Windows 8.1 allows you to limit and monitor data usage, which isn’t just useful if you have a Windows tablet or laptop with mobile data. It’s also useful if you’re tethering your PC to your smartphone.

These tricks are useful, but bear in mind that simply setting a connection as a metered connection won’t reduce bandwidth usage by much. It also won’t affect desktop applications.

Set a Connection as Metered

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Let’s say you have a mobile data connection or a tethered smartphone connection. You may even be connected to a wired Internet connection with a harsh bandwidth limit. You can set this connection as metered to Windows knows you want to reduce bandwidth usage as much as possible.

First, open the Wi-Fi panel by clicking the Wi-Fi icon in the system tray or opening the charms, tapping Settings, and tapping your wireless network icon. Right-click or long-press a network and select Set as metered connection to make it a metered connection.

The network you’re connected to will now be considered a metered connection by Windows. Windows sets mobile data connections to metered by default, but you’ll have to set Wi-Fi connections — for example, the Wi-Fi network created by a tethered smartphone — to metered on your own.

Note that this option doesn’t do much on its own. You’ll want to tweak the options below to really restrict data usage.

Track Data Usage

To track the bandwidth you’ve used on a network, right-click or long-press it in the same pane and select Show estimated data usage.

Windows is always tracking the amount of data you’re using, so if you enable this you’ll be able to immediately see your past data usage. You don’t even have to set a connection as metered to get this option.

Note that this is called “estimated data usage” for a reason. It isn’t guaranteed to be perfectly accurate, as it’s measured in Windows. Your mobile data provider tracks the data on their end and they may have a different amount. Be sure to check your mobile data provider’s number and not only rely on the number Windows shows.

Configure Data Use on Metered Connections

Setting a connection to metered won’t do anything on its own. This option just instructs Windows to use special settings for that connection when available. Setting a connection as metered won’t stop your BitTorrent client from going full-throttle on it, and it won’t stop Netflix from using the highest-quality, most bandwidth-intensive setting possible.

Windows will respond to a connection being metered in several ways. Windows Update will only download priority updates, not all updates. The Windows Store will pause downloading  apps — including updates for apps — and live tiles on your Start screen won’t update.

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You can control how Windows uses OneDrive and other sync options over metered connections by opening the PC Settings app and navigating to OneDrive > Metered Connections. From here, you can disable uploading and downloading files over metered connections. If you’re using Windows 8.1’s built-in OneDrive cloud storage on the desktop, you can have OneDrive not upload or download files on metered connections.

Note that, by default, Windows 8.1 will upload and download files over metered connections — it won’t do so only if you’re roaming.

There’s also a Download over metered connections option under PC and devices > Devices. By default, Windows won’t download drivers and apps for new devices you connect while it’s on a metered connection, saving you bandwidth. If you see a “Setup incomplete because of metered connection” message while setting up a new peripheral, you’ll need to enable this option or connect to a non-metered connection.

Under Search and apps > Search, you can tweak whether Bing will retrieve suggestions and web results over metered connections. Windows 8.1 will access Bing search results on metered connections by default, unless you’re roaming.

These options are limited to controlling what Windows does, not restricting with third-party programs can do. Setting a metered connection won’t impact your web browser, BitTorrent client, or anything else. It’s possible that new Windows 8.1 “Store apps” will respect the metered connection setting and offer to restrict bandwidth based on it, but don’t expect desktop applications to do so.

Limit Data Usage on the Desktop

RELATED: How to Make Your Computer's Browser Use Less Data When Tethering

If you’re tethering or you have a direct mobile data connection and you want to restrict desktop application bandwidth usage, you’ll have to do this in a different way.

We’ve covered ways to restrict bandwidth usage when tethering, including using a compressing proxy like the “Off-Road mode” built into the Opera web browser, downloading Flash content on demand, and even disabling images in your web browser if you’re feeling desperate. All these tricks are still useful on Windows 8.1.

Setting a connection as metered helps somewhat, but these options can only help you so much. Even the estimated data usage shows you data usage over the last 30 days — which may not be a huge help if your mobile data provider measures data usage in monthly increments. Be sure to keep your data limits in mind and not count on Windows to manage them for you.

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Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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