How to keep your cell phone apps from eating up all your data

Our love affair with data is growing stronger. So strong, in fact, that many people burn through the data in their cell phone plan, then wonder where their data went.

Understanding how much data your favorite apps use, and how to track and adjust that usage, can help you avoid costly overage or painfully slow speeds, depending on your carrier. Verizon and AT&T, for example, charge $15 for an extra gigabyte when you go over your plan, whereas T-Mobile and Sprint bump you down to 2G speeds — a noticeable difference when you’re used to lightning-fast 4G.

Where does all your data go? 

Where your data goes depends on how you use your phone. Streaming music or video will gobble up your data in a hurry. So will uploading photos or downloading large email attachments.

Here’s an example: Streaming 30 minutes of video a day via apps such as Facebook, YouTube or Netflix will use more than 5GB of data in a month. And streaming an hour of music a day will add up to almost 2GB over 30 days, according to Verizon Wireless’s Data Calculator.

That’s just an estimate, though. Actual data usage varies by app and streaming quality. And those can be big variables.

Spotify has four streaming settings. Google Play has three. YouTube has seven and will adjust your stream based on your connection, unless you select a streaming quality.

Sound confusing? That’s because it is. So we broke down the data usage for some of your favorite apps.

Spotify

•  Normal: Uses around 0.7MB per minute, so you can listen to roughly 24 hours of music for 1GB of data.
•  High: Uses around 1.2MB per minute, so you can listen to roughly 14 hours of music for 1GB of data.
•  Extreme: Uses around 2.5MB per minute, so you can listen to roughly 7 hours of music for 1GB of data.

Google Play

•  You can stream about 7 hours of music per gigabyte at the highest-quality setting. Normal and low-quality settings are also available.

Pandora

•  Uses about 0.5MB per minute, at most, so you can listen to almost 35 hours of music for 1GB of data.

YouTube

•  Data usage on YouTube varies widely based on the video quality, which ranges from 240p to 1080p and can be adjusted manually for each video. Verizon customers in the greater New York City metro area used an average of 24MB per minute while on YouTube in February, according to network usage statistics from Verizon. At that rate, you’d burn through close to 1.5GB in an hour.

Netflix

•  You’ll use about 1GB per hour if streaming in standard definition and as much as 3GB per hour if streaming in HD.

Facebook and Instagram

•  Roughly 2MB per minute, with video autoplay turned off. It would take more than 8 hours to burn through 1GB of data. But watching videos or uploading photos or videos will use more data.

To see how much of your data is used by these apps, look no further than your own phone.

“Operating systems allow customers to get a better experience by offering more detailed data about data,” says Jackie McCarthy, director of regulatory affairs at trade group CTIA-the Wireless Association. “Take a look in the settings to see how individual apps behave.”

Most phone models break down how much data you use on each app. To find this information on an Android device, go to “Settings” then “Data usage” and scroll down to the “By application” section. On an iPhone, that information is in “Settings” under “Cellular.”

How to keep your data in check

Adjusting your settings is one of the best ways to reduce your data usage without really changing how you use your phone. This needs to be done in each app, though you can focus on the ones you use the most.

On your music and video apps, change your streaming quality to a lower level. This option is usually found in the app’s settings menu. And check the settings on your social media apps, many of which also play videos.

On Facebook, for example, videos in your feed automatically play as you scroll. This can eat up a lot of data, so change your Facebook app settings to never automatically play videos. To do this, go to “App Settings” while in your Facebook app and click on “Autoplay.” Then select either “Never Autoplay Videos” or choose to play them only when connected to Wi-Fi.

Which brings us to the next great way to minimize your data usage: Wi-Fi.

When you connect to Wi-Fi, you stop using cellular data. That means you can stream and download and upload to your heart’s content without cutting into your data plan allotment.

If you always listen to Spotify on your commute, download your playlist while you’re home and connected to Wi-Fi, then you can listen in offline mode and save your data for something else, suggests Phil Burrows, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless.

The takeaway

Information is power. Educate yourself on how you use your phone by looking at the data breakdown in your device settings. Once you know where your data is going, you can make adjustments — to the apps’ behavior and your own — by changing your streaming quality and using Wi-Fi. If you’re still running up high data numbers and can’t figure out why, Burrows suggests you talk to your carrier.

“Don’t be afraid to swing by,” Burrows says. “Whether it’s via Web chat or with someone at the store, these guys live, eat and breathe this stuff and they can walk you through how you’re using your phone.”

You can also consider an unlimited data plan, or look into a carrier like T-Mobile, which offers unlimited music and video streaming on certain plans. Or Virgin Mobile, a prepaid carrier owned by Sprint that has unlimited music streaming built into some of its plans.

 

Kelsey Sheehy is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: ksheehy@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @KelseyLSheehy.

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