How to Monitor (and Reduce) Your Data Usage on Android

Increasingly sophisticated phones and data-hungry applications make it easier than ever to blow through your cellphone plan’s data cap…and incur nasty overage charges. Read on as we show you how to manage your data use.

Just a few short years ago it would have been almost unheard of to blow through multiple GB of mobile data. Now apps have ballooned in size (it’s not uncommon for apps and their updates to exceed 100MB in size), and with streaming music and video becoming more popular, it’s easy to burn through your data cap in a matter of days.

Watching an hour of standard definition streaming video on Netflix or Youtube will readily and easily chew through a gigabyte of data. Bump that stream up to HD, and the data usage basically triples–about three gigabytes of data will be used. Streaming high-quality music over services like Google Play Music or Spotify? You’re looking at about 120MB an hour for that. It may not seem like much at first, but do that for an hour a day for a week and you’re up to 840MB. An hour a day for a month puts you at roughly 3.2GB. If you’re on a 5GB data plan, you just used roughly 65% of it on music alone.

Sure, you could pay more for a bigger plan, but who wants to do that? Before you fork over your hard-earned dollars, here are some tricks for reducing your data usage (and keeping an eye on it).

How to Check Your Data Usage

Before anything else, you need to check your data usage. If you don’t know what your typical usage looks like, you have no idea how mildly or severely you need to modify your data consumption patterns.

The easiest way to check past data usage is to log into the web portal of your cellular provider (or check your paper bills) and look at what your data usage is. If you’re routinely coming in way under your data cap, you may wish to contact your provider and see if you can switch to a less expensive data plan. If you’re coming close to the data cap or exceeding it, you will definitely want to keep reading.

You can also check your current month’s usage right from Android. Navigate to Settings > Wireless & Networks > Data Usage. You’ll see a screen that looks something like the first screen here:

If you scroll down, you will see the cellular data usage by app, as seen in the second screenshot above. It’s important to note that these charts only show data sent through your cellular data connection and not your Wi-Fi connection. You might be a YouTube junkie, but if you do all your watching while connected to your home network, it won’t register here. If you want to see your Wi-Fi data usage as well, hit the menu button and select “Show Wi-Fi usage.”

How to Keep Your Data Use in Check

There are two kinds of data sinks when it comes to mobile devices. First, there’s the obvious user-driven data consumption, or “foreground data”. When you watch a high-quality video or download a new album, you’re directly contributing to increasing your data usage for that month, assuming you’re on mobile data and not Wi-Fi.

Obviously, to use less foreground data, you need to consciously stop downloading, streaming, and browsing so much.

Less obvious to most people, though, is the fairly large amount of behind-the-scenes data churning through your connection—the “background data”. Polling for Facebook updates, high-frequency email inbox checks, automatic application updates, and other background activities can put a real dent in your data allotment if you aren’t careful. Let’s take a look at how we can curtail some of this.

First: See Which Apps Are Using Data

First, let’s investigate which apps are actually generating notable amounts of background data. Head back to Settings > Wireless & Networks > Data Usage to see your apps, in order of data usage. You can tap on individual applications to see a more detailed view.  Here we can see the foreground and background usage:

This will help immensely in the steps below. If you know which apps are using the most data, you know which apps to focus on fixing.

Use Android Nougat’s “Data Saver” (Android 7.0+)

Android 7.0 Nougat introduced a much more granular way to take the reins on your mobile data with a new feature called Data Saver.

Basically, this allows you to limit background data used by apps, but whitelist anything that want to have unrestricted access. This means background data is disabled for every app by default, then you can pick and choose where to grant unlimited access.

To get started, pull down the notification shade and tap the cog icon to jump into the Settings menu.

Use Streaming Apps with Offline Modes

Many streaming service apps are adding offline modes—modes that allow users to pre-cache data while on Wi-Fi to use when on their cellular data connections. Rdio, Rhapsody, Slacker Radio, and Spotify all have offline modes to help users avoid hitting their data caps.

Data Caching Is Your Friend

There are a lot of other areas you can cache data, too. Always be thinking about how you can offload your data usage to Wi-Fi before you’re out and about.

For example, we know this is so 2003, but there’s something to be said for downloading your music, podcasts, ebooks and other media to your device from the comfort of your home (and Wi-Fi connection).

You can apply a few of our suggestions or all of them depending on your needs and how much you need to curtail your data usage—either way, with a little careful management it’s possible to go from skirting your data-cap every month to saving money by switching to a smaller plan with very little effort.

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