December 09, 2013, 11:55 AM — Bad news, smartphone owners: Unlimited data plans are, for the most part, a thing of the past. Even if you've managed to hang on to your unlimited data plan on AT&T or Verizon, it's likely not truly unlimited--your carrier probably throttles your data speeds if you exceed 2GB of downloaded data in a given billing period.
Telecoms want you to buy bigger data allowances, and they have the leverage to do so: We're using more data than ever these days thanks to apps, social media, Web services, and our obsessive email-checking. So what's a hard-working, socially connected, tech-savvy person such as yourself to do with a limited data plan? Follow these tips to cut back on your data habit, track and monitor your usage, and extend your data plan--so you never have to pay overage charges again.
Before you can start reducing your data usage, you need to know how much data you actually use. The only way to do that is to monitor and track your usage so that you learn exactly what your phone is doing--even when you're not using it (thanks, background data).
You have a few ways to track your data usage on an Android or iOS device. The simplest method is to look up the information on the device itself, namely your smartphone or tablet. Android users can check their data consumption by digging into the settings menu: Navigate to Settings > Wireless and network and tap Data usage. Here, you'll find an interactive graph that displays how much data you've used over the past month. You can also check previous months' data usage, and you can view a list of apps that use data and see how much they consume.
Checking your data usage on your device is convenient, but the function is limited, and you should rely on it only in a pinch. It's better to track data through a carrier-specific app, such as AT&T's MyAT&T app or Verizon Wireless's My Verizon Mobile app. The main benefit of using one of these apps is that you'll have an accurate estimate of how much data your carrier believes you've used, and therefore how much your carrier will charge you for.
If you want more data and tracking options than either your device or your carrier can provide, consider using a third-party app such as Onavo Extend to track your data in a more detailed manner. Onavo Extend, which is available on both Android and iOS, is a free app that offers detailed monthly usage reports and data plan analysis, information that can help you determine whether you're using all of the data that you're paying for each month. Onavo Extend also "extends" your data plan by compressing your incoming and outgoing data so that you use less data overall.
Keep certain apps off of cellular data
iOS 7 lets you keep certain apps from using your cellular data connection, forcing them to use Wi-Fi. This could be especially useful if you have some apps that are particularly data-hungry.
Pop open the Settings app, then tap Cellular. Here, under Use Cellular Network Data For:, you can see how much you've consumed--but only since the last time you reset the tracker. If you don't reset the tracker at the beginning of each new billing cycle, this statistic is useless.
You'll also notice a toggle switch next to each app's name. If you want to keep any of these apps from using your data plan, slide the toggle to the off position.
Use Wi-Fi whenever possible
If you have regular access to a Wi-Fi network at home or at work, use that instead of your cellular data connection: When you connect to Wi-Fi, apps will use that for uploads and downloads, thus sparing you from going over your data cap. The downside? Using Wi-Fi may drain your battery a little more quickly.
Trying to find a good Wi-Fi network can be tedious, so use a free Wi-Fi finding app, such as JiWire's Wi-Fi Finder. Available for both Android and iOS, Wi-Fi Finder contains a database of over 550,000 Wi-Fi hotspots in 144 countries. You can use the app's regularly updated hotspots map in conjunction with your phone's GPS function to find the best Wi-Fi in your area, or you can download JiWire's database so that you can still peruse its map of Wi-Fi hotspots even if you're currently offline.
For every hotspot, Wi-Fi Finder lists details that you can't get from your phone's settings menu, such as the provider (AT&T, Comcast, or the like), the type of location (hotel, café, and so on), and whether it's a free or paid hotspot.
Avoid streaming music or video on the go
It may seem obvious that streaming audio would eat up your data allotment, but it can eat it up more quickly than you might think. So limit the amount of time you spend streaming Pandora or Netflix while on the bus.
If listening to podcasts while commuting are your thing, consider downloading the episodes you want to listen to using your home Wi-Fi connection before you leave in the morning. The same goes with music: Transfer a playlist from your iTunes library to your iPhone so you don't have to stream it later.
At the very least, see if the app you're using to stream audio gives you the option to adjust the audio quality (bitrate). If you can adjust it--and if you can tolerate lower-quality audio--that's another way to limit the strain you put on your data plan.
Cut back on other data-heavy apps, too
You now know that it's best to keep Netflix and Pandora mobile marathons to a minimum, but don't forget about other data-sucking apps. Social networking apps (which are constantly updating in the background), games (which push ads and notifications to you), and cloud-storage apps such as Dropbox or Google Drive (which constantly download files to stay synced) can drain data without your knowledge.
You need a tattletale app, one that reports on how much data each app on your phone is using. We recommend downloading a third-party app such as Onavo Count, which is available for both Android and iOS. The free Onavo Count shows you how much data your apps are using, but it doesn't stop there--you can generate weekly and monthly data usage reports, as well as an app guide that shows a list of the 20 most popular apps and how much data they use on average.
Onavo Count also has a "You vs. Everyone" analysis feature, which tells you how much data each of your apps is using in comparison with other people's apps. This function is helpful because it can alert you to excessive data usage; for example, if your Dropbox app is using way more data than other people's Dropbox apps are, you should probably tweak your sync settings and rein in your mobile Dropbox use to reduce data consumption.
Another way to cut back on data-heavy apps is to use "lightweight" apps for everyday tasks, such as Web browsing. For example, Opera Mini (Android and iOS) is a lightweight browser that compresses websites before sending them to your device. If you don't mind text-only browsing, TextOnly (Android) and Text Browser (iOS) are extremely lightweight browsers--they show only the readable text on a webpage. You'll save data, since you won't have to worry about downloading large graphics, photos, or ads.
Turn off background app refresh
Both iOS and Android allow apps to use your cellular connection to pull in data while in the background. For example, an email app can fetch new messages, a photo app could upload or download the latest pictures you've taken, and so on.
To disable this feature on iOS, open the Settings app, tap General, then tap Background App Refresh. Next, switch the Background App Refresh to its off position--it'll switch from green to white.
On Android, open the Settings app, tap Data Usage, then tap the More Settings button in the upper right corner (represented by three dots). Next, check the box labelled Restrict background data. Android will ask you to confirm; tap OK to do so. If you connect to a Wi-Fi network, apps will be able to use that to send and receive data in the background, so it's not an all-or-nothing setting like it is on iOS.
In addition, Android lets you limit background data usage on a per-app basis. While on the Data usage screen, scroll down and you'll see a list of apps that have used a cellular connection, as well as how much data it's used. Tap on the app's name, then scroll down and check the box labelled Restrict background data to keep that app from burning through your plan behind your back.
Set a data cap on Android
If you have an Android phone, you can set an arbitrary mobile data limit: Once you hit the monthly data limit, your phone will prevent any app from using your data connection--they'll have to rely on Wi-Fi instead.
Open the Settings app, and tap Data usage. Next, check the box labelled Set mobile data limit. Once turned on, you can adjust your limit in the data usage chart below the mobile data limit toggle. Use the drag thumb on the right-hand side of the chart to set your data limit, and to tell your phone when you'd like to receive a warning about your data usage.
Turn off Push/Auto-sync
Another way to keep data usage down is to prevent apps from automatically syncing with a remote server.
On Android, Go to Settings > Wireless and network > Data usage, and tap the settings button to toggle Auto sync data on and off. Another way to limit background data usage is to restrict background data for connected accounts on services such as Dropbox, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, and Twitter. To do so, go to Settings, scroll down to the Accounts section, and tap the account you want to limit. On this screen you'll be able to choose what to sync (or not to sync) and how often; for example, you can elect to sync your Facebook calendar, contacts, or pictures at different intervals.
On iOS, you can combat background data usage by turning off push mail and push notifications. To turn off push mail, or to ensure that your mail app isn't constantly checking for new messages, go to Settings > Mail, Contacts, Calendars and tap Fetch New Data. Toggle the Push switch to off, and set the Fetch schedule to Manually. This way, apps that do not support push notifications will fetch updates only when you open them. The downside? If you use Find My iPhone, you need to leave Push on; otherwise it won't work.
Limit automatic app updates
Both iOS and Android can automatically download and install app updates for you. Yay. If you're on a tight data cap, though, you'll want to make sure that those updates only get downloaded while you're connected to Wi-Fi.
On iOS, go to Settings, then to iTunes & App Store. Next, scroll down and make sure the Use Cellular Data toggle is in the off position. With this turned off, automatic app updates and downloads, iTunes Match, and iTunes Radio will only work over a Wi-Fi connection. (If you want to turn off automatic app updates all together, you can do that, too.)
On Android, open the Google Play app, tap the More settings button (the three dots in the upper right-hand corner), then select Settings from the menu that appears. Next, tap Auto-update apps and then select Auto-update over Wi-Fi only.
Yes, you really can make a 2GB data plan work
You will have to sacrifice some convenience to stay within your data plan's limits, but it's definitely worth the effort. Plus, do you really need to see every "like" your latest Instagram post gets--as soon as it happens? Probably not. Just remember to disable all of the stealthy data hogs described above, and download everything you can--whether it's an app, an email message, or a website--over Wi-Fi. If you can do that, stretching your data plan will be a cinch.
[This is an updated version of a story originally published on Sep 5, 2013.]