How much data do you really need?

There’s a lot of talk about how to get the most bang for your buck when it comes to your mobile plan. But how much ‘bang’ do you need in the first place? Your mobile data needs will depend on what you usually use your phone to do and how much time you spend doing it. Instead of paying for more than you’ll actually use, figure out how much data you need and pick a plan to match.

Don’t forget that you can also use Wi-Fi on your mobile device. When deciding how much mobile data to buy, you should only consider how much data you need when you don’t have access to a Wi-Fi connection.

What is mobile data?

Mobile data is a type of wireless internet access provided through your mobile carrier network. In other words, you can access internet wherever you can get a phone signal. It’s just like using Wi-Fi except you don’t need to log in to a nearby wireless router. Most mobile plan packages will include a data allowance together with a credit allowance (or in some cases unlimited use) for calls and SMS.

How is mobile data measured?

Mobile data is measured in units of how much information you need transmitted, in ‘bytes’. One byte is only a tiny amount of information, so you’ll usually see measures of data in kilobytes (Kb), megabytes (Mb), gigabytes (GB) etc.

There is more information in a photo than in plain text, and even more information in a video (which is just a lot of photos). Add in audio, and that’s even more information. That’s why a document file takes up a lot more space than a movie. Since it takes more work to send a movie than a document file, it costs more.

When using the internet, information is transmitted both ways, data is both uploaded and downloaded in order to complete a task. It uses mobile data to upload as well as download.

What uses the most mobile data?

Emails

Since emails are usually just text, you could pretty much spend all day sending and receiving emails and not use a lot of data. However, if you’re sending or receiving lots of attachments, especially if they’re images, you’ll use a lot more.

Social Media

How much data you’ll use depends on the kind of social media platform and what you’re doing on it. If there’s lots of sharing of images and video (e.g. Facebook, Instagram), that chews up a lot more data than more text-based platforms (e.g. Messenger, Yik Yak). The amount of time you spend on social media also matters – social media platforms are often designed to constantly refresh and update content

If you use an app rather than a web browser to access your social media accounts, a lot less data is required. That’s because the app has pre-downloaded many elements of the social media platform.

Web browsing

Again, how much data it takes to load a webpage depends on how many elements there are to load. A page that makes heavy uses of graphics or videos will require more data to load. If you use apps like Pocket to download articles and webpages while you’re on Wi-Fi, you can read them on the go without using up data.

Gaming

The data consumption of games varies massively. Some games, once downloaded, don’t connect to the internet at all except when you update the app. Some, especially online multiplayer games, take up quite a lot! Think about what kinds of games you generally use – do they require frequent data transmission?

File downloads/uploads

Cloud file storage (e.g. Google Drive, Dropbox) can sneakily chew up data if you leave auto-sync or auto-upload on. If you frequently need to upload files (especially photos and video) without a Wi-Fi connection, you’ll need a bigger data allowance. Posting photos and video on social media often uses less, as apps like Instagram compress data.

The same applies for downloading music and video. Make sure you’re downloading legally and safely, or you could end up with something scarier than the latest episode of Game of Thrones – like malware that can compromise your security.

Music/audio streaming

Streaming generally involves lower quality audio than downloading audio, because it’s designed to be readily accessible without putting massive strain on networks, without lags. That being said, if you’re a regular Spotify user or podcast listener, the data consumption adds up very fast.

Video streaming

The big hungry data eater, especially if you’re watching high-definition videos. YouTube addicts will definitely need a larger data allowance.

How can I check data usage?

Your smartphone settings should include data usage tracking. Here, you can see overall data use per day, as well as a breakdown per app. You can also control which apps can access mobile data, and prevent apps from background data usage while you’re not directly using the app.

Check the user guide to find out how to access these settings for your particular device, as settings vary between brands.

How much data do I need?

The easiest way to figure out how much data you need is to check how much data you used in the last month and see whether this is a lot more or a lot less than your current plan’s allowance. If you can’t do this, you can make a general estimate based on what your mobile internet habits are likely to be:

Infrequent use (~250MB)

  • Checking email and messages
  • Occasionally browsing the internet when you’re bored or want to look something up

Medium use (~500MB – 1GB)

  • Regular emailing and messaging
  • Checking social media at frequent intervals
  • Watching the occasional video
  • Using GPS maps

Heavy use (2GB+)

  • Rely on mobile data significantly for entertainment and/or work
  • Accessing video/audio streaming regularly
  • Frequently using mobile hotspot to tether internet to larger devices
  • Frequently uploading/downloading content through social media, cloud storage, etc
  • Hours of use each day

If your data habits are irregular, also bear in mind that many plans allow you to make one-off extra data purchases for those times when you need more than usual (e.g. travelling) or when moving house and you’re waiting for the new internet to be connected.

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