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How Much Data the Most Popular Smartphone Tasks and Apps Actually Use

By Ryan Whitwam

Just how many times can you check Twitter and Facebook on your phone before reaching your monthly data cap? We investigate.

In this age of mobile data caps, users are also living more and more in the cloud. These two forces pull us in opposite directions, but how much should you worry? Going over the monthly cap could mean hefty overages, or throttled speeds for the remainder of the billing cycle. Some tasks on your Android device use more bandwidth than you’d expect, and others not so much.

We’re going to test a few of the most common activities you perform on your smartphone and see how much bandwidth they really use.

Social

If you like a little social networking in your mobile experience, there’s not a lot to worry about. We found that posting a text update to Twitter used an almost undetectable amount of data, in the rage of a few KB. At that rate, you’d have to post hundreds of times to run afoul of any data caps.

Updating your Twitter stream actually proved to be a bit heavier than we expected. Downloading a few dozen updates racked up roughly 70KB of data usage. If you update 10 times a day that’s still under a megabyte, and only about 20MB in a month if you do all your updates over 3G/4G. That’s fairly unlikely, so no worries here either.

As we expected, Facebook updates used a bit more data. If you open the Facebook app and update the stream, that’s going to be nearly 200KB of data if you haven’t used it for a while. If the update just pulls a few posts, it’s more in the 50KB range. Even at the upper end of the scale, 10 Facebook updates might be a little under 2MB each day, or 60MB per month if you have a lot of friends. Posts were also very low in data use, just like Twitter.

If Foursquare is more your speed, each check-in is going to cost you about 180KB of data. This is mostly due to the app’s ability to offer suggestions, nearby businesses, and friend info when you update. If you checked in 10 times a day, you’d be over-sharing, but it would also use up roughly 1.75MB. That’s a little over 50MB per month if you check-in that often everyday over mobile data.

Voice Features

As we know, Google uploads your voice samples to its back end servers for transcription, then sends the text back down to you. We were pleasantly surprised at how little data this actually uses. When doing an average length voice search, Google crunches down the audio such that it only took around 20KB for the whole search operation, excluding loading of the results page. You would have to do over 50 searches to reach just 1MB of usage here.

Android also makes use of the voice functionality to transcribe your words to text for SMS, emails, and more. We dictated a long text message and found that the data use was about on par with what we expected from the search test. This used about 30KB of data for an SMS that butted right up against the character limit. This metric can be applied to all places in the OS that users input via voice. It would take a little over 30 long strings of transcribed text to use up 1MB of data.

Music Streaming

We took a look at Google Music first, and were a bit surprised at how much data Google’s own service uses. It pulls the full-size audio file from the server, with only mild compression. So that’s going to be a few megabytes right there. Google Music also caches ahead a few tracks so you don’t have a delay when skipping ahead. The result is 10-12MB used in the first few minutes.

You can help make sure that Google Music doesn’t use even more data by checking the settings to make sure that it's set to download only on Wi-Fi. This way, if the app decides that some tracks should be cached locally, or you select some, it will only pull them down on Wi-Fi.

Pandora is one of the most popular music streaming apps out there, so we checked out the data usage here for comparison. Since this is not pulling from your own music library, Pandora doesn’t cache upcoming tracks. We found roughly 1MB of data being pulled down per-minute by Pandora. This also includes album art and some ads, though. So if you steam for an hour a day over 3G, that works out to 1.8GB each month.

Photos

Google makes it terribly easy to upload all your images to Google+ and Picasa with the Google+ app, but if you have it set to upload over mobile networks, it can be a drag on your data usage. The upshot is that your images are instantly safe and secure in the cloud. Google does shrink down pictures to a maximum of 2048 pixels on a side, so all phones should have similar levels of data use.

We found that most photos uploaded to Google ate up around 180KB of 3G data. This is really much less than we expected. Clipping off all those extra pixels really keeps the size down. If you upload 10 images every day, that’s just over 50MB per-month in data usage.

YouTube

There are two different quality levels that the YouTube app shows video in: there is the high quality mode, and regular mode. On mobile networks, the app will default to regular, but you can switch to HQ if you like. We tested both with 1 minute clips, and the difference was about what we expected.

The amount of data used is going to vary depending on the original video, but several megabytes would be possible for a one minute clip, or it might only be a few hundred kilobytes. You can cut down data usage by roughly 60% by using the regular quality mode instead of HQ.

Maps and Navigation

The Google Maps app is one of the real selling points of the operating system. It’s plugged into a vast system of information on businesses, roads, and deals, but all that uses data. When evaluating the amount of data Maps uses, we first looked at just getting directions without navigation. If you open the app, and search for a location, Maps pulls down 150-200KB of data depending on location. If you get directions 10 times a day, that would amount to as much as 60MB in a month.

Navigation is a little harder to gauge because every area is so different, and speed affects how fast new tiles are downloaded. We think, however, that a rough approximation of 150KB per minute is fair, assuming that you pull down relatively few map tiles. At higher speeds, additional bits will be used to keep up. You can pre-cache map tiles in the Google maps settings to save you some of that data. The app even saves tiles from your local area automatically.

No one of these functions will destroy your data cap, but you should be aware of the big data users. YouTube videos and Google Music should be used sparingly when on mobile data. Social apps aren’t going to put too much of a dent in your cap unless you do really overboard. But go ahead and use Android’s voice features as much as you like. It uses almost no data.