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HTG Explains: Why Free, Ad-Supported Apps May Be More Expensive Than Paid Apps

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Free, ad-supported apps have two hidden costs: They use your phone’s data connection and battery power to download and display ads. In the long run, using a free app may be more expensive than buying the paid version.

If you have a phone with a huge battery and an unlimited data connection, you may not be too concerned about this. But if you’re like most people, you may just want to pay the 99 cents for the app rather than paying for the app in additional data and electricity use.

Ads Use Much More Electricity Than You Would Expect

Electricity does cost money, so it’s true that using ad-supported apps will probably increase your electricity bill a tiny bit. However, that’s not the main concern. In a world where many people struggle to have their smartphones last all day, ads can cost you lost productivity as they run down your precious battery life.

A 2012 study found that as much as 65 to 75% of the energy used by popular ad-supported Android apps was used on advertising. 75% of the power used by the ad-supported version of Angry Birds was for advertising functions. In other words, the paid, ad-free version of Angry Birds used 25% of the power of the free, ad-supported version.

How can this be the case? It’s simple – ad-supported apps don’t just download ads. They turn on your GPS to acquire your location so you can be served targeted ads and monitor other information about your phone, too. The combination of using GPS, uploading data about your phone, and downloading data over a 3G (or 4G) connection can increase power usage dramatically.

It’s possible that some of the apps in the study have already reduced their electricity use. However, ad-supported apps will always use more electricity because they have to do more with your hardware.

Read our guide to finding the root cause of your Android’s battery problems or list of tips for maximizing your Android phone’s battery life for more information on increasing your Android phone’s battery life.

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Ads Can Drive Up Your Data Bill

Ads use data. For people with unlimited data plans, this won’t be a concern. If you have a high data cap, you may not be too worried. But if you have a low data cap – or if you’re a heavy user with a high one — every advertisement that appears reduces the data that you can use for things that are important for you. if you go over your data cap, you’ll end up paying extra for the privilege of looking at ads.

Even worse, if you’re a on “pay per use” plan where you pay for every little bit of data you use rather than buying a chunk of data as a plan, the ads can cost you noticeable amounts of money very quickly. Price-sensitive users with low data caps or pay-per-use data and ad-supported apps on their phone could easily be paying more if they use ad-supported apps instead of paid ones.

The amount of data used for advertising will vary between apps, and the costs and data caps will vary between carriers. But if you’re trying to reduce your phone’s data consumption, removing ads from apps is an easy way to do so – why pay for the privilege of receiving ads when you can pay for a better experience with the app?

Read our guide to minimizing your Android phone’s data usage for more tips on reducing your data consumption.

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Buy Apps, Don’t Use Ad Blockers

Some people out there are nodding in agreement and itching to leave a comment saying “This is why I root (or jailbreak) my phone and run an ad blocker.”

Apps are made by hard-working developers and are rarely expensive, often costing as little as $0.99. Sure, you could block the app’s ads – but if you want to use an app, you should support the developer. Paying for an app, whether with actual money or through viewing ads, makes it possible for developers to continue making and improving apps.

If you live in a region of the world where you can’t purchase the app from Google Play or you depend on a specific app that doesn’t offer a paid version but the advertisements are costing you significant amounts of money, you’re in a more difficult situation.

However, most people can toss a few coins the developer’s way. Over the long run, it may be cheaper than looking at ads. Ad-supported apps can still be useful if you think of them as a free trial version, but the hidden costs add up if you use an ad-supported app every day.


If you want long battery life and efficient data usage, you should buy the apps you use regularly to remove their ads. When you consider that you’ll also have a better experience with an ad-free app, it’s a no-brainer.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 03/19/13

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