Smartphones aren't hungry for data: We are

Smartphones aren't hungry for data: We are

Summary: "It's not me, it's you," said the 3G-enabled smartphone, or the 4G-capable iPad 3.


A complaint I hear regularly leveled against modern smartphones and tablets is that they are incredibly data-hungry and can burn through a costly data allowance in days.

Sorry, but I've got news for you. It's not these devices that are the data-hungry monsters: it's us.

While on trips to the U.S. and Europe, ZDNet's Zack Whittaker recently suffered a shock when he discovered how much data his iPhone was consuming by merely doing trivial things like checking email and using Twitter and Facebook. The data bill gave him such a shock, that he went back to using his native BlackBerry.

But can you blame the iPhone? Not really. It's just doing what it's told, like every good piece of consumer electronics is supposed to do. I don't want to see a Clippy or HAL 9000 to pop up each time I'm checking email over 3G questioning me. "It looks like you are checking email over 3G. Are you sure you want to do that?" Yes, I am sure.

The problem isn't the iPhone -- or whichever device you're using -- the problem is us. It's a combination of our expectation for instant access to information wherever we are, and our naivety over how much data we're actually using.

We're taking the way we work at a desktop that's connected to a fat pipe to the Internet, or a notebook connected to a Wi-Fi router, and expecting to be able to do the same things when we're on the move, and for a similar cost. I've seen people tether a notebook to a smartphone, spend a few hours' blissfully and enthusiastically browsing sites like YouTube, and later wonder where their data allowance for that month went.

Another problem is speed. While more speed is usually a good thing, it can work against you when you're on a limited data allowance. I remember the first time that my Internet connection was fast enough to watch a video real-time without needing to buffer. I thought that was cool and couldn't see a downside, but there is one.

Here's an example of how this can work against you. You're out and about with your shiny new iPad 3 when a friend sends you a link to a funny video on YouTube. Since you've got a data plan, you decide to take a look, but after thirty seconds into what is a five-minute video you decide your friend's idea of funny isn't in step with yours and you stop watching. Chances are that while you only watched thirty seconds or so of the video, your iPad, especially if it happens to be on an LTE network, will have downloaded the whole video in that time. Your friend has just aided and abetted in you burning through anything between 30--200 megabytes of your data allowance, depending on the quality of the video.

Video is your data allowance's arch nemesis. Did you know that watching an hour of TV on your iPad can consume a gigabyte of your precious data plan? Neither did The Houston Chronicle's Dwight Silverman, and he's a smart man. Cheap, high-speed Internet has conditioned us to click "Play" with no thought given to how many bytes we're shifting back and forth.

ZDNet's James Kendrick suggests using Wi-Fi as much as possible when out and about. He also suggests an experiment where you measure how much data your smartphone is using by disabling Wi-Fi for a period and only using the cellular data connection, while keeping a close eye on the data consumption metrics while you do this.

You'll be amazed how even little things like checking Twitter and Facebook eat up data. Throw photos usage into the mix, by using a service such as Flickr, and you're ramping consumption up by an order of magnitude. Standard definition video kicks consumption up another order of magnitude, and pushes most peoples' data allowances in the danger zone. High-definition video sends consumption through the stratosphere.

I remember the time when smartphones didn't do that much, yet it was a time when we could get out hands on unlimited data plans that we really didn't need and couldn't make full use of. Now that we're in a post-PC era and putting increasingly heavier demands on being connected when away from our fat, cheap pipes to the Web, the carriers are limiting us by dishing out data allowances with an eyedropper, yet charging us a king's ransom for the pleasure.

And things show no sign of getting better.

While carriers are improving speed and coverage, there's no indication that data allowances are going to increase any time soon. Unlimited data plans are all but extinct, and there's no sign of them making a comeback in the foreseeable future.

Welcome to the downside of the post-PC world. This world may have given us the ability to check out email, post on Facebook and Twitter, and watch a video of a sneezing baby panda while away from our desk, but do it too much, or in a foreign country, and it will cost you dearly.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.


Topics: Mobility, Browser, Hardware, Smartphones

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Who's we?

    The majority of smartphone users don't even get close to their 2 GB cap. Hell, I have an unlimited plan and even with my "heavy" usage I still barely break 2 gigs a month. Video is pretty much the only thing that's going to kill you. I spend all day browsing around image sites, and even that doesn't put much of a dent in my data usage. Zack's only problem is that he had his iPhone sync too often. Well, that, and leaving his area of coverage.
  • Zack pinpointed iPhone's Exchange connection in particular

    In his article, he mentioned that the Exchange connection of the iPhone was re-downloading a huge amount of data each time it checked for new mail, basically re-downloading all mails instead of just new ones or headers.

    If there are settings in the iPhone to change that, I think the "least bandwidth hungry" setting should be on by default like just downloading headers, then mail content when selecting the mail and lastly the attachments only if needed like my Android does.
  • Higher res devices enable YouTube to default to higher res

    The other side is the greater battery drain.
  • You are correct about all except

    Although you are right about almost everything you have stated you are wrong about one thing.

    BlackBerry smartphones all their data through encrypted and hugely compressed method from a BIS or BES(E) that is why data usage on a Blackberry is at least 50% less than any other device without dramatically sacrificing speeds.

    I have personally tested this head (BB) to head (iPhone) with just email, Twitter, and Facebook. I can go into detail about those test if requested.

    So Zack had the right idea! Especially if one is traveling abroad.
  • Nothing is for free

    Same as if you go into another providers area and make calls - the coasts stack up quite quickly. Remeber the first iPhones - you couldn't turn roaming off - that lead to a few shocks.

    As for the redowloading of email, twitter, facebook - use a web browser ...

    You can of course try Android - there is a few apps that can measure how much data is going through your plan(s)