Guide to Tablet Networking Features

How to evaluate which tablet to buy based on wireless features

Technician using digital tablet in server room
Technician using digital tablet in server room.

Erik Isakson / Getty Images

Tablets are great media devices but much of their usage is going to require some form of network connectivity. This is vital for functions such as browsing the web, checking email or streaming audio and video. As a result, network connectivity is built into every tablet available on the market. There are still some major differences between the tablets when it comes to their network features and this guide hopes to clarify some of the choices available to consumers.

What Is Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi is the most ubiquitous form of wireless networking technology. Pretty much every mobile device now comes with some form of Wi-Fi built into the device. This includes all tablets currently on the market. The technology is designed for local area networking so it alone will not connect you to the internet. Instead, it allows connection into a wireless network that shares a network broadband connection or a public hotspot with internet access. Since public hot spots are very common in many locations including coffee shops, libraries, and airports, it is generally fairly easy to get connected to the internet.

Now Wi-Fi is comprised of multiple standards that are fairly compatible with one another. Most devices are now shipping with 802.11ac Wi-Fi which is one of the most flexible of the technologies. The downside is that this can use one or both of the wireless spectrum depending upon what hardware is installed on a tablet. All versions will support the 2.4GHz wireless spectrum which is fully compatible with the older 802.11b and 802.11g networks. Better implementations will also include the 5GHz spectrum which is also compatible with 802.11a networks for the widest possible coverage. Typically devices that support both spectrums will be listed with 802.11a/g/n/ac while 2.4GHz only devices will be 802.11b/g/n/ac. Another way to describe a device for both is called dual-band or dual antennae.

Speaking of the antennae, another technology that can be found in some tablets is called MIMO. What this does is essentially allow a tablet device to use multiple antennas to essentially provide increased data bandwidth by broadcasting over multiple channels in the Wi-Fi standard. In addition to increased bandwidth, this can also improve the reliability and range of a tablet on Wi-Fi networks.

Newer 5G Wi-Fi networking products have started to be released. These are based on 802.11ac standards. These products claim to be able to achieve transfer rates of up to 1.3Gbps which is three times the maximum that 802.11n and similar to that of gigabit ethernet. Like the 802.11a standard, it uses the 5GHz frequency but it is dual-band meaning it also supports 802.11n on the 2.4GHz frequency.

Here is a breakdown of the various Wi-Fi standards along with their features:

  • 802.11ac - Up to 1.3Gbps, 5GHz Band with 2.4GHz Compatibility via 802.11n
  • 802.11n - Up To 450Mbps Standard, 2.4 or 5GHz Band
  • 802.11a - 54Mbps, 5GHz Band, Used Mainly By Corporations
  • 802.11g - 54Mbps, 2.4GHz Band
  • 802.11b - 11Mbps, 2.4GHz Band

3G/4G Wireless (Cellular)

Any tablet that offers 3G or 4G wireless connectivity has extra costs to it. Consumers will have to pay more in the hardware of the device in order to cover the additional transceivers. Typically this adds roughly one hundred dollars to the cost of the tablet but some are not so high of a price jump anymore. Once you have the hardware, you must sign up for a wireless service plan with a carrier that the tablet is compatible with to use it on a 3G or 4G network. It is possible to reduce the cost of the hardware through rebate offers when you sign up with a carrier for extended two-year contracts. This is known as hardware subsidies. To determine if this is right for you, check out our Subsidized PC FAQ.

Most data plans with wireless carriers are linked to a data cap that limits how much data you can download over that connection in a given month. For instance, a carrier might have a very low-cost option but caps it at just 1GB of data which is very low for some uses such as streaming. Just be warned that carriers may do different things once you reach that cap. Some may actually stop allowing data to be downloaded or others might throttle it so that things like streaming do not function. Some instead allow you to keep downloading and then charge you overage fees that are quite high. Some unlimited data plans still have caps on them that allow downloading up to a certain data amount at the full network speeds but then reduce your network speeds for any data over the cap. This is referred to as data throttling. This can make comparing data plans very difficult as it is not easy to track how much data you might use before you have the device.

The 4G technology used to be somewhat complex because it was being rolled out in different ways by multiple carriers. Now they have all pretty much standardized on LTE which offers speeds of roughly 5 to 14 Mbps. Just like with 3G technology, tablets are typically locked down to a specific carrier based on their internal SIM card. So be sure to research what carrier you might use before you purchase a tablet with LTE capabilities. Be sure to also verify that LTE coverage is supported where you will be using the tablet before spending the money for the feature as the coverage while good still is not quite as far-reaching as 3G.

3G is previous data standards for cellular data but is not as common on most newer devices. It is a bit more complicated than 4G because it is based upon a variety of different technologies but it essentially boils down to either being compatible with GSM or CDMA networks. These run over different frequency and signal technologies so they are not cross-compatible with a device. GSM networks are managed by AT&T and T-Mobile while CDMA networks are handled by Sprint and Verizon within the US. Speeds are roughly the same at 1 to 2Mbps but reliability may be better with one network over another in a region. As a result, check coverage maps and reports. Typically, a 3G compatible tablet will be locked into one service provider due to exclusivity contracts within the US that allow the hardware to be locked to a specific provider. As a result, figure out which network you want to use before choosing your tablet. 3G features are becoming less common in favor of the new 4G wireless technology.

Bluetooth and Tethering

Bluetooth technology is primarily a means of connecting wireless peripherals to ​mobile devices often referred to as a Personal Area Network (PAN). This includes items such as keyboards or headsets. The technology can also be used as local networking for transferring files between devices. One function that people may consider using though is tethering.

Tethering is a method of linking a mobile device such as a laptop or tablet with a mobile phone to share the wireless broadband connection. This can theoretically be done with any device that has a wireless broadband connection and Bluetooth with another Bluetooth device. So, a 3G/4G capable tablet could share it with a laptop or a 3G/4G mobile phone could share a connection with a tablet. The problem is that most wireless carriers have been able to force the hardware and software companies to lock out these features within the US networks. As a result, it really is not a very functional method for the average user but is possible for those willing to unlock their devices or pay the carriers for the privilege to use such a feature.

If you are interested in using such a function, check with the wireless carrier and the device manufacturer to ensure that it is possible before buying any hardware. Some carriers offer it but with additional fees involved. Additionally, the feature could always be removed by the carriers at a later date.

Wireless Base Stations / Mobile Hotspots / MiFi

Wireless base stations or mobile hotspots are a form of technology that allows an individual to connect a wireless router to a high-speed wireless network such as 3G or 4G networks and allowing other devices that have standard Wi-Fi to share that broadband connection. The first such device was called the MiFi produced by Novatel networks. While these solutions are not as portable as having the wireless broadband built into the tablet itself, they are useful because it allows the connection to be used with a greater number of devices and gives users the flexibility of purchasing less expensive hardware. The MiFi devices will still be locked into a carrier and require a data contract just like having the wireless contact for a tablet-specific 3G/4G service.

Interestingly, some of the new tablets with 4G technology built into them have the possibility of being used as a hotspot for other Wi-Fi enabled devices. This is a very attractive feature for those that have a tablet and a laptop that would like to use both over a single data contract. As always, check to make sure that the tablet and data contract allows for this functionality.

Near Field Computing

NFC or near field computing is a short-range networking system. The most common use of the technology right now is mobile payment systems such as Apple Pay. Theoretically, it could be used for more than just payment but also for syncing to PCs or other tablets. A few tablets are now beginning to feature this technology.