Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the lights on at MakeUseOf. Read more.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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, 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, 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.
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.
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 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.
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. 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. Once done, perhaps consider buying one of the best 5G smartphones.