iPad_mini_RDWhen Apple released the iPad in 2010 it decided to make some models WiFi only and to charge more – £100 in the UK – to users who wanted a 3G model which allowed them to connect to the web while on the move.

This was a clever move because it helped the company bring the entry level iPad to market for a cost way below expectations – some industry analysts had predicted the device would cost around $1,000 – and also meant customers were only paying for what they needed.

Other firms such as Google have since copied Apple’s approach, offering WiFi only models alongside more expensive, otherwise identical, 3G/4G models.

While the decision to offer separate WiFi only models makes the devices more affordable, the inability to later upgrade the device to 3G or 4G has left customers having to do a lot of thinking before parting with their cash.

But in the near 4 years since Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPad, a lot has changed which means it may no longer make sense to pay extra for a 3G/4G tablet:

WiFi Hotspots
Most mobile phone contracts and some home broadband packages include ‘free’ access to WiFi hotspots in public buildings, cafes and bars and in London most mobile customers can get free access to WiFi on the London Underground.

If you’re less likely to want to browse and check email while sitting on the bus but do want to go online while enjoying a coffee in your favourite tax minimising chain, ‘free’ WiFi access is the perfect solution.

Tethering is a way of using your mobile phone’s existing data connection with
another device by creating a personal WiFi hotspot or connecting the devices via a cable.

Many phones have offered this for a while but not all networks used to support it and even when it was added to the iPhone in late 2010 O2 – which at the time had an exclusivity on the iPhone – charged £10 per month to use it.

However tethering is now widely supported and included in mobile phone plans as standard.

If you only need to occasionally connect while on the move, buying a WiFi only tablet and sharing your mobile phone’s data connection is a great way to get more value from something you’re already paying for.

Three's latest 'MiFi' personal WiFi hotspot.
Three’s latest ‘MiFi’ personal WiFi hotspot.
Portable/Personal Mobile WiFi
If you’re a heavy mobile broadband user but don’t want to buy a data plan for just one device, this is the option for you.

Mobile networks Three, Orange, T-Mobile, Vodafone and O2 all offer small mobile broadband devices which create a local WiFi hotspot similar to tethering (see above).

These devices are available on fixed term or 30 day contracts or on a Pay As You Go basis.

Unlike a dedicated tablet data plan, you can use your personal hotspot with other devices such as a laptop, or as an emergency internet connection if your home broadband suddenly dies.

Although buying the hotspot may require an upfront payment they offer great potential for long-term savings because you can buy one today and keep on using it with when you upgrade your tablet, saving each time by buying the WiFi only model.