Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Tech Column: Down for the (Cellular Data) Count

by Bill Adler

Onavo Count saved my bacon.

I'm pretty savvy about turning off the send and receive feature using cellular data when traveling to other countries.

Evernote, for instance: I sync when on cellular or wifi at home, but when in other countries, I set Evernote to sync only on wifi. I tell my iPhone to update apps only on wifi, too. Dropbox photo backup: wifi only. And so on.  It's a very memory-intensive process and I have to guess what apps might use cellular data automatically.

While it's a pain to go through my iPhone app by app to make sure that it only sends and receives automatically through wifi, that's now an essential ritual for me before every overseas trip.

I bought an 800 megabyte cellular data plan from AT&T before my most recent trip to Japan, where I am now. You can eat through 800 megabytes quickly by streaming YouTube videos, but 800 megs can hold you for a while if all you do is use cellular data for email, maps, messaging, and Words with Friends, like I do. Or I planned to do.

I took a look at my cellular data usage a few days after arriving in Tokyo. (It's a good idea to reset your phone's cellular data counter before you arrive in whatever country you're going to; otherwise you won't be able to tell how much cellular data you're using.)  I had used some 70 megabytes in a few days. Hmm. I didn't do anything that should have used that much data. And at that rate, I might eat through my entire 800 megabyte plan and soon move into "international overcharge territory," a place I certainly didn't want to visit.

But what app was leaking data? I poked around my apps manually: It wasn't this and it wasn't that, but I did need to track it down. How to do that without checking each of the 300+ apps on my iPhone manually? With an app, of course: I found an app, which I highly recommend if you travel with a limited data plan: it's called Onavo Count, www.onavo.com, and it tells you which apps are running amok with your precious data. I fired up Onavo Count and instantly found that somehow I hadn't turned off Google+'s cellular data backup feature for photos. I really thought I had, but it's easy to make a mistake with apps and phones offering so many feature options. Google+ was backing up my photos all the time while I was roaming on a Japanese cellular network. Not cool. I flipped off that switch, and now I have plenty of data to spare for the duration of my trip.

Onavo also told me that FE Snap was consuming cellular data. FE Snap is an smartphone app that lets you take a quick picture note and save it in Evernote. The has a switch for "wifi only," but I forgot to flip that switch before arriving in Japan. I use Evernote via FE Snap to record places I've been while traveling, so I use FE Snap a lot! Each picture note is about 500k big. Another switch flipped and everything was back to normal.

There are several data monitoring apps that can alert you when you're closing in on your data or voice plan's ceiling, but they're not always reliable on the iPhone. I used to use one called Dataman, but it can be tricked if you power off your phone. Now I just use the iPhone's built-in cellular data tracking function. I haven't tried any data or voice use monitoring apps on Android, but they may not suffer from the same limitations and quirks as on the iPhone because Android is more open when it comes to allowing apps to access the core operating system.

If you're in a data crunch, you can also give Onavo Extend a whirl: Onavo Extend, www.onavo.com, compresses data on the fly, giving you more bang for your proverbial data buck.

With these various data monitoring, reporting and compression apps you can turn limited international data plans into actually useful international data plans. The apps work domestically, too, if you're on a limited domestic data plan.


Bill Adler is a writer. He is the author of "Boys and Their Toys: Understanding Men by Understanding Their Relationship with Gadgets," http://amzn.to/rspOft, "Outwitting Squirrels," http://amzn.to/VXuLBh, and a mess of other books. He tweets at @billadler. His tech column is published on Tuesdays.

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