The Difference Between a 4G and Wi-Fi iPad

You've decided to buy an iPad, but which model? 4G? Wi-Fi? What's the difference? It may sound difficult if you aren't familiar with the lingo, but once you understand the difference between the "Wi-Fi" model and the "Wi-Fi With Cellular" model, the decision becomes easier.

The Key Differences Between a Wi-Fi iPad and an iPad With 4G/Cellular

  1. 4G Network. The iPad with Cellular data allows you to hook up to the data network on your provider (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile). This means you can access the Internet even when you are away from home, which is great for those who travel a lot and don't always have access to a Wi-Fi network. The cost of 4G varies based on the carrier, but it is usually a $5-$15 monthly fee. 
  2. GPS. The Wi-Fi iPad uses something called Wi-Fi trilateration to determine your location. In addition to granting Internet access outside of the home, the Cellular iPad has an A-GPS chip to allow for a more accurate read of your current location.
  3. Price. The Cellular iPad costs more than a Wi-Fi iPad with the same storage.

Which iPad Should You Buy? 4G? or Wi-Fi?

There are two big questions when evaluating a 4G iPad against the Wi-Fi only model: Is it worth the extra price tag and is it worth the extra monthly fee on your cellular bill? 

Illustration showing a person on the go with a 4G iPad and another person at home with an iPad and a Wi-Fi router
Lifewire / Elise Degarmo

For those who are on the road a lot and away from their Wi-Fi network, the 4G iPad can easily be worth the added cost. But even for a family that is mainly going to use the iPad at home, the 4G model has its perks. The best thing about the data plan for the iPad is the ability to turn it on or off, so you don't have to pay for it in months that you won't use it. This means you can turn it on during that family vacation and turn it off when you get back home.

The added GPS can also be great if you are thinking about getting a GPS for the car. This is more of a bonus when you consider dedicated GPS navigators can be found for less than $100, but the iPad can go a little beyond the standard GPS. One nice bonus is the ability to browse Yelp on the big screen. Yelp can be a great way to find a nearby restaurant and get reviews on it. 

But the iPad is not an iPhone. And it's not an iPod Touch. So you aren't going to be carrying it around in your pocket. If you are going to use it as a surrogate laptop, the 4G connection is definitely worth it. And if you think you'll take it with you on family vacations, it could be a great way to entertain the kids. But for many people, the iPad will never leave their home, so they won't really need a 4G connection.

You may also find that you will use more data because of the iPad. After all, we are more likely to stream movies to the iPad's bigger screen than to the iPhone. This can add to your monthly cellular bill by causing you to upgrade your plan to one with more bandwidth. 

Remember: You Can Use Your iPhone as Your Data Connection

If you are on the fence about it, the tipping point may be the fact that you can use your iPhone as a Wi-Fi hotspot for your iPad. This actually works quite well and you won't see a loss of speed routing your connection through your iPhone unless you are also using your iPhone to browse the web or stream movies at the same time.  

It is important to make sure your cellular plan supports tethering the phone, which is the word sometimes used for turning your phone into a mobile hotspot. Many plans these days allow it without an extra fee because they charge for the bandwidth. Those that don't have it as part of your plan usually offer it for a small monthly fee. 

What If 4G Isn't Supported in My Area? 

Even if your area doesn't have the fastest cellular data, it should support an earlier data connection. Unfortunately, there is a big difference between generations. If you have an iPhone or similar smartphone, the Internet speed outside of the house will be similar on an iPad. 

Remember, a slower connection may be fine when checking email, but you will tend to do different things with a tablet. Try streaming video from YouTube to get an idea if the connection in your area is able to handle heavier use. 

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