Should I Buy a Tablet with Wi-Fi or with 3G?

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Should I Buy a Tablet with Wi-Fi or with 3G?
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Should I Buy a Tablet with Wi-Fi or with 3G?

Are you ready to join the tablet revolution? Every since Apple released its groundbreaking iPad on April 3, 2010, the face of mobile computing has undergone a massive revolution thanks to sleek, easy-to-use, and ultra hip tablet computers. However, unlike laptops before them, trying to decide whether to buy a tablet with Wi-Fi only or with 3G and Wi-Fi is tough. There are clear positives and negatives to each decision and indeed many of the most well-known tech insiders from the likes of PC World and ReadWriteWeb cannot even decide on the best way to go.

For buyers engaging in the 3G vs. Wi-Fi debate, this buying guide is designed to help. It will begin by reviewing the basic history of tablet computers along with reviewing the definitions of 3G and Wi-Fi for those who are still confused. Next, a discussion of the pros and cons of each choice as well as the nature of the 3G vs. Wi-Fi debate will further help readers gain perspective on this issue. Finally, a solution will be offered along with buying tips that are designed to help buyers get the most out of the tablet experience.

A Brief History of Tablet Computers

Before 2010, most people had never heard of the concept of a tablet computer, but in fact the concept and technology have roots as far back as the 1800s. It was in 1888, in fact, when a device called the telautograph, a precursor to the fax machine, was developed by Elisha Gray. Eighty years later, in 1968, Alan Kay developed the Dynabook, which is largely linked to the development of the laptop computer. Finally, computer powerhouse Microsoft actually produced a Microsoft Tablet PC in the 2000s which was actually used in hospitals and certain outdoor businesses for limited purposes.

It was Apple, however, who changed the game with the much-anticipated release of the iPad in April 2010. Announced at a press conference earlier that year, the iPad was borne of several other attempts by Apple and its founder Steve Jobs to bring the tablet computer into the mainstream. Modeled after Apple’s insanely popular iPhone, the iPad was exactly what tablet computing needed to get the attention (and sales) needed to bring it to the next level. Since that launch, Apple has redesigned its signature tablet several times over while other manufacturers such as Samsung, Motorola, Sony, and Amazon have followed suit. The iPad remained on top, however, and was the most purchased and sought after tablet computer on the market; no competitor even approached the iPad’s success.

Understanding Tablets and the Mobile Web

For many people, especially those who are not very good with traditional computers, such as the young and old, the touch-screen interface and user-friendly applications of tablets make them the obvious choice. However, as simple as the use of tablet computers can be, understanding exactly what they are and what the terms used to describe them mean is not so easy. Therefore, before discussing the debate over Wi-Fi or 3G, let’s first review what all of this means.

Defining Tablet Computers vs. eReaders

Although tablet computers have gained industry prominence in a very short time, their specifics are still a bit elusive to some. This is because prior to the release of the iPad another popular tablet-like device was already on the market. Beginning with Amazon’s Kindle in November 2007 and continuing with the Barnes and Noble Nook in October of 2009, the transition towards a more digital society began. eReaders, as these devices were called, allowed avid readers the option of collecting books without the bulk. These tablet-like devices were actually mini-hard drives in the shape and size of a book. However, this one device was set up to store thousands of files of text that made up everything from the classics of William Shakespeare to the modern suspense of Tom Clancy. However, unlike tablets, the function of eReaders was and is limited to reading books, some web browsing, and a few pre-loaded games. There are no applications (apps) on eReaders.

Defining Wi-Fi vs. 3G

The next big source of confusion for many buyers is the issue at the core of this guide: what it means to buy a tablet with Wi-Fi or with 3G. Knowing what each of these functions does and what it means is crucial in determining which of the two is necessary for an individual’s lifestyle. So, let’s consider each definition.

Wi-Fi or Wire-Free

The term Wi-Fi is pretty standard among the younger generations, but many may not even know what it means. Wi-Fi is short for the term "wire free" and it refers to devices that connect to a private Internet connection without the use of a wire. This is accomplished through the use of a wireless router which sends out a signal that Wi-Fi-ready devices can read.

At first, Wi-Fi was used primarily by laptop computers, but now it is integrated into everything from smartphones and tablets to surveillance camera systems. A device with Wi-Fi capabilities is able to sign onto the Internet anytime there is a signal present. However, the presence of the signal depends on the locale. Many homes are now Wi-Fi capable, as are workplaces. There is also an increasing move for Wi-Fi ability to be integrated into everyday hangouts like restaurants, gyms, and coffee shops. However, the Wi-Fi available in these public places may or may not require a fee to use and usually it isn’t as secure as a home or work network.

3G of Third Generation

Like Wi-Fi, 3G is short for something. In this case, the term 3G refers to "third generation" which references the fact that 3G devices are hooked into the third generation of mobile service networks, or the infrastructure used by wireless companies. Each "generation" of mobile network is said to be faster than the previous one and, more and more, even 3G networks are being replaced by 4G networks and 4G tablets as technology advances.

3G is widely available on most tablets. However, whereas all tablets on the market today come automatically equipped with Wi-Fi, getting a device wired for 3G is optional. Plus, even those with the ability to use 3G technology cannot do so unless there is a service contract which allows the device to do so. However, once a contract is activated, it allows a user to access the Internet from anywhere that 3G is present. In the U.S., this amounts to pretty much wherever you can reasonably go.

The Pros and Cons of Buying a Tablet with Wi-Fi or with 3G

For buyers interested in purchasing a tablet computer, deciding on whether or not to go with the 3G option or Wi-Fi alone becomes a hot issue. The technology used on these devices has truly come a long way in a very short period of time. This makes the choice of device even more difficult given the rapid changes likely to continue to take place. Consider the fact that when they were first introduced in 2007, eReaders required users to buy a book over the Internet, either through Amazon or Barnes and Noble’s websites, and then tether their device to the computer to download the book for reading on-the-go. Though eventually eReaders picked up Wi-Fi connections that allowed users to get their books from local wireless Internet connections and eventually 3G was added as well. A few models of eReader, such as the Amazon Kindle DX, don’t offer Wi-Fi, but only 3G, but this is a rare combination.

The same cannot be said of the Wi-Fi vs. 3G debate on tablets, however. Price is one of the biggest factors that deters users from going with the 3G option because all tablets offer Wi-Fi. Nevertheless, a true discussion of the benefits and drawbacks to each choice, Wi-Fi only or 3G/Wi-Fi, is the only way to really end a personal debate.

The Pros and Cons Explained

The choice between a Wi-Fi only tablet over one with 3G capabilities comes down to personality and intended use. However, no matter who is buying or using a tablet computer, there are some definite pros and cons to making each option. Briefly, here are the major reasons for buying one type of tablet over the other.

Wi-Fi Only

3G Plus Wi-Fi

Initial Price: No matter the brand or model of tablet chosen, the Wi-Fi only option will be 10 to 20 percent cheaper.

Unlimited Access: Tablets with 3G are able to access the Internet anywhere there is a cell phone signal. This allows Internet access in places where it is difficult to find or create a Wi-Fi signal, such as while in a car or walking down the street.

Lack of Data Plan: In addition to the added cost up front, in order to use a 3G network, buyers will have to purchase a data plan through a major cell phone carrier for an additional monthly fee along with a contract.

Urban-Bias: Sure, people in the city can almost always find a business with Wi-Fi, but this is not nearly as prevalent in more rural areas. Plus, smaller businesses tend to charge for Wi-Fi access.

Ease of Use: Wi-Fi is pretty straightforward to use, as is 3G. However, the use of 3G will cost users precious data time. Therefore, failure to change over to Wi-Fi when available can end up costing even more. On the flip side, if Wi-Fi is the only option that the tablet has, there’s no worry.

The Inconvenience of MiFi: Though in theory the use of a mobile hotspot is great, it also costs money, as cell phone providers charge for the ability to do this. Also, creating MiFi with a phone can drain its battery, necessitating access to an outlet as well, thereby restricting the ability to create MiFi hotspots in certain areas.

Connectivity Options: Despite the lack of a data plan and 3G, there are options for connecting online while on-the-go through mobile hotspots (MiFi) and public Wi-Fi domains. Anyone with a smartphone can create a mobile hotspot.


The choice to buy a tablet with Wi-Fi or with 3G really comes down to the purpose of purchasing a tablet in the first place. For people who travel a lot on business, the need to access the Internet quickly from all devices is of ultra importance. On the other hand, people who spend most of their time at the office or at home will always have Wi-Fi readily available and little need for the burden or extra cost of the 3G option. In addition, one’s ability to pay for an additional device on a data plan, as is required to use 3G, can also be a determining factor. However, more and more, cell phone companies like Verizon are introducing device and data sharing plans which allows users to add and remove a device from their bill on a month-to-month basis.

Buying a Tablet with Wi-Fi or with 3G

Even once a buyer has decided whether to buy a tablet with Wi-Fi or with 3G, there is another decision: where to buy it. And the real key to success in the tablet buying process hinges on the answer to this question. Clearly, wireless dealers offer 3G tablets with their associated data plans. Many electronics retailers and big box stores also have both 3G options and Wi-Fi on their shelves. These dealers often maintain a relationship with wireless dealers as well which will push buyers into a data plan with their 3G tablet purchase. Online versions of these stores are similar, which makes the need for an alternative all the more present. The good news is that there is a solution.

The Solution: Buy a Tablet with Wi-Fi or with 3G on eBay

Of course, one obvious solution that many bloggers and technology experts seem to ignore is the halfway point. Rather than purchasing a tablet with 3G from a wireless dealer, which requires the singing of a contract, data plan, and so on, buyers can instead get a tablet from a third party dealer, like eBay, which offers 3G tablets without the need for a data plan. This gives buyers the ability to shop around for tablets by different brands, like Sony and Samsung, while also leaving the option for a data plan open and optional.

Though the tablets offered by the wireless dealer may be cheaper, they make all that money back in data plans. In addition, refurbished tablets, even refurbished iPads, can easily be bought online through websites like eBay. This offers buyers the option to make the choice about Wi-Fi or 3G at a later time by purchasing an "unlocked" tablet. The sellers on eBay’s website, particularly those in the Computers, Tablets & Networking Shop offer both the option of purchasing a Wi-Fi only tablet as well as 3G tablets with and without data plans.


Making the choice to buy a tablet with Wi-Fi or with 3G can be tough. Even once a buyer understands what makes a tablet a tablet and the differences between Wi-Fi and 3G in terms of Internet access, the decision is rife with contradictions. Ultimately, the decision is entirely dependent upon the person making the purchase and his or her intentions for its use. However, for those who are still not sure or even those who want to leave their options open for the future, the best compromise may be to buy a 3G tablet without a service contract through a website like eBay. That way, the experience of buying a tablet can encompass all possibilities without the need to break the bank, a sure recipe for success.

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