Guide to Tablet Networking Features

Different ways to connect your tablet to the internet

All tablets feature built-in network connectivity, but each device has different capabilities and limitations. Before buying a tablet, make sure you understand the many ways it can connect to the internet and other devices.

Information in this article applies broadly to a wide range of devices. Check the specifications of individual products before making a purchase.

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All Tablets Have Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi is the most ubiquitous form of wireless networking technology. Wi-Fi is designed for local area networking, so it alone will not allow you to use the internet. You must first connect to a wireless network that shares a broadband connection or a public hotspot with internet access. Public hotspots are very common in coffee shops, libraries, and airports, so it is generally easy to find a connection.

There are multiple Wi-Fi standards, but they are all fairly compatible with one another. Here is a breakdown of the various Wi-Fi standards along with their features:

  • 802.11ac: Up to 1.3Gbps, 2.4 or 5GHz Band
  • 802.11n: Up to 450Mbps, 2.4 or 5GHz Band
  • 802.11a: Up to 54Mbps, 5GHz Band
  • 802.11g: Up to 54Mbps, 2.4GHz Band
  • 802.11b: Up to 11Mbps, 2.4GHz Band

Some Tablets Support MIMO

Another feature that can be found in some tablets is called MIMO. This technology allows a tablet to use multiple antennas to provide increased data bandwidth by broadcasting over multiple channels in the Wi-Fi standard. In addition to increased bandwidth, MIMO can also improve the reliability and range of a tablet on Wi-Fi networks. It also allows users to listen to FM radio on a tablet.

A Few Tablets Support Cellular Wireless

Any tablet that offers cellular data will cost more due to the extra necessary transceivers. Once you have the hardware, you must sign up for a data plan with a carrier that is compatible with the tablet.

Most data plans come with a data cap that limits how much data you can download over that connection in a given month. Carriers do different things once you reach that cap. Some actually stop allowing data to be downloaded, or others might throttle it so that things like streaming video do not function. Some carriers allow you to keep downloading and then charge you overage fees.

Some "unlimited" data plans still have caps on them that allow downloading up to a certain data amount at the full network speeds. Once that amount has been exceeded, network speeds are significantly reduced. This practice is referred to as data throttling, and it can make comparing data plans difficult as it is not possible to determine how much data you might use before you have the device.

It is possible to reduce the cost of the hardware through rebate offers when you sign up with a carrier for an extended contract.

Bluetooth and Tethering

Bluetooth is the primary means for connecting wireless peripherals such as keyboards or headsets to ​mobile devices. The technology can also be used for transferring files directly between devices.

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 offers wireless broadband and Bluetooth support; however, some wireless carriers charge an extra fee to unlock this feature. If you are interested in tethering, check with the wireless carrier and the device manufacturer to ensure that it is possible before buying any hardware.

Mobile Hotspots

Wireless base stations, or mobile hotspots, let you connect a wireless router to a high-speed network and share the connection with other devices that have standard Wi-Fi. Some tablets with 4G and 5G technology can be used as a hotspot for other Wi-Fi enabled devices. These devices also require a data contract with a carrier.

Near Field Communications

NFC, or near field communications, is a short-range networking technology. It allows for the transfer of data between two devices without using the internet. The most common use for NFC right now is mobile payment systems such as Apple Pay, but it is also used for syncing and sharing files with PCs and other tablets.

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