Why (and how) Windows 10 PCs with LTE and eSIM will change the game

Over the course of conducting my review of the Surface Pro with LTE the reality of how important having 4G LTE built into a PC became obvious. That's in part due to embedded SIM (eSIM) technology, which is built into the Surface Pro with LTE and future devices.

For those not familiar with the technology, eSIM digitally delivers the same functionality of a physical SIM card – network authorization, IMEI number, and APN configuration data. It's analogous to having a blank SIM card built into the computer that can be programmed to work with any carrier. It also means you can buy data plans through a digital store instead of going to T-Mobile and buying a prepaid SIM.

The value of eSIM

The ability to take a PC or 2-in-1 wherever in the world you are and still have multiple ways to get on the internet is going to be critical for businesses, the modern nomadic millennial workforce, creators, those who are self-employed, and even regular consumers.

Currently, most people rely on open Wi-Fi to get online when in public and using a PC or tablet. When in a pinch, a savvier user will wirelessly tether to their smartphone. I often hear that tethering is a viable alternative to the Surface Pro with LTE – and forthcoming Always Connected PCs from HP and others. But you'll be surprised at how many people don't know about tethering, or just don't have plans that support it (some carriers still have it as an extra).

Related: Why Microsoft's mobile future may depend on eSIM

Tethering is not mainstream, nor is it efficient. Using your phone to relay data to your laptop technically works, but the drain on battery and bandwidth bottleneck make it a less-than-ideal experience.

LTE laptops provide a faster connection than tethering

A 4G PC can pull and process data faster than a smartphone.

In comparing the OnePlus 5 and Surface Pro with LTE both on the AT&T network, side by side, the Surface repeatedly trounces the OnePlus for overall data pull and reception. An extra 30Mbps download, or double the upload speed, is not a trivial difference.

In other words, wireless 4G tethering is a kludge, not a solution.

Buy data when you need it

As someone who is continuously connected at home or in the office to highspeed internet, I rarely need the 3GB of AT&T data I pay for every month. That SIM card often is laying around doing nothing. AT&T is kind enough to roll over the data, so I have 6GB this month, but that just demonstrates that it's a colossal waste of money. And sometimes the Wi-Fi that is available in public is so bad, it's useless.

For these reasons, I'm very excited at the prospect of buying cellular data by chunks when I need it, rather than a monthly subscription and commitment to a carrier. That is the future of eSIM, and Microsoft is getting starting with Surface Pro and very soon with the HP Envy x2.

It's no secret that Microsoft is partnering up with carriers around the globe to sell single-use data packages through the digital Microsoft Store. Imagine buying 1 GB of data the same way you buy a game or an app. With that single-click convenience, the Store then utilizes the eSIM to get you online. No tethering, no going to your local carrier to get a physical SIM, and no monthly plan.

This lowering of the barrier to ubiquitous 4G LTE on a laptop is only hindered by the cost of putting in a modem and the fact that eSIM is just starting to come on the scene. (Let's give Microsoft some credit for being ahead of the market here for once).

The HP Envy X2 with an ARM procesor is always on the 'net.

The HP Envy X2 with an ARM procesor is always on the 'net.

If every Windows laptop came with an LTE modem with eSIM technology and users could just one-click buy some bits of data, that would change the way we see and use PCs. Carrier will like it, too, because a whole new base of customers will be one-click away from a purchase.

As Microsoft and its partners continue to make laptops thinner, lighter, smaller – and soon foldable – the addition of always-there internet dramatically increases the purpose of those devices.

For all these reasons the Surface Pro with LTE, while not for everyone due to costs, is a trailblazer. Currently, the eSIM technology inside it is sitting idle, but later this year when Microsoft Store data plans come online, that changes. Combined with Always Connected PCs at lower price points and eventually Windows Core OS ("Polaris") how we use PCs is going to change dramatically.

And I simply can't wait.

Further reading

Daniel Rubino

Daniel Rubino is the Editor-in-chief of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been here covering Microsoft since 2007 when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and for some reason, watches. Before all this tech stuff, he worked on a Ph.D. in linguistics and ran the projectors at movie theaters, which has done absolutely nothing for his career.

  • I tether all the time.  Both with my personal device on TMobile and work device on AT&T I seldom have any issues.  But then again, most of the time I'm not doing it for hours it's usually no more than an hour at a time.  Sure eSims will help.  But maybe I just think the term "Game Changer" is so overused.  Normally, nothing really impressive happens once those words are used.  It may be very good but Game Changer?  We'll have to see about that.  Now, convenient?  Yes.  I'll agree to that.
  • I also use tethering to get my my Lenovo 2in1 online when on the go, but I don't find it reliable enough for anything other than a few minutes of use. I tried it with all three mobile OS', and it's not a good experience. W10M turns the hotspot off after a longer idle period, even when plugged in. Android also does this sometimes, although not as often. But if the signal becomes weaker, the speeds of the tethered connection decrease way faster than they should. And than there's iOS. I'd say it's the most reliable when it comes to wireless tethering, but the speeds are lower than with W10M or android. If you want the best result, you have to go with USB tethering, but who wants a USB cable sticking out of their 2in1, with a phone on the other end of it. So I'd kill for LTE support on my 2in1 😁
  • I actually found that iOS was worse than W10M when it came to tethering, especially between my work's iPad and iPhone. Continues to drop the connection and the only way to get it back is to turn off hot spot on the iPhone, turn off wifi on the iPad and then turn them both back on. Whereas my 950XL keeps the connection, and if it does drop out I can see it in the list of available connections and get the connection back easily.
  • You tether because you have not had any choice in the matter. How many laptops on the market had the option to have LTE built in? Some special ordered Lenovo, maybe a custom ordered HP Elitebook? My point is if LTE came built into many more Ultrabooks or tablets for the consumer market - given the choice - you would always opt for the built-in option and convenience of eSIM. You save your phone's battery, you get much faster throughput speeds, and it's not a hassle. Tethering is just a hack/workaround. We do it because our main device does not have LTE. That's it. It's not because it's the perfect solution to a problem (your laptop can't get online). For regular consumers, that's a huge difference (as is pay-as-you-go data package thru the Store, instead of pay-per-month subscription plans).
  • The game changing will be linking your phisical phone sim with your laptop eSim in order to use the same data plan on both devices.
  • Or just investing in much needed Skype improvements.  Why this wasn't happening in parallel seems crazy to me. 
  • Great idea regarding the shared data plan.
  • It already works between two physical SIMs in some plans at some carriers, so replacing the second SIM with an eSIM isn't that difficult.
  • No, because this “game changing” technology is meant to generate additional income to carriers and the like. Your variant is only good for us. I have LTE on my business laptop for years and it’s nothing “game changing” about it. Actually, people that needed this had this option before. They are only bringing it to consumers in the hope they can squeez more money out of them.
  • If I look at myself, the times I need to have internet on my SP3 when I'm on the go and no decent internet is available are by far a reason to get a device (that's for now more expensive) with LTE built in. Honestly I think it'll still take some time before this tech becomes mainstream on the consumer market simply because there's no demand there. Convenient: yes, required on my next device: absolutely not. I'm happy that changes like these are being introduced into the market but I don't think it'll become mainstream tech quite soon. Also: the data plans in Belgium aren't made for stuff like this (yet?)...
  • I have one question about this eSIM tech. Can I buy any laptopt that suppport it and use it on any conuntry? Or this is something that MS have to enable? I ask this because we all know how MS is regarding other markets. 
  • eSIM is not Microsoft technology. Anyone can use. Apple uses it in the iPad. It's part of Qualcomm's Snapdragon platform.
  • My Surface 3 has LTE built in ;)  Shame they forgot how to do this for so many years. The eSIM promise does make it more compelling than paying my $10/mo to have the AT&T SIM in the Surface. I've had that SIM in an iPad Mini as well, and have a Google Fi data only SIM on order for that device, which I will test in the Surface. That's a great deal. It costs you nothing to just have the SIM. It just debits the same pool as your phone. As an aside, I want to vent about AT&T's rollover process. You mentioned it. So, you have a 3Gig plan and use nothing. Next month it rolls over and you start with 6Gig. You use more data this month and use 2.5Gig. It pulls from your base data first. Next month the 3 that was rollover just goes away, and you will start with 3.5Gig, the 3 you pay for and the .5 you didn't use. The 3 rollover goes poof. Youn would have to use your whole allotment of 3 before you ever dip into the rollover, and it only lasts one month. If you used 3 Gig on the month you started with 6, the following month you would start with 3, becuause you had no leftover (of your base allotment).  
  • I need to look into Google Fi too. Good point.
  • I agree with the statement that you tether because that was the only option and that if you can afford to pay for extras then most of the time you'll opt in for them. I think of it the same way as wireless charging. You normally plug in your phone because that used to be the only way to charge it, but now you have another option. You don't NEED it, but it's nice to have and if it were up to me I think every phone should have it as a base feature so you could do either depending on your preference. I think it would be nice to be able to link your phone data plan to your device without tethering, but that's not going to happen in capitalism lol. I personally don't need a separate data plan for a separate device enough to justify paying for another data line and I always roll over some data each month on my phone plan.
  • "I personally don't need a separate data plan for a separate device enough to justify paying for another data line and I always roll over some data each month on my phone plan."
    Agree 100%, which is why buying just 500MB of LTE data through the Microsoft Store when you need it (vs. having to buy it every month) is the game-changing part. Imagine in 2 years, you just have a normal, premium laptop. It has LTE built in because that's now normal. You don't use it though. One day, you need it so you open up the Store, drop $8 on a few hundred MBs and that's it, done. That' something we haven't seen ever.
  • After decades now of unlimited data on PCs, do you really think limited pay as you go data is going to be a hit? We no longer put up with data limits on our smartphones in the US, why would we with our PCs? I guess you have to toe the Microsoft line. Maybe some day you will be honest.
  • It's about convienience. Buying smaller chunks of data will be a god send for many in the early days, but no doubt, in time, dirt cheap mega plans will become the norm.
  • You can also put any SIM in it, so this isn't an argument. You need unlimited LTE on your 2in1? Ok, than get a SIM with a subscription for unlimited data, and put it in. The point Dan is making, is that you don't have to do that, if you don't want to, but what you can do instead is buying some data with two clicks, and the money is just withdrawn from your credit card. No f*cking around with recharging the balance of a prepaid card, just to buy that 1GB of data you need to do something. And the other thing is, that you can buy it from any carrier without buying a new SIM every time. And btw, I think unlimited data plans will also shortly make their appearance in the Microsoft Store.
  • Ok, great, but how is that "game changing"? You really think the way we buy data is the big issue with Windows and Microsoft? I have never heard anyone complain that they didn't like Windows because the internet is hard to access.
  • Most people still live within data limits.  With few exceptions there is no such thing as "unlimited data".  Most will slow you down after you use X amount. 
  • i sure hope it's cheaper than $8 for a few hundred mb. Right now i pay $10 for 2 gb. 
  • If there is demand for LTE laptops, why aren't they more readily available? You really think all these PC manufacturers are ignoring this market?
  • I agree that LTE and eSIM will be a convenience, I just disagree that it will be a "game changer".   Someone who already tethers is not going to be interested in going through a pay wall.  I disagree that pressing a button on my phone and having my laptop authomatically connect to the internet is more of "a hassle" than it is to go through the microsoft store.  Maybe I've just been lucky but my experience with tethering and data speeds has been flawless and even faster than my home internet at times. For people who do not have access to tethering for what ever reason, you're still talking about a paywall compared to open wifi.  The best use case would be if you're in an area that has absolutely no free wifi or if you're staying in a hotel that already has a paywall for their wifi.  Would a family choose to pay for the hotel's wifi which in most cases will give all the devices in that room access or will they choose to pay for access on each individiual device? Even if every device the family owned had eSIM capabilities (which isn't likely), for a family of 3 or 4 I'd think it would be cost prohibitive to pay on each device rather than get hotel wifi.  Furthermore when purchasing a device most families are not going to pay an additional $100 for LTE for themselves or thier kids because we're all used to WiFi and it is literally everywhere.  This would have to be tech included in all new devices by default (windows, iOS, & android). However for for a business traveler there could be a small benefit, but it all depends on how that company is strucuted.  For many companies it may be far easier to pay for hotel wifi rather than to reemberse employees for eSIM payments, however if it's a company laptop it may be easier to just pre-pay for eSIM. So I think in a world were all devices have eSIM capabilities it could be a nice convenience for certain people and certain businesses at certain times, but I don't see it as any kind of "game changer" by any stretch.   I don't see it as a means for Microsoft to sell millions of more devices, I just see it as a no brainer for carriers to access another revenue stream. 
  • You make several very good points.   I agree that "game changing" is way overused.  It only APPEARS to be revolutionary to Microsoft fans, who conveniently ignore that this technology has been on iPads and Android tablets for years.  
  • Apparently, you haven't read the previous posts that your replying to Naddy6969 because they mentioned that there Surface 3 LTE works great with there ATT or T-mobile simm card just like mine has for years. From your Microsoft fan here. :-)
  • I have a Surface 3 LTE (Cherry hill processor), 4GB, and 128 GB SSD (the max configuration) and it is/was infuriatingly slow (like using the Original iPad)    So I've just got the i5 8GB new Surface Pro LTE.   Atleast it has decent performance.  Just based on the perforance of the S3 I worry that the QualComm 845 chip may not be fast enought to do anything useful and productive.   One place where the iPad and Android tablets are beating MS Windows is with Specific Purpose/Application Apps for those who have to be on the go without WIFI.  I do think that its good that intel has competition for the lowend of windows machines; I wonder if you could have a laptop with multiple 845 Chips in it.   One chip runs when on battery, two when connected to electrical power.
  • iPads have come with LTE option since almost the beginning. They don't sell as well as the WiFi-only option, and it's not price, as Apple consumers are typically price-insensitive. I'm definitely a techie, and I almost never use the LTE on my Galaxy Tab S3. More than anything, if you're in a situation where you are going to use a device that requires two hands to use, it's not going to be on-the-go. There are edge cases where that's not true, but tethering does meet the needs of most in those situations, and the rest are ok with custom orders. When tablets start folding into phones, then it will be a big deal to have LTE.
  • I've tethered for hours with no problem, on both a 950xl and Note 8. I have 20GB of data - why buy more?