Should I Get A Tablet With Cell Service?

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The new, top of the line Kindle Fire HDX – with a 4G LTE cell connectivity option.

Unless you’ve been off the grid for the past couple of weeks, you probably know Amazon has finally unveiled its new line of Kindle Fire HDX tablets, all of which include three different options for online connectivity: Wi-Fi only, Wi-Fi + AT&T 4G LTE cell service, or Wi-Fi + Verizon 4G LTE cell service.


Wi-Fi Only Versus Wi-Fi + Cell Service: Cell Service Is A Backup For When Wi-Fi’s Unavailable

When you’re using a device that has Wi-Fi connectivity, you can connect to the internet anytime you’re within range of a Wi-Fi network you can log on to. If you’re not within range of a Wi-Fi network, or at least not one you have access to use, the only other means to get internet connectivity is through cell service—assuming you’re trying to connect in an area that has cell coverage.

That’s when people whose devices have Wi-Fi PLUS cell service connectivity are really glad they forked over the extra cash for the cell-enabled hardware and the monthly cell service fee, because they still have internet access via their cell service connection—provided of course, they’re in an area that’s covered by their cell service provider’s network.

So that’s the basic premise behind adding cell service to a portable device that isn’t a phone: you’re not using the cell service to make or receive calls, you’re using it as a backup form of internet connectivity when no Wi-Fi connection is available.


The Pros and Cons

There’s really just one pro, and that’s having internet connectivity even when there’s no Wi-Fi available.

The cons are also pretty obvious: hardware with cell service capability built in costs more than the comparable Wi-Fi only model, and you’ll also have to pay for the cell service every month. Cell service providers are finally starting to offer more reasonable options, such as adding devices to an existing ‘unlimited phone and data’ plan you may already have, as well as monthly, no-contract, pay-as-you-go options starting as low as $20/month (with Verizon, as of this writing).

Those who want to be sure it will never be possible to connect to the internet using cell service might want to stick with a tablet that doesn’t even offer a cell connectivity option, like the new, second-generation Kindle Fire HD. At a cost of just $139 (as of this writing), it’s a pretty great deal.

If you already have an unlimited data plan and your service provider will let you add new devices, then your decision is a lot easier because it’s not going to cost you a whole extra service fee per month to have the cell option for your new tablet. But if your data plan does have limits, or you can’t add a new device to your existing plan, you need to do a little analysis before making the choice between Wi-Fi only and Wi-Fi + cell.


Tablets Eat A Lot Of Data

When you download or stream anything from the internet to your device, it’s basically one or more files being transferred from wherever they exist online to your device. Anytime you’re using your device to receive data, even if it’s only a temporary file transfer (like when you’re streaming music or video, as opposed to downloading them), you’re using some of your data allowance.

Unless you have an unlimited data plan, don’t even think about using that backup cell connection for streaming video. You can easily burn through your entire month’s data allowance streaming or downloading a single movie to your tablet if your allowance is 2GB/month or less.

As for music, streaming or downloading a few songs won’t necessarily break your data bank, but if you’re doing it a few days a week for hours each time you may very well go over your monthly limit.

By now you’re probably beginning to fear that if you’re at all concerned about data limits, you won’t be able to use most of your tablet’s functions when it’s using cell connectivity. With apologies in advance, I’m afraid we really need to do some math at this point for you to get a handle on how much data you’d likely use or need every month.


Doing The Math – How Much Data Would You Use Per Month?

There’s about 1,000,000 (that’s a million) kilobytes (KB) in a gigabyte (GB). Let’s say you go for a no-contract, pay as you go plan for $30 per month that gives you a data allowance of 2GB per month. An average-length MP3 song can have a file size of anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 KB, depending on the sound quality. If we go with the low end, you can get 250 songs out of your 1GB monthly data allowance. If we assume an average song length of 3.5 minutes, that’s about 14.6 hours of music. It sounds like a lot, until you remember it’s got to last you ALL MONTH.

Now consider movies. A ninety minute film in Standard Definition (SD) has a file size of 1.8 – 2 GB, on average. A High Definition (HD) version of the same film can be as much as triple that file size. That means you will probably use up your entire monthly allowance of 2GB just by streaming or downloading ONE standard definition movie, and your 2GB allowance isn’t enough to stream or download even a single HD film.

Adding a Wi-Fi hotspot device (like this one, from AT&T) to your existing cell service plan is another option for staying connected away from your home and office Wi-Fi when there are no public hotspots around. These devices come with monthly service fees and data limits, just like cell service plans, but they’re often less expensive per month than a comparable cell data plan.


Even If You’re Not Streaming Or Downloading, You Could Be Using Your Data Allowance

Every time your device has to “refresh” a screen on your phone, tablet or other mobile device, it’s transferring data. That means any apps you’re running that are ad-supported are using up some of your data allowance every time a new ad is loaded. Apps that automatically update online leaderboards are also eating your data. Apps like email that periodically check for new mail are using up data every time they perform that check.

Most devices that have both Wi-Fi and cell connectivity are intended to have the cell coverage kick in anytime you lose your Wi-Fi connection, so most are set up that way by default. That means your tablet could be chowing down on your data allowance without your even realizing it, beginning the moment your tablet gets out of Wi-Fi range. You can go into your tablet’s Settings menu to change this default setting, but you may have to dig down a few levels in the menu to do it, and many people don’t know they have to do it in the first place.

Most portable devices with Wi-Fi and/or cell connectivity have built-in tools or settings, such as “airplane mode”, you can use to turn off your data connection when desired to prevent unwanted data usage. But if you’ve never had to worry about budgeting your data on a tablet before because you’ve only ever used a Wi-Fi connection, you may not remember to turn off connectivity whenever no Wi-Fi is available.


So Is There ANY Situation Where The Cell Connection Is Worthwhile AND Affordable?

Yes, there are some people for whom this description fits. But not many.

1. People who can add a tablet to their pre-existing, unlimited data cell service plan.

2. People who truly need a backup connection method when Wi-Fi is unavailable for checking work emails, communicating with clients and so on, but only rarely find they can’t get a Wi-Fi connection. I’m talking 3-4 times a month for maybe 15-20 minutes of connectivity each time, only for accessing email or instant messaging services—not streaming or downloading anything.

Really, at this point, that’s about it. Tablets are designed to deliver all kinds of media: video, music, ebooks, internet, games, and more. But all of that media translates to a LOT of kilobytes and gigabytes. If you use your tablet for all of these purposes and want all of those functions available even when you’re away from a Wi-Fi connection, the only plan that makes financial sense is one with an unlimited data allowance (which will cost you anywhere from $70 – $200 per month on top of your cell service bill, depending on your carrier and devices, as of this writing).


In conclusion, at this early stage of the multimedia tablet game, cell connectivity is only going to make sense for people with unlimited data plans. The rest of us need to stick to our home and office Wi-Fi and/or free, public Wi-Fi hotspots, or else download whatever we intend to use away from Wi-Fi before we get out of Wi-Fi range.

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One Comment

  1. Comment by Debora Schmitt:

    Thanks for the info. I really wasn’t sure if I wanted to get the cell connectivity, now I know I really don’t want it and can’t afford it anyway.