By Laurie L. Dove, © 1998-2013 HowStuffWorks, Inc
UNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
At 7 a.m. I'm volleying texts to my work buddies. By a third cup of coffee, I'm rounding the corner on a massive transfer of iPhone (http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/iphone.htm) snaps cataloging my family's weekend antics. Then I download a new album to my laptop to use as a soundtrack for my workday. As usual, every e-mail I send or receive is saved as part of my online filing system, and I eat lunch reading stock forecasts on my tablet. By the time dinner's on the table, I'm wondering whether I'll have time to stream the newest episode of "Hell on Wheels" before getting in some quality Pinterest (http://computer.howstuffworks.com/10-pinterest-tips-for-newbies.htm) time.
From smartphones and tablets to computers, mobile devices are a daily — perhaps minute-to-minute — part of life. And so is data usage.
You may expect to use a lot of data when playing a game on your phone. Fruit Ninja (paid version) and Grand Theft Auto III use about 25 MB, which amounts to 2.5 percent of a 1 GB monthly data plan. And Hill Climb Racing pulls a surprising 100 MB — 10 percent — of a 1 GB plan [source: Mobithinking (http://mobithinking.com/blog/greedy-apps)]. But did you know a so-called class of "chatty apps" could be stealthily hogging data, too? A March 2013 study by Actix, a mobile network analytics company, found that 70 percent of data sessions on mobile networks are initiated by apps that automatically check for updates or push alerts. Facebook, Twitter and messaging apps are among the biggest offenders.
Mobile ads also eat into your monthly data limit at an average of 1 percent of a typical smartphone data plan.
This drain is expected to increase as media-rich ads become more common. For example, ads with video use 10 times the amount of data as ads without video [source: Mobithinking (http://mobithinking.com/blog/greedy-apps)].
Given all this data usage, how will you know how much you have left? Whether you're burning through the data allowances on your smartphone or tablet plan, or you're wondering whether you've hit the data threshold set by your Internet carrier, there are ways to gauge the numbers. And while you're checking, you can discover how much memory your devices have left, too.
There are 2.4 billion Internet users spanning the globe. In the U.S. this means nearly eight out of every 10 people regularly use the Internet, and the content they are accessing is shared, tagged and, increasingly, involves photos, video and audio. In 2007, for example, virtually no one uploaded video to YouTube (http://money.howstuffworks.com/youtube.htm). In 2013, the channel's uploads reached 100 hours per minute [source: Meeker and Wu (http://www.kpcb.com/insights/2013-internet-trends)].
Whether you upload LOLCat videos to YouTube or not, it pays to know your data usage. Monthly Internet data usage includes all the items you send, receive, stream, download or upload each month through your Internet provider, including images, movies, photos, videos and other files. If you exceed the monthly usage allowance of your Internet provider, extra charges will be levied. Although the amount of data will vary by plan and provider, a middle-of-the-road plan typically caps data usage at 150 GB per month.
While this may not sound like much, it's still enough bandwidth (http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/internet-tv.htm) to download about 40,000 MP3s a month. Or transfer about 35,000 12-megapixel images [source: Gruener (http://www.tomsguide.com/us/dsl-service-cable-service-internet-service,news-10514.html)]. And when you consider that in 2011, the average household used about 26 GB of data per month, it almost seems generous. In fact, some estimates suggest the household data rate will still be well under this cap in 2016, averaging about 84 GB a month [source: Yu (http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2012/10/01/internet-data-cap/1595683)].
Most providers offer a way to view your Internet data usage on their Web sites. Some offer e-mail or text notifications when you've approached or surpassed data thresholds, and you can set these alerts by logging into your account.
You could install a bandwidth monitor (most are available as free downloads) on your computer to track how much data you use. There are monitors for each of the major operating systems — Windows, Mac and Linux — and most will calculate daily, weekly and monthly usage. For example, Networx: http://www.softperfect.com/products/networx/ (Windows), iStat Pro: http://istat-pro.en.softonic.com/mac (Mac) and BandwidthD: http://bandwidthd.sourceforge.net/ (Linux) are free or low-cost data usage trackers.
It's also worth nothing Mac's OS X has a built-in Activity Monitor, which can be accessed in the utilities folder.
It doesn't track bandwidth data numbers, but it offers a real-time look at total data consumption. Keep in mind, though, most data monitors only track the computer on which they're installed. If you have multiple computers, you'll need multiple bandwidth monitors.
The next big technology boom is expected to include wearable mobile devices (http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/gadgets/home/digital-jewelry.htm) ranging from Google Glass (http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/gadgets/other-gadgets/project-glass.htm) to Galaxy Gear (Samsung's smartwatch), all of which will drain data [source: Meeker and Wu (http://www.kpcb.com/insights/2013-internet-trends)]. Knowing this is right around the corner — and in some cases, here already — it's a good idea to get in the habit of tracking data consumption on mobile devices.
Some mobile service providers offer e-mail or text notifications when you've approached or surpassed data thresholds, and you can set these alerts by logging into your account. AT&T, for example, will send an e-mail when a customer is nearing a data plan limit; the message also includes a reminder that customers will be billed at $20 per additional 300 MB (as of October 2013). Customers can check data consumption for other devices as well, by dialing *DATA# for a text outlining current data usage or downloading an AT&T customer app. Verizon and Sprint offer similar services. And, of course, you can see how much data you are using — and being charged for — on your monthly bill.
You can also check your mobile device to discover how much data you're pulling.
iPhone/iPad: Go to Settings/General/Usage. There, you'll find sending and receiving data usage. Just be sure to reset these statistics every month (or week, depending on the time period you're measuring) [source: Korcz (http://www.geeksugar.com/How-Check-Your-iPhone-Data-Usage-8647400)]. You can also see which downloaded apps are memory hogs.
Android smartphone/tablet: Go to Settings/Wireless & Networks/Data Usage. You can not only see how much data you are using, but you also can set warnings and limits to avoid overages [source: Egan (http://www.pcadvisor.co.uk/how-to/google-android/3443819/set-data-usage-limit-on-android/)].
Third-party apps are another option. 3G Watchdog (http://3gwatchdog.fr/), My Data Manager (http://my-data-manager.en.softonic.com/) and Onavo Count (http://www.onavo.com/) monitor usage and allow you to set data usage warnings. It's also a good idea to hop onto WiFi networks rather than exclusively relying on your data provider's network. This can allow you to play Candy Crush or Snapchat to your heart's content — all without costing you precious data charges [source: Fitzgerald (http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2013/08/01/how-much-smartphone-data-do-you-really-need/)].
Lots More Information
Author's Note: How much data do I have?
As someone who regularly bumps against data limits, I knew this article would be interesting to research.
What I didn't expect to discover was a way to set data limits so I don't have overages. Setting a data limit (and preceding warnings) is remarkably simple. If I wasn't so excited about it, I'd be embarrassed that I didn't do it sooner. I was also surprised to learn that a number of apps I've installed are using data — even when I'm not using them. It will be interesting to witness the inevitable collision of increased consumer needs for bandwidth increasingly bump against the limits set by providers. Perhaps a discussion of the merits of free, nationwide access is in order.
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- Eagan, Matt. "How to Set a Data Usage Limit on Android Phone or Tablet." Tech Advisor. April 24, 2013. (Oct. 10, 2013) http://www.pcadvisor.co.uk/how-to/google-android/3443819/set-data-usage-limit-on-android/
- Fitzgerald, Drew. "How Much Smartphone Data Do You Really Need?" The Wall Street Journal. Aug. 1, 2013. (Oct. 11, 2013) http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2013/08/01/how-much-smartphone-data-do-you-really-need/
- Gruener, Wolfgang. "What is Average Data Use and Why Should You Care?" Tom's Guide. March 17, 2011. (Oct. 11, 2013) http://www.tomsguide.com/us/dsl-service-cable-service-internet-service,news-10514.html
- Korcz, Kristy. "How-To: Check Your iPhone Data Usage." Pop Sugar. Sept. 14, 2012. (Oct. 10, 2013) http://www.geeksugar.com/How-Check-Your-iPhone-Data-Usage-8647400
- Meeker, Mary and Wu, Liang. "2013 Internet Trends." KPCB. May 2013. (Oct. 10, 2013) http://www.kpcb.com/insights/2013-internet-trends
- MobiThinking. "How Greedy is Your App." April 25, 2013. (Oct. 10, 2013) http://mobithinking.com/blog/greedy-apps
- PC Help Center. "How To Find Out How Much RAM My Computer Has and How Much it is Using." March 29, 2005. (Oct. 10, 2013) http://pc.net/helpcenter/answers/amount_of_ram_in_computer
- Yu, Roger. "Cable Companies Cap Data Use for Revenue." USA Today. Oct. 1, 2012. (Oct. 10, 2013) http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2012/10/01/internet-data-cap/1595683/
By Laurie L. Dove, © 1998-2013 HowStuffWorks, Inc