I am a little late in posting this to the blog, this article originally appeared in the EAA 14 Newsletter for March 2014, enjoy!
As you may recall from Part 1 and 2, this is a series of 5 articles about Android Tablets as Electronic Flight Bags, this series is arranged as follows:
- Part 1 – an introduction to the EFB, the Regulatory environment and Terminology
- Part 2 will discuss Software/Applications
- Part 3 (this article) will discuss Hardware
- Part 4 will discuss Accessories
- Part 5 will discuss Training and Simulation
In last month’s article we reviewed applications, since choice of application and intended use will drive hardware selection (which device to buy). So this month, we are going to review several hardware specifications and how they relate to software/applications to enable you to select the right tablet.
As with the previous articles, I’ll introduce a few new terms related to hardware; specifically we will review form factor (size), processor (the computer part of the tablet), memory (onboard and removable memory capacity), connectivity (WiFi and/or 3G/4G LTE) and GPS, and display. And lastly I’ll review some of the leading Android Tablet’s by Form Factor (size) and basic capability to include retail pricing.
As mentioned before, keep in mind that none of the devices reviewed here are approved for use as a primary navigation source, this is a limitation of all mobile devices – however as also touched on in the previous articles, no approval is required for use as a source of supplemental information.
Form Factor refers to the size and shape of the tablet. Common sizes are ‘small’ (7” and 8”), and ‘large’ (10.1”). Selection of form factor should be driven largely by the kind/size of aircraft you fly most often. For example, many mid-size and larger GA airplanes like the Cessna 182 or Bonanza have adequate room in the cockpit for the pilot to use a large 10.1” tablet, while smaller GA planes like Mooney’s and Grumman’s and most experimentals have less room in the cockpit and pilots might find the 7” or 8” tablets more comfortable to use.
Part of the consideration of form factor should be intended orientation of the tablet when in use, that is, portrait style (most common, think of looking at a piece of paper so that it is taller than it is wide), or landscape (wider than it is tall). Most if not all Android EFB applications discussed last month (for sure Garmin, Naviator, Avilution AvMaps and I believe the rest) support both portrait and landscape modes. I actually use both modes personally, preferring landscape for flight planning (especially for flights running east-to-west or west-to-east), but portrait when actually flying to take advantage of the split screen capabilities many EFB apps offer (for example moving map on top with AFD pages or approach plates on the bottom).
PORTRAIT AND LANDSCAPE ORIENTATION
The key element here of course is to ensure that tablet will not interfere with the free and correct use of the flight controls.
Just like the PC or laptop in your office or home, a tablet is basically a computer. And like any computer, the processor is the brain – and performance of the processor will largely determine the overall performance of the device. Performance specs for tablet devices are discussed in basically the same terms as our PC’s and laptops as well, so we don’t really need to learn much in the way of terminology. Processors are measured based on the number of cores (more is usually better), processing speed in Gigahertz (GHz), and System RAM memory (used for programs to run on as opposed to ‘storage’ memory discussed below). Assuming you have selected the type of EFB application you want to run you should have an idea how much processor is needed to run it based on the specs required for the app, but if in doubt I always recommend buy as much performance as you can afford.
Related to processor is which version of the Android Operating System the device is running which is determined in part by processor cores, speed and memory. Make sure that the device you want meets the minimum specifications including processor performance AND Android Operating System version (e.g., 4.1) for the EFB app you will be running.
Memory (onboard and removable)
All of the applications and their associated data (maps, frequencies, etc.) have to be stored somewhere and this is where memory comes in. For Android tablets there are effectively two type of memory, onboard (part of the basic hardware of the tablet itself), and removable memory (usually in the form of a removable solid-state MicroSD card). Memory needs are determined based on the number and type of applications, user information, and downloaded application data – as with all things computer related, more is usually better – but it becomes more important if the selected device has only onboard memory.
Fortunately for us, tablet makers have learned that we like lots of apps and data, and they have sized onboard memory capacities, usually in factors of 4 or 8 Gigabytes (GB). Most devices will come with between 8 and 32GB of onboard memory, and for casual users, as well as most EFB applications 32GB is more than adequate – many pilots can get by on only 16GB. That said however, if some is good, more is probably better – I recommend getting the most onboard memory you can afford, and I also prefer devices that will take a removable memory card.
Connectivity (WiFi and/or 3G/4G LTE) and GPS
Connectivity and GPS is, oddly, an area where technical specifications can get a little cloudy when looking at tablets. Most tablets have WiFi or wireless internet capability – think getting online at Starbucks or at your home over a wireless local area network (LAN). Some tablets also have a cellular network radio (3G, 4G or LTE) and can connect to common cellular telephone networks like Verizon, Sprint, or AT&T. This is important because it determines when/how you can connect for your EFB app to download updates and map or other information, as well as when/how you can upload flight plans to DUATS if using that function. Unless you have a smartphone that can serve as a ‘tether’ or ‘hotspot’, a WiFi only tablet will need to be on a wireless network to have an active data connection. In addition to flight planning, updates and other data exchanges, some EFB apps use a data connection for ADS-B weather, NEXRAD radar and other real-time, near-real-time data. Additionally, most current tablets also have Bluetooth radios that allow them to connect to external GPS and ADS-B receivers.
For GPS, many tablets have built-in GPS/GLONASS chipsets and some are more like some cell phones and use a system known as A-GPS or Assisted GPS to help speed up time to first fix by getting additional location information from cellular networks.
Obviously, any tablet to be used as an EFB should have either its own built-in GPS or be able to tether to a GPS source such as a smartphone or Bluetooth GPS.
There is really only one thing to know about displays and that is whether or not you will be able to read it in the cockpit. This is basically a matter of brightness, as well as screen finish. There are several amazing display technologies currently being used, but a description of them is beyond the scope of this article. Just know that most tablets offer enough daylight readability for all but the brightest cockpits. One key element here is the use of screen protectors on the touchscreen to cut down on glare. Most of the companies that produce tablets have arranged for anti-glare and matte finish screen protectors that are pre-fit – it may take some experimentation to figure out which type works best in your cockpit.
7 and 8” Tablets
Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7
I have owned and flow with the original Samsung Galaxy Tab 7” and it was a nice setup. It fit reasonably well on a kneeboard and didn’t interfere with controls in smaller aircraft like the Glasair. The current Tab 3 model is a nice package that balances performance and cost (1.2 GHz, 8GB) and can take a MicroSD Card up to 32GB. Average retail is about $180 for a basic 8GB WiFi only version.
Samsung Galaxy Note 8
This is currently my personal EFB platform. The Note 8 offers great performance and capabilities including accurate handwriting capture with a high-tech digitizer element in the touchscreen. The 8” screen size is just bigger than the 7” but much more friendly in the cockpit than my larger 10.1” Acer tablet is. The Note 8 comes with a dual-core 1.5 GHz processor, 16GB of memory (and can take up to a 64GB MicroSD Card). Average retail is about $299.
Google Nexus 7
There are a lot of pilots using the Google Nexus 7 32GB. I have not flown with it myself but I do know there are a lot of them flying. One limit is the Nexus can not accept a MicroSD Card so most pilots choose the 32GB version. The Nexus has a 1.5 GHz quad-core processor and up to 32GB of memory. Average retail is about $280.
There are other devices such as the Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook HDX which aren’t normal tablets in that they require Amazon or B&N market accounts but these have been hacked (modified) to work as EFB’s with varying degrees of success.
Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1
Like it’s 7” little brother, the Tab 3 10.1 is a good value. My personal large tablet is a 3 yr-old Acer A500 Iconia (not made any more) but the specs are similar, 1.6 GHz dual-core processor, up to 16GB of memory on board and up to 64GB MicroSD card. Average retail is about $350.
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1
The 10.1” Note from Samsung is a pretty solid device. The big brother to my personal Note 8, it provides a lot of power and performance. 1.9 GHz quad-core processor, up to 32GB of memory onboard, and up to 128GB MicroSD Card. Average retail is about $550.
The ASUS Transformer is another large format tablet that I have not personally flown but I have heard positive reports of other pilots enjoying it. The Transformer has a 1.9 GHz quad-core processor, up to 32GB of onboard memory and MicroSD Cards up to 64GB. Average retail is $449.
As with the small format tablets, there are other devices in the 10.1 to 13” size that have been used as EFB’s with varying degrees of success.
Next month’s installation will cover accessories such as kneeboards, power supplies, external GPS sources and the like.
About the Author
John Knolla is currently Manager, Product Support Engineering Group for an Engineering Services company in San Diego, CA. He has nearly 20 years of Technical and Management experience in Reliability, Maintainability & Safety Engineering, Integrated Logistics Support, Systems and Project Engineering, and Technical Documentation supporting Aerospace and Defense companies such as Hawker-Beechcraft Corporation, Eclipse Aviation, Dassault FalconJet, ITT, BAE Systems, Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation, Embraer, and The Spaceship Company.
He has served on Air Transport Association (ATA) Working Groups defining Digital Display and Flight Operations approaches for the airline industry, and the FAA/industry panel that developed Advisory Circular AC120-76/120-76A Guidelines for the Certification, Airworthiness and Operational Use of Electronic Flight Bags.
He currently holds an Instrument Rating and Commercial Pilot’s License and has flight experience in more than 30 different make/model fixed and rotary wing aircraft. John maintains membership in EAA (since 1987), AOPA, the International Aerobatic Club (IAC), the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) and the Redstar Pilot’s Association (RPA).