Should you tether your tablet to your phone, or just get a 3G tablet?

Tethering

Anyone planning to buy an internet tablet has to ask one question. It’s not whether to choose a iPad or Android, and it’s not whether you want a 7 inch or 10 inch screen.

It’s this: 3G or WiFi?

While a 3G or 4G model might be more flexible, it also comes at a far greater cost. Mobile broadband plans in the US start at $30 per month, and heavy users might have to pay upwards of $80 per month.

For many, if not most, users, that cost comes in addition to a monthly smartphone data plan. Getting a 3G tablet, then, means paying twice for data.

A commonly suggested solution involves using the first data plan to cover the second. For an additional fee, (usually around $15 per month), US cellular carriers allow users to tether their smartphones to other devices, such as laptops and tablets. Since that’s about half the price of the lowest-tier tablet data plan, it might appear to be a viable solution.

But while tethering a smartphone to a tablet does provide many advantages, it also brings on burdens that might render it a poor option for certain users.

Advantages of Tethering

1. Only paying once for data

Smartphone users already pay around $30 per month for a data plan. It seems excessive to add another $30 to $80 for a tablet data plan, especially when it’s only practical to use data on one device at a time.

Eventually carriers may create multi-device data bundles, but until that day comes owning both a smartphone and a 3G tablet will remain an expensive endeavor. By tethering users pay only once, with an extra $15 tethering fee, to power both devices.

2. Tethering multiple devices

By paying for a monthly tethering plan, users can not only use their smartphones to power their tablets, but also their laptops. While tablets are versatile devices that can take the place of laptops, oftentimes the laptop is the right tool for a certain job.

Having an always-on internet connection can be helpful. That option is not available for users who own a 3G tablet without a tethering plan.

3. Cheaper device cost

Many 3G tablets also come in WiFi-only versions, and the WiFi versions are always cheaper. Just look at the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. It costs $650 total (though only $400 up front), while the WiFi-only version costs $500.

The iPad is priced similarly. Users will not only save money by paying for just one data plan, but they’ll also save in up-front device costs. Someone who buys the Galaxy Tab 3G model will pay $1,320 in a two-year span on top of their smartphone plan ($650 device, minus $50 rebate, plus $30 per month for the lowest-tier data plan).

A tethering customer will pay just $875 in the same span ($15/month for tethering plus the $500 device).

Disadvantages of Tethering

1. Data caps

While Sprint remains a holdout, most US carriers have moved towards capping monthly data usage. Having both a smartphone and a tablet on a single data line could put some users over the lowest-tier limit.

Using T-Mobile again as an example, a user who might have previously gotten by with a $70 monthly plan, which provides 2GB of full-speed data, might not be able to do so with another device dipping into that allotment.

It might force the user to the $80 or even $110 tier, which, combined with the $15 monthly tethering fee, will raise the two-year cost to between $1,115 and $1,835. That doesn’t make it seem like much of a bargain.

From recent personal experience, I can attest that even 5GB is a relatively low cap. With any device as powerful as a tablet it’s easy to hit that limit in relatively little time.

2. Battery life

Smartphones might seem like little computers, but they still play a role as our cell phones. That makes their battery lives valuable in many ways. Unfortunately, tethering sucks a smartphone battery dry.

This is especially true if the smartphone is used as a WiFi hotspot, which is a common form of tethering. But even with a USB cable tether (and not all tablets have USB ports), the constant use of 3G or 4G signal can drain the battery at a rapid rate. Low or no battery on a smartphone renders both devices less usable, or unusable.

Yet it seems like that issue would crop up frequently if there doesn’t happen to be a wall socket in sight.

Again, recent personal experience puts tethering time at just a few hours before a recharge is necessary.

Verdict

The pros might outweigh the cons in number, but the cons are weighty factors. Data caps can eat into the savings of having a WiFi-only tablet, and the battery life can be a deal breaker for anyone who is not frequently near a charging port.

Surely there are users who will benefit from tethering. Those who don’t plan to use the 3G features often come to mind first. The budget-conscious, too, can make a tethering plan work to their great advantage. It take some restraint, but the savings are certainly there for the taking.

Heavier users, and in particular heavy smartphone users, will find many difficulties in tethering a WiFi tablet. The battery and data issues render it less viable than a 3G tablet, even if the 3G tablet costs a little more.

Joe Pawlikowski edits both BBGeeks and AndGeeks, blogs that provide users with information on how to get the most out of their BlackBerry and Android devices.

  • Bruce

    Water, electricity, natural gas, gasoline. You pay for what you use. Somehow with voice and data it becomes a gambling event where you make a guess, spin a wheel, and then you pay.

    Does the third Gigabyte cost a company more to provide than the first? Do the megabytes that are over your contract amount cost more to provide than the ones that are not? Does providing 2 gigabytes for 2 different machines cost more than providing the same amount to one machine? No, no, and no.

    The reason this article exists is because the phone carriers are running their businesses like a Las Vegas casino instead of a utility company. I think that should be noted in the article.

    • Anonymous

      In part that may be the case but there is also the issue that the infrastructure for wireless bandwidth isn’t sufficient to provide all the data bandwidth needs for everyone.  So carriers use pricing to help throttle usage and prevent what bandwidth they do have from getting all used up.

      The worst examples of artificially inflated pricing though is actually for sms/texting, which uses the least amount of bandwidth but is charged as if it used heavy bandwidth.  In fact, it uses so little bandwidth that during emergencies when even the normal voice lines are down and networks are pushed to their limits you still have a chance of getting a sms/text through.

      • Bruce

        “the infrastructure for wireless bandwidth isn’t sufficient to provide all the data bandwidth needs for everyone.” What people need depends on the price. Raise the price for everyone, and the need goes down.”carriers use pricing to help throttle usage” Typically the first 200 megabytes you buy are much more expensive than the first 2 GB. In that case, carriers are using pricing to encourage usage. Pay a little more, get a lot more. Again, going over your 200 megabyte plan can add up to charges that are much more than for a 2GB plan. The only consistant thing carriers use pricing for to extract as much money from subscribers as possible.Limited resources as justification for pricing is only an excuse to be used by carriers when it is convenient and ignored when it’s not.

      • Anonymous

        What people need is what people need, price just determines how easy it is for them to get it or whether they have to compromise.

        While competition and availability determine what people have to choose from.

        Much of the problem is that there’s the minimum charge for the services being provided, which explains why the smaller initial data usage deals tend to cost more per MB.  It’s just that minimum charge reflects less on larger data package deals and thus the discrepancy.

        Like with most things we buy, the larger the quantity the generally lower the unit price goes.

        It’s also true that the infrastructure is limited and for that they use a combination of pricing and data caps to set the upper limit of what people can use before they either get throttled or cut off.

        While part of the costs involved is also the what they charge for maintaining the system and continuing to expand it.

        However, this is not to say everything the carriers do is on the up and up.  They do manipulate the system to their advantage and that accounts for most of the inconsistencies, especially in the handling of overages and finding things to charge for.  They just hide much of this within legit considerations that makes it hard to point out legally and obviously where they are abusing consumers.

        My previous point was just to say that SMS/Texting is where they do this the worst versus what it actually costs them and the best example of the abuse.

      • Bruce

        I agree that text and SMS is the worst in terms of price gouging by the carriers.

        I disagree about people having absolute data needs. To me it’s all negotiable.

        There are much simpler, fairer ways to to keep everyone from using up all of the carrier’s data bandwidth. I think we both agree on that.

        There is absolutely no technological or economic justification for forcing people to guess in advance how many minutes (of data or voice) that they will use and then penalizing them if they go over and keeping the extra money if they go under. That’s just legalized robbery as far as I am concerned.

  • Anonymous

    I tether and feel the charge for tethering should not be allowed if the data plan is capped. What does it matter whether you use 4GB from a phone, tablet or laptop? Cell providers are just greedy. I can’t think of any other reason for a monthly charge just for the ability to tether. They charge because they can. Consumers have no choice but to pay or not pay. With being connected becoming more a part of everyday life its difficult to avoid being taken advantage of.

    I hope one day a cell provider decides to drop the tethering charge. Then all the others will have to follow.

    • Anonymous

      The up to 4gb is a marketing ploy.  Really they want and expect you to use only 500mb – 1gb on a phone so tethering will mean you actually use that 4gb you have paid for.  They can’t have you doing that now!

    • http://www.facebook.com/kimhudsons Kim Jackson

      You are so right. They charge you because they
      know the consumer has no choice but to pay for a service that should be for free. Here in Australia tethering has always been available for free.

  • Mel

    Anyone know of any devices that can Bluetooth tether and also take advantage of the higher speeds of Bluetoth 3.0/4.0?

    • Anonymous

      the HS profile in bluetooth 3 or greater is basically using a wifi radio to carry the bluetooth traffic. As such, one is perhaps better of using wifi for tethering (tho bluetooth may be easier for pushing data between enabled devices locally, at least until we start seeing more wifi direct devices out there).

      • Joe

        My understanding is that 802.11 is only used when transferring large amounts of data. So during idle periods, it may use less power than the hotspot feature.

        Also, I haven’t read what parts of the 802.11 standard is used so it may use less power while active as compared to the hotspot. My hotspot uses 802.11n so it might use more power than Bluetooth 3.0+HS.

      • Anonymous

        wifi can also idle these days. I have left a seasoned N800 sitting with wifi on for a day and still had plenty of battery left. And to be honest, to really settle this one would need a bunch of devices with different capabilities and test them all under controlled conditions to see how the various options affect battery life.

    • JamesT

      I’d like to know what devices support this. It should use less power (both idle and active) than the WiFi hotspot.

    • Joeku

      Blackberry Playbook tethers over bluetooth perfectly. it is the only tethering of its kind that I know of

      • Mel

        Does it support the HS part of Bluetooth 3.0?

      • Roids

        It’s better if you go to more European centered sites so your question won’t get overwhelmed by users talking about tethering fees, rooting, companies being greedy, etc. I don’t know the answer to your question since I, too, am part of the anti-tethering fee crowd, thus, have not had the chance to look into Bluetooth 3.0 tethering.

  • Anonymous

    As a liliputing reader from germany, i pity my fellow tenchophiles in north america.

    Over here carriers also have monthly data caps, but if you go over, you’re just throttled to GPRS speeds, there are never any overcap charges. flatrate does mean i get charged “a flat rate”, regardless if i stay just within my monthly cap, or go 20 GB over, the connection just gets slower overcap.

    In Addition to that, i can not recall ever even seeing a tethering addon plan, if i want to tether, i do….if i don’t, i don’t.

    In Addition to all that, at least one carrier over here (o2 Germany) offers what they call “MultiSIM”. On ANY type of cellphone plan, regardless if voice, data, combinations…. you can order a “MultiSIM”-Upgrade for UP TO 3 SIM CARDS on a single contract, that all share the same number, same plan, same everything.
    So you can pop one SIM in your cellphone, one in your Tablet, 1 into a Notebook or 3G-Dongle, or MiFi, what have you.

    MultiSIM is a ONE TIME UPGRADE charge of 25 EUR INCLUDING sales tax.

    • Anonymous

      Much the same up in Norway as well. Every time i read about mobile technology these days i cringe because ever since the iphone was unveiled the tech media have looked to USA as some kind of mobile tech mecca…

    • Anonymous

      In the US, T-Mobile does use the throttle method for those who go over their limit.  Though that may end if and when they finally merge with AT&T.

      While there’s growing system of making consumers aware of their data usage with monitoring services to show how much data is being used.

      Data cut offs help prevent overages for those carriers unwilling to provide service after the limit.  Though not fool proof to prevent overages.  So a lot of effort has gone to giving phones monitoring apps that can also set threshold usage alarms and auto cut offs from the phone itself, and/or set options like allow data only with WiFi, as well as decide whether roaming is ever used.

      Main problem is the wireless network in the US isn’t yet up to providing service to everyone at once and the max capacity is far less than the hard lines.  All of which is exasperated by how so many people are starting to stop using land lines and use their cell for everything.

      This is easing as they set up the newer networks but upgrades in the US can take over a decade to saturate throughout the country.  So we’re behind the curve on making the system as good as many European countries seem to have it now.

      Though there is some price gouging involved and not as much competition as there should be that does help the situation either.

      • Anonymous

        At least for germany, there are only 4 Providers/Networks, not 4 big and a few little ones, 4 in total. there are a lot of, what in some countries is called, “virtual providers” but they are basicaly just using the networks of the big 4, and offer branded or differently tailored plans.

        Germany has a telecommunications regulatory agency that ensures competitivness amongst the big providers and protects consumers from price gouging. It not only deals with wireless regulation, but also landline copper / fibre / cable regulation.

        It was/is responsible for auctioning off 3g/4g Frequencies to private enterprise to build telecommunication networks with and has the authority to revoke the use of these frequencies if a provider takes no effort to provide wide and reliable coverage within a reasonable timeframe.

        For example, the first provider to roll out a regular operation LTE Network over here only got awarded the frequencies to do so under the stipulation that they had to provide a viable alternative to DSL Home connections in rural or low density population areas where DSL or Cable are not a viable option.

        This may sound weird and “unfair” or restrictive from a free market perspective i find a lot of Americans express and tout as the best model.

        But it leads to a telecommunications market in which i reliably get 12-14 MBit/s speeds on the 14.4 MBit/s HSPA network of my provider everywhere in urban areas in and around the capital of berlin where i live.

        As for prices, using the practices of throttled speeds but continous service overcap detailed in my original post the price structures of my provider are as follows:

        1 GB/month = 15 € ($ 20.48)
        5 GB/month = 25 € ($ 34.12)
        7.5 GB/month= 35 € ($ 47.77)

        These are special data plans, regular cellphone plans for talking and texting usualy already cover 300 MB @7.2 MBit/s and at least on my provicer cover an ulimited talktime flatrate to cellnumbers on the same network (remember, there are only 4 in total in the country) and to EVERY landline phone number that is not a special service number with additional service charges ontop of normal calls.

  • Anonymous

    Just get a 3G tablet.

    Where I live, a data transfer only SIM costs around 10-15€ monthly (prepaid or contract), several carriers offer it. Up to 15mbps, no caps.

    I don’t see a reason for tethering if you plan to be connected to the net all the time, plus I find an all-in-one concept much more convenient and user friendly.

    Too bad that, for example, Asus has managed to mess up its 3G tablet releases. Personally, I’m not getting a tablet if it doesn’t have 3G inbuilt. It’s not about the price at that point, it’s about preference and convenience.

    • Anonymous

      Decision isn’t so simple for many people when there can be many factors involved to determine which is the best choice for each user.

      While preference and convenience are the usual determining factors there is also other factors like redundancy, cost, usefulness, availability, reliability, and performance.

      Depending on whether those other factors effects a person’s choices means built in 3G can’t be considered an automatic choice for everyone.

      • Anonymous

        Of course it’s not an automatic choice, but the point is that there’s no reason for a 3G-version to not to be an alternative for people, especially when demand is high. Just because you can tether, doesn’t mean you necessarily have to.

        The previous comment was just my personal take on the issue, I find it odd that nowadays a relatively small mobile device should use another mobile device to get, what often is, a basic and limited internet connection. 

      • Anonymous

        It’s not odd if you factor redundancy.  Since pretty much everyone already carries a phone, which includes people using a tablet. Meaning, unless they really need the capacity of an extra data plan then that’s just extra cost for a convenience they may not even need.

        While no one said there would be no reason to get a 3G-version, just that there are reasons not to and that they can outweigh the number of reasons to want to.  While the lack of convenience is minimal if they simply tether the phone that they are likely also to be carrying anyway.

        Of course, there are also people who don’t really needs phones and can make due with just a 3G tablet but that doesn’t represent most consumers.

  • Mike Scofield

    Here in UK, ‘all you can eat data’ is common and even on 1gb monthly plans, its not expensive to use a bit more data if you use your Android hotspot a few times whilst travelling. I think this is a US specific debate…