Android tethering apps: 6 excellent options

Want to use your Android phone to get your tablet or PC online? Here are six apps that'll let you share your data connection in no time.

Android tethering: From USB to Wi-Fi

Even though we're walking around with constantly connected smartphones, many of us struggle to get our other devices online. The easiest way (outside of public Wi-Fi) is to tether them to your phone, either via a USB cable or by using the phone to create a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Data tethering is built natively into Android. However, some carriers make that feature difficult to use -- they'd rather have you pay extra to subscribe to their tethering services. As a result, your carrier may not approve of the use of these apps. (Apple definitely doesn't approve; there are no tethering apps in the App Store.)

With one of these six apps, though, you can harness your phone's 3G/4G connection to quickly get your tablet or laptop online.

FoxFi

One of the simplest solutions for Android Wi-Fi hotspot functionality is a free little app called FoxFi. FoxFi gives you a one-touch checkbox on your phone that activates a Wi-Fi hotspot. It allows you to set up your own network name and password with WPA-PSK protection. The app supports Bluetooth-based tethering, too, if you prefer to go that route.

FoxFi is not currently forward-compatible with Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) and consequently will not work with any devices that have been upgraded to that level of the platform. Some carriers have also blocked it from appearing in the Google Play Store for smartphones connected to their networks.

Extended Controls

While not explicitly a Wi-Fi tethering app, Extended Controls ($0.99) is an excellent way to activate a Wi-Fi hotspot right from your phone's home screen, with or without an official plan in place. Extended Controls is a customizable power widget that lets you set up toggles for all sorts of phone functions.

In order to harness its hotspot-activating potential, you'll want to create a toggle with the "Hotspot Wi-Fi" function. Then you can just tap the toggle on your home screen to turn a hotspot on or off as you want or need to.

PdaNet

A long-time power-user favorite (especially for travelers whose laptops aren't equipped with 3G/4G), PdaNet has been enabling phone-based tethering since the early days of Android. The app doesn't support Wi-Fi hotspots but instead allows you to share your smartphone's data connection directly with your computer using a wired USB connection. 

After installing the app on your phone, you install a companion program on your Windows PC or Mac. You can then utilize your phone's data connection to get your computer online. The one catch: The free version of PdaNet doesn't allow PC-based access to secure (https) websites; in order to access those, you'll have to buy a $16 pro license.

EasyTether

EasyTether is an alternative to PdaNet that works in the same basic way: You install the app on your smartphone, then install companion software on your Windows PC or Mac and connect the devices via USB.

Like PdaNet, EasyTether limits what you can do with its free version; the basic app blocks computer-based access to secure sites, instant messenger utilities, and game console applications. For access to those types of content, you'll have to upgrade to the full version of EasyTether, which currently costs $10.

Barnacle Wifi Tether

Barnacle Wifi Tether provides a powerful way to turn a phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot. The free app has a one-touch hotspot toggle button; if you look within its settings, you'll find options to name your phone's wireless network, set up WEP encryption, and adjust a slew of items such as the wireless channel and DHCP parameters. For $2, you can download the separate Barnacle Wifi Widget, which puts the hotspot toggle right on your home screen.

Note that this app requires a phone to be rooted in order to work. If you aren't sure if your device is rooted, it's safe to assume that it isn't.

WiFi Tether for Root Users

Another option for users with rooted devices is the aptly named WiFi Tether for Root Users. The free app offers the same basic functionality as Barnacle -- and it includes a home screen widget. WiFi Tether for Root Users has numerous advanced options, including an automatic shutdown timer that can disable your phone's Wi-Fi hotspot after a certain amount of time, inactivity or data usage has been reached.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. For more Android tips and insights, follow him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.