How to Stay Below Your Data Cap on Android
Studies suggest that Android users consume the most data--which is great news for the tech industry, but perhaps not so great for the user who has to pay that pesky wireless bill at the end of each month.
As 4G networks become more popular and unlimited data plans drop like flies, it's important that you know how to cut down your data usage without seriously compromising your mobile Android experience. Here are a few tips to help you track and reduce your data usage so you can avoid overage charges and data throttling.
1. Monitor Your Data Usage
The first step in reducing your data usage is figuring out how much data you actually use. You can check your data consumption as measured by your phone (which may be slightly different from what your carrier thinks you're using) by digging into your wireless settings menu. For the purposes of this guide, we're using a Samsung Galaxy Nexus running Android Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0.2), but some of these tips may work differently depending on what phone you own and which version of Android you have installed.
Open your Settings menu and navigate to Wireless & Networks, Data usage. Here you can see how much data you've used during your current billing cycle, set a mobile data limit that will disable your mobile data connection at a certain point, and view a list of apps that use data and how much they consume.
You can also monitor your data usage via third-party apps like Onavo, or carrier-specific apps like Verizon's My Verizon or AT&T's myAT&T. The primary benefit of using a carrier-specific app is that your carrier will always have the most accurate estimation of how much data you'll be charged for.
If your carrier doesn't offer a data usage app, or if you want an app that has more features, Onavo is a free data-monitoring app for Android that lets you do the usual--set a data cap, see a breakdown of which apps use the most data, and see how much data you've used in any given cycle. Onavo also employs proprietary algorithms to analyze your data usage and let you know whether your data plan is a good fit for you based on that usage (the default Android data usage tab does not analyze usage). Most of these features are also available as Android home-screen widgets that make it easy to monitor data usage at a glance.
2. Determine How Much Data You Need
Here's a quick and easy way to cut data costs: If you're not using all of your data each month, move to a lower plan. To determine whether you should move to a lower plan, either analyze your data usage for a couple of months using the aforementioned data-usage apps, or calculate how much data you'll need with a usage calculator.
During PCWorld's smartphone data usage tests, we found this data usage calculator from Verizon Wireless to be fairly accurate at determining how much data we needed per month. You can also find data usage calculators at other carriers' sites: AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile.
3. Find Free Wi-Fi
You can also minimize how much cellular data you use by connecting to Wi-Fi networks whenever they're available. But it can be a hassle to find and connect to unknown Wi-Fi networks on your Android phone, and it usually involves opening your Settings menu and trying unsecured networks one after another to see if they work.
Luckily, you can (sort of) circumvent this annoyance by using a free Wi-Fi finder app, such as WeFi Pro or WiFi Manager.
WeFi Pro is a background app that automatically connects your Android device to the best available Wi-Fi network. WeFi has a couple of useful things about it: First, it's a "social" Wi-Fi finder, which means that whenever a WeFi user finds a strong, open Wi-Fi connection, that hotspot is logged in the WeFi database. Second, WeFi has the ability to turn on your Wi-Fi automatically (not always a good thing) if you're near a known good connection or if you do something that would benefit from an Internet connection (opening a webpage, for example). If you're willing to trust WeFi with control of your Wi-Fi radio, it's a great way to ensure that you're always taking advantage of Wi-Fi at home or at the office.
WiFi Manager is a more typical Wi-Fi finder. It shows you a list of available connections, along with signal strength and status. It also has a radar mode, which shows you which channels nearby Wi-Fi networks are running on. This is useful for two things--determining if your Wi-Fi router is running on a congested channel (learn how to change your router's channel here), and determining which open network is likely to be the fastest, based on how many other routers are running on the same channel.
4. Banish Ads
A lot of free Android apps--especially games--use ads to help support themselves. Unfortunately for you, this means that apps which normally don't use data must connect to the Internet to download and refresh ads. Ads are also a data-draining (and generally annoying) part of many webpages. Eliminate ads, and you will cut down the amount of data you consume each month.
You can get rid of ads in a couple of ways. First, you can purchase the Pro or Paid version of the apps responsible for the lion's share of your monthly data usage (see our earlier tip about Onavo). Second, you can use an ad-blocker app like AD Blocker & Data Toggle ($2, for normal, un-rooted Android phones) or AdFree Android (for rooted Android devices). But remember that blocking ads from downloading probably decreases ad revenue for the developers who made the ad-loading apps--which are free because they're ad-supported.
5. Use a Lighter Browser
You use a lot of data when you browse the Web--but you don't have to use as much as you do. Instead of using the stock browser that comes with Android, try downloading a lighter and more data-efficient browser such as Opera Mini or TextOnly to reduce your data usage while surfing the Web.
Opera Mini is a free and speedy little mobile browser that compresses websites before sending them to your Android device in order to reduce your data usage. Opera Mini is also available on iOS and features tabbed browsing, "Speed Dial" websites, and automatically adjusting page sizes to make your Web browsing experience faster and more efficient.
If you really want to be efficient and don't need to see pictures while you're surfing the Web on your Android smartphone try TextOnly, which is just what it sounds like -- a text-only browser. TextOnly is free to download and will display only the readable text on most of your favorite websites, though if you happen to come across an article that really requires pictures and/or video you can always select the "View the original" option to see the full article in all its glory.
Next: Use Offline Maps, and more.
6. Use Offline Maps
Accessing maps online (or using apps that do the same thing, as the Google Maps Android app does) sucks up a ton of data. If you travel often, storing maps on your Android device instead of accessing them online will save you money and could even save your life if you get lost in a location where your phone doesn't work (places like remote roads, mountain passes, or even a foreign country).
There are plenty of great offline map apps for Android, including the default Android map app: Google Maps. To download sections of a map for offline use in Google Maps, open up Google Maps and tap the "…" button. Navigate to Settings, Labs, and check Pre-cache map area. You can now download sections of Google Maps (one 10-mile radius at a time) by tapping an area on the map, waiting until an address loads, tapping the arrow, scrolling to the bottom of the screen, and tapping the "Pre-cache map area" option. These downloads take a few minutes, but they're worth it if you know you'll be offline. Make sure to download them over a Wi-Fi connection to minimize your data usage.
7. Don't Stream
Streaming music and movies from services such as Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, and Spotify is a huge data drain. According to PCWorld's tests, watching YouTube videos for just 10 minutes per day can easily push you past 1GB in a month, while listening to Pandora for 1 hour per day uses about 1.76GB of data in a month.
The obvious solution is to stop streaming media over your cellular data connection. You'll probably want to give up watching Netflix and Hulu over your data connection altogether--but if you happen to be a big Netflix or Hulu watcher and you don't have reliable access to Wi-Fi, you may want to consider upping your data cap.
If you can't live without your favorite YouTube videos, you can download the free TubeMate app, which allows you to download videos from YouTube and watch them on the go. Remember to do this over a Wi-Fi connection!
Chronic music streamers should check out the offline playback modes of their favorite streaming apps. Both Slacker Radio and Spotify offer offline playback modes, though you must be a paying subscriber to use them. Slacker Radio's offline playback mode caches your personalized radio stations, while Spotify's offline playback mode downloads all of your playlists so you can listen without a network connection.
8. Don't Obsessively Clear Your Cache
Another mobile browser tip: if you don't clear your cache often, you'll end up using less data because your browser won't have to constantly redownload images and other Website assets. If you like to visit the same Website often, obsessively clearing your cache forces your device to redownload the same basic information each time you visit the site. It's a waste of data, and if you use a task-killer app you might be wasting that data without knowing it.
That's because lots of Android task-killer apps automatically clear your phone's cache to free up memory. Clearing your cache occasionally is a smart idea, but if you rely on a task-killer app, you're probably doing it too much and wasting data. Since you own an Android device, it's a safe bet that someone told you to download a task-killer app, such as Advanced Task Killer Free, to maximize your battery life. However, PCWorld tests have shown that task killers don't really work all that well--at best, you'll eke out a few extra minutes' worth of juice. At worst, task killers can actually degrade your device's battery life.
9. Block Apps from Using Background Data
Lots of Android apps are designed to run--and sometimes even boot up--in the background. That's part of the reason why many Android users employ task-killer apps--to keep unnecessary apps from running in the background and wasting memory.
Having lots of apps running in the background also leads to unnecessary cellular data usage. The easiest thing to do is to make sure that your phone doesn't sync with servers unnecessarily; do this by navigating to Settings, Personal, Accounts & Sync, and turning the automatic syncing feature off. This change will ensure that apps like Gmail, Twitter, and VZ Backup Assistant aren't constantly connecting to the Internet and downloading the latest mail/Tweets/contact info. Instead, you'll have to manually download these updates.
You can take things a step further by blocking your apps from accessing cellular data networks while they are running in the background. You can use a free app like DroidWall to block apps from using data, but there's a catch--it works only on rooted phones. However, if you root your phone using this handy how-to guide, you can install DroidWall and control which apps are allowed to access your cellular data network.
10. Get Creative With Device Tethering
Both AT&T and Verizon have hinted about introducing shared data plans--possibly with rollover megabytes--but we've yet to see anything concrete. While we wait for these mythical plans to come about, we can (sort of) simulate them with some clever tethering tricks.
For example, I own a Verizon Samsung Galaxy Nexus with a (grandfathered-in) unlimited data plan. I also own an AT&T 3G iPad. Instead of paying for data on my iPad ($30 for 3GB), I pay Verizon an extra $20 for the ability to tether my iPad to my Nexus when I need an on-the-go Internet connection.
Tethering often costs more than just paying for additional data, so use caution; review your data plan beforehand to verify that this tethering trick is a good idea.
These are merely a few ways that you can use less data and (hopefully) pay a lower wireless bill. Go forth, use less data, and share your creative tips for circumventing cellular data caps in the comments!
For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.