Tablet 3G: The Connectivity Headache

"3G or not 3G; that is the question." The pun may be appalling, but the decision itself is more than enough to drive new tablet buyers to Hamlet-style distraction. Do they opt for cheaper, WiFi-only slates and potentially spend half their tableteering time chasing hotspots, or does a 3G-enabled model make more sense, albeit at greater expense and/or with a minimum data agreement?

On the one hand, there's convenience. By opting for a tablet with 3G integrated, you generally don't have to worry about where you are when you want to get online; instead, it's just a matter of hitting the browser icon and starting your surfing. Mobile hotspots and cellphones with 3G sharing functionality work, but you need to remember to charge them. If you're a CDMA cellphone user then sharing your connection means you can't use that device to receive calls, something Verizon iPhone 4 owners have discovered to their frustration.

Still, giving a single device a dedicated connection is invariably more expensive, both upfront and over the lifetime of the device. Tablets – just like notebooks – with WWAN inside cost more than their WiFi-only counterparts, because after all you're paying for another radio chipset. Carriers may offer subsidies to bring the initial outlay down, but that generally locks you into a two-year minimum data agreement.

Those data agreements can add up over time, too. Take Motorola's XOOM for instance: Verizon Wireless offers it contract-free for $799.99, but $599.99 if you agree to a 24-month contract. The cheapest monthly plan is $20 – which gets you 1GB of data – so the total cost of ownership over the course of the agreement is $1,079.99. 1GB isn't much, either, when you're browsing the full internet on a 10-inch slate, and we imagine most users have found themselves going over that minimum amount and, after being stung with Verizon's $20-per-GB overage fee, opt for a more expensive monthly tariff with a bigger pot of data.

So far only really Apple has got the pick-and-choose connection strategy quite right. iPad 2 owners aren't confused with a contract: instead they can turn on 3G one month and then shut it off the next, only paying for it when they need it. It does mean that there's no 3G iPad subsidy, of course, but the convenience is handy.

Of course, some slates never leave the house, with their owners only ever reaching for them to do some sofa-surfing or to distract the kids with a quick game or two. If you're always within the warm, loving embrace of your own WiFi network (and maybe the WiFi at work) then bypassing the more expensive 3G tablets does make more sense. OEMs opting for Android generally haven't helped themselves by making WiFi-only versions relatively rare beasts, or pricing them higher than the entry-level iPad, though that's changing with the advent of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer.

Personally, despite loving the idea of anywhere-connectivity, the expense of having a 3G connection for multiple devices turns me off; I'll just use the hotspot feature on my phone instead. Consider me curious, though: is a tablet only useful to you if it has 3G inside, or are you willing to live with – or work around – the limitations of WiFi-only slates? Let us know your choice in the SlashGear poll, and feel free to explain your decision in the comments below!

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