Guide to iPad and other Tablet Devices : Part 7
Wireless Data Connectivity Choices and
Finding free Wi-Fi is a
bit like the police. There's never one when you want
one, but they also appear in the most unexpected places.
Did you know that there are
currently four main 'flavors' of Wi-Fi? The more types of
Wi-Fi connectivity your tablet supports, the more use you'll get
If you really need more access
to the internet in more places than that provided by Wi-Fi,
you'll need to consider the minefield of 3G data networking
choices open to you - confusing in terms of cost, inclusion,
coverage, and contract.
There are some other
connectivity issues we consider below as well that will help you
to get still more use out of your tablet.
We are increasingly living
in a world that was a science fiction dream only ten years ago.
We are - and we expect to be - connected to an increasingly
omniscient internet for more and more of our lives, and we are
increasingly reliant on that connection.
It is hard to think of much
we can use a computer for these days that doesn't require or at
least benefit from the internet. Even 'traditional'
computing tasks such as word processing and spreadsheets are
increasingly being done through 'the cloud' of the internet,
and/or with their results being stored in the cloud.
And so it is an essential
measure of the value and use/convenience of a tablet that it be
as connected to the internet as possible.
It is reasonable to expect
all tablets to have at least some Wi-Fi connection capabilities
- with the most basic being 802.11b. If the tablet also
has 802.11g, that is better, and if it has 802.11n, that is
better still; with 802.11a probably being the least valuable of
the four main Wi-Fi standards (and the least commonly found in
the typical Wi-Fi networks you'll be trying to connect to).
Unfortunately, Wi-Fi is not
a mobile technology, and finding free Wi-Fi (or even pay Wi-Fi)
is a haphazard thing - it probably exists at home and at work,
but probably does not exist in many other places you frequent.
And so some tablets also
offer 3G data connectivity over one of the wireless carriers'
cellphone data services. In the near future, we will
probably see tablets supporting the newer and still relatively
scarce 4G data services too.
Do you really need the extra
connectivity offered by access to a 3G data service? This
is something to carefully debate with yourself, because there
will probably be significant extra costs involved if you do
choose a 3G data capable device.
Although the tablet itself
might be subsidized by a wireless carrier, much as they do with
phone handsets now, if that is the case, you can be certain that
the downside to that will be a one or two year contract
committing you to a monthly spend of who knows how much a month.
And if the tablet itself is
not subsidized (as is the case with the iPad) you'll probably
pay more for its 3G capability (an extra $130 for the iPad) and
then of course you'll pay still more for the data you send and
receive via 3G (a minimum charge of $15 for 250MB of data to be
used within 30 days).
Our own feeling is that you
can probably manage without 3G connectivity. The chances
are you also have a smart phone that probably does have 3G
connectivity, so in an 'emergency' where you must access the
internet away from Wi-Fi, you can do so via your phone rather
than your tablet.
Furthermore, some Android
based phones will re-broadcast their 3G data connection as a
Wi-Fi connection, so you could connect to the internet through
the Wi-Fi signal from your phone.
Which leads to an
interesting additional connection capability. Tethering.
But first, there's one more issue associated with 3G data
3G Compatibility and Lock
Here are two potential
problems. In short, different wireless companies use both
different types of 3G data transmission and different
To explain by analogy, think
of the difference between AM and FM radio. A FM radio will
never pick up AM, and vice versa. And think of the
difference between a radio station at one frequency and another
at a different frequency - if you've no way of 'turning the
dial' on your radio, you'll never be able to hear the second
It is the same with 3G data.
Some wireless companies use one type of data service (eg
Verizon), others use a different type (eg AT&T, T-mobile, most
of the rest of the world).
But even within one service
type, there are different frequencies - in the US, T-mobile and
AT&T use a compatible type of service, but
different/incompatible frequencies, and other wireless companies
elsewhere in the world might use the same frequencies as AT&T
and/or different frequencies again.
The iPhone 4 ends up
supporting UMTS, HSDPA and HSUPA services, and four different
frequency bands - 850, 900, 1900 and 2100 MHz. The iPad
supports UMTS and HSDPA, and three different frequency bands -
850, 1900 and 2100 MHz. Other phones and tablets may/will
support still different frequency bands, and if you want your
tablet to work with more wireless providers than the one you
first sign up for service with, you'll want to carefully
identify which frequencies and protocols the unit supports and
which you will need.
There's one more issue as
well. If you are buying a tablet that has been discounted
in price by a wireless company in return for the requirement
that you buy a one or two year contract with that wireless
company, you might well find that the tablet is 'locked' and
will only work with that provider - even once the contract
period has expired.
You need to understand if
the unit is locked or not, and if it is, what the policies are
by the wireless company for unlocking it. Some will unlock
the device after perhaps three months of your account being in
good standing, others might after the contract has expired, and
others might never unlock it.
Tethering and Rebroadcasting
Tethering is the process of
connecting to the internet through an intermediary device.
If you can remember back to the 'good old days' of modems, you
could sort of say that a computer was tethered to the modem.
There are two ways tethering
might apply to a tablet. One is having the tablet as the
tetherer, and the other is using it as the tetheree. In
other words, maybe you connect to the internet somehow (Wi-Fi or
3G) via the tablet, and then other devices can 'share' the
tablet's connection, either via a cable (hence the concept of
tethering) or wirelessly via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.
The opposite might also
apply - some other device might be able to share its internet
connection with the tablet, again via a cable, Bluetooth or
This can be particularly
useful if you are at a hotel which charges you an internet
access fee for each and every different device you have that
wishes to use the internet. Worst case scenario could be
you and your partner traveling together, and you each have a
laptop, a phone, a tablet, and maybe an eBook reader too.
That is eight devices in total, and potentially eight daily
charges each day. If one of the devices can rebroadcast
its connection as a Wi-Fi signal, probably all the other devices
will be able to share the rebroadcast Wi-Fi.
Next best case would be if
one of the devices could share its connection over a cable -
that wouldn't allow all eight devices to be connected
simultaneously, and spread out all around the hotel room, but at
least it might allow one or two more devices to be
Other Internet Connectivity
Not everywhere has Wi-Fi,
and you quite probably will choose not to enable any 3G data
service that might be available with the tablet. For
example, many hotel rooms only have a wired ethernet cable type
What do you do if you're
somewhere that only has wired internet rather than wireless
internet. It is very rare to find a tablet device that has
an ethernet port, so you either have to live with the lack of
connectivity or find another way to get some Wi-Fi.
For example, you could
consider traveling with a small travel router that will take the
ethernet access and rebroadcast it as a Wi-Fi signal. If
your tablet has a USB support and is based on Windows 7, it
might support something such as the Wi-Fire directional antenna
to give your tablet more Wi-Fi range, which might help it sniff
out an open Wi-Fi network somewhere.
More ideas can be found in
our series on
sharing internet access.
of a multi part Buyers Guide to iPad/tablet devices.
Please visit the other parts of this series - links at the
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30 Sep 2010, last update
28 Nov 2012
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