iPads and hotspots

I recently went on a trip with limited wifi and cell service. I opted to bring my computer instead of my 2012 iPad Retina (with cellular). I have to admit one of the reasons was battery life vs how long it takes to recharge these days.

For the first few years I had it, I brought it everywhere including vacations. I bought an external wifi hard drive with an SD slot to back my camera up to, in addition to a dock connector with an SD slot so I could backup photos onto the iPad as well (both were slow and clunky but they worked).

Now here I am 9 years later with a much slower iPad and something I never thought I’d have - an unlimited cell plan.

Is it even worth spending the extra money on a cellular enabled iPad if I can use my phone as a hotspot? I am thinking of getting a new one, if they ever release the lower models with new chips? I am spending $20/month for an old on/off cellular plan that I am afraid to turn off.

I know someone posted this week about their hotspot not working well and I suppose my current situation can be skewed as I am still running an old phone on iOS 12.

I spent nearly the cost of a low-end laptop on that and while I know I’ve had it 9 (!!) years, I did think I could still use it in a limited capacity for quite awhile. I really think its downfall was a forced upgrade off iOS 7 when I had the battery replaced… I am not at the point where I’m ready to use an iPad as a full computer, so I’m not going to go as high end this time.


It used to be that only the cellular enabled iPads had GPS receivers. I don’t know if that is still true. If it is, I would consider that to be sufficient reason to get a cellular enabled iPad.

I just bought a new iPad and I sprang for a cellular enabled version. I figured I’d rather have it and not use it than need it and not have it. (For now, I do not pay for a cellular plan for the iPad, but you didn’t ask about that.)

My personal answer is “No”. My wife and I are on our second pair of iPads. Each time we’ve bought one cellular-enabled one just in case. In almost 10 years we’ve never needed to enable cellular service. Using our phones as hotspots meets the need entirely.


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Wow, I kind of remember that but had forgotten. It is something to consider.

But I could still use Maps and the browser for Google maps via wifi or the hotspot… the only time it would be an issue (I think) would be if something happened to my phone and I lost the mapping ability there.

When you say GPS do you mean over the cellular network? Have the phones changed? If I lost cell service during my trip, I couldn’t map anything at all. If a route was in progress it would get me there (then I could drive it in reverse if I kept it on the screen) but I couldn’t start a new route. I had tucked my SO’s Garmin in my glove box which was able to route me so it wasn’t that the GPS service was low, it was no cell service.

And you’re right, I can opt to not turn it on, which is how I operated with this one for a long time. It was a pay as you go plan.


My new iPad is still new; I haven’t used it for anything GPS related, so I don’t know if anything has changed.

The old iPad would receive GPS signals with cellular service turned off. I had a purchased map program, and the iPad would show me where I was and could create a track of my route. (I needed to download maps and save them on the iPad, and I had a lot flexibility in how much area and detail I wanted.) I hope and assume this will work with the new iPad.

With Google Maps, I believe a network connection is required to do anything useful. I have saved offline Google Maps, but they lack a lot of detail. (Let me rephrase that. They lack a LOT of detail.) Other map services might be similar; it sounds like what you used was. But that limitation was service-imposed, not hardware-imposed.

I always buy a cellular enabled iPad, in part for the hotspot, but mostly because it’s my vacation travel “computer” and it’s preferable to be able to connect sometimes without needing to be connected to WiFi. (I am away right now, and the place I’m staying is basically a metal box so the WiFi doesn’t extend outdoors, and having cellular connectivity means I can sit outside if I wish with the iPad and do internet things.)

But if I want to use a hotspot, particularly for any length of time, I find the iPad so much better. The battery life is particularly better while acting as a hotspot, and there are times when I get connectivity with the iPad when I can’t with my iPhone. The only time I use my phone as a hotspot are for very brief times of connectivity, such as when I want to download a new book to my Kindle when I am sitting on the beach - something I will probably be doing in less than an hour, actually.

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GPS-based location is separate from the cellular network. It is a radio triangulation system involving orbiting satellites and some rather ugly mathematics.

Apple devices don’t use a separate chip for receiving GPS signals - it’s part of the cellular modem chip. As such, you need to have cellular hardware in order to use GPS-based location services. You don’t need to have an active connection to the cellular network, but the hardware must be present.

The Wi-Fi only models don’t have any radio capable of receiving the GPS signals. As such, their location-based services must use other mechanisms, like the identity of nearby Wi-Fi access points and access to a cloud-based server to know where those access points are physically located. This works, but it can’t provide the fine-grained location necessary for turn-by-turn navigation.


Thank you for that explanation.

Some rather ugly relativistic (as in Einstein’s General Theory) mathematics, if I understand correctly. I don’t think you emphasized “ugly” enough.

I was using Apple Maps on my iPhone. I have honestly never used the iPad while driving, just the phone.

So I can say my SE 2016 running iOS 12 does NOT receive GPS signals without cell service.


That doesn’t sound right to me.

Most navigation apps require an Internet connection (meaning a cellular or Wi-Fi connection) in order to communicate with their cloud service (which provides the map fragments and computes routes).

It’s been my experience (with Google Maps) that I need to have an Internet connection in order to begin navigation, but once it’s started, the app downloads what it needs to know in order to allow navigation along the route. If I drive through a region without cell service, the screen will continue to show my location. If I drive through a region with no radio signals (e.g. a tunnel), then the display doesn’t update until it can re-acquire the signal.

If I deviate from the route, then it will require an Internet connection to compute the new route and download any additional map fragments required for that route.

Now, there are also “offline” navigation apps. These keep the complete map on your device and compute routes on-device. They should work on any device with GPS hardware (meaning cellular hardware, for Apple products), even if you have no cellular connection. These apps are really important if you go where there are no cell towers (e.g. hiking, boating).

See also: The Best Offline Navigation Apps for the iPhone [June 2019]


I think we’re saying the same thing in different ways.

I am using Apples Maps that comes with iOS.

If I start navigation when I have service, all is well. If I drive into a No Service area, it will continue to navigate as long as I don’t deviate from the route because it can’t reroute me. I was navigating up a mountain with no service, and I hit the brakes suddenly and backed up a few feet. Something about that must’ve triggered something (maybe I was under my destination) because I heard Siri say “You have reached your destination”. Which I hadn’t. Luckily the map was still on the screen and I could see where I was going. The dot (me) still moves.

But I could not start a new navigation from there without cell service. I had to wait until I was in a service area.

Thanks for that link! I need to read up on that for biking.


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That sounds exactly as I’d expect. The GPS works without the Internet connection (which you can see, because the dot keeps moving and the screen updates as long as you remain on the route), but the app can’t create/change a route without access to its cloud server.

I think we agree on this! :slight_smile:


This ended up being a moot point. I went to Verizon today to pre-order a phone, and asked about iPad deals, which I couldn’t see online. Somehow I ended up with trade-in credit from my SE and a discount on the iPad, and since Verizon doesn’t sell WiFi-only iPads, I’ve got cellular again!

Sorry to chime in late, but I think getting a cell account is the way to go for iPads. Reception is more reliable with a phone in marginal areas, and it’s just handier to login directly from the iPad. This is especially true in airports with their awful “free” services that require you to watch an ad or answer a bunch of marketing questions or whatever.

I’ll add that when I go to research in a library, when I travel, when I want to consume videos, the iPad has more and more replaced my Mac, which nonetheless remains the axis of my computing activities (with links to iCloud, DropBox, my university’s resources etc). The iPad has turned into my mobile device of choice, especially as my eyes age and the iPhone becomes a headache-inducing medium to read on. So, thumbs-up for getting an iPad for travel, rather than running it through the phone hot-spot.

I’ve always had one cellular-enabled iPad with an active internet connection at any given time because I am STILL grandfathered with an unlimited data plan with ATT that I will lose if I ever fail to renew the monthly plan.

That said, while I take that iPad (currently a 2018 iPad Pro 12.9 inch) with me whenever I travel, I virtually never use the cellular connection because almost anywhere I go has WiFi I can use. As for GPS, I use my iPhone 12 with Apple CarPlay for navigation in the car. Furthermore, my Apple Watch (a non-cellular model) has GPS built in, although I’ve yet to find a real use for it, except for exercise tracking while walking.

All in all, I’m not sure I see that having a cellular radio in my iPad is doing much for me and I ended up deciding to forego the $150 additional cost when I ordered an iPad mini 6 just now. Maybe I’ll regret that decision but I doubt it.