While walking through one of the T-Mobile or AT&T or Verizon stores this holiday season, you may be tempted to buy a tablet after looking at the low price tags on some of them. However, before you buy a tablet from your mobile service provider, understand their total cost and see if you even need a tablet with 3G/4G, or if Wi-Fi will suffice. You might be surprised at how much money you can save.

Indeed, according to a new study from NPD/Connected Intelligence, a higher percentage of tablet users are buying Wi-Fi-only tablets.

R. Paul Singh has been a founder and CEO of four high tech startups with three successful exits. He is currently the CEO of SocialNuggets, a social media data and sentiment real time research and brand analysis firm.

Do I need 3G/4G on my tablet?

Most tablet manufacturers (except Amazon Kindle) offer either Wi-Fi or Wi-Fi plus 3G/4G options. Wi-Fi access is available in most homes and offices, as well as in most coffee shops worldwide for free or for a nominal fee. In my last 18 months of owning a tablet, there have been few days when I wished 3G was available on my tablet. You can read books, most magazines on flipboard and even email even without connectivity by caching part of these files before leaving the house.

With 3G/4G connectivity, your tablet can always be connected (subject to availability of 3G/4G connectivity from your mobile operator) to the Internet. However, unlike smartphones, tablets are not generally used on the go and so having always on connectivity just doesn't offer the same benefits for the cost incurred. So if you need 3G/4G connectivity there are other options besides owning a tablet with such a capability for lot lower price.

Getting a 3G/4G tablet will cost you over $600 for 2 years

Most tablets cost about $100 or more for including the 3G/4G options in addition to Wi-Fi which is standard on most tablets. For most Android tablets, many mobile operators offer a discounted price for a 2 year contract. I looked at some of the tablets at T-Mobile and AT&T stores and saw that for an initial discount of about $200, you end up committing to an additional cost of $960 for T-Mobile, $840 for AT&T and $720 for Verizon Wireless. So the discount of $200-$300 upfront ends up costing you an additional $100 on the price of the tablet plus $500+ of extra cost for getting that 3G/4G connectivity which you could get much cheaper in other ways.

For Apple's iPad, no mobile operator offers any discount upfront but the tablet ends up costing $130 more plus you pay a minimum of $15/month (250MB) to AT&T or $20/month (1GB) to Sprint or $30/month to Verizon (2GB).

How to get always on-connectivity on your tablet without buying 3G/4G tablet

If you have a Wi-Fi tablet and are not in the Wi-Fi zone, there are two choices available for getting your tablet hooked up to the Internet.

  • Get a mobile hotspot
  • Get Tethering option on your smartphone

Get a mobile hotspot

This could actually get expensive as the data charges are similar to that of the tablet. However, this alternative is only beneficial if you have a need to connect your laptop to the Internet all the time for the same reason you need to connect your tablet.

Get Tethering option on your smartphone

This option, available on most Android, Blackberry and iPhone models, allows you to turn your smartphone into a mobile hotspot. With this option, you can have 5 devices including your tablet and laptop connect to the Internet. The good news is that this option can be turned on and off on most mobile networks in the US. Sprint charges only $10/mo extra for this option while other mobile operators including AT&T and Verizon charge $20/mo. The only negative of this option is the battery drain that your smartphone will experience.

3G/4G connectivity is generally not needed on most tablets.

If needed, don't buy this from your mobile operator as it will set you back by $600 on a 2-year contract despite initial $200-$300 discount. If you need to connect your tablet to the Internet all the time, look at using your existing mobile hotspot or just add tethering option on your smartphone which will save you money and won't lock you into a contract.