Cheap charts

It’s getting harder to find paper charts locally, whether VFR charts like sectionals and terminal area charts or instrument en route charts and instrument approach procedures. The reason is that many (most?) pilots are moving to charts on a tablet device.

Google Nexus 7 (2nd generation) with FltPlan.com app

Google Nexus 7 (2nd generation) with FltPlan.com app

For my primary (VFR) students, I require them to get a paper TAC and Sectional for their training, but most of my IFR students are going the tablet route.

iOS / iPad

There’s no doubt that the iPad seems to be the favorite among pilots. Some airlines have equipped their pilots with iPads to replace binders of instrument charts and there seem to be many more polished apps available for pilots on the iPad. Even companies that deliver apps for both Android and iOS often release capabilities on the iPad first.

However, that doesn’t mean iPads are perfect. The normal iPad is, in my opinion, much too large for regular use in a small airplane cockpit. The iPad mini is better on that account, but still larger than most pilots can easily hold with one hand.

There’s also the issue of price. If you want a new iPad, the cheapest option today is a 16GB iPad wi-fi mini (non-retina) for $299. As on all wi-fi only iPads, that means no GPS capability, unless you spring for a model with celluar data capability (add $130) or buy an external GPS receiver (another device to carry and charge). Even used iPads seem to start at $150 (iPad 1, 16GB, wi-fi only from Cowboom).

On top of the hardware costs, most pilots then spring for an app, which often run $100/year or more for the necessary subscription for instrument charts.

If you already have an iPad, then the decision is a no-brainer to use it for charts. If you are looking to get into charts on the cheap, I may suggest a different option.

Android / Nexus 7

I know a few pilots (including myself) that have gone the Google Nexus 7 route. The first generation of the Nexus 7 can still be bought new, often for $150 or less (as of 2/7/14, Groupon has a 32GB wi-fi version for $149 or the 4G version for $189). For that price, you get GPS capability and a screen of comparable resolution to the non-retina iPads (1280 x 720 vs iPad at 1024 x 768) in a package slightly smaller (narrower) than a iPad mini. The new version can be bought for as little as $200 and upgrades the screen to near-retina resolution (1920 x 1200 vs 2048 x 1536). Event the 32GB version with LTE sells for less than $350 ($180 less than the cheapest cellular retina iPad). If you just want the occasional ability to download a chart you forgot, T-Mobile will give you a free 200mb of data. It’s this configuration I use.

Now, for software, I’m also cheap. FltPlan.com has a free app that allows you to download and view VFR charts, IFR en route charts, instrument procedures, etc. It’s all the standard FAA/NACO versions with no geo-referencing, but if you want to replace the paper IFR charts, its one of the easiest ways to go. I can read (even with my middle-aged eyes) an IAP full screen and easily hold it in one hand. All the approach charts for California take up about 200mb. The newest version of their app, FltPlan Go, now has georeferenced charts (you can see where you are on the chart) and support for several ADS-B receivers (all still free).

As for cases/mounts, I just keep it in my lap or my hand as you see above.

I’m sure this will engender a lively discussion, so have at it!

4 thoughts on “Cheap charts

  1. Great article. While I will admit to being an iOS fan-boy, I know that the prices of both the iPad and the apps are higher than most people want to pay. Here are some other (cheaper) options.

    Chart Bundle (http://www.chartbundle.com/) has a web interface where you can create a set of charts in PDF, EPUB or MOBI formats to be downloaded to your Kindle or other e-reader. They work really well with the Kindle app on your device as well.

    If you own an iPad but do not want to drop the $150 or so that apps charge for the georeferenced IAPs, I suggest the FltPlan GO application. It’s different from the fltplan.com application – a better designed UI, more responsive layout and georeferenced VFR and IFR charts.

  2. Yes, nice overview and comparison. Comments about useful apps would be interesting, too, for the future. (E.g., Foreflight and any alternatives.)

    • Thanks Scott. Foreflight’s iOS only, so not an area I personally have experience with. I know pilots in the club with Garmin, WingX and Foreflight. Foreflight seems to be the most popular.

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