iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 3 GPS

Understanding GPS and Location-Aware Technology in iPad and iPad Mini

iPad models
Getty Images/Justin Sullivan / Staff

Apple's iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 3 raised the bar for processor speed, display quality, profile thinness, and lightness in tablet devices. One thing Apple hasn't changed, though, is that some iPad models have a built-in GPS chip while others don't.

Only the "Wi-Fi + Cellular" models of the iPad Air 2 and Mini 3 have built-in GPS chips; noncellular models do not. While the latter can download maps and other business and location data through a Wi-Fi network, the lack of GPS precludes doing so while the user is traveling and out of WI-FI signal range.

GPS isn't the only way iPads and other tablet devices can use location-aware technology, though. All iPad models come with built-in digital compasses, Wi-Fi positioning, and Apple iBeacon microlocation. 

The Digital Compass 

The digital compass helps orient maps and other location-aware apps when you tap Apple Maps or Google Maps. Wi-Fi positioning accesses a huge database of known Wi-Fi hotspot locations to help determine your location.

The iBeacon

Apple's iBeacon uses a device's built-in Bluetooth technology to communicate with stores, malls, sporting venues, and other locations that have installed iBeacon. "Instead of using latitude and longitude to define the location," says Apple, "iBeacon uses a Bluetooth low-energy signal, which iOS devices detect." Overall, any iPad model can do a reasonably good job of determining your position when you're within range of any Wi-Fi. 

The Bottom Line: Which iPad Is Right for You? 

If you're a frequent traveler or road warrior and you use your iPad extensively for connected activities such as email and social media when away from your home or office, a pricier cellular model makes sense.

It should provide good value. Springing for cellular plus GPS also gives you the ability to use Google Maps, Apple Maps, or other GPS navigation apps for great turn-by-turn directions wherever you travel—as long as you're within cell tower range.

If you primarily use your iPad at home or work within Wi-Fi range, and if you depend on your iPhone, desktop, or laptop for email and other connected activities, you probably can save at least $100 (depending on the unit's condition and age, of course) by not shelling out for the iPad Wi-Fi+Cellular model.

You also can use a device such as the Bad Elf GPS with Lightning port or the Garmin GLO to add GPS capability to a non-Wi-Fi+Cellular model iPad.