If you still think a mobile phone is just for making phone calls, you have some serious catching up to do. The smartphone revolution is well under way, as people now use their devices for everything from streaming music to watching movies to video chatting. Wireless carriers such as Verizon and AT&T are adapting to the heavier use: A few years ago most offered unlimited data plans. Now, unlimited data plans are an endangered species — if not extinct — forcing people to settle on a plan based on the amount of data that's actually used. But what exactly is data, in this context? And how can people determine how much they'll need?
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What is data?
Let's start by explaining what is not data. Calls you make or receive on your smartphone don't use data — they use minutes and are charged as such in your cellular plan. Text messages are also billed separately from data. Wireless carriers charge per text or cap your monthly texting at a certain number.
Just about everything else you'll do on your smartphone — surfing the Web, sending email and downloading apps — eats up data. Higher data plans cost more money — and wireless companies typically charge penalties once you've exceeded your monthly limit. Here are seven commonly used data-gobbling functions, in descending order of consumption.
- Streaming videos
- Downloading and using apps and games
- Using location-tracking services, such as turn-by-turn navigation
- Sending and receiving photos, files and documents
- Streaming music
- Surfing the Web
- Checking email
Checking your email uses relatively little data, unless you're frequently sending and receiving large documents. Same goes for visiting websites. Streaming music — for example, listening to music through such services as Pandora or Apple's iCloud — uses quite a bit more data. If you own an album or song and know you'll want to listen to it, it's best to download it to your device, as that requires no data at all.
Streaming video services such as YouTube, Netflix or Hulu require extensive data consumption. Think of it this way: Most cellular plans offer 2GB to 10GB of data per month, with various thresholds in between — and again, you'll pay a higher fee for more data. If your plan gives you 2GB of data per month, streaming just one or two full-length movies can entirely eat through your monthly allowance. Video chats can gobble up data as well. A one-hour video chat can use as much as 500 MB (or about 1/2 GB) of data.
As for games, the amount of data used will vary by the number of times an app requests information from the Internet. Each time it does, it gobbles up a little more data. Interestingly, an ad-supported version of a game that can be downloaded free of charge may use more data than a premium version, as the app will constantly access the Internet to refresh its ads.
What type of user are you?
How much data you use and require will depend on how you plan to use your smartphone. Into which of these categories would you fall?
If you only occasionally check email and surf the Web every so often, you will likely use about 1/2 GB in a month and should choose your data plan accordingly. Another option for very light users are the pay-as-you-go plans offered by most carriers: You'll pay more for your device, but if your data use is minimal, your monthly payment can be lower.
If you regularly check email and surf the Web and you occasionally stream videos or music, you are an average user. Average users should still be fine with a 2GB plan, the minimum threshold for most monthly plans. Verizon estimates that people who send or receive 1,200 emails, listen to eight hours of music and watch four hours of video each month will use approximately 2 GB of data. Both AT&T's and Sprint's data calculators give similar results.
If you constantly check email, frequently surf the Web, regularly stream music, watch movies or television shows, and play games on your smartphone, you're a data hog. A data hog often also uses large amounts of data by snapping pictures and sharing them with friends through email or social apps like Facebook. If you fall into this category, you'll easily use 10GB of data each month.
Tracking — and cutting — your data consumption
Most wireless carriers allow users to monitor data usage by downloading an app or online account management. Also, stand-alone apps such as Data Man — which keep tabs on your data usage and alert you when you reach certain thresholds — are available for download. If you watch your usage closely, you can determine which of your activities is using the most data.
If you find you're using too much data, try these ways to cut back:
- Set your phone to use a Wi-Fi connection whenever possible.
- Download and update apps only when using a wireless connection.
- Be aware of which apps you have — and which are in use. Often apps will continue running in the background, and any that update regularly (such as weather apps) can quickly drive up your data usage.
You may also like: Learn how to make calls for free, with video.