3 iPad EFBs, 1 Bored Pilot

Author: Fersman4 AOPA member

I’ve identified Garmin Pilot, Foreflight Mobile, and WingX Pro7 as the top three iPad moving map EFBs. All provide the same basic functions, with variations mostly in implementation and ergonomics. Each also provides extra functions that may set it apart from the others. I want to determine which of these apps would be the best for me to invest in for my style of flying. This is an evaluation of the basic functions and extra functions.


Subscriptions:

Here are the subscriptions options provided by each of the three products.

ForeFlight: Standard: $75/yr, Pro: $150/yr. The pro version provides geo-referenced diagrams and plates, which can be setup as overlays, as well as terrain hazard overlays and warnings.

Garmin Pilot: Standard: $75/yr, VFR Premium: $125, IFR Premium: $150. The premium versions have terrain/obstacle overlays and alerts and geo-referenced airport diagrams, the IFR Premium with geo-referenced plates.

WingX: Base: $100/yr, Geo-Referenced Approach Plates: +$75/yr, Synthetic Vision: +$100, Fuel: +$30. The last three are extras not available unless purchased.

Simulation:

Some of the capabilities of these programs can really only be evaluated in flight or in simulated flight. Other than that, it can be tested in the car to some degree.

Foreflight: Compatible with FSX and X-Plane to provide GPS coordinates and simulated traffic.

Garmin Pilot: Might be possible with X-Plane and 3rd-party software exporting GPS data over Wi-Fi, or with a special cable.

WingX: Compatible with FSX and X-Plane to provide GPS coordinates. Also has a simple built-in simulator that just follows a route at a designated altitude.

Geo-referenced Diagrams:

This feature puts the aircraft on airport diagrams or approach/departure plates. All three programs require a more advanced subscription to access the geo-referenced versions of approach plates. WingX will geo-reference NACO airport diagrams in the basic subscription and demo. It will not display the aircraft on airports with only the A/FD diagram available. All will allow you to view the charts and diagrams in a separate page, but it’s not clear whether those versions are geo-referenced. Since SIDs and STARs are not to scale, they cannot be geo-referenced.

ForeFlight: FAA Airport Diagrams and IFR approach plates can be overlayed on top of the moving map. You find the diagram in the “Plates” tab, then send it to the map, or look at the airport dialog on the moving map and select diagrams/plates to put on the map. There is also a “Procedure” button on the moving map navigation log that will quick-link you to the “Plates” tab. The diagrams’ opacity can be adjusted, and all the other overlays still work over the diagrams. It will also create moving map waypoints for SIDs and STARs, though those plates are not overlayed.

Garmin Pilot: Garmin’s diagram product is called SafeTaxi, which shows not only the aircraft, but also other aircraft and vehicles that have ADS-B enabled. Supposedly if you zoom in on the moving map the SafeTaxi diagram will just show up. Is this the same as an Airport Diagram, or is it something Garmin has customized? I have no way to know. Garmin’s other products show custom diagrams, and the Pilot’s “Charts” page shows FAA airport diagram. The IFR Premium will also display geo-referenced approach plates somehow.

WingX: Airport diagrams and plates are viewable from the moving map screen but only by selecting it as a base layer in one of the two split screens. Also, the only available maps are airport diagrams from the departure and arrival airports, and the related climb, descent, and approach plates. As far as I can tell there is no overlay or track up capability, though the ad page says “fits seamlessly into the moving map”.

Evaluation: Without being able to try out these capabilities, I do not know for sure how to evaluate them. All of these apps show all of the diagrams on a separate page. All enable geo-referenced airport diagrams and approach plates on the moving map screen. I think WingX is the only one that will not overlay these on the moving map, nor show them in track up orientation. Also, WingX will only show moving map airport diagrams and approach plates for the endpoint airports. Without being able to evaluate Garmin Pilot in this regard, I don’t know. If the route is pre-loaded on the ground, both WingX and Foreflight provide easy access to the charts in flight. If you are heading to an alternate, you’re going to change your plan anyway, so that aspect of WingX isn’t necessarily worse. Foreflight’s departure and arrival waypoint capability is really cool. However WingX allows you to view all the procedures in a split pane. Objectively, for a VFR pilot, WingX’s split pane pushes it slightly ahead because I can look ahead to the diagrams without having to leave or move all around the map.

Terrain/Obstacle Hazards:

This capability shows terrain and obstacle heights that may be a hazard at the current altitude, and displays warnings when such terrain or obstacles if a conflict is imminent in the current path and altitude. WingX is the only app that has these capabilities as part of the standard subscription and can be evaluated in the demo.

Forflight: There is an elevation map overlay called Hazard Advisor, not accessible in the demo. There is also a terrain base layer map, though I all it does is shade elevation.

Garmin Pilot: There is a separate Terrain page, not accessible in the demo.

WingX: There is an elevation map overlay. While moving it will also give graphical alerts when there is a conflict in the path ahead, along with a distance indicator. In the top left is a simulated RADAR Altimeter that shows terrain elevation and approximate AGL. If you select an airport or VOR on the moving map, and choose the “Show Above” option, it will display the terrain map as if you are at the facility’s elevation. At the bottom is a route and a path terrain profile view. The terrain map is also tied into WingX’s Syntheic Vision capability, though that capability costs extra. Based upon the demos I have seen of SV, it does come in handy if flying low through mountain passes or while flying in IMC. It shows obstacles and runways, but they are not distinct so I don’t consider it much value in that regard.

Evaluation: I fly in Colorado, and someday I’d like to explore the western half of the state. That means flying over mountains. I’m still evaluating my risk profile in this regard, but if someday I decide it’s something I want to do, having the extra high resolution terrain information available could really come in handy. Since I can only evaluate WingX’s terrain capabilities, it’s not fair to try to make a comparison. Suffice it to say WingX has a lot of cool and useful terrain-related features.

All three apps have radar, satellite IR, and flight rules overlays over the base map. As for other overlays based upon METARs and other weather info, WingX is missing AIRMET/SIGMET overlays, and Garmin Pilot is missing everything else. All the apps provide very quick and easy access to METARs, TAFs, Winds Aloft, and other weather info for each airport with such reporting capabilities. All apps also provide a large variety of national and regional weather graphics accessible from a separate page.

Altitude selection for all apps factors in winds aloft to compute fuel consumption and ETEs. Of the three, only Garmin Pilot factors in climb and descent into fuel burn and ETE. However it does not show fuel consumption on the navigation on a per-leg basis, to help verify there is sufficient planning for fuel stops. The other two apps do show fuel consumption per leg. Foreflight’s altitude selection is slightly better because you can select in-between altitudes and it shows the amount of the headwind. The official briefing obtained in all the apps is the same, except WingX does a good amount of decoding for readability, giving WingX the edge. You can file flight plans with all three apps, though I didn’t try it because I’m just testing. WingX gives the ability to close or cancel flight plans too. I don’t know if that works as it seems because Foreflight says it’s not possible to electronically cancel flight plans already transmitted.

Evaluation: This test was to evaluate how these tools work for flight planning on the ground. All three were pretty darn good. Garmin Pilot’s reduced weather overlay sets and lack of per-leg fuel burn puts it just a step below the other apps. WingX’s decoded weather briefing is a pretty nice feature, and it has a couple extra overlays that are nice like density altitude. The only place where it falls behind is in AIRMET/SIGMET overlays. I like Foreflight’s Navigation log best of all three apps. Considering everything, I consider WingX just a hair better than Foreflight, which is just a hair better than Garmin Pilot.

Basic In-Flight Use:

This evaluation is to determine how each of the three apps perform for basic navigation. My plan is to use a simulator to fly the plan described above using the app for primary navigation. Since the flight is VFR, the goal is to use it to stay ahead of the airplane, while maximizing the amount of time I’m looking outside for other traffic. Garmin Pilot cannot get GPS data from Flight Simulator X without a special cable, which I am not interested in buying just for this evaluation, so my evaluation will be performed as much as is possible while driving. I’ll also add that, from a performance perspective, WingX seemed inferior to the other two. It seemed jumpy while turning, and the TAC/Sectional stitching wasn’t as clean.

All three apps provide easy to see course, bearing, altitude, distance, ETE, and track error information, which is what I believe to be the optimal setup. Groundspeed is also nice, but there’s not enough room on Garmin Pilot’s navigation bar to fit it. With this setup I was able to easily stay on course and stay ahead of the airplane. WingX’s two-bar layout was probably best, but it loses its advantage when you put up the split screen in landscape mode because the bars necessarily shrink. Same problem with Garmin Pilot’s split Panel, which shows a huge direction and bearing indicator whose size is overkill unless the pilot is completely disoriented.

Adding new intermediate waypoints for airspace or terrain avoidance was pretty easy for all three apps, though it was easiest with WingX assuming the intermediate waypoint doesn’t require you to backtrack. In that case WingX would put the waypoint on the wrong leg, and you’d have to re-order it manually. Both Foreflight and Garmin Pilot use the hold and drag technique for adding intermediate waypoints, which is more intuitive. The developer of WingX said that he considered adding that ability, but recognized that it might be difficult to actually do in bumpy air. I cannot test this theory at this time.

Getting facility information was similarly easy for all three apps, though there were enough differences to make a comparison. Foreflight had the most information available because you can see the actual A/FD pages. A good example of where that would be important is if you were leaving KFMM and wanted to try to get flight following. The controlling frequency wasn’t available in the normal menus of any of the apps, only the A/FD. Garmin Pilot had the least information, lacking any FSS frequencies, as far as I could tell. WingX’s facility information is better organized into pages in the Route panel, but more difficult to read quickly. All three apps also show some helpful information about airspace, including Special Use Airspace, such as operating altitudes and times of operation. All three apps have a scratch pad capability, though WingX’s is the only one accessible on the moving map page in the split screen.

Staying ahead of the airplane, I find it useful to know the course I will be turning to for my next waypoint ahead of time. In all three apps that course is available on the moving map page by opening the navigation log. In Foreflight, you press the navigation log button, in WingX you press the Route button, and in Garmin Pilot you open the Split screen and select Active NavLog from the upper-right Menu button. But Garmin Pilot shows you the bearing from your current position, not from your upcoming waypoint, so it wasn’t as useful. Of the three only Foreflight’s navigation log showed fuel use per leg, which I would use to compare to actual fuel use. The information is available in the other two apps by leaving the map and going to the flight plan page.

The next big things are ADS-B weather and traffic. All three have ADS-B radar overlays. ADS-B will also transmit METARs, TAFs, some NOTAMs, AIRMETs, SIGMETs, and TFRs, which I would have loved to test if I had the hardware. All three can display ADS-B traffic, though Garmin Pilot’s is on a separate page. In the flight simulator, Foreflight showed the traffic with location, identification, direction, path, and relative altitude information, updated at least once per second. I can only assume the other apps have similar capabilities.

None of the apps have geo-referenced airport diagrams in their demo, but I’m having a difficult time seeing how useful those would be anyway, seeing as how most of the airport diagrams lack taxi data for all but the busiest airports. At best it can be useful to ensuring you are using the correct runway. While on the ground during the simulation, WingX and Foreflight both had visual indicators of what runway you were approaching. On a 5-mile final (or so) WingX even displayed what runway I was lined up with, including its length and width. I could not evaluate airport location awareness with Garmin. Seeing the diagram in the demo is easiest in WingX, and easy enough in Garmin Pilot, thanks to the split screen. Seeing the diagram in Foreflight required going to the Plates page if there is an actual airport diagram, or it’s in a popup on the map if it’s a simplified diagram, and that popup covers the middle of the map. However, Foreflight will apparently let you overlay the airport diagram on top of the map with the Pro version, something that is not possible with WingX (again, I don’t know about Garmin).

Each of the apps has a few neat tricks that the others don’t. Foreflight allows you to add to your route pattern entry procedures, such as 45-degree downwind entry and overfly teardrop entry (also SIDs and STARs, but I’m talking just VFR). Also, Foreflight has a “Nearest Airport” option for one of the navigation bar boxes, plus room to display it. I think it is more appropriate for location reporting than emergency landing awareness, since it doesn’t show private airports. Foreflight shows distance rings and a configurable predicted path line which helps you estimate where you’ll be after a certain period of time.

WingX has a “Nearest Facility” box in the lower left that is useful for location reporting. It also has a rate of descent indicator that tells you how fast you would need to descend (in feet per minute) from your current location to fly straight into the destination airport. The lower right portion of the mini-map displays airspace boxes which tells you when you are inside the lateral boundaries of class B/C/D/SUA airspace. Of the three apps only WingX has terrain capabilities in the demo, and I found that very useful in the simulation when I needed to find a safe route through Raton Pass. Garmin Pilot’s terrain map is a separate page, and it and Foreflight require the Pro subscription. But WingX also has a neat box in the upper left that acts as a RADAR altimeter. WingX also has a timer function to help with reminders, such as switching tanks. I’m sure there’s other neat things I’m missing as WingX seems to have a bunch of small but useful little gadgets.

Garmin Pilot’s cool thing is its Widgets, which allows you to put a lot of different data in the split pane. For example, it can show the METARs, and as you go from your source to your destination it will automatically change to show the METARs closest to your location. If you want to see in the Widgets the nearest airports in case you need to make an emergency landing, it’s not so good because it doesn’t change to the nearest private airports as you go. You can put multiple Widgets in that split pane and easily scroll through them. The downside to this capability is that it takes up a lot of space, and in fact there is a lot of extra unused space that it takes up. Garmin Pilot also allows you to set up custom alerts, that will display popups when you reach certain time or location criteria. An example for use of this would be for reminders to switch tanks, give a location report, or a reminder to ask FSS to extend your flight plan if you are falling behind.

Evaluation: Though I was not able to test Garmin Pilot in the simulator, I believe it falls slightly behind the other two apps for basic navigation. Its navigation bar could use one or two more boxes. Its lack of A/FD and FSS frequencies necessitates carrying the A/FD in book form. Its split panel doesn’t put enough info on the screen for its size, except when drawing diagrams. WingX also lacks the A/FD, so you’d need the A/FD book with it too. Its map drawing is jumpy, especially while turning. But aside from these things it provides several neat little do-dads that can really help, like descent planning, RADAR altimeter, and terrain with the basic subscription. Foreflight is all-around more polished than WingX, but it would be nice to have some of the cool do-dads that WingX has. Its major drawback is the lack of split screen and subsequent display of airport diagrams. I cannot test whether the diagram overlays in the Pro version overcomes those drawbacks.

Diversions:

I want to test how efficiently each app can be used to deviate from the plan, whether it be to land at an alternate airport, or to make an emergency landing. Deviating the course for terrain, weather, or TFRs was sufficiently covered above.

For the purposes of landing at an alternate airport, all of the apps performed about the same. Find a suitable public airport on the map, use the Direct function, and the navigation info tells you where to go. All of the apps provide sufficient information about the airport to make a wise landing decision. Garmin Pilot's lack of FSS frequencies will necessitate extra materials on hand to notify them of your deviation.

To help in an emergency landing scenario, the apps really can only offer to find the nearest airport, whether public or private. The terrain information is not detailed enough in selecting a suitable landing spot, nor will it even help find a relatively flat spot since it doesn't indicate anything about the terrain below your altitude. The best terrain information can do is tell you where not to go, but in VFR you're better off looking out the window. Of the three apps perhaps only WingX's RADAR altimeter is of any use, allowing you to estimate how much air is between you and the ground.

Garmin Pilot's nearest airport capability requires five taps: Direct (goes to a new page), Nearest, All, the airport, Activate. The list clearly shows the direction and distance, and a standard sectional chart like icon to help identify airports that may not be suitable, such as runway type or length.

Foreflight is a two to three-step process: tap and hold your current location, Airports (if not already there), tap the Direct button for the desired airport. The list that pops up after step 2 shows up on top of the moving map and indicates a distance and relative cardinal direction. There is no indication of what king of runways to expect; that requires viewing the airport details by tapping the arrow.

WingX is also a two to four step process. Tap the lower right magnifying glass, "Sort by NM" (if not already there), "Apts" (if not already there), tap the Direct button for the desired airport. Like Garmin Pilot the list that you see after step 3 shows direction and distance to the airport. But unlike either of the others, it also shows the length of th longest runway.

Evaluation: The Direct-To capabilities of all three apps is pretty much the same. But when it comes to emergency landings, WingX has the slight edge. Its RADAR altimeter capability allows you to estimate how much vertical distance you have to glide through before you need to stop trying to restart the engine and commit to an emergency landing. And its runway length information when selecting a nearest airport could be very valuable for those planes needing some extra length. Note that the "Show Private Airports" option must be turned on in both Foreflight and WingX for them to show up in the nearest list.

Extra Features:

WingX seems to be trying to pack in as many features as possible in order to grab the market. Of these three apps it’s the only one so far with Synthetic Vision and a backup attitude indicator, which can get attitude information from an external device. I see these as more useful for instrument rated pilots, or VFR pilots who scud run. I’m not either of those, so these features don’t resonate with me. Its got the FARs, some useful reference lists and tables, and an E6B. It has by far the greatest support for external GPS, AHRS, and ADS-B devices, and that list is constantly growing. Its weather overlays are unique compared to the others, using Velocity Weather by Baron, though I’m not sure if it’s really any better. There are a few other features that I haven’t mentioned, and I’m sure more in development. As I said in sections above, its got the most do-dads in the moving map.

ForeFlight is taking a slightly more conservative approach to adding extra features, making sure the interface remains polished. Most of its features are already part of WingX, but ForeFlight’s interface for those features looks nicer. They aren’t necessarily easier to access, they’re just smoother and more aesthetically pleasing. ForeFlight has an extra feature allowing you to quickly access externally saved documents, for example a PDF version of a performance chart. I already mentioned above Foreflight’s ability to add procedure waypoints to your route.

Garmin Pilot seems to be falling behind in the extra features department, and my guess is the intention of this approach is to keep the app as solid and with as simple an interface as possible. It’s a viable strategy because when there’s a lot going on, you don’t want to be messing with a lot of buttons and sliders, which will distract you from actually flying the airplane. The first extra feature that I recognize with Garmin Pilot is its terrific vector-based base layers. It shows so much less clutter than the sectionals and IFR charts when such simplicity is needed. The second extra feature is the direction indicator with integrated bearing and cross track error indicator. It’s very cool if you need to very quickly gauge where you need to go to get to your next waypoint, such as an emergency diversion. The only other feature I noticed that isn’t present in the other apps is the Alerts tool, which I mentioned in a section above.

Three features that I would like to see in the future are

  • Nearest TRACON/ARTCC & FSS frequencies. I don't want to dig through all the nearby airports to find them.
  • Improved climb/descent and enroute altitude planning. In Colorado you frequently change altitude enroute to avoid airspace and terrain, and many of my routes have me going east on one leg, and west on the next. It would be nice to have altitude per leg, and have the fuel reflect the associated climb and descent.
  • See AnywhereMap’s “Cones of Safety”. I know it's patented, but I'm sure the developers can come up with something.

Conclusions:

The point of this exercise was to determine which app was superior, but what it has turned into is an exercise in determining which of these apps best fits my flying style and personality. I didn’t realize how personal this process would become. I had gone into this analysis favoring ForeFlight because I liked the smoothness of the interface, the amount of details readily available from the moving map, and a lot of folks on the forums seem to favor it. I put Garmin Pilot as the underdog, largely because of the prevailing opinion on the forums that it is a slightly inferior product, but also because as a tech-oriented person it didn’t seem complex enough for my taste. As for WingX, I thought of it as a fun project by some brilliant weekend coder in his basement, always on the cutting edge, and always in beta, and favored in the forums by more of a cult following. I think on all counts my initial impressions were close to accurate.

So if I were to make a subscription decision today, what would I buy? I must now offer my apologies to those of you who have read this far, because it’s going to be anti-climactic. I would purchase neither ForeFlight, nor WingX, nor Garmin Pilot today. WingX’s interface needs more polish, ForeFlight needs more do-dads, and Garmin Pilot is just too simple for me. I have an AnywhereMap ATC I got for Christmas in 2009, and last I checked I’m getting free data updates. I know how to use it, and though its interface and features are not nearly as refined as those on the iPad apps, and though I’ll still need to carry around paper charts and an A/FD, it gets the job done just as well. If I have to start paying for updates for the ATC, or when WingX, ForeFlight, Garmin Pilot, or heck even FlyQ or something else actually gets to a point where it makes the ATC look like an expensive paperweight, then I’ll be in the market for an iPad app. At the rate that these iPad app developers are releasing updates, which I plan to diligently follow, it probably won’t be long.

Reference:  (see http://forums.aopa.org/showthread.php?t=88667)

Shane Schmidt September 02, 2013 8 tags (show)