Inside Guide to Managing iPhone Cellular Data Usage

After I got a $423.93 phone bill I spent hours and hours investigating how the iPhone uses cellular data. I bought and downloaded a bunch of data usage apps.

What I found surprised me: battery drain, location tracking, apps that uploaded your usage data to onsell. Two of the apps I had running were consuming about 500-700 kilobytes of data every few days  – all by themselves.

Not really what you want if you’re trying to manage a precious resource like data. Yes, some people have 240 mbps LTE unlimited plans. But a lot of people pay a lot for their monthly data allocation.

How to Find How Much Data You Use: App Not Needed

From iOS 7 onwards, the iPhone displays cellular data usage in the Settings app.

From here you can see overall data use, and – data broken down by each app. Very handy.

cellsettings

At the same time Apple also removed any developer access to these stats. Only Data usage apps still running on iOS 6 can show this kind of information.

So why download an app to do the same thing?

I quickly grew tired of trying to keep track of my data usage using this method. You have to remember to go into Settings on the last day of your billing cycle and reset the stats (I would always forget).

Then try to remember exactly where (in all those hundreds of settings) the cellular data usage reset is (hint: it’s right at the very bottom of the cellular page).

Doing this quickly became a source of frustration.

Note: The data counting in Settings is sometimes delayed. It’s not always in real time. That’s why during my testing I noticed this get out of sync with other data apps.

Data Usage Apps on the App Store

appsI went to begin buying and downloading a series of data usage apps. And what I found surprised me.

I setup a system to look at the data coming to and from the phone (using a ‘man-in-the-middle’) process. The apps themselves seemed to be consuming data.

There were calls to a myriad of services; Crashlytics, localytics, flurry, and… often – calls to facebook.com.

Some apps would do this every time you started the app. Others seemed to log every activity. Analytics reporting is great for developers to diagnose crashes, but as a user it’s worth knowing what’s going on.

One app served ads, which itself all adds up to an increased data usage.

It shows that you cannot assume which apps are using data (albeit only small amounts at a time).

During one test the iPhone downloaded 9 MB all by itself. When I checked the cellular stats in settings – this download was assigned to “Software Updates”. So it seems that sometimes iOS does small updates to itself.

1.  Onavo Count

Counts your data but… “directs all your mobile network communications through their servers and measurement technology”.

Not something I’m comfortable with.

Then I discovered Onavo was acquired by Facebook (for $120 million!) – who have a huge vested interest in private mobile usage habits.

2. My Data Manager from Mobidia

My Data Manager is free. How do developers do this? Remember this adage:

If a product is free, YOU (and your data) are the product.

Mobidia is a data analytics firm offering “the largest crowd-sourced, mega-panel of global smartphone users. Real Usage from real users”.  Mobidia has now been acquired by App Annie.

The app is powerful and feature-rich, but I felt a little disturbed knowing that my usage habits were being uploaded to a company somewhere and sold. So… not really free at all. (Ironically the today widget didn’t work at all – which is my most used feature on a data tracking app).

3. Independent Developer Data Usage Apps

I admire developers trying to carve out a niche in a world dominated by corporates and angel investors. As I set out to move into app development I trawled through lots of app reviews. It seemed to me that among the genuine reviews, there were loads of fake ones. Presumably this is to help game the app store rankings.

This image went viral a few months back. It was a place that would take money to create reviews. There must be at least 100 iPhones in that rig.

Back to the apps: I purchased and downloaded a bunch of other data usage apps…

One app was using 3 different analytics services. Every time you checked your data, it made a data connection to all 3 services. This seems counter-intuitive for people who are trying to manage their data well.

Almost every data usage app I tried wanted location services on.

Real-Time Notifications and Battery Drain

I realized that in order for these apps to provide real-time alerts and notifications they need to be running continuously in the background. In order for that to happen they need to be accessing iOS location services.

Great feature but puts extra drain on the battery, memory, and uses more cellular data!

This is a compromise I was not willing to pay. At one point I had two of these apps on my phone and noticed the battery would keep running down – even when I wasn’t doing much.

To add insult to injury, if I turned location services off, the Today Widget wouldn’t update when I swiped down notifications.

One data usage app clocked up half a megabyte of its OWN data in just a morning! Every time I checked the app it would consume another 50k of cell data.

Even if Location Services are switched off, apps that use this process still seem to use data.

Restarting The Phone

One problem I found in more than one data app was when you restart the phone (either for an update or because you like to turn the phone off).

In one app this completely busted the counter. In another app it incorrectly counted the data after the reboot.

What I Wanted in a Data Usage App

  • Quick and easy to setup (no complex process requiring navigation through numerous screens).
  • Accurate and up-to-date info on the swipe down widget.
  • Only salient data displayed on the home screen (not overwhelmed with stats).
  • No extra overhead on battery.

Most apps also track wifi. From reading thru reviews a few users want this. However the majority are not concerned. Wifi data is a different beast and wifi networks have multiple users using it.

It would be nice to have a ballpark figure of the level of wifi data you are chewing through.  It’s unnecessary to have the same level of detail as cellular and it would just confuse things.

It’s easy to build so many features into an app – that appeal to about 10% of power users. The other 90% end up confused and overwhelmed.

So… Data Tracker

I used it for about 3 months before releasing to the app store. The whole thing was a huge learning curve, and I originally intended it to be a free app. That was until I paid the $99 fee to Apple just to register as a developer.

So in the end I put a 99c price tag on it.

Icon-76@2xManage your iPhone cellular data usage with ease.

Data Tracker will keep count of all cellular data used. Includes a widget showing current usage in notification center.

I’ve been pleased with the accuracy. Although when comparing to my Vodafone bill I’ve noticed Data Tracker does show higher amounts sometimes. This is peculiar as Data Tracker counts everything going in and out of the network interface (at a very low level)

After a bunch of weekends at the computer… I’ve concluded that the data that is counted on the iPhone’s network interfaces will include data that your mobile ISP might not count.

The swipe down widget in notification center is the best feature. I probably check this every few days.  For deeper data I will go to the main app.

I intend to continually improve the app. Technology never stands still.

datatracker.1.2

Hi, I'm James, and for the last decade I've made a living by making my own blogs and websites.
Updated: September 12, 2016

4 Comments

  1. Is there a way to tell how much a particular app is using? The overall figure whilst useful doesn’t inform me which apps are data hungry.

    Based on reading your blog and purchasing the app, I thought it would it do that?

    Thanks in advance,
    Chris

    • As I said in the article: “Apple also removed any developer access to these stats. Only Data usage apps still running on iOS 6 can show this kind of information.”

      Unfortunately (or fortunately from a security / privacy standpoint) as a developer you cannot access what goes on with other apps (everything is sandboxed in it’s own environment). The only way for the user to see this is via Settings and reset the mobile data counts, then keep checking back on that (as it breaks down by app).

  2. Would love the app to show a flashing “indicator light” on the home screen to inform me if cell data is being consumed; even better if the app indicated which other app was connected with the cell data usage.

    • Excellent idea. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it) iOS is a fairly locked down OS and I can’t access what other apps are doing. During my testing I was surprised at how many apps access cellular data (often for recording analytics). So would be a great feature.

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