How To Stop Your Smartphone From Secretly Wasting Data In The Background

Most of us have to watch our data usage in order to avoid excess charges on our bill. That can become difficult when our smartphones eat up our precious megabytes in the background, and it's an issue for both Android and iPhone. Here's how to stop it.

Recently, a friend asked me for help after he reached 90 per cent of his data usage despite (he thought) barely using any data. Apps can still use data when they're not open, and many do regardless of whether you're on a 3G or Wi-Fi connection. Some apps are obvious culprits; watching video or running a torrent client will inevitably use data.

In this post we're going to look at how to figure out which apps are eating your data unnecessarily and how to stop them. On Android it's pretty simple, but for iPhone you need to do a little detective work.

Android

Tracking which apps use your data is straightforward on Android. Simply install the free My Data Manager app and allow it to track the data your apps use. At any time, you can open up Data Manager and take a look at how many megabytes a given app is using. If a particular app is consuming lots of data, make sure that app isn't running in the background (or just delete it from your phone altogether). Solving the problem is easy so long as you know which app is using up all of your data.

iPhone

On an iPhone, you can't track exactly which apps are using your data unless you're jailbroken. If you are, you can grab iNetUsage ($US2) from Cydia and monitor the breakdown. If not, you need to conduct an investigation and find the culprit(s) via trial and error. Let's go over a few methods.

Ensure Wi-Fi Is Actually Enabled

Sometimes high data usage happens because you turned off Wi-Fi without realising. When my home internet connection goes down, I often make this mistake. Fortunately I don't use that much data imost of the time, but if I did it could turn into a major problem. Before you start investigating, make sure this isn't an issue.

Find Apps That Use The Most Power

If an iPhone app is draining your battery, it may also be consuming data unexpectedly. Battery-sucking apps run in the background, and downloading data is one of the few tasks that can be performed in the background (alongside using the GPS and playing music). While iOS has controls designed to restrict the levels of downloading in the background, these aren't foolproof.

A common cause of wasted data is leaving a streaming music player or location-aware app open in the background. Streaming music requires a continuous flow of data, while location-aware apps will often download maps and other details relevant to your current location. Music apps can play indefinitely, and if they're streaming that music, you can use a lot of data simply by forgetting to stop playback. Unless you have a generous data allocation, only use these apps when connected to Wi-Fi.

Location-aware apps use your GPS and may need to download data relevant to that GPS. Fortunately, it's easy to check which apps are using location information.

Go into Settings on your iPhone. If you're running iOS 6, tap Privacy then Location Services; for earlier versions, Location Services is on the main Settings screen.

Most apps will just have an ON and OFF switch, but some will show a solid purple arrow, an outline purple arrow, or a solid grey arrow next to them. A solid purple arrow means the app has used your location recently; a grey arrow indicates the app has used your location in the last 24 hours; and a purple outline arrow means the app is using a geofence (meaning that it's waiting to perform a task when you reach a specific location). The purple arrows are the ones to watch for; try quitting those apps and see if your data usage decreases.

Check Your Bill

Most carriers keep detailed records of your data usage, though that information won't necessarily be displayed on your bill. You may be able to find out more detailed information by calling your provider directly. (In the event of a dispute over data charges, it's always worth asking your provider for detailed information. If they can't show when the data was used, the bill may be waived.)

Use A Data-Monitoring App

You can also use a data-monitoring app to keep an eye on your overall usage. This won't tell you which app is causing trouble, but it will tell you when a lot of data was used. That data and time information may help you identify the culprit.

Future Improvements

Under the Telecommunications Consumer Protections (TCP) Code, carriers ust provide notifications when you have used 50 per cent, 80 per cent and 100 per cent of your overall credit. This will make it less likely that you'll get hit with totally unexpected excess data charges. Unfortunately, that requirement won't be in place until September 2013 for large providers, and September 2014 for smaller companies. Even when it kicks in, the onus will be on you to identify how that data is being used.


Comments

    Or on an Android device just go to Mobile Data and turn it off. Also saves a tonne of battery life

      Was gonna say that. It's super easy on Android to just turn data off when you aren't using it and turn it on when you are.

        As far as I know it's just as easy on every platform.

        My Mobile data is off in my Android phone but every time I top up, it will still use mobile data even I am connected to wifi. In few minutes, my balance is zero. I really don't know how to resolve this. I would really appreciate it if somebody can tell me how to stop this. Thanks.

        Yes you can turn off the data, but why should you have to do that when a phone should do it automatically when using WiFi. I'm having problems with overage but the phone is using WiFi

    "On an iPhone, you can’t track exactly which apps are using your data unless you’re jailbroken"
    Do you guys read your own site? www.lifehacker.com.au/2012/11/onavo-count-for-iphone-watches-your-bandwidth-usage/

    Last edited 07/11/12 10:08 am

      Was going to ask the same thing! Lol. Onavo works great for tracking usage.

    If you're travelling overseas be aware that some providers charge separately for internet data and email. if you don't have a decent plan you can leak away all your money in a matter of minutes simply because of location services being on.

    See http://paygsimwithdata.wikia.com/ for examples

    Actually, there is an option for non-jailbroken iPhones - Onavo Count. I can't vouch for its accuracy, but at least it should give you an idea of which apps are using data.

    Don't forget if you're using Android 4.0 and above there is an inbuilt data monitoring service which can cut off 3g at a certain threshold and tells you what apps are using data

    This is probably one of the best features for Android for me. Being always on the road and relying on 3g means I download tons of data per month and being able to limit my data usage through the settings is such a great add to ICS.

      my androids internet will be on and will be being used and I won't know it then I go to look at my phone and see that the Internet is on how do you get it to shut off on its own like with a timer?

    Windows Phone?

      Ha ha ha, should get a job as a writer on Letterman. Windows Phone. Hilarious.

        Uhhh, thanks I guess

        I never go over my data cap on my Nokia 800 anyways, so I guess it doesn't matter

      nokias coming out with a pretty cool app to do it, however it seems to require carrier participation and odds are itll be only for WP8 phones :/

        Thanks nikhil

        I plan on getting a WP8 phone, so all is well

    I like Onavo on my phone. I'm using a lower-end plan that only has 200MB monthly data, and it is very good at monitoring and tracking data usage. As mentioned in other comments, I'm surprised it wasn't mentioned since it was this site that showed me the app existed.

    In addition to that, I have Elixer 2 Widget (there would be other apps, this is just the one I use) on my home screen with a Data usage on/off toggle button. So with one touch, I can simply cut the data when I don't need it.

    I don't believe in being permanently connected using either 3G or Wifi. So on my android, Wifi and 3G data is always off. I use tasker to define a few profiles to set which apps can use Wifi or 3G or both. Tasker will switch Wifi or 3G on whenever I launch any of those apps. I still like my email to come in regularly and my calendar synced, so I also have tasker run hourly jobs to sync both email and calendar. That is only done using Wifi. Most times I am at home or at work and have access to Wifi, when commuting, I don't need to receive emails.
    That setup saves a lot of battery juice, and prevents apps from using up my 3G data without me knowing, or wanting. Another benefit is that most ad-supported apps won't display their ads if they're not able to get an ad. So ad-supported apps don't bother me much.

    The companies calculate by the data leaving their end and not the data reaching the phone. Apparently there can be significant variations

    On an Android running Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) or above, you can simply goto Settings and under Wireless and Networks select Data Usage (on HTC phones select more, then usage) and scroll down. It's all right there.

    Right now it tells me i've used 1.98Gb for the first 7 days of the month, and my phone company says i've used 1532Mb. They agree - the extra 500Mb is my youtube usage which I get for free on my plan.

    I actually got a text from Optus last week advising me I was at certain levels of usage. Very sporting of them..

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