Getting The Most From Your Mobile Phone Data Plan

Data allowances on mobile phones are more generous than ever, but the costs are still high compared to home broadband. We run down the basic tactics you can use to ensure that you don't suffer from a nasty case of bill shock.

Picture by wetwebwork

We've seen some notable improvements in data allowances on mobile phones in recent months; Telstra is planning to introduce shaping for contract customers, and the overall allowances, especially on contract plans but even to some extent on prepaid, have grown substantially. But risks remain. Plans which costs $2 a megabyte are still on the market, and with those kinds of expenditures you can quickly chew through your prepaid credit or get a nasty monthly bill. Here are some basic tricks to follow so you don't use more data than you need.

Find out what is included for free. Optus and Vodafone (and other companies which sell plans which use their networks) offer unmetered access to various social networking sites. Vodafone gives access to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Foursquare, MySpace; Optus offers all those options plus eBay. Note that getting these options for free generally presumes you'll access them via the phone browser; using a built-in app may not get the same (free) results.

Hunt down mobile-specific sites. When browsing, mobile-specific sites, which generally have fewer images, have two advantages: they'll load faster and chew through less of your data, and they're usually easier to read on a smaller mobile screen. Some sites (such as Lifehacker) automatically render in a mobile version; many others work if you use an m at the beginning of an address rather than www (hence m.abc.net.au, for instance). Bookmark the mobile versions of sites you visit regularly.

Consider a specialised mobile browser. We've frequently sung the praises of Opera Mini, which shrinks pages and images before sending them to your phone. If you want to minimise data usage, this is definitely an option to explore. (We don't recommend it for BlackBerry users, though; most BlackBerry plans in Australia include unlimited browsing if you use the official browser, but don't extend that to rival browsers.)

Connect your phone to home and office Wi-Fi. The vast majority of smartphones offer Wi-Fi as well as 3G, and it makes sense to connect to those networks and use them when you can. Aside from not chewing through your data allowance, you'll also generally get better performance. The one argument against using Wi-Fi is that it can chew through your battery faster, so make sure you switch it off when not in use. (We've got more specific tips on how to manage that for Android devices.)

Exercise some common sense. Even on good 3G networks, watching YouTube videos often isn't a very satisfactory experience, but it will still punch through loads of data. While modern phones are powerful, there are still some tasks which are worth keeping until you get back to a computer — or at least until you're on a Wi-Fi connection.

What other tricks do you use to control mobile data usage? Tell us in the comments.

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Comments

    Use a data tracker, I like Call Meter 3G on the android platform as it provides a widget with my current month's use, but there are lots of options. And when I was with 3 I used the 'Stop 3 data roaming' app to avoid data charges on the telstra network.

    What's with the bath picture displayed?

      Because the bath has been filled to the brim and its allowance has all been used up? If that’s correct, then it seems like a pretty tenuous link to me...

        The filename is OverflowBath.jpg, so it looks like you're unfortunately right... I guess Angus just got bored with posting photos of mobile phones.

    I can’t speak for iOS, WP7, or BlackBerry users – but I’d imagine they would have similar avenues to explore. For Android user’s hit up the Market for a usage tracker for your provider. Most will have one, including a widget to keep tabs on your usage for both calls and mobile usage, and data usage.

    Further, one I can’t recommend enough “3G Watchdog” (https://market.android.com/details?id=net.rgruet.android.g3watchdog&feature=search_result) allows you to input your monthly allowance, and will actively monitor all data sent out or received into your phone. It has a widget also to keep you usage handily visible, and arguably its strongest asset: can be set notify you when you’re approaching your limit, then disable 3G data once your quote has been met.
    The main caveat to the app, is that it will not take into account “free” sites (such as Facebook, Twitter, etc) that your carrier may not monitor data usage for.

      I have just downloaded Threshold for my iPhone.

      www.thresholdapp.com

      It tracks my data usage in real-time with alerts to help me manage my data plan. I have never seen an app does real-time data tracking. Very cool and useful.

        Its not as nice looking as Threshold (which looks very nice), but its $5, Datacontrol is ugly and awkward to use, but it is free (for now). And there are a few other apps that do the same thing.

          Why do you use an ugly app for your sexy smartphone when you have to deal with it everyday?

    Although being on Vodafone makes any data plan useless, somehow I managed to confuse them into giving me a 4.5GB allowance on the $49 plan at no extra charge.

      Would you mind telling us how? I'm on vodafone and i wouldnt mind getting some more data out of them.

        Gawd, well, it is rather complicated...

        First I told them I wanted out of my contract 12 month early, unless they gave me an SGS2 for free. Then we came up with a deal that I could have it for $20 p/m over 24, and I could drop the remaining 12 months of my contract down to $29p/m, plus I would add a $10 data subscription.

        All agreed and happy, then I decided I wasn't happy, so called them back, cancelled everything, and went to a 24 x $49 plan with $5 p/m on the phone. No extra data.

        Signed off, agreed and happy, and I still have 4.5G of data...

        The question now remains whether I'll still have that much data when my next month rolls over in 4 days.

          Hmm ok, thanks. Not sure what I can do with that, I don't even have a contract. I go by month to month. Thanks all the same.

    Try onova for iOS

      this.

      within 24 hours of using onavo, I had my typical data usage shrunk by 65%.

    Or... use Optus Prepaid and do those "$2 unlimited days"... It takes $2 a day and you get unlimited calls, unlimited texts and UNLIMITED DATA for the entire day. At midnight, it renews for the next day until credit is gone or you change plan. If you run this every day... that's what, $60-$62 for unlimited EVERYTHING?

    Works for me - I'm suprised more people haven't stumbled onto this.

    Try "Consume" for iOS. It's free and a realy good app for tracking calls and data usage and a number of other things, all in one app.

    Turn your background data off and so that you are only using data when you are actually on the net. Your phone doesn't need to be working on the net all day long. Also run your updates manually so that you can control them and when they occur rather than when the phone wants to.

    Another thing to look out for is per KB sessions rather than per MB sessions can also make a big difference.

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