Why 4G Tablets Are a Total Rip-Off

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If you're the kind of person who would page Uber to drive you across the street or buy an episode of Orange is the New Black on Google Play, even though you already have Netflix, a 4G LTE tablet should be your next major purchase. Not content to drain your bank account with smartphone charges alone, the four major carriers would like you to spend hundreds of dollars more to get mobile Internet service on a slate.

Yes, having a cellular connection on your iPad, Android or Surface is a helpful convenience, but when you look at the numbers and realize you can get the same connection for free, all the carrier marketing just falls flat.

A High Premium for Convenience

Before you even use one kilobyte of data, a 4G tablet will usually cost you over $300 more than its Wi-Fi–only equivalent over a 24-month period. The hardware itself usually carries a $100 to $150 premium, just for including a 4G LTE radio. Then, the carrier usually requires a $10 to $15 monthly access fee in addition to the data cost.

This week, AT&T proudly announced that it will be the first carrier to sell a 4G version of Microsoft's Surface 3 tablet. Unless you get a special discount for buying a Lumia phone, the 4G Surface 3 costs $600, spread out over a period of 20 months. Adding the tablet to your Mobile Share plan costs $10 per month, on top of the fees you already pay for data and connecting your smartphone. If you don't have a share plan, expect to pay a minimum of $15 per month (for just 250MB).

A similarly configured Wi-Fi Surface 3 costs $499. So, over the course of two years, you're paying $340 to get the device online and sharing from the same pool of data that you're already buying for your phone.

AT&T is hardly alone in gouging customers for tablets and their access fees. Verizon also charges $10 per month to add your tablet to a "More Everything" plan or $30 per month for a tablet-only plan. Sprint charges $480 over 24 months just to lease a 64-GB iPad Air 2 (or $529 to buy on-contract) as part of the company's iPad for Life plan, along with a $10 monthly access fee to add the tablet to your More Everything plan. The hardware price, if you buy it on-contract, is actually a little less than the price of a Wi-Fi 64GB model ($599 from Apple), but you more than make up for it in access fees and presumably increased data usage. T-Mobile charges full price, $729, for a 64GB iPad Air 2 and requires a separate data plan that costs a minimum of $20 per month.

Connect Your Tablet to 4G for Free

Fortunately, you can get any Wi-Fi tablet connected for free if you just use your smartphone's hot-spot feature. Most smartphones come with hot-spot capability built in, or, if you're on Android and don't have it, you can install FoxFi, an $8 app that gives you this capability. By tethering your tablet to a hot spot, you'll still be using up data from your bucket, but you won't pay any additional access fees or pony up an extra $100 on the cost of the tablet.

To be fair, having 4G built into your tablet has a couple of small advantages over tethering it to your phone. You don't need to worry about running down your smartphone's battery by using it as a hot spot, and you can even leave the handset behind. However, you probably don't leave home without your smartphone, and, if battery life is a concern, you can always spend a few dollars on a portable charger or battery case. Having 4G on your tablet offers a small amount of convenience, but unless you're spending someone else's money, it's not worth the $300+ premium.

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Author Bio
Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch, LAPTOP Online Editorial Director
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com 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.
Avram Piltch, LAPTOP Online Editorial Director on
Add a comment
  • sam al Says:

    this has got to be the stupidest way to compare WIFI and LTE devices. there are a ton of pros/cons than what you showed.
    what you showed in this article is more of a pref and penny pinching.

    there are a lot of disadvantages for the way you described too:

    1. battery drainage: it will wear out your battery severely.
    2. excess heat: try having that cell phone in your pocket while using foxifi for 20min (I'm not going to say 1+hours), you'll have well done eggs as quick as u can boil eggs.
    3. warranty: most manufacturers won't cover your warranty if they find out that it was being used as a WiFi hotspot. and yes they do have the ability to tell.
    4. most providers who offer "unlimited data" will not allow you to do WiFi hotspot, otherwise everyone with a tablet will disconnect their home internet if they are lite internet users.
    5. depending on the type of smartphone you have, some have weaker signal than others, specially if you're on the "cheap" providers.
    6. you said to get an extra battery pack in-case of battery drainage, well the problem is, i prefer to keep my pants on when i'm walking during summer time. battery packs are heavy.
    7. insecure network (in most cases), get yourself hacked in no time while you're surfing on your tethered device. your limit is 1GB/m? you only used 100MB? what did you say, your bill came with 15GB usage? how did that happen?
    8. insecure network also could mean easy leaked private/confidential information if someone gets into your tethered hotspot.

    i seriously can keep going with the more technical part of it, but these are all the disadvantages to save the $10/month.

    the only viable way to save the $10/month which could make sense, is when you're always (i mean 90% of the time) around areas that provide free WiFi, like coffee shops, restaurants, hotels, and some provider public open WiFi networks. then you can tether when it's badly needed, you can do it quickly, that way your provider doesn't ding you for excess usage.

    i would highly suggest against saving the $10/month if you will be in areas where there are no WiFi networks available.

  • SARA BRAVO Says:

    It would be nice an article about the non-frills tablets selling on ebay and other internet stores. I just lost $165 to a tablet been claim has everything and better than iPad and Samsung and what a piece of garbage it was.

  • Oh Come On Says:

    A few bucks a month for not having to connect to your hotspot, and not worrying about running down your phone's battery? I will choose the 10-hour tablet battery every time rather than get stranded without a charged phone, thanks very much.

  • Mia Patterson Says:

    It really just depends on how you use your tablet. I for example spend a ton of time using my tablet away from any usable hotspots/wifi.

    However if you are rarely away from usable hotspots/wifi then wifi + tethering is the way to go.

  • Bill Jones Says:

    This article is painfull to read. Have fun replacing your phone battery every 6 months from hot spotting as well as the heat related problems that occur later. Given many customers forgoe warranties for their devices you are SOL if the amazing hotspot feature fries your device. Most tabs are offered at a subsidized price when bundled with 4G service. 10 dollars monthly is nothing compared to the effects of ID theft from using unsecured wifi for tablet computing. 4G tabs arent for everyone. But for businesses, online shoppers,travelers, and students its damn good investment. So take the authors words with a grain of salt....perhaps a bucket of salt.

  • dstrauss Says:

    There are some pretty good exceptions - one of the best is the availability of last year's tech at below this year's price (eg - purchased a brand new, fully warranted 128gb iPad Air LTE for $449) so now $10/month on a family plan goes far beyond a convenience, it is an essential for instant connectivity. The real trick is just don't get caught in the carrier spider wbe - if you have to have them finance it for you (and that's what AT&T is doing on the S3) then you shouldn't go cellular in the first place.

  • Sam Khan Says:

    Cellular radio equipped devices may have an advantage over their WiFi only cousins. Standalone built-in GPS is sometimes offered only on cellular devices. So, it may be worthwhile to get the cellular version of a device, even if you don't use the cellular radio.

  • TSON Says:

    this is a really stupi article. do the same thing for an iPod vs an iPhone.

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