How much mobile data do you need?

Alex Kidman 16 October 2017

MobileData_Shutterstock_450

Confused by how much data you actually use on your phone, or how much you should have on your plan? Here are the typical figures for a variety of activities, as well as strategies to reduce your data bills.

Quick links: Typical data usage Video streaming Music streaming Social media Email Video games Photos Web

If you’re constantly running out of mobile data, it’s because you’re using it too quickly. If you're on a prepaid plan, that's a quick route to blocking mobile data access, while postpaid plans can quickly rack up excess data charges, typically at $10 per GB of usage.

The ACMA estimates that the average Australian mobile user in June 2016 used 5.5GB of data per month, which would certainly explain all those excess data usage charges.

But which activities are actually eating up all your data? Here’s how a typical breakdown of data usage applies across a variety of online activities per hour.

These figures are an approximate guideline only, and your exact usage may vary. Read on past the table for a breakdown of figures and what you can do to save data and money for each usage type.

Mobile data usage activityData usage/hourly
YouTube video (144p-1080p)120MB-1.6GB
Netflix (Low-Ultra HD)300MB-7GB
Foxtel Now (Low-HD)470MB-3.2GB
Stan (low-Ultra HD)570MB-7GB
Amazon Prime Video (SD-HD)900MB-5.8GB
Online video games1-100MB
Email5MB
Podcasts60MB
Web surfing60MB
Video calling (Skype, Facetime, Duo etc)80MB-200MB
Facebook/Twitter/Snapchat80MB-160MB
Music Streaming (Spotify, Apple Music, iHeartRadio etc)150-700MB

Video: Netflix, Stan, Foxtel Now, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube

fatherdaughter_mobilevid_shutterstock_738Typical use:120MB-7GB/hour

Video streaming is immensely popular, and it's the number one candidate for why your mobile data bills are so high, especially if you watch video at higher quality data rates.

How can I reduce my usage?

Switch to a lower quality stream, especially if you're watching on a phone screen where those extra pixels are probably imperceptible anyway! Many apps default to "best possible" type settings, and while this is great for visual fidelity, it means you're always taking the worst possible data hit for streaming video

If your streaming service supports offline playback (which applies for selected programs on Netflix, Stan, Amazon Prime Video and kids content on Foxtel Now), preloading shows you want to see rather than streaming them live can save you a lot of data, and consequently cash.

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Music/Audio Streaming: Apple Music, Spotify, Podcasts

couple_music_shutterstock_738Typical use: 50-100MB/hour

Right after video usage, mobile music and audio is the next most likely culprit when it comes to sorting out your data usage woes.

The level of data usage that a streaming music app uses will relate directly to the bitrate (or quality level) of the music involved. Higher fidelity tracks are larger, so you use more data when you stream them to your phone, while lower fidelity tracks use significantly less data.

How can I reduce my usage?
Choosing lower quality streams if they’re offered is one simple way to reduce your streaming music data bill, although the rate at which you can do so varies by provider.

If you’re using a paid subscription, check if it also offers "offline" or "download" access to your music stream. You'll need storage on your device for this, but it again can save you data usage, especially if you listen to the same tracks multiple times.

For Podcasts, a little preparation can pay off big time, by downloading your podcasts directly to your device rather than streaming them on an ad-hoc basis.


Social Media: Twitter/Facebook/Snapchat

women_shocked_phone_shutterstock_738Typical use: 10-100MB/hour
Social media usage can vary a lot depending on the application, how many updates it’s processing and particularly the type of media that’s then presented to you.

The addition of autoplaying video on Facebook, for example, is a prime culprit for chewing up lots of your quota. Likewise, a busy Twitter feed with lots of inset images will eat up a lot more data than one that’s only updating in a trickle fashion.

How can I reduce my usage?
As with every other data using app, less usage will reduce your overall usage bill but there’s also a few tweaks worth considering.

Always disable Facebook’s autoplaying of video streams to keep your data usage low, as well as checking the exact settings for data usage within the Facebook app to lower image quality in return for a lower data bill.


Email

woman_cafe_email_shutterstock_738Typical use: 50-100KB per message; ~5MB/hour

Email usage can vary hugely over the course of an hour because the data required differs by the type of message, and the number of emails you receive also plays a part.

If you’re sending or receiving large attachments on a regular basis, they’ll blow out the figure above, which assumes mostly basic text emails.

How can I reduce my usage?
Set your email to check infrequently because even checking sessions use fractions of data, and your provider may charge in larger blocks even if you’re only using small amounts. If your email client supports it, opt not to download large attachments or visual email elements.


Video Gaming

blokes-mobile_gaming_shutterstock_738Typical use: 1-100MB hour

Figures for mobile gaming are by necessity flexible because it's such a wide category. On the smaller casual scale, many mobile games support themselves with in-game advertising. The impact of those ads is probably only a few KB each for smaller text ads, but larger interstitial video ads may need to stream from a remote source.

Most mobile game apps are set to not update over 3G/4G connections by default, but if you’re tethering to a PC for gaming purposes you may not be so lucky. That’s where large game patches especially can inflate your data usage markedly because they won't differentiate between a fixed Wi-Fi connection or a mobile derived one.

Equally, games that use other functions, such as the geomapping built into titles such as Pokémon Go, will use even more data to track where you are in the real world and place you in the virtual one.

How can I reduce my usage?
There are a couple of different ways to approach the problem of mobile games data usage, but before you start, you should be aware that some games absolutely rely on having a mobile data connection, and disabling it may stop you being able to play a game at all.

If you just need a short term data respite and you’re only using your phone for gaming, you can always drop it into Airplane mode, which drops all data connections in readiness for flight. If you can’t use data for anything, that will include games.

That’s a simple but rather nuclear option, however. If you’ve got the time, you’re better off disabling data for the app in question. To do this for iOS, head to Settings>Mobile, and scroll down below the section headed "Mobile Data".

Here, you'll see each app installed on the phone, how much data it's used (so it's also easy to spot the data-hungry apps as well) and whether it's authorised to use mobile data. If the switch is in the default green position, it's able to access mobile data. Switch off apps that are sucking up data needlessly or that you only use when in range of Wi-Fi.

On Android devices, you can find similar settings under Settings>Data Usage, depending on manufacturer and Android model.


Photos

ladies_selfie_shutterstock_738Typical use: 2-3MB per photo

You might not think of photo taking as being a data hog, and if you're only storing your pictures on your device, they shouldn't affect your mobile data usage at all.

If, however, you're backing up your photos to iCloud, Google, Dropbox or any other cloud service, which is often encouraged by mobile device makers, then every picture you take will be duplicated on those online services.

This gives you security for your pictures if your phone is lost or stolen, but every single photo will chew away at your data quota. It's noticeably worse for phones with features such as HDR or Apple's "Live" photo feature on the iPhone 6S/iPhone 6S Plus because the associated file sizes are much larger.

How can I reduce my usage?

You should certainly back up your photos because they'll never happen in quite the same way again, but consider either a locally based backup, or if you prefer the cloud, do so from your PC or Mac once you've transferred your photos off your phone.

If your phone is your only backup source, consider lowering picture quality if feasible, because that will logically reduce the amount of data you're sending to the cloud.


Web Surfing

couple_phone_web_shutterstock_738Typical use: 10-50MB/hour
The amount of data you’ll use up surfing the web very much depends on which sites you visit and how optimised for mobile connections they are. A busy, image heavy site that’s focused towards fixed desktop users may not have a mobile setting that allows for faster, less data heavy loading, and that data will come out of your quota.

How can I reduce my usage?
Where feasible in your browser, set images not to load or opt for mobile optimised sites. You may also like to consider a specifically mobile optimised browser such as Opera Mini for iOS or Opera Max for Android.

Need more data on your mobile plan? Check out this selection of plans that offer 5GB of data or more for you to use:


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