Phone Data Caps: Five Things You Shouldn't Do (Too Often)

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data cap data conservation

Chances are, you no longer have an unlimited data plan on your mobile phone. Just a few years back, unlimited data plans were the norm, but now these all-you-can-eat options are rapidly disappearing. AT&T did away with unlimited options last year, and Verizon Wireless followed suit this year, moving to a similar tiered model. And even if you don't have an actual data limit, your so-called unlimited plan may very well come with a speed cap: If you use too much data, you'll see your speeds decrease significantly.

So, what's a data-hungry smartphone user to do? It’s more a question of what not to do. Cutting out the following five major “don’ts” is a good way to ensure that you won’t run out of data before you run out of month.

1. Become a Video Junkie

data cap data conservation: video downloads.
It's an obvious but unavoidable fact: Watching streaming video is one of the fastest ways to tear through your data plan. For instance, watching a 90-minute feature-length Netflix movie on your tablet consumes about 225MB of data. If your data plan limits you to 200MB of data per month, you might miss the dramatic conclusion of Death Race 2000.

Netflix isn't the only culprit, of course. Other bandwidth profligates include YouTube, a host of mobile TV and video services offered by carriers such as T-Mobile and AT&T, and video that your friends post to Facebook. Whatever the source of the excessive demand may be, it can wait until you're back on Wi-Fi.

This advice applies to other video apps, as well. A 1-hour video chat can cost you as much as 450MB of data use. Over time, a remote-webcam app that works as a home security camera can eat through the megabytes, too.

2. Let the Music Play

data cap data conservation: music app and ad.
Music, too, can chew up a lot of data. If you let a streaming-music app like Pandora run while you go for a jog, ride the bus to work or walk around town, your data use will climb surprisingly quickly.

In my casual tests, I used Pandora for just 10 minutes over 3G and consumed more than 4MB of data. That level of usage works out to a rate of more than 24MB of data per hour. And at that rate it would take only 8 hours or so to reach a 200MB limit.

One tip: If you can't bear to be away from your music, you can reduce Pandora's audio quality to conserve data. To do this, simply turn off the setting for 'Higher quality audio'.

Downloading tunes to your phone may be a better option if you're on the go, but be sure to take care of downloads when you're connected to Wi-Fi. Downloading a single song uses about 5MB of data, so a whole album's worth of music will add up quickly. And don't even think about downloading videos without Wi-Fi. The same goes for apps: they seem small, but they add up quickly.

3. Get Lost

A mobile mapping app like Google Maps may keep some of its maps cached, but if you're looking for a new route, it will probably have to hit up a server in the network to get the information you need. Pulling fresh map images down to your phone--especially if you frequently update the route as you travel--can gobble up large amounts of data.

data cap data conservation: mobile mapping app.
Other location-tracking apps, such as family safety apps and phone locators, can use lots of data, too, depending on the features they offer. For example, a family safety app that offers to deliver information about your surroundings, such as the number of registered sex offenders nearby, must compare your location against a database of information, thereby pushing your data usage upward.

When it comes to driving directions, it's possible to get where you're going without using much data at all. Navigation apps from GPS device manufacturers such as TomTom and Navigon come preloaded with mapping and points-of-interest information, so they don’t have to make a data call to the server to get it. The trade-off for their ability to minimize data transfers, of course, is that most GPS apps are huge, occupying a lot of your phone's storage.

4. Play Games

It's no surprise that online, graphics heavy, multiplayer games use up a lot of data, quickly.

What's that? But even a seemingly simple, nondemanding little game, like Angry Birds can drive up your data bill. That's because many free versions of games for mobile devices are ad supported--and those get to your phone over your data connection. On top of that, when you get a high score and want to brag about it, that information, too, gets transmitted over your data connection.

5. Share

Sharing is nice. When you're 5. Or when you're visiting someone face-to-face. But if you've just captured the cutest snapshot ever of your little darling, or discovered the funniest video you've ever seen, don't send it right away. Don't post it to Facebook or YouTube. Don't send it as an email attachment. Remember: it can wait. Wi-Fi is your friend. AT&T estimates that over its 200MB-per-month data plan, users can upload 50 photos per month (among other routine wireless tasks).

But if you've already watched more than your share of videos, played plenty of games, and downloaded too many maps, your photo limit is even lower. And don't even think of uploading videos.

How to Keep Track

data cap data conservation: data meter
Keeping tabs on how much data you use is not as complicated as you might expect. You don't need to convert kilobytes to megabytes and multiply by gigabytes. You just need to check with your carrier: Most of them offer an online tool for monitoring your data usage. And most phones come with built-in data meters, too. It may seem like a hassle, but the time you invest will lead to more savings for you.

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