Tablets With Data Plans: Just Say No

Geek's Geek - Tablet Data Plans

At a time when consumers are drowning in recurring fees for services they can’t afford, wireless carriers have been looking for another way to make you spend money you don’t have to on something you don’t need: a tablet with its own monthly data plan. Just say no.

It’s easy to see why carriers would want to lock you in. In business there’s nothing like a steady revenue stream and nothing steadier than a two-year mobile broadband contract (complete with sky-high termination fees). A tablet contact gives your carrier a chance to either double-dip you by tying you down with two different contracts or to attract new customers who already have phones on a competitor’s network. 

Unfortunately for them, there’s no good reason for consumers to bite. These days most people who are shopping for tablets already have a smartphone, because phones go with you everywhere and make phone calls. Asking these same consumers to pay a second time for 4G on their tablets is like making you pay separately for home Internet for each of your family’s computers, something ISPs tried at one point without success. When you consider that most users have reliable Wi-Fi at home, at work, at the coffee shop, and even on airplanes, it’s even harder to justify signing a two-year contract, just to get your tablet online from the one park in town without it. 

Even worse, the tablet market is so new and changing so rapidly that making a two-year commitment today is like promising to date your first high school girlfriend until graduation, even though you’re only at the beginning of freshman year. Six months from now, all your friends will be dating cheerleaders with quad-core processors and 1440p displays while you’ve still got 18 months left with single-core Jenny and her 1280 x 800 face. If you spend $400 to $500 on a tablet today, you can always give it to a relative when something better comes out next year, but not if you’re tied down by a long-term contract.

A new study shows that most consumers are too smart to fall into this trap. According to NPD, only 65 percent of consumers have ever used their tablets to connect to 3G/4G networks. What about the other 35 percent? There’s no breakdown available showing how many of these are users on two-year contracts, but I’d wager that 90 percent of that 35 percent are iPad 3G owners, since the iPad allows users to buy mobile broadband at rates as low as $15 a month, without a long-term commitment. 

Unfortunately, carriers don’t seem to have gotten the memo, as they continue trying to hook users onto long-term tablet data plans. Because the concept doesn’t sell itself, they’ve tried a couple of lame tactics to fool you: model exclusivity and payments over time. The concept of model exclusivity, selling a tablet only with 3G/4G and only through the carriers, goes back to at least the original Galaxy Tab, which didn’t become available in a Wi-Fi version until months after it had launched on Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile.  

This fall, the HTC Jetstream and T-Mobile Springboard never came out in Wi-Fi-only versions and probably never will. And this December’s new Verizon exclusive is the Motorola Xyboard, a sequel to the Xoom that you can only buy for an arm and a leg. 

If you want the new Motorola Droid Xyboard 10.1, a lightweight Android tablet with the best speakers I’ve ever heard on a slate, you simply cannot purchase it with Wi-Fi only. To own this slate, you have to pay anywhere from $1,449 to  $2,649 over 24 months, the total cost when when you combine the $529 to $729 device price with the compulsory 4G data plan. If you’re not fit to be tied to a contract, Verizon will sell you the Xyboard 10.1 for just $699 for the 16GB version, a mere $200 more than the entry-level iPad 2 and the quad-core ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime, our favorite Android tablet.  

If the price of these carrier-exclusive slates seems prohibitive, T-Mobile’s developed another way to troll for suckers, the Equipment Installment Plan. To the ignorant eye, the carrier’s 7-inch SpringBoard tablet looks like a bargain at just $179. However, should you buy the device, there’s another 20 monthly payments of $10 apiece for the hardware, on top of the $20 to $60 a month data plan. For those as bad at math as T-Mobile hopes you are, that’s a $379 tablet with a minimum $480 commitment for data.  Pay no attention to the better-looking  Toshiba Thrive 7-inch you can get for one $379 payment, the much-cheaper Kindle Fire that’s $199, or the blazing-fast $499 Eee Pad Transformer Prime.

A Wi-Fi-only tablet offers you the best combination of value and flexibility. If you truly need mobile broadband on your slate, you are far better off paying for tethering on your phone. If your phone doesn’t support tethering or doesn’t do it well, I recommend connecting the tablet to a mobile hotspot device such as the Verizon Wireless LTE Mobile Hotspot MiFI 4510L, because at least the hotspot will still be useful two years from now when the tablet’s sitting in a closet somewhere.

At some point in 2012, carriers such as Verizon will start introducing more consumer-friendly data plans that cover multiple devices for one price. At this point, we have no idea whether these plans will be a good deal. For now, though, my advice is simple: avoid carrier-subsidized tablets at all costs.

Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.
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Submit Comments

  1. twospirits Says:

    Best article ever.
    These carriers are seriously getting out of hand with being greedy. A while back AT&T (and if I am not mistaken still does) charge for use of the original lapdock for its Atrix phone. When the lapdock is just using the data plan from the phone itself.


  2. blosynysy Says:

    In canada, Telus Mobility allows you to add the tablet to your existing data plan at no extra cost. I just hope this greedy mentality just doesn’t cross the border….

  3. Josh Says:


    Doesn’t Canada do 3 year contracts?

  4. Jenny Says:

    Wow, single core Jenny figured this out for herself and is shopping the market because she’s got an eye for a deal…and superficial geeks. Hmm, maybe you should go talk to her again. ;)

  5. Regina Says:

    I’d rather get one of those netbooks than a table with a data plan. I mean, laptops don’t require data plans. Tablets are not solely used for calling people – there is no real justification for requiring a data plan.

  6. P-Hitty Says:

    Unfortunately, I’m one of those that doesn’t have a smartphone (a river didn’t kill it … Starbucks coffee did) but still have a tablet after the death of the phone. With a year left in my wonderful two-year contract on a smartphone that’s now collecting dust, there’s no way I’m buying another smartphone for the so-called full market value when I still have my tablet. And no Starbucks ANYWHERE near it.

    So data plans that don’t require a smartphone attached in order to use them are actually a godsend right now. And yeah, two-year contracts suck, especially if it’s with AT&T.

  7. Atiim Says:

    Well if you have an andriod phone, just make the phone your hotspot. Problem solved.

  8. Mark Says:

    Wow, your views of women and external beauty are quite shameful.
    It’s guys like you that give IT professionals and enthusiasts the bad ‘D&D/nerd’ internet p0rn reputation.
    I hope you mature and realize how wrong it is to use a woman’s “attractiveness” as an analogy to attempt to prove whatever point you’re trying to make.


  9. smarterthanmark Says:

    Hey mark– nothing is wrong with D&D, nor is there anything wrong with their analogy. Quit fighting battles that were won in the 70’s and come back to our generation.
    I hope YOU mature, and realize the internet is beyond your limited scope of opinions and attempts to be the knight in shining armor. Forum,posting won’t get you laid- even if you’re standing up for the fugly bitches.
    Either that, or go an hero.

  10. Kelly Says:

    Great article, but it leaves me hanging. Where is the best place to get data services to use for a tablet? Sprint wants to charge me $40/month, which is ridiculous.

  11. Charlene Says:

    I have iPad air data installed it says I have no data package when was put on supposed to be easy tablet I don’t get much of I downloaded five applications to I cloud until I finally received it could I get my data back for that

  12. Charlene Says:

    Kelly AT&T is giving one hundred dollars for new plan they have thirty dollar plans

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