© 2014 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved. Stem cells regulate their fate by binding to, and contracting against, the extracellular matrix. Recently, it has been proposed that in addition to matrix stiffness and ligand type, the degree of coupling of fibrous protein to the surface of the underlying substrate, that is, tethering and matrix porosity, also regulates stem cell differentiation. By modulating substrate porosity without altering stiffness in polyacrylamide gels, we show that varying substrate porosity did not significantly change protein tethering, substrate deformations, or the osteogenic and adipogenic differentiation of human adipose-derived stromal cells and marrow-derived mesenchymal stromal cells. Varying protein-substrate linker density up to 50-fold changed tethering, but did not affect osteogenesis, adipogenesis, surface-protein unfolding or underlying substrate deformations. Differentiation was also unaffected by the absence of protein tethering. Our findings imply that the stiffness of planar matrices regulates stem cell differentiation independently of protein tethering and porosity.