Tablets are certainly portable enough for surfing the web, streaming video, and checking e-mail and Facebook on the go. But according to IDC, only about 40 percent of slates shipped this year will have an embedded 3G or 4G connection. The rest will be Wi-Fi-only. That’s because many consumers don’t want to pay carriers for another data plan when they’re already forking over $30 per month for a smart phone. Is the premium worth it?
Take the iPad 2. If you want the freedom of built-in 3G, the iPad itself will cost you $130 more than a Wi-Fi-only model, starting at $629. But at least you’re not locked into a contract, and you can even turn the 3G on or off on a month-to-month basis. AT&T charges $14.99 for 250MB (not enough data for most users) and $25 for 2GB of data. Verizon Wireless offers multiple plans, ranging from $20 for 1GB all the way up to $80 for 10GB.
Other tablets, such as the Motorola Xoom, are sold with two-year contracts. If you sign up, you’ll pay $599 for the device, though a contract-free version is also available for $799. That’s pricey, but Verizon Wireless argues the ability to upgrade this slate to support its super-fast 4G LTE network—capable of 5 to 12 Mbps downloads—is worth the higher price.
You can find 3G tablets for much cheaper on contract, such as the original Galaxy Tab ($299). Unlike the iPad 2, both the Xoom and the Tab can be used as mobile hotspots, so you can share that 3G or 4G connection with a laptop or other gadget. All other Android-based tablets sold though carriers will likely support this feature.
Regardless of the OS, your tablet can still stay connected on the go if you choose the Wi-Fi-only route. You could buy a dedicated mobile hotspot device such as the MiFi, but it’s more convenient to use a smart phone with a mobile hotspot feature built in. AT&T and Verizon Wireless charge $20 per month to use their smart phones as a hotspot, which includes a 2GB data allotment. The same service costs $29 for Sprint and $15 for T-Mobile smart phones. Both Sprint and T-Mobile let you share the same pool of gigabytes as your smart phone’s plan. T-Mobile may throttle your speeds once you blow past 5GB. Sprint’s plans are unlimited.
Bottom line: Having built-in 3G or 4G can be very convenient, but not everyone will be willing to pay for it.