Increasingly sophisticated phones and data-hungry applications make it easier than ever to blow through your data plan’s cap and incur overage charges. Read on as we show you how to manage your data use and avoid unwelcome charges.
Why Do I Want to Do This?
Cellular providers, especially in the U.S., are notoriously stingy with their data plans. Most providers have a hard cap of 2GB and even the providers that advertise unlimited data have a soft cap around 5GB and reserve the right to charge you if you break through it.
Five years ago it would have been almost unheard of to blow through multiple GB of mobile data because there just wasn’t much large mobile content out there. Now all the major streaming sources like YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu have mobile apps, the actual applications have ballooned in size (it’s not uncommon for apps and their updates to exceed 100MB in size), and installing a half dozen data hungry applications can quickly chew up large chunks of your data plan just with background activity.
Watching 15 minutes of streaming video a day on your phone—a couple funny YouTube videos or just half an episode of a sitcom on Hulu or Netflix—is enough to add 1.25GB of data to your monthly usage. Stream some music while working out at the gym? Listening to Pandora for a daily 30 minute workout will add 800MB of data to your bill. Snap a lot of photos and sync them to your Dropbox account or Facebook? Uploading a dozen high resolution photos a day can easily add 300-400MB to your usage.
Streaming a little music at the gym, watching Super Bowl commercials while sitting in a waiting room, and uploading a few too many pictures of your kid to Facebook hardly makes somebody a data hog, but it certainly stacks up over the course a month and can easily put you uncomfortably close to your data cap.
While it would be wonderful to pay a reasonable rate for more generous data plans than most consumers currently have, most of us are stuck minding our bits and bytes to avoid getting slapped with fees. We will show you a battery of techniques you can employ to both keep an eye on and curtail costly data usage.
Check Your Data Usage
Before anything else, you need to check your data usage. If you don’t know what your typical usage looks like you have no idea how mildly or severely you need to modify your data consumption patterns.
Estimating your data usage: Although the best way to assess your data is to look at what you’re actually using (either via your bills or via a data usage monitor) sometimes it’s handy to be able to estimate what kind of data you may need in the future based on what you want to do with your phone.
Let’s say, for example, you’re contemplating installing Netflix or Hulu on your phone and want to guesstimate how much data some casual use away from your home Wi-Fi network would consume. In cases like that it can be handy to use one of the data usage estimators available from the major networks. They’re not perfect but they’re great for getting a ballpark estimate of your data usage:
Estimates across all three calculators are very consistent; you can just pick the one with the layout you like. Playing around with the estimators makes it readily apparent how easy it is to use up a whole lot of data very quickly.
Check your past usage: The easiest way to check past data usage is to log into the web portal of your cellular provider (or check your paper bills) and look at what your data usage is. If you’re routinely coming in way under your data cap you may wish to contact your provider and see if you can switch to a less expensive data plan. If you’re coming close to the data cap or exceeding it, you will definitely want to keep reading.
Check your recent usage: Checking your old bills is a great way to see your data usage over the previous months/years but it will always lag by a billing cycle. In order to check your current usage you want to monitor consumption from within Android.
If your phone has Android 4.0 or above you can check your usage via the OS. If your phone is not currently running Android 4.0 or above you’ll want to skip down to the next section where we talk about third-party monitoring tools.
Navigate to Settings –> Wireless & Networks –> Data Usage. You’ll see a screen that looks something like the first screen:
If you scroll down, you will see the cellular data usage, as seen in the middle panel. It’s important to note that these charts only show data sent through your cellular data connection and not your Wi-Fi connection. You might be a YouTube junky, but if you do all your watching while connected to your home network, it won’t register here.
Note: If you’re more curious than the average bear and you want to turn on Wi-Fi data monitoring just for fun to see what kind of data volume you’re pulling through your phone, tap on the menu key while in the Data Usage sub-menu to enable the Wi-Fi monitoring interface.
In addition to monitoring you can also set data warnings and limits by checking Set mobile data limit and adjusting the orange warning bar and red cut off bar to your liking—when you reach the amount specified by the cut off limit, the mobile data for your phone will be disabled until you intervene.
Although it’s great that Android has a built-in data monitor, in a later section we’re going to look at using third-party tools that offer more feedback and more customization options.
Limiting Your Background Data Use
There are two kinds of data sinks when it comes to mobile devices. First, there’s the obvious user-driven data consumption, or, foreground data. When you watch a high-quality video or download a new album, you’re directly contributing to increasing your data usage for that month.
Less obvious to most people is the fairly large amount of behind-the-scenes data churning through your connection—the background data. Polling for Facebook updates, high-frequency email inbox checks, automatic application updates, and other background activities can put a real dent in your data allotment. Let’s take a look at how we can curtail some of that usage.
If nothing else, restrict app updates to Wi-Fi: One of the easiest background data hogs to strike down right out of the gate is the background data consumed by application updates. Updates are necessary and welcome both for security purposes and access to new features, but there aren’t any updates so critical that you absolutely need to get at them before you connect to the next Wi-Fi access point. By default, any apps set to automatically update will do so over both mobile data and Wi-Fi. You can change this by launching the Play Store app, pressing the menu button, and then selecting Settings –> Update over Wi-Fi only. Toggling this setting on will save you untold amounts of mobile data usage over the life of the phone.
A quick note before we continue: as we talk about restricting background data usage, we want to make it very clear that these restrictions only apply to your mobile data usage; even if you heavily restrict an application it will still function normally when you are on Wi-Fi.
First, let’s investigate which apps are actually generating notable amounts of background data. In the Settings –> Wireless & Networks –> Data Usage section we highlighted a moment ago, you can click on individual applications to see a more detailed view. Here we can see the foreground and background usage:
Restricting data via Android: You can approach limiting background data one of three ways: total blackout, individual blackout, or app-based settings.
You can turn off all background data—this reduces your data usage immensely in most instances but it can also be inconvenient as it doesn’t differentiate between data sippers and data hogs and whether or not you find the background data is useful. From the Data Usage menu you can press the menu key and check Restrict background data. This will turn off background data for all applications.
For a less intrusive, but less convenient, option, you can click on each individual application and check off Restrict background data. This is more of a hassle but is more flexible in that you can opt to only restrict the biggest data hogs on your list.
Restricting data via individual apps: If possible, you can often tweak settings in the individual applications. Rather than use Android to restrict Facebook’s data use, for example, you can jump into the Facebook app and turn down the frequency of push notifications or turn them off altogether. Not only does turning off notifications and constant polling cut down on your data use but it’s great for extending your battery life.
Not every app will have these kind of settings (or as fine-tooth control as you wish) so be prepared to fallback on restricting the background data from the outside. The downside of adjusting the data use inside the application, however, is that it won’t automatically switch to more liberal data use when you switch over from cellular data to Wi-Fi data as it would if Android was doing the restricting.
Installing a third-party data manager: At this point you’re either thinking how wonderful it is that Android’s built-tools provided just what you needed or you’re wishing for a more detailed, more control at your finger tips, widgets-coming-out-the-gills tool. If you’d like to spend less time digging in the System menu and more time reviewing app data and easily toggling settings, we can’t recommend free Onavo Count enough. Not only is it an improvement over the built-in monitoring provided by Android 4.0+ phones it works on phones with Android versions as low as Android 2.2.
Onavo is as in your face or as quiet in the background as you want it to be. The first time you run it you tell it what your data cap is, when your billing cycle resets, and it begins monitoring immediately. You can set alerts for not just broad data usage but also usage while roaming as well as custom alerts for data-hogging applications. Onavo even features predictive alerts that warn you if your current data usage patterns will lead to you burning through your data well before the month is up.
Installing a data kill-switch: If all of this monitoring, tinkering, and tweaking seems like too much work, you can go for the simplest solution of all, a data kill switch. One of the most popular options in the Play Store is Data ON-OFF.
This is by far the least elegant solution to managing your mobile data usage (and akin to turning off your home’s power at the fuse box to save on electricity instead of assessing the kind of appliances and devices you’re using), but if you just want a simple way to kill the mobile data without having to fuss with application permissions or monitoring it’s the way to go.
Switch to a Lightweight Browser
While the default browser in Android gets better with each release, it still leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to minimizing data usage. Fortunately there are several alternatives that feature data compression and optimization to help reduce usage.
Chrome Beta: The newest optimized browser is actually a Google offering. The most recent offering of Chrome Beta features a new experimental proxy service run by Google that promises to radically increase mobile browsing speeds while decreasing data loads. In order to turn on access to this new proxy system, you will need to enter the address chrome://flags in the address bar of Chrome Beta and enable the entry for Experimental Data Compression Proxy. The release and the feature are brand new so we haven’t had long to play with them, but so far the project looks promising. Expect the proxy feature and optimization to appear in the regular release of Chrome in the near future.
Opera Mini: Google may have finally got around to jumping on the optimized-mobile-browser band wagon but Opera has been working on it for years. Opera Mini is a lightning fast mobile browser powered by Opera’s optimization proxies. The fast user interface, fast browsing experience, and page optimization have made Opera Mini one of the most downloaded Android browsers around.
TextOnly: If you’re a hardcore reductionist, TextOnly is where it’s at. TextOnly offers you three approaches to the website browsing. You can browse the site’s RSS feed in browser, you can browse the page stripped down to just the text for a Gopher-like web browsing experience, or you can browse the page in its mobile-optimized format. TextOnly isn’t exactly the most popular browser in the Play Store but don’t let that throw you off — it delivers on its promise of ultra-minimal data use.
Remove Ads to Decrease Data Consumption
Mobile advertisements are a surprisingly big data sink. You can approach the problem of mobile ads one of two ways:
Purchase your favorite apps: Many times there is a $0.99 version of the free app you’re using that has the ads removed. Developers need to eat so you can pay them with ad revenue or cold hard cash. You can use the previously highlighted data monitoring tools to see which of your free-but-ad-supported apps are pulling down abnormal amounts of data and consider buying the premium copies.
Install an ad blocker: While we strongly encourage you to support the developers that make the great apps you use every day, buying an ad-free premium version isn’t always an option. In such cases tools like Adblock Plus and AdAway—AdBlock Plus works on non-rooted phones but only for Wi-Fi based blocking; both apps need root access for 3G-based ad blocking.
If you want the best of both worlds, we recommend AdAway; it features a white list that will allow you to, for example, block web-based ads to cut down on bandwidth and increase browsing speed while still supporting the developers of specific apps.
Cache Your Data
The best way to avoid sucking down huge chunks of data while you’re out and about (and dependent on cellular data) is to cache it ahead of time when you’re basking in the glory of a wide open Wi-Fi connection.
Stop using task killers: The first thing you want to do is to stop using task killer apps. Not only are they of dubious usefulness (and we strongly recommend against using them), but most task killers will also dump the cache files of applications they are busily killing off—which means when you go to use the app again you’ll need to download the data all over.
Use streaming apps with offline modes: Many streaming service apps are adding offline modes—modes that allow users to pre-cache data while on Wi-Fi to use when on their cellular data connections. Rdio, Rhapsody, Slacker Radio, and Spotify are examples of streaming music services that have offline modes to help users avoid hitting their data caps.
Download data in advance: We know this is so 2003 to actually stock up your device ahead of time instead of downloading data on demand, but there’s something to be said for downloading your music, podcasts, ebooks and other media to your device from the comfort of your home (and Wi-Fi connection).
Cache Google Maps data: If you’re using Google Maps heavily for daily navigation or trip planning you’re sucking down a lot of data. Rather than use the live updating version, you can pre-cache your route (and save a ton of mobile data usage in the process). Next time you’re planning on doing some heavy Maps use, open up Maps when you’re on Wi-Fi, tap the menu button, and visit Settings –> Labs and check off Pre-cache map area.
You can pre-cache your route by selecting the location you want to pre-cache the data for and pressing and holding. A menu will pop up asking if you want to pre-cache the map data in a 10 mile radius around the area. If you’re driving a longer distance you may need to pre-cache a couple times to complete the route but you’ll be rewarded with speedier map loads and no mobile data usage.
The take away from this section is to look for ways to pre-cache data you’d end up downloading on the go. Check your news reader, check your email client, check your media app—look in the settings of applications you know will be sucking down data and see if there is some way to download it while on Wi-Fi and save it for later.
You can apply a few of our suggestions or all of them depending on your needs and how much you need to curtail your data usage—either way with a little careful management it’s possible to go from skirting your data-cap every month to saving money by switching to a smaller plan with very little effort.
Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on Google+ if you'd like.
- Published 03/12/13