Tablet Buying Guide: How to Pick the Perfect Slate

Should You Get Built-in 3G/4G?

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.

Tablet Buying Guide

Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
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Submit Comments

  1. Craig Says:

    Why don’t you ever comment on the limitations of the ipad? I have the apple IPAD and no one ever comments on the fact that one cannot open any websites that have incorporated Adobe flashplayer. (There are more websites that utilize this than one would think). Apple’s continued reluctance to allow total access to its products (citing, adobe flash is not a good program and causes crashes) is unacceptable. I already have a father. If I want to use add-ons to the electronic devices I purchased, then why not allow it, understanding that the machine could crash?
    I do not know much about the competitive devices, but I am assuming that there are no restrictions.

    My 2 cents

  2. charles Says:

    Since when did apps come to mean something different from program? “Microsoft doesn’t have it’s own app store” Last time I checked, it had literally thousands of programs able to run on Windows. Even if Windows isn’t the best software (right now at least) for tablets to run, please don’t sound ignorant in saying that Windows based tablets have no apps available.

  3. mirekk Says:

    There’s no such thing as perfect tablet, or perfect anything for that matter. It’s simply a matter of individual preference. Anyhoo the tablets of today are still relatively simple (media consumption) and require some more work (more interfaces, more storage space, etc.).

  4. Mark Says:

    Tabs are fun if you get the right one. Number one priority inputs. If so it doesn’t matter how much onboard storage is if you can pop in a flash drive or sdcard. Two GUI must be 3D capable. Three not locked in, to a carrier, or proprietary anything especially inputs and app store. Android tabs meet all those criterions. Ipad is more of a 20th century 1D device. Great for kids and the elderly. No frills, no thrills. Also, there selling points buying apps and garage band, be serious. I’m not buying a tab to continuously line apple’s pockets with my money, plus, the connectivity issues they hope no one notices.

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