UK Markets closed

How to get online for less on your iPad or Android tablet

The tablet market is hotting up. With the Microsoft Surface, Google Nexus 7 for Android and Apple’s new iPad Mini (and new iPad for that matter) for iOS just released, consumer choice has never been better.

But whichever platform you’re a follower of there are some key things to consider before you dip a toe in tablet town.

One of the primary sales points of any tablet is its convenience – the ability to take with you a fully-fledged big screen and internet-enabled device that’s small enough for a large pocket or small handbag.

Depending on your budget and needs, you can choose between a WiFi only or WiFi and 3G/4G enabled model.

WiFi only models are cheaper, but can limit your ability to get online and negate the point of you buying a tablet in the first place. Here we take a look at both so you can make the most informed buying decision.

                                                [Related: Get the best deals on tablets here]

WiFi only tablets

There are plenty of good reasons to opt for a WiFi-only tablet. Primary is price – they’re significantly cheaper than their mobile-network enabled siblings.

The new iPad Mini for example is £100 cheaper as WiFi only, while Google’s Nexus 7 is £40 less. And Microsoft’s Surface is WiFi only, so unnecessary does the tech giant consider network connectivity (to some serious eyebrow rising from critics and consumers alike).

WiFi hotspots

WiFi only tablets are not quite as online limited as you may first think. Most cities and towns now have extensive WiFi coverage through services like BT Wi-fi (formerly Openzone), The Cloud and, free until 2013 on the London Underground, Virgin WiFi.

There are plenty of options on how to access and use these services, from hourly, daily and weekly rental to on-going monthly subscriptions that can come in cheaper than a SIM subscription depending on your usage. Many home broadband and mobile network providers also offer WiFi hotspot deals or free access as part of other contracts.

Free WiFi is also now ubiquitous in restaurants, cafes and bars nationwide – just turn on your tablet and see which signals are available and look out for the WiFi logo in windows.

Sites like MyHotspots show you where WiFi hotspots are located.

                                [Related: Choose wi-fi-only tablets here]

Mobile hotspots
If there are no WiFi hotspots and you have a mobile phone, you may be able to get online using internet tethering to create a mobile hotspot. By connecting your tablet to your mobile phone over WiFi, Bluetooth or USB, the internet-connected phone can act as a portable wireless access point and router for your tablet.

Tethering is a feature not every smartphone owner will be aware of. Perhaps because many mobile operators have either barred or charged extra for it, or simply don’t mentioned it at all - fearful that it may impact on mobile dongle sales.

Tethering is quick and easy way to get your tablet online. It’s now available on most Android, Blackberry and Apple mobile phones and all operators offer it, although not on every tariff and some only as bolt-ons. If you’re in doubt as to whether tethering is included in your tariff, check with your network operator.

Some of the best current plans with tethering include the Three’s The One Plan and Orange Panther, tethering on Vodafone and O2 is allowed on all tariffs.

If you’re with a network provider that does charge for tethering, there are apps that fool your phone into thinking it’s not tethering, so you can use your standard contract without paying the tethering charge. PdaNet runs on all mobile platforms and offers a free trial before you need to buy the full version for $15.95.

                            [Related: Get the best deals on MiFi here]


The other option is to pick up a MiFi device, which acts as a personal hotspot that you can connect any WiFi enabled devices. These are available on pay month contracts starting at £15.99 a month for 5GB data or single month deals from £50 with 1GB of data . You can also use some such as the Huawei E589 Mobile WiFi from EE, to access 4G services.

WiFi + 3G/4G tablets

The other option is to forsake the need for tethering, apps, extra MiFi devices and relying on WiFi spots and instead go for a network-enabled tablet with 3G or 4G connectivity. You simply need to decide if the extra initial cost and reduced hassle balances against your need to get online all the time.

As with your mobile phone, these are available from network providers or unlocked direct from the manufacturer, so you can marry them to a SIM-only deal.

There are good deals around for both, such as the SIM-only for iPad from Three or the iPad bundle add-on from Orange. You just need to decide how much data you intend to use and pick the allowance best suited to your needs.