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How to Reduce Data Usage When Browsing the Web on a Smartphone

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When you don’t have unlimited mobile data on your Android or iPhone, every megabyte counts. Mobile browsers like Google Chrome and Opera offer a built in data compression feature, allowing you to browse with less data.

There are only a few small trade-offs here. If you want to use less data, enabling this feature will allow you to browse all the same websites with little noticeable difference.

How Does This Work?

When you load a web page on your phone, your browser connects directly to the website’s web server, which sends you the web page you asked for just as if you were browsing on Wi-Fi. Your cellular provider just sits in the middle, passing traffic back and forth and charging you for it.

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Enable the Data Compression feature in Chrome or Off-Road mode feature in Opera — this was formerly known as the Opera Turbo feature — and things will happen differently. When your browser loads a website, it will first send a request to Google or Opera’s servers. Their servers then download the page you wanted to view as well as all its images and other assets. They compress the web page on their servers, making it take up less space, and then send it to your phone.  In other words, these services function as compressing proxies. This is just one good way to reduce your phone’s data usage.

Images are also transcoded so they’re smaller and only as detailed as they need to be — your phone probably doesn’t need the same high-resolution web images you would need on a full PC if you’re hurting for bandwidth.

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What About Performance and Privacy?

If you have a fast data connection, web pages may take a tiny bit longer to load because the connection isn’t direct and you’re waiting for the proxy. By the same token, since your phone will have less data to download, the web page may download even faster if you have a slower data connection.

There are also potential privacy concerns here, as Google or Opera will be able to see the web pages you’re accessing. Realistically, that’s not not unusual — your cellular carrier, Internet service provider, and various state security agencies around the world are all able to see what web pages you’re visiting, anyway. If you use Chrome or Opera browser sync, your history will synchronize through their servers, so they’re not getting any new data. And Google Analytics is on so many pages that Google can see many of the web pages you visit. In other words, we’re already in deep here — and since we’re already giving away our browsing history, we might as well take advantage of this convenience feature in return.

Both Chrome and Opera also do not use the compressing proxy for encrypted HTTPS pages. If you access a secure website, like your bank, you’ll connect directly to the secure site. This means you don’t get the benefits of less data usage, but your sensitive data isn’t routed through the proxies, so you can stay secure. Google says using Chrome’s incognito mode also bypasses the proxy.

Enable Data Compression in Chrome or Opera

To enable Data Compression in the Chrome app for Android, iPhone, or iPad, tap Chrome’s menu button and select Settings. Tap Bandwidth management under Advanced, tap Reduce data usage, and set the slider to On.

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To enable Off-Road mode in the Opera browser for Android or iOS, tap the O menu button and set the Off-Road mode slider to On. This feature is conveniently located so you can easily disable and enable it whenever you like — perhaps you want it disabled on Wi-Fi, but enabled when using mobile data. You can also open Opera’s Settings screen and lower the quality setting for Off-Road images — this will allow you to save bandwidth on images, but they won’t look as nice.

The Opera web browser for Windows, Mac, and Linux also offers this feature, so you can use Opera on your laptop to reduce bandwidth consumption while you’re tethered to your smartphone’s data connection.

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See How Much Data You’ve Saved

After you’ve used this feature for a bit, you can head to the same Reduce data usage settings page in Chrome and see exactly how much data you’ve saved by having it enabled. This can give you an idea of how worthwhile the feature actually is.

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On Opera, this information is available right in the O menu, so it’s always just a quick tap away.

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When every megabyte counts, this feature is very worthwhile. On the other hand, if you have a fast LTE connection with unlimited data, browsing may be a bit faster without Data Compression enabled.

Image Credit: Ed Yourdon on Flickr

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 02/3/14

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