Tethering lets you share the data connection from your iPhone or cellular iPad with your Mac, PC, Wi-Fi tablet, and other devices. There are three ways to tether to your iPhone or iPad and they are USB (via Lightning or Dock cable), Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi (personal hotspot). But which one gives you the fastest speed? Which one gives you the most reliable connection? Which one saves you the most battery life? Which is the best way to tether to your iPhone and iPad?
Note: Some carriers require an additional data plan for tethering. Also, data speeds can and will vary by carrier and location.
iPhone and iPad tethering test methodology
I spent the last few days testing out all three tethering methods in different locations and on two different Macs. I used my iPhone 5s and my iPad Air running on AT&T LTE in order to perform all my tests.
iPhone and iPad tethering speed tests
I used Speedtest.net on my Macs at least three times during each type of tethering. Here are the average speeds I got using each of the three different tethering methods.
Wi-Fi tethering - 13.62 mbps download, 2.56 mbps upload, with an average ping of 115 ms
USB tethering - 20 mbps download, 4.76 mbps upload, with an average ping of 95 ms
Bluetooth tethering - 1.6 mbps download, 0.65 mbps download, with an average ping of 152 ms
As you can see from the numbers above, there are some pretty big differences. But don't go drawing conclusions just yet as we have to take battery life into account too. Typically Bluetooth eats the least amount of battery while Wi-Fi tethering eats the most. USB tethering doesn't eat any since you can charge your device through your computer while tethering.
Who should use USB tethering?
USB tethering is not only the fastest method, it's the most reliable and results in zero battery drain on your iPhone or iPad. It does, however, drain your Mac or PC battery to keep it charged. You'll also only be able to tether one device at a time with USB tethering, and you'll need your Lightning (or Dock) cable.
If you only need to tether one device and you want the fastest, most reliable connection possible, then you want USB tethering.
Who should use Bluetooth tethering?
Running your Bluetooth radio is technically less of a battery drain then running your Wi-Fi radio, however "race-to-sleep" (how fast data can be transferred and the radio shut down to conserve power) means the slower speed often cancels out the battery savings. Also, BT tethering is also only one device at a time.
If you forgot your Lightning (or Dock) cable and you can't use Wi-Fi, then Bluetooth tethering is there for you.
Who should use Wi-Fi tethering?
Wi-Fi tethering (personal hotspot) is convenient and works with multiple devices at once, up to ten for some carriers. Just turn on Personal Hotspot and start connecting. It may not be as fast or reliable as USB tethering, but if you have good, solid service you may not notice much of a difference. It does, however, drain batter faster so you'll have to keep that in mind.
If you Lightning (or Dock) cable is unavailable or inconvenient, or if you want to tether multiple devices, you want Wi-Fi tethering.
What's your favorite method to tether from the iPhone or iPad?
If you tether your Mac or PC to your iPhone or iPad regularly, what tethering methods do you prefer and why? Are your speeds worse, better, or similar to mine? Let me know in the comments!