Android iPhone and iPad Technology Explained

Is It Better to Get a Tablet With 4G LTE or Wi-Fi Only?

Andy Betts 28-09-2016

There are still many good reasons to buy a tablet 7 Reasons Why You Still Need a Tablet This Year Some say that the era of tablets is over, but that's quite far from the truth. Tablets are still useful in several different ways and their value should not be overlooked. Read More , and when you’re buying one, your biggest choice is between an iPad or Android device 4 Reasons to Buy an Android Tablet Over an iPad There are alternatives to the iPad on the market, and not all of them are as crappy as some would have you believe. Read More . Or maybe even opting for Windows How Well Does Windows 10 Work on a Tiny Tablet? Windows 10 is taking the devices of disgruntled Windows 8 and curious Windows 7 users by storm. The PC experience is great, but how does it perform on small screens? Matthew tested Windows 10 on... Read More instead.


Then the next big decision is whether to go for a Wi-Fi-only model or to pay extra for the 4G version. Let’s take a look at some of the issues you’ll need to consider.

4G LTE on a Tablet

With a 4G-enabled tablet and a data plan, you’ll get full internet access without needing to stay within range of a Wi-Fi hotspot. You get Wi-Fi too, of course, so you can continue to use that at home, switching only to 4G when it’s needed.

Wi-Fi Speed vs. 4G LTE Speed Comparison Chart

The availability and performance of 4G varies from one country to another. According to OpenSignal, coverage is more than 80 percent in the U.S. with an average download speed of 10 Mbps. In the U.K., it’s 53 percent coverage with an average speed of 15 Mbps.

LTE performance can be considerably faster in the largest cities, easily rivaling the speeds you’d get from a fixed broadband connection. Conversely, in more rural areas, coverage and speed can be patchy.


Price of 4G LTE vs. Wi-Fi Only

For many of us, the biggest factor in choosing between 4G or Wi-Fi-only will be the price. The simple act of adding an LTE radio to a tablet typically adds around 20 percent or more to the price. For an iPad Air, there’s a $130 premium on the 4G model. For a Surface 3, it’s $100.

Price of Surface 3 on Microsoft Store

Even if you’ve got the extra cash to spend, you should consider whether you really need 4G or if you’d be better spending the money on a higher specced model instead. For the same price as the 4G Surface 3, for instance, you can get a Wi-Fi-only version with double the RAM and double the storage.

Ongoing Data Costs

The up-front price is only the beginning. There’s no point in having a 4G tablet without a 4G data plan to use with it.


Verizon 4G Data Plan Cost Comparison

4G data is expensive and most plans come with strict usage limits (even T-Mobile’s “unlimited” plan has a fair use policy that can kick in after you’ve used 26 GB of data in a month). You can expect to pay upwards of $20 per month just for a couple of gigabytes — over a two year period, that means you’ll pay double the price of a Wi-Fi-only tablet, and often quite a bit more.

Convenience of 4G LTE vs. Wi-Fi Only

The big selling point for a 4G tablet is convenience. So long as you are in an area with good network coverage, you’ll have seamless connectivity wherever you are.

But how much of this will be on the mobile network?


Starbucks Wi-Fi Promotion Page

4G serves as a backup connection, meaning that tablets will always default to a Wi-Fi connection whenever one is available. Now think about how often you have access to Wi-Fi: at home, in the office, at school, at friends’ houses, in your local coffee shop, and countless other places.

Even trains and buses are increasingly offering Wi-Fi these days. So on second thought, you might actually need 4G less often than you imagine.

Is Mobile Tethering an Alternative?

But there’s no getting away from the fact that when you do need a data connection, you really need one. Your phone can pick up the slack (to an extent) for things like email, social media, and the web. And you can also use it as a mobile hotspot How to Connect Mobile Internet to Your PC via Tethering With data tethering, you can use your mobile internet on your PC, laptop, or tablet. All you need is an Android phone! Read More , sharing your phone’s data connection with your tablet.


Not all data plans support tethering in this way, however, and those that do normally impose restrictions on speed or the amount of data you can use. For the most part, it’s a short-term solution rather than a long-term alternative.

There are some instances where a permanent data connection is essential for a tablet. When you’re working on a cloud-based document How to Save Your Office 2016 Documents to the Cloud Store and organize your files in the cloud. Use cloud services like OneDrive, Dropbox, and Google Drive to make your files available anywhere and to anyone. Read More , for example, and you step out of range of your Wi-Fi network before it has finished syncing. Or when you want to play one of the many games that require internet access 11 Fun Mobile Games When You Have No Internet or Data Here are the best mobile games that don't need an internet connection, allowing you to save your mobile data. Read More .

Location services are also more efficient on devices connected the mobile network, as this can be used to help calculate an exact position more quickly.

Battery Life Considerations

4G LTE uses more power than Wi-Fi, so battery life on 4G tablets takes a hit when compared to their Wi-Fi-only equivalents… but whether you’ll notice is a different matter altogether.

Woman Reading on a Samsung Tablet
Image Credit: Samsung

Apple’s specs for the iPad Air show that battery life is 10 percent shorter on 4G than Wi-Fi, but this only applies when you’re connected to a 4G network. When you’re on Wi-Fi, you’ll continue to get Wi-Fi levels of battery consumption instead.

In all likelihood, you’ll only notice the shorter battery life 5 Ways to Improve the Battery Life of Your Tablet Tablets are becoming a popular mobile device, and their impressive endurance is one of the greatest draws. Most tablets can last eight to ten hours even when displaying mobile video or surfing the web. This... Read More if you’re a heavy user of both your tablet and 4G data. Charge your tablet every second or third day and the difference will be negligible.

Security Considerations

The widespread availability of Wi-Fi hotspots means that having 4G on your tablet is less important than it otherwise might have been in the past. In any major town or city, you’re rarely more than a few minutes away from a McDonald’s or Starbucks if you need to get your tablet online.

While this is convenient, there are risks associated with logging onto public Wi-Fi 3 Dangers Of Logging On To Public Wi-Fi You've heard that you shouldn't open PayPal, your bank account and possibly even your email while using public WiFi. But what are the actual risks? Read More . If the hotspot doesn’t require you to enter a password, then it isn’t secure, and so you should avoid accessing secure sites like your bank, or even potentially your email.

A 4G connection doesn’t have these problems. If secure services are important to you and you need to access them in public, 4G could be the safer option.

Which Should You Choose?

That was a lot to digest, so to summarize everything:

  • Wi-Fi-only tablets are much cheaper.
  • 4G tablets have greater convenience and security, depending on where you use them.
  • Battery life differences are negligible.
  • Tethering is not a long-term alternative to 4G.

The massive difference in price means that, while 4G on a tablet might be nice to have, you should only consider it if you absolutely need it or if you aren’t on a budget. 4G data plans aren’t great value, and even if you can afford the extra costs, you might still find that investing in a higher-end device is the way to go.

You should also learn about the future of 5G and its security risks Concerning 5G Security Risks You Need to Know About 5G mobile is coming, but what are the security issues that will accompany the brave new world of airborne superfast broadband? Read More . Once done, perhaps consider buying one of the best 5G smartphones The 5 Best 5G Smartphones in 2020 With more carriers now offering 5G networks, it's time to upgrade your smartphone. Here are the best 5G smartphones available today. Read More .

Related topics: Android Tablet, Buying Tips, iPad.

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  1. Ron Ablang
    October 1, 2016 at 8:29 pm

    FreedomPop offers up to 1GB a month of free 4G data, so I would buy tablets that can utilize the data option and it would be worth the increase.

  2. Ron LaVallee
    October 1, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    I chose to purchase an Apple Mini 4 tablet with Wifi and 4G because only the 4G version includes GPS. I need GPS on a tablet because I use the tablet as a dashboard in flying my UAV (Drone). Having GPS on the iPad Mini-4 is important. I do not have to activate the 4G data plan and haven't. I just need the GPS capability.


  3. Michael Riley
    September 29, 2016 at 2:00 am

    Great information. Wi-Fi seems to work just fine for me. For now, my budget is small so the decision is simple.