Reducing Mobile Data Usage on Android
When I picked up a Moto E Tracfone bundle last year, I challenged myself to keep my data usage within the 1200MB included for the year. This amount of data, 100MB a month, is seemingly useless on today’s internet. And, in practice, it is impossible to stay under this level without strict data management. Even careful consumers could find themselves blowing through such low caps as an errant app updates, or a video loads on a news article. The always-on, data-hungry smartphone is simply not designed for a diet data plan. So, how is one to survive on 100MB a month?
How I traveled the internet on 100MB a month
Using firewalls, limits, offline apps, and application settings, there are many tricks to rationing data that will still allow you to enjoy constant access to chat, email, cached news and website content, and even maps use.
Firewalls can give you granular control over your internet use, allowing application and network (wifi vs cell) level blocking. This is the cornerstone of any data management policy. Once a feature reserved for rooted phones (using linux-native firewall/iptables), normal (non-root) users now have options via non-root firewall apps that use a clever workaround to route data through a firewall and VPN within the app itself.
You could, for instance, choose to allow all data through on wifi, but limit cell data to a only a few apps, like Gmail, Facebook, and Hangouts. It works pretty well, but can cause some apps to misbehave as they wait for a connection to establish that will never come (where as if you were in airplane mode it would simply know you were offline and behave accordingly).
The application I have been using is NoRoot Firewall and it has the option to start at boot, however you must manually confirm it to run once launched. A key icon will display in the notification area so that you are always aware when it is on or off, and any application access for which you have no set policy will come up as a separate notification.
How fast can you blow your data cap?
*Speeds based on downloading 100MB on various networks.
This approach has a giant blind spot, and that is if your firewall goes down you could end up blowing through your data without realizing it. Just how fast? To put things in perspective, assume you are on an LTE connection and accidentally click a link to download a 100MB file - by the time you figure out how to cancel the download you are probably too late to do anything about it. I have been using NoRoot for about half a year now and it has been remarkably stable, but this is still a concern for me, that it will one day fail and my data will disappear.
In-app data settings
In-app settings can give you more flexibility over data. For instance, many apps will have an option to download on wifi only. Enabling these built-in data savers is critical for stretching out your data usage.
Some big ones that I would recommend include:
Gmail - Download on wifi only. Set images not to show by default.
Chrome - Use Data Compression
Maps - Save for offline use
Some ones that I wish existed
Hangouts - download images on wifi only
How much data are your applications using
Android OS Mobile Data Warnings and Data Limits
Starting in Android 4.0, you have the capability to enforce Data Warnings and Data Limits at the OS-level. These are critical safety valves that should be set if you are on a limited plan. You can set limits under data usage in the Settings menu.
Seeing data usage in Android System
For instance, on my 1200MB a year plan I am set up to warn at 80MB and enforce limits at 100MB.
Set limit at or below your plan limit
In the above example I must reauthroize mobile data at the system level once 100MB has been reached. So, if all my above advice fails, I will at least be able to cap my loss on a monthly basis.
Some of my favorite apps are ones that I can use to schedule content to download. After all, when I am out I do not want to use all my data downloading the latest news and articles - but I still need something to read! Reddit Offline is one such app which allows me to set hours of the day to download fresh content, and gives the option to download on wifi only.
I use Reddit Offline to schedule downloads of the front page and some of my favorite subs. One good AMA ends up being all I need for a train ride home.
Pocket is a great offline reader which can sync between browsers. It includes a wifi-only option for sync.
OsmMaps (available ad supported on play store or OsmMaps~ ad-free open source version on f-droid) is a handy offline maps app. A US and a few State maps will take up a few hundred megabytes of data (so download on wifi-only of course), but once downloaded you can enjoy maps, navigation, points of interest, and more. It gets the job done, but it does not really compare to Google Maps.
Google Maps (not offline) is not the bandwidth hog that you may assume. The key is to make sure that you are not using satellite view or any extra layers that would refresh. There is also an offline option within Google Maps. For planned trips, you can get directions beforehand and then save for offline use. But, again, regular use won’t use a whole lot of data anyway.
The biggest sacrafice living on 100MBs a month is giving up ready access to the wealth of infromation available online. I highly recommend installing an offline Wikipedia app as general reference. They all pretty much work the same. You download a massive file which contains articles from Wikipedia, then browse it with the app. It is kind of like living on 1990 internet, or using an Encarta encyclopedia CD.
For the frugal shopper living on a limited data plan this guide will show you how to restrict your usage and stretch your data out over your plan period. You can stay connected by email, facebook, chat, text and still have data left for directions on the go and the occasional light browsing.
In my case, I was able to stretch 1200MBs out over a year. I found the tradeoffs to be well worth it for the cost savings.