Cellular or WiFi: which iPad model should I buy?

BY Kelly Hodgkins

Published 31 Oct 2013


Prospective iPad customers are spending time thinking about the iPad they will buy and the many options they can choose for each model. One important criteria that many people don’t consider is connectivity. Unlike the iPhone, the iPad is available in both a WiFi-only and WiFi+Cellular option that allows you to use the device on your cellular plan just like your phone. 

The Hardware Differences

Whether you choose a WiFi-only or WiFi+Cellular model, the size and style of the device will be almost the same. Except for the SIM card slot on the cellular model, you wouldn’t notice any differences between the device until you took a deep dive into the iOS settings where you would find cellular options or tore apart the hardware to find the cellular radio. It’s under the hood where the bulk of the changes lie.

You can see the differences between the two models in the table below.

WiFi-Only WiFi+Cellular
  • Wi‑Fi (802.11a/b/g/n; 802.11n on 2.4GHz and 5GHz) and MIMO
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • Wi‑Fi (802.11a/b/g/n; 802.11n on 2.4GHz and 5GHz) and MIMO
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • CDMA EV-DO Rev. A and Rev. B
  • LTE (13 bands)

From a usage standpoint, there are radical differences between the two models. The WiFi-only model is meant to be used at home, work, school or anywhere else you have a reliable WiFi connection. If you are away from your normal WiFi network, you have to find a public hotspot or use the mobile hotspot feature on your phone if you want to access the Internet. You can still use the iPad while you are offline, you just cant play those games or use those apps that need to reach out to the Internet to access their content.


The WiFi+Cellular model is the polar opposite of the WiFi-only model. The WiFi+Cellular options give you the freedom to use your home or work WiFi connection and then switch to a cellular connection when you are out and about.  As long as the iPad is attached to a cellular data plan, the switch from WiFi to cellular is seamless. You’ll be able to pull you iPad out while in your car and not worry about the Internet as your device will connect to your carrier’s wireless network in less than a minute.


The one obvious difference between the WiFi iPad and the cellular iPad is price. No matter which model you choose, you will be paying $130 extra for the cellular radio. This boosts the price of the base 16GB iPad Air to $629 and the 16GB iPad mini with Retina display to $529. On top of the upfront cost, there is also a monthly cost for the cellular data plan. This varies baeed on carrier and the amount of data that is needed, but most people will pay between $10 to $50 for their iPad each month.


What about tethering?

Tethering is an option that’ll allow you to connect your iPad to your phone and use your phone’s cellular connection as a gateway to the Internet. The iPhone includes this Personal Hotspot option in the settings. Once connected, you can use your iPad on the Internet as long as your phone has a cellular connection and enough battery life to sustain the connection. I’ve used tethering quite a bit in the past with my current iPad mini and it works well as long as you are patient.  I mention patience as the connection takes a minute to initiate and can drop if you accidentally move too far away from your iPhone. Tethering works well in a pinch, but it is not great for long-term usage. Depending on your cellular plan, you may have to pay extra for this tethering option. Most US carriers include this feature for free.


Who should buy the WiFi-only model

The WiFi-only model is perfect for the person who spends most of his or her time around a WiFi internet connection. You have a WiFI connection at home, at work, or at school and have little need to use the iPad outside of these environments. When you are out and about, you may know of a few public WiFi hotspots that you can use or don’t mind using the tethering option in a pinch. If this describes you, then you can save yourself $130 by choosing the WiFi-only iPad.

Who should buy the WiFi+4G model

If you are a person who is always on the move, then you should think about grabbing the iPad model that includes a cellular radio. You will pay more upfront and incur a monthly fee, but you will have an Internet connection everywhere and anywhere you have a cellular signal. The use of the iPad on a cellular network is very easy — just turn on your device, open a browser window and start surging. The connection is established immediately and stay connected as long as you are using device in an area with a strong signal.

Some final words

If you are on the fence about buying the cellular or WiFi model of the iPad, I would recommend spending the extra to get the cellular model, especially if you are the type of person who likes to use your iPad outside the home. Yes, you will spend more up front for the cellular option, but you don’t have to sign up for a monthly cellular plan until you find that you need it. I did this with a recent iPad purchase and only activated the cellular plan after I had the device for a few months. The first eight weeks I didn’t travel much and enjoyed using a WiFi connection. Once I was on the road, I was able to activate the device on my cellular plan with just a quick phone call to my carrier.

If you opt for the WiFi-only model and find that you need an always-on Internet connection while traveling, you are out of luck. You can try to tether, but that may prove to be more of a headache than it’s worth.  I know of more than one person who opted for the WiFi-only model and had to sell it for a loss and then buy the cellular model because they needed the flexibility of being able to connect while on the go.