Airport Facility Directory, or approach chart binder. It's all at your fingertips for a low purchase price. Unfortunately Skycharts Pro doesn't provide all the information you'd find on a paper chart. In particular, I'd like to see tap-to-zoom for special use airspace: Tap on the label for an MOA sector or a restricted, prohibited, or alert area and you should see the altitudes, times of use, and the controlling agency. Also missing from the terminal area charts is data on special flight rules as well as Class Bravo transitions, flyways, and oddball stuff like the LAX mini-route. Without all the data, Skycharts Pro can't completely replace a paper chart - not yet!

I'd like to see both apps support routes containing Victor Airways and T-Routes as well as support for aircraft performance and winds aloft integrated into a navigation log.

iPad CRM, Enhancements & Limits

Using the iPad can be a challenge in a cramped cockpit. I'll examine some mounting and kneeboard options in a future post, but for now I just set the device in my lap on top of my kneeboard. My biggest fear is accidentally damaging the display with the control yoke or a sharp object like a pen. So far, my set up works and no hardware has been hurt.

iPad battery life seems fine in my one week of use. I used my iPad off and on for 12 to 14 hours a day and when I went to recharge it at night the battery still showed 45% charge remaining. With a power adapter for in-cockpit use, battery life is a non-issue.

Using an iPad at altitudes above 10,000' MSL could be problematic as Apple lists this as a limiting factor. It's hard to know why this limit exists, but theories abound. I've yet to get mine above 8,5000' though in a future post I hope to test my iPad at higher altitudes.

There is no satisfactory way I know of the write with the iPad, so I keep a pad of paper handy somewhere. ForeFlight does provides a scratch pad, but you have to switch screens and writing with an index finger is primitive. Of course my handwriting sucks to begin with ...

There currently is no way to drawn on, highlight, or otherwise mark-up a chart which is a feature I'd love to see. This could have huge potential beyond aviation uses, too. Imagine college students submitting papers as PDF files to their professors who would read them, mark them up on a device like an iPad, and send them back to the student.

The iPad currently does not support a Dvorak keyboard mapping, which is a pain for people like me who use Dvorak. Rumors are it may be in an upcoming release. One can but hope.

The iPad needs some sort of multi-tasking and that is slated to arrive with the next major software release. I've seen some hints at how this might work and I have to say I'm a bit underwhelmed. Still, the construction quality of the iPad and it's overall usability is what saves it from being just an interesting toy.

Apple's obsession with not supporting Flash is ... well ... it seems like an emotional issue. Some may argue that there is a business reason for doing this, but it just seems kooky to me. It's like watching a good friend make a really dumb decision: You're still their friend, but you can't help but cringe.

Overall, Four Stars

With the iPad, pilots have a choice for a reasonably-priced, roll-you-own electronic flight bag, with some caveats. The iPad does more than simple book readers like the Kindle or Sony, but it does so at a higher cost and with a bit more weight. The screen is readable in most conditions and what's more, the iPad does more that just display documents and charts. Manufacturers and producers of other chart products, both paper and electronic, should consider themselves on notice: Overpriced EFB solutions now have serious competition. Pilots on a budget have a new, relatively low-cost option that is a lot more usable and convenient that paper charts. This is just the next chapter in what one hopes will be an on-going revolution in how navigation data is produced and delivered to the cockpit.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

iPad: First Impressions

Note: See my latest post on the iPad here

A break in the weather for several days saw my work schedule increase dramatically and I wasn't even home yesterday when my wife signed for my iPad shipment. I had been checking the UPS tracking status every day since I received the tracking number, but interestingly after an origin scan for Shenzhen and then an origin and departure scan for Guangzhou, China, there were no updates to the status until Saturday morning when I saw the package had arrived in Louisville just after midnight on Saturday. I don't know if the lack of tracking information was part of some secrecy arrangement between Apple and UPS or if it was a result of the sheer number of packages that were handled. An estimated 600,000 to 700,000 iPads were sold on Saturday, though it's not clear how many of those were shipped via UPS and how many were in-store purchases.

When I arrived home yesterday afternoon, there was barely time to unpack the iPad, turn it on, and play with it a bit before leaving for a dinner engagement. But there are some first impressions to pass on to my readers.

Fit and Finish

The quality of construction, specifically it's case and screen are quite good. The iPad weighs in a bit heavier at 24 ounces versus the 10 or so ounces for a Kindle DX, but it seems like the form factor and weight are just fine for my purposes.


The software is what I would expect as a long-time Apple user: Turn the device on and it displays graphics that tell you to sync with iTunes. I plugged it in to my Macbook Pro, launched iTunes, followed the prompt and was in business with in just a few minutes. Short, sweet, and simple. If you know how to use an iPhone or iPod Touch, you'll be right at home with the iPad.

Display Quality

I find the display to be very readable and clear, even in bright sunlight. I want to to test it out in flight, but I'll have to wait for some flyable weather. The screen does show lots of smudges and fingerprints, but these aren't noticeable until you turn the display off. Once you do you realize how dirty the thing has gotten!


My choice was a mid-range, WiFi version and several people have asked me why not wait for the 3G version that includes a GPS receiver. First, there are so many GPS receivers and screens in the aircraft I fly that the last thing I need is another GPS. Secondly, I envision the iPad primarily as a chart viewing device: I think I can figure out rough location using my noggin! Besides, pilots need to keep up their pilotage and map reading skills, right?

iPad EFB Apps

I was pleasantly surprised to see that many of the apps installed on my iPhone were available on the iPad on launch day. Specifically, Foreflight Mobile for the iPad is available at no charge to current subscribers. Sweet!

Skycharts Pro is available for a mere $19.99. For that price you get all the US VFR, IFR and terminal charts that you want. An excellent deal considering how the new NACO chart distribution scheme can and has resulted in occasional chart shortages in my local area.

GoodReader has an iPad version that works great if you choose to use terminal procedures from NACOMatic or PDFPlates. And the GoodReader price is still just $0.99.

What's Not to Like?

I'll post some more impressions once I've had some time to use the device in flight, but at first blush the iPad seems to be just the sort of display I was hoping to use as a reliable and affordable electronic flight bag. There are some missing pieces that I hope will fall into place over time. More on that in a future post.