How much mobile data do you use?

Alex Kidman 26 November 2015

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

If you’re constantly running out of mobile data, it’s because you’re using it too quickly.

But which activities are eating up all your data? Here’s how a typical breakdown of data usage applies across a variety of online activities. If you're wondering what the average is for an Australian user, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) estimates that the average Australian mobile phone handset internet subscriber used around 630MB of data per month in 2014.

These figures are a guideline only, and your exact usage may vary.

Email

Typical 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

Typical use: 1GB/hour (SD) 3GB/hour (HD) 7GB/hour (UltraHD)
Video streaming is highly data-intensive, even if you’re only watching in standard definition. Once you start jumping up to higher quality data streams you can quickly blow through a mobile data quota with just a single hour’s worth of viewing.
Many video streaming providers adjust the quality of the stream sent to your device dynamically depending on the quality of your connection. This is sensible on a fixed connection as you’ll always get the best possible vision, but on a mobile connection this means if you’re getting good 4G connections, you could be burning data for an effect that’s largely invisible on a smaller mobile display.

How can I reduce my usage?
Don’t watch video on mobile platforms. If that’s a non-starter for you, wherever possible, try to set the video quality as low as your eyes can handle. You’ll not only save data costs, but also minimise the amount of buffering each video has to perform before it will play smoothly.

Gaming

Typical use: 1-100MB hour
Mobile gaming can chew through data, but actually quantifying how much it’s using is a difficult prospect. 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 and could be considerably more costly in data terms. Most mobile 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 "use Mobile Data For".
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 green position, which is the default, it's able to access mobile data, whereas if it's in the white position, mobile data is by default off, and it will have to rely on times when you're in a Wi-Fi network. On Android devices, you can find similar settings under Settings>Data Usage.

Music Streaming

Typical use: 50-100MB/hour
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 this usage?
Choosing lower quality streams if they’re offered is one simple way to reduce your streaming music data bill. If you’re using a paid subscription, check if it also offers "offline" or "download" access to your music stream. This will download a copy of the tracks or albums you’ve selected to your device for direct playback, so you won’t pay a data charge for listening to them that way beyond the initial download.

Photos

Typical usage: 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.

Social Media

Typical 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.

Surfing the internet

Typical usage: 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.

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