'Free' tablets with mobile broadband: a guide

Last updated: 17 June 2014   By Julia Kukiewicz

'Free' laptop and tablet deals no longer grab headlines. We see the deals for what they are: a mobile contract, without the calls or texts.

laptop and tablet offered
Credit: sdecoret/Shutterstock.com

But don't be deterred. There are still plenty of good value deals that pair a mobile broadband contract with a tablet computer.

In this guide we take a look at what's on offer and, crucially, whether the networks are offering good value for money.

Free tablet deals: how they work

"Free? Really?" No, not really.

Just like mobile phone contracts, 'free' tablet deals are really just a way of spreading the cost of a device over a number of months.

You're paying for the hardware, a little every month, and you're paying for the network's mobile broadband service, which has a monthly data limit.

Data in a long contract

In other words, think of these deals primarily as long contract data packages: unless you're going to use the mobile broadband allowance they're not worthwhile.

Broadband is usually provided through a USB or external modem.

However, sometimes the data allowance is expressly tied to the device. This is true, for example, of iPad owners, who get a microSIM to receive 3G, and those taking laptops with built in 3G, in which case a modem may not be included.

Details like modems and coverage matter because contracts are long, from 18 months and usually 24, and more or less impossible to cancel.

Are these deals worthwhile?

As we've said, these deals definitely aren't worth it if you don't use the data in your contract.

Even if you do, however, they won't necessarily save money or be the best option for you. Here's our three step plan for checking whether a deal you're interested in is worth bothering with.

1. Price versus buying separately

First step, is the price right?

Best case scenario: cheaper than buying separately

The very best free laptop deals actually offer a saving over buying the laptop and mobile broadband as two separate products.

So let's say we're looking at a £25 a month bundle deal with an 18 month contract: that's £450 overall.

If the device price today is £300 and the same data contract is £15 a month for 18 months, you're saving £120 in the bundle.

However, this is rarely the case.

Usually the case: same(ish) cost as buying separately

Good free deals simply spread the cost of hardware over a number of months.

As a general rule of thumb 'free' laptops tend to be around £20 to £30 more expensive when you get them in a bundle with mobile broadband.

For example:

Cost/month Cost overall
Apple iPad Mini 16GB + 15GB 24 months £25 for 24 months + £99 £699
The same iPad from Apple (£349) 3 15GB for 24 months: £15.99 £732.76

Generally we see this discrepancy because the laptop bundles aren't as competitive as either of their two constituent parts.

Laptops, netbooks and iPads get discounted so do mobile broadband contracts; bundles don't.

Watch for: really bad value

This problem leads inevitable to the last and, sadly, very large category: laptop or tablet deals that cost significantly more than buying a laptop in cash and then taking out a mobile broadband contract.

For example, iPad 2 contracts are now pretty poor value because the iPad Air and mini are out, driving down the price of the older models:

Cost/month Cost overall
3 free iPad 2 16GB + 15GB deal £29 for 24 months + £69 £765
The same iPad 2 from Amazon (£270) 3 15GB for 24 months: £15.99 £653.76

Similarly, here's a deal that no longer exists but once did:

Cost/month Cost overall
3 free Samsung NC110 + 15GB deal £36.41 for 24 months £873.84
The same Samsung NC110 from Amazon (£260) 3's 15GB for 24 months: £15.99 £643.76

That's £230.08 for spreading the cost of the NC110 netbook.

To put that in perspective, if you took out a loan of £640 and ended up paying £873 overall the loan APR would be 37%.

How much data?

Remember, as counter intuitive as it sounds, settling for less usage allowance with your mobile broadband rather than more could end up being more expensive since mobile broadband is expensive over allowance.

Additionally, larger usage limits on mobile broadband laptop deals often offer the best value for money.

2. Is the device any good?

Mobile broadband networks used to bundle a wide range of netbooks, laptops and tablets from recognisable brands including Apple, Asus, Samsung, Toshiba, Sony and HP (sometimes branded as Compaq) in with their data services.

As we update this article, however, they are all only offering tablets from Apple, Samsung or Asus.

It's well worth researching these devices before buying.

We look for three things in 'free' laptops, netbooks and tablets:

  • Long battery life if it's making full use of a mobile broadband allowance chances are the device will be away from the mains at least some of the time.
  • Matt screens if the device will be used outside or on the train glare is worth thinking about.
  • Adequate memory networks often skimp on space so this is worth double checking.

3. Can you stick to the contract?

Finally, it's worth remembering that these deals commit you to a long contract.

For them to be worthwhile you have to keep paying for up to two years.

What happens if I cancel?

If you cancel one of these deals partway through you'll have to pay the rest of the contracted months you have left as a lump sum and you'll lose your mobile broadband which, as we've seen above, will make the laptop much more expensive than it should be.

Some mobile broadband providers do offer 30-day money back guarantees.

In short, don't take on one of these contracts if you think you might have to cancel, there's no shortcut to get the laptop cheaper or avoid paying for data you haven't used.

Can I trade in my laptop?

In much of the above, we've talked about how much 'free' laptop deals are like mobile phone contracts.

Yet you can't 'trade in' a tablet for cash and a new contract as you can with a phone.

What about warranties?

In terms of longer term value, warranties are also worth checking out before signing up.

O2 offer a 24 month warranty, the length of the contract.

Three and Vodafone, on the other hand, only offer 12 month warranties on their 2 year contracts.

However, it's debatable how much this matters. A warranty is no substitute for insurance in any case, especially if the tablet could be damaged - or stolen - while out and about.

What if I have a bad credit rating?

Providers are understandably nervy about turning over an expensive bit of kit straight away so they do credit check applicants for free laptops and may turn down those with poor credit ratings.

See this article in our money section for more on checking a credit report. Once you've got the results, this guide to repairing poor credit has more information on the next steps.

Free laptop deals: a short history

Here at Choose we're old enough to remember when the very first free laptop deals were launched with fixed line broadband from AOL at The Carphone Warehouse.

AOL's deal launched in late 2007 alongside their Broadband Wireless Plus package.

The Dell Inspiron laptop proved popular despite a compulsory 2-year contract, broadband that, at £19.99 a month, wasn't the cheapest deal available at the time and a delivery charge of £14.99.

A year later, the ISP gave the deal a revamp - scrapping the £29.99 fee it previously charged customers to upgrade to a higher specification Hewlett Packard 6270 - in part, in response to renewed competition.

Three started offering free laptop deals alongside mobile broadband in July 2008 and other 3G suppliers swiftly followed: Orange and T-mobile in August and Vodafone in October of that year.

O2 were the last to jump on the free laptop bandwagon at the beginning of 2009.

Even at that point, though, the market was ailing.

Broadband commentators have long expressed disquiet about the value of such deals.

"Many people are buying mobile broadband for the first time, and getting their first laptop, perhaps thinking it is free of charge," comparison site Broadband Genie noted in a 2009 press release.

At O2's product launch CEO, Ronan Dunne was forced to point out that the market has suffered, "some bad press due to poor equipment and frustrating customer service experiences".

To balance that reputation, O2 offered free laptop support and a 30-day happiness guarantee.

But such incentives have failed to bolster a market that now seems in steep decline not only (or not just) as a result of its poor reputation but because technology has simply overtaken it.


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