Android Aviation Apps in the Cockpit

Taking a bite out of the big Apple.

When I set out to write a roundup of the Android apps available for aviation, I was ready for a quick assignment, as the words “Android” and “aviation” have not, up to now, been closely associated. Happily, this is changing. Today, there are several aviation apps with individual features that approach or, in some cases, match those of the best apps built for iOs.

There are good reasons why the leading aviation apps are built to run on Apple’s iOS mobile operating system. The ubiquitous software from the Californian personal computer giant is stable, widely available, controlled by one company instead of dozens and free with the purchase of an Apple device. The biggest reason for Apple’s aviation dominance is even simpler than that. It is due to the wide popularity of the iPad itself. Introduced in 2010, the iPad took the computing world by storm, offering consumers a big-screen, touch-controlled tablet that worked easily out of the box. With hundreds of thousands of these mobile tablets out in the world, the environment was ripe for aviation app developers to do their thing, and they did just that, coming out with a range of aviation apps that turned an everyday tablet into a powerful in-cockpit aviation tool.

Some of those app developers, such as ForeFlight, focused exclusively on devices that run on Apple’s iOS platform, which, for all intents and purposes, are iPhones and iPads. Others, such as Seattle Avionics, Garmin and Hilton Software, created apps — or had pre-existing programs — for other operating systems. Those applications, for good or for ill, have taken a back (way, way far back) seat to those companies’ iOS products. One follows the money, and the money follows the marketplace.

Another issue facing developers is the lack of commonality in the Android operating system itself. Many Android devices, even brand-new ones on store shelves, have versions of the operating system that are a couple of generations old. So when creating and supporting apps for Android devices, developers need to take into consideration not only the latest version of the OS but older versions too. Of course, this is also true for iOS devices, but there are far fewer versions and devices with which to be concerned. On top of that, backward compatibility (meaning that older devices will run current apps) is better with Apple. The hardware can also be a hindrance. In this case, it’s that Android-powered gadgets tend to have a variety of hardware interfaces, as opposed to the common interface (with a few connector/interface changes) on Apple products.

Android Edge

While Apple remains a dominant force in the market, consumers have numerous other options, with Android-based devices making up the most common ones. Analysts say Android devices already rival iPads in global sales, though that share is divided up among dozens (if not hundreds) of manufacturers. The leaders are well-known companies, including phone giant Samsung, whose numerous Galaxy phones and tablets are the biggest challengers to Apple’s dominance. Other major players include Asus, which offers a variety of tablets ranging in size from handhelds to large convertible devices with detachable keyboards. Internet mammoth Amazon has its Kindle Fire, which boasts one of the best displays in the tablet world. In addition to these and other major makers with high-quality Android tablets, there are numerous import options available, including some surprisingly high-quality ones and others that aren’t worth the postage required to import them.

The tablets we used for this story were the Nexus 7 (an iPad mini competitor) and the 2014 Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1-inch model. Both tablets are capable, attractive, lightweight models with good battery life and fine displays. The Nexus 7 is a close rival to the iPad mini, with largely the same capabilities and performance. It has a better screen and lesser cameras than the original mini but not as nice of a display as the latest mini with Retina display.

The Galaxy Note 10.1 is also a worthy rival to the latest iPad. It is very light, though slightly heavier than the iPad Air, has a comparably great battery life, a terrific display that can be dimmed very low, excellent front and back cameras and nice little built-in speakers. It comes with built-in WiFi and Bluetooth and has one feature lacking on any iPad: a slot for a microSD card to allow for additional storage, which is great for those giant aviation databases. In addition, the Galaxy Note has the ability to run two apps at once, a feature that is surprisingly useful when preflight planning, as you can call up two different weather or flight-planning sites.

The Android galaxy of aviation apps is small but has some real stars. There are numerous aviation weather apps available on Android, and you can, of course, access the Internet. Like iPads, some Android tabs are WiFi-only and some offer a cellular data connection, for which you must pay a phone company a monthly fee.

Navigation Apps

There are a few apps really worth taking a look at, including a couple you’ve probably heard of and a couple more you might not know. A general disclaimer: While the results of our tests are good for the versions of the apps (the latest available at the time of this writing) and the devices we used, your experience might vary. Here are some of the most popular Android aviation navigation apps available in the Google Play store.

Fltplan.com

Fltplan.com’s Android app works very well. It’s relatively fast, there’s a lot of data available, including charts for Canada and the Caribbean, and it has a slick interface for importing your fltplan.com flight plans into the app. You can get in-depth weather briefings, import airplane-specific performance specs — they had not only the SR22 but also the Turbo model — and add waypoints to your route with a touch.

The downside is the map part of the app, which is what most pilots look for in these products, is not very full-featured or well-integrated. Its graphical planning capabilities are slow and a bit clunky, its flight-planning interface is not particularly user-friendly, and its learning curve is steep.

That said, its strengths recommend taking a look. Fltplan.com offers users access to world-class flight-planning and weather data, including international filing and briefings. You get flight tracking, an electronic logbook, free charts and even high-end features, such as predeparture clearances. The cost — it’s free with registration on fltplan.com — is unbeatable, but there are some items you’ll miss, such as geo-referenced charts and the ability to interface with automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast receivers.

Cost to Buy: Free!
Key Features: Moving map, flight-plan info through fltplan.com (free subscription required), fuel prices, flight tracking, weight and balance, FBO information, airport/facility directory, predeparture clearances
Geo-Referenced Charts: No
Rubber Band Flight: No
Flight-Plan Filing: Yes
ADS-B Compatibility: No
Split Screen: No
Panel Emulation: No

Features were current as of evaluation date. Not all features were listed.

Naviator

A relative newcomer to the mapping scene, Naviator is a basic app that features scanned charts. Geo-referencing for approach charts is available through a separate annual subscription of $35. The interface takes some study — the learning curve is moderately steep — but once you are comfortable with it, there are some great features, including automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast weather display, traffic through Zaon’s PCAS XRX sensor, split screen and very good rubber banding flight-plan modification. Map interactivity is limited. On other apps, touch a waypoint, an airport for example, and you get a wealth of information (Garmin Pilot is the Android leader in map interactivity). The charts are relatively quick to download but lack the sharpness at close zooms that other apps have. There are some cool extras, including a vertical nav calculator, outputting of your GPS track for playback on Google Earth and integration with Lockheed Martin’s flight-plan system for direct filing of flight plans through the app. Naviator is a bit complicated to set up, with a few tiers of subscription required, but the pricing is very competitive. Like all the other apps here, there’s a generous trial period during which you get most of the features of the app.

Trial Period: 30-day free trial
Cost to Buy: $34.99 per year or $4.99 per month $14.95 one-time fee
Key Features: Moving map, Nexrad, animated weather, airmets, sigmets, graphical metars, winds aloft, terminal charts, terrain database, altitude optimizer for winds aloft, bring-your-own-charts feature, flight recording, Google Earth integration
Geo-Referenced Charts: Yes (purchased through Seattle Avionics)
Rubber Band Flight: Yes
Flight-Plan Filing: Yes
ADS-B Compatibility: Yes (Dual XGS170, iLevil and others)
Split Screen: Yes
Panel Emulation: Limited, HSI emulation

Features were current as of evaluation date. Not all features were listed.

Avilution Aviation Maps

The surprise star of the Android world, Avilution’s Aviation Maps app is a very slick package. For less than you’d pay for top-tier navigation apps like ForeFlight (available exclusively on iOS devices) and Garmin Pilot, Avilution’s all-in-one pilot app offers a comparably impressive feature set with excellent usability.

You get downloadable charts (geo-referenced with the premium version), flight planning and flight-plan filing, automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast connectivity with slick on-screen weather through SkyRadar and Dual receivers (among others), and nicely implemented split screen displays — so you can display charts or nearest airports or weather updates or whatever else your heart desires alongside the map. Screen refreshes are a snap, charts are sharp and quickly zoom-able, and on-map flight planning is quirky but quick once you get the idea. Note to developers: Users want true rubber banding so they can drag and modify the course line without a second thought. That said, Avilution has an exceptionally handy Victor airway routing feature that prompts you to add a new waypoint if it is along an existing airway as part of an airway routing, potentially saving dozens of subsequent inputs. Nice.

There are few downsides. The biggest in my mind is stability. I had a few crashes on each of my Android test platforms. This is an issue that might get solved quickly, but part of the Android dilemma is having to fix bugs for numerous software builds and devices. Still, for those looking for a full-featured app for Android that does just about everything the big boys do, Avilution is definitely worth a look.

Trial Period: 30-day free trial
Cost to Buy: $54.95 per year, standard $144.95 per year, premium
Key Features: Moving map, terminal charts, data storage on SD card, DUATS support, search-and- rescue patterns, approach charts, Nexrad, metars, TAFs, icing, notams, progressive briefing strip and much more
Geo-Referenced Charts: Yes (with premium subscription)
Rubber Band Flight: Yes
Flight-Plan Filing: Yes
ADS-B Compatibility: Yes (SkyRadar, Dual XGPS170 and others)
Split Screen: Yes
Panel Emulation: No

Features were current as of evaluation date. Not all features were listed.

Garmin Pilot

For those who want the counter-culture appeal of Android tablet computing along with the proven performance of an industry leader, there’s only one app at this point that fits the bill: Garmin Pilot. This app from the successful general aviation avionics manufacturer is very similar in nearly every regard to the company’s iPad app of the same name. There are a few features missing on the Android version, though Garmin’s developers have been working quickly to bring its Android offering up to the current state of the iOS art.

Today, this means that Garmin Pilot on the 2014 Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet has geo-referenced charts, flight-plan filing, automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast connectivity through the Garmin GDL 39, split screen capability, panel display and the ability to upload flight plans from the app to the Garmin D2 pilot watch. The iOS app at this point can display images from the Garmin VIRB, the company’s terrific high-definition action cam, and can also control multiple cams though the software. It’s a great feature, but unless you have a VIRB, it’s not something you’ll miss. We wouldn’t be surprised to see that capability migrate to the Android app soon.

The bottom line is that Garmin Pilot on the Android platform offers a world-class navigation experience with all of the bells and whistles you’ve come to expect from the best aviation apps.

Trial Period: 30-day free trial
Cost to Buy: $9.99 per month
Key Features: Moving map, flight planning, dynamic flight-plan editing, dynamic waypoint info, terrain database, geo-referenced weather through Internet or in cockpit, animated radar, winds aloft, safe taxi, terminal charts, en route charts, fuel prices and much more
Geo-Referenced Charts: Yes
Rubber Band Flight: Yes
Flight-Plan Filing: Yes
ADS-B Compatibility: Yes (Garmin GDL 39)
Split Screen: Yes
Panel Emulation: Yes

Features were current as of evaluation date. Not all features were listed.

Other Options

There are other options in the Android universe, though we did not thoroughly test them. Among them are Avare and Anywhere Map, and there are apps specifically designed for European users, such as Sky-Map. Additionally, you can get cheap or free apps for downloading weather, checking runway conditions, viewing charts or completing aviation-specific calculations.

Is Android for You?

The question is with the availability of great all-in-one navigation apps on Apple devices from the likes of ForeFlight, Garmin, Jeppesen, Hilton Software and BendixKing why would anyone choose Android? The answers are both obvious and a lot more complicated than you might imagine.

First, there’s cost. Apple has historically charged a premium for its products, asking almost twice as much for its computers as its major-player PC and Android competitors ask for their products. The truth is with an Android tablet you can get a lot more device for the same money or the same basic device for a lot less. The Nexus 7 made by Asus on which we ran these tests costs around $300 with 4G cellular connectivity and 16 GB of storage (memory on most Android tabs is expandable, unlike the fixed-memory Apple products). That’s almost $250 less than the competing iPad mini with Retina display. The larger 10-inch class Android devices from Samsung, Asus and others typically go for 20 to 30 percent less than Apple’s iPad Air with comparable specs. So if price is an issue, Androids rule.

The other factor is one of brand choice. For many pilots, Apple represents a safe, industry-leading company that makes great hardware and gets an arguably fair price for it. For others, Apple is the big company charging a premium and attracting fans for the brand name as much as for the product. For many of those anti-bandwagon types, Android (despite being digital mega-player Google’s initiative) represents the best alternative.

Login

New to Flying?

Register

Already have an account?