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.

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
  • Javi Perez Says:

    Why not using a cheap tablet as a Phone? I got an Huawei Media Pad for just 100 bucks, and use it as a phone too. Why spend several grands when with just one, you got the tablet and the phone, in one single devive. And FWIW, I run the same software as any smartphone, in such table.

    I'm the crazy one for not spending more in a phone, with this tablet?

  • David Says:

    The GPS chip is located on the wwan card in laptops and iPads. This means google maps navigation or tracking apps that use GPS won't work without the 4g option.

  • Patrick Says:

    For me it was better to just get a prepaid wireless hotspot from T-Mobile. I have multiple tablets, so it works out well. I have the 2GB for 20 per month plan and it includes unlimited audio streaming so I can listen to Slacker in the car and on the go and it doesn't count against my LTE data allotment.

  • Michael Wolff Says:

    If the cost of an older tablet WITH cellular access (us cellular that I'll never use) is cheaper than a WiFi only, just get the cellular?

  • Jeffrey Says:

    So this article is a great example of why it is important to speak to someone who actually understands how cellular technology works before making a purchase (or spouting off nonsense on the internet). I have worked in the cellular world for almost a decade and I have been working with computers for almost 30 years. Anyone who has even the most minor amount of knowledge about portable technology should understand that the more you heat up a battery and the more strain you put on it, the shorter it's life will be. Nothing puts a greater strain on a smartphone battery than using the mobile hotspot feature, as mentioned below by others. People who use their mobile hotspot the way this author describes are the customers who have to upgrade every 6 months to a year with me because their batteries just won't hold a charge anymore. I have been using cellular tablets since the second one I ever bought. My data usage is almost nothing as I normally have WiFi available, but for those time when I don't, it is invaluable. The last thing I want to do is share a public WiFi connection when I am checking my bank balance or accessing my other accounts from my tablet. If you really want to save money, get a free jetpack from your carrier, it is designed to be a mobile hotspot that you can run for hours with no detrimental effects and can connect to 10 or more devices. Then you can buy any tablet you want and never have an issue. But if you want simplicity and to not murder your phone's battery for the sake of saving a few dollars a month, then get a cellular tablet.

  • Chuck Says:

    Of course if you are on a grandfathered in unlimited data plan, you have no reason not to pay that little bit of extra premium for that capability. ;)

  • Mitch K. Says:

    The things you say are true, having a 4G tablet *and* a smartphone is not a particularly smart or thrifty combination. But to be fair, there are *two* ways out of that conundrum. I realize this is an old post, but the option you don't mention - using the 4G tablet for everything and getting rid of the smartphone - makes enough sense that it shouldn't be completely ignored.

    I started out with an iPhone 6 and a (wifi) Nexus 7. Within a month I was using the tablet for everything but phone calls, and then with the addition of a bluetooth earpiece the tablet was handling phone calls too. Switching to a Nexus 7 3G let me drop the 'smart'phone and its $65/month plan, and I have been using the 3G tablet with a $30/3Gb/month data plan ever since - almost 3 years now. (With AT&T's data plan, you get free access to any nearby AT&T wifi, which is so ubiquitous that I've never come anywhere near maxing out the data.) That's 72 months * $35 saved on data plan alone, with no nonsense like paying for texts or 'minutes' (data is data) and a pay-as-you-go data plan (no two-year contracts) to which I am able to easily add international service when travelling.

    People have told me that they considered a 7" 'phone' to be ridiculous... but a large number of those same people are now using 6" phones, and paying more 2-2.5x more per month for the same functionality I get with the 3G tablet.

  • Brent Says:

    If you buy an iPad with 4g you also get a Gps, so even if you don't put a sim in it, you can use it as a large screen Navman in the car etc

  • Allan Browder Says:

    Just reading this article, and the comments. To the writer of the article.... write on man. Perfectly simple explanation of saving money on a tablet. To the commenters.... just because you disagree doesn't mean what he's saying doesn't make since.
    I have an LTE tablet for work that was provided to me only because they track my sales stops and it always has to have connection in my car, even when my cell is not. However, my personal iPad is always with me when I have my phone, and tethering when not around hotspots is by far the easiest thing known to man.
    If you don't have a smartphone, cool. Get a tablet with cell connection. It's not rocket science, but this author just wanted to save some people some pennies, not launch a nuclear war.

  • Fred Stiening Says:

    I tried this approach for a few days - using an iPhone 4GS and IPad mini 2 using t-mobile and in reverse. The 4GS does not support LTE, only "4G".

    I have the "stupid" iPad mini retina with LTE support. I have installed Google Voice that allows for phone functions without needing a phone at all, as long as I don't mind the size.

    As others have pointed out, using a phone to be a hotspot means it is operating both as an LTE device and a Wifi Router. The phone gets too hot to touch. Adding a charger to keep the battery from draining only increases the heat problem. Increased latency because of the relaying becomes obvious very quickly.

    When I get tired of the iPhone 4GS, I will just increase my data plan and drop the 3 MB AT&T DSL service + landline that costs $55/month. That buys a lot of T-Mobile data. For phone backup, a cheap pay as you go flip phone will do.

  • Sid Gilmore Says:

    So, the author's argument is based on the assumption that the user has a "smart" phone. I have to wonder why a person with a smart phone has a tablet? I gave my smart phone away because I got tired of the tiny screen. I replaced it with a simple rugged flip phone for phone stuff and a tablet for browsing and media consumption stuff. No compromises here. The flip phone has no tethering capability. I wish it did. So, a LTE tablet is required.

  • MRNICEGUY1989 Says:

    I highly disagree with the above and this is why.... I know alot about Tmobile not just because I work for them, but I'm also a customer. Idk where you got your info from, but it's highly misguided. You failed to mention that though Tmobile charges $20 for a data plan you get a $10 discount for having a Voice line. Also the $20 includes music freedom for music streaming, and it comes with 2GB of data monthly. Also you mentioned that AT&The charges $15 a month for 250MB, but what you didn't mention is that Tmobile offers 200MB a month free, and yes I mean free no string attached. Noone else does this. and if you want to knock on a company, anyou company know the facts! For writing reviews you do a very cruddy work in researching!

  • Tablet0323 Says:

    As to the best opp.for
    Peter, I got the Samsung 10.1 4g four years, shut off comcast land line. 19.99 a month. T-Mo 30.00 for 3gs.
    I was going to buy the surface, Windows, ubuntu fan. But at that time no 4G

    Got the samsung for 249.00

  • John P Kerr Says:

    I already have a Smartphone with a data plan so my LTE-enabled Asus ZenPad Z8 only costs ten dollars a month to access my data pool. Tether a non-rooted Android phone very much and you may start seeing a 'Hot Spot' billing monthly charge on your accoun - not to mention thethering seems to use more battery on your smartphone than normal.

  • Peter Piper Says:

    I don't have a cell phone and don't plan on buying one so what's the best option for me on a tablet?

  • 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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