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Managing iPhone Data Usage

In the early days of the iPhone, users enjoyed service plans for AT&T (and later Verizon) that promised unlimited data. Unfortunately, it was too good to last. After a few years, the carriers decided that giving smartphone users unlimited data was either technologically problematic or insufficiently profitable (there’s some debate on this point), and they began to be replaced by limited data plans. Once that happened, we had to start worrying about how much data we used, because the last thing anybody wants is to burn through their monthly allotment and start being charged by the gigabyte.

With that in mind, we’re going to spend the next couple posts talking about some of the ways you can manage your cell phone’s data usage, so that you still have some data left at the end of your month. In today’s post, we’re going to talk about how to handle data usage on your iPhone. Next time we’ll cover Android.

Turn Off Wi-Fi Assist

When you go looking for ways to reduce your data usage, one of the very first things you should do is turn off the Wi-Fi Assist feature. If you’re not familiar with Wi-Fi Assist, it’s a feature that Apple introduced a few years ago to help your phone compensate for poor wireless connections. If your connection to your local Wi-Fi network becomes weak or gets interrupted, Wi-Fi Assist kicks in and supplements it with a cellular data connection. In theory, this is a fantastic feature: if you’re in a place where the Wi-Fi is iffy but your cellular network is strong, then you don’t have to worry about dealing with any of the frustrations of slow wifi. The down side, though, is that when Wi-Fi Assist is on, you can very easily find yourself in a situation where you think you’re safely connected to a wifi network, but you’re actually using up your cellular data allowance at the same time.

To turn off Wi-Fi Assist, open up your Settings app, tap Cellular, then scroll all the way down to the bottom of the screen and tap the button to turn off Wi-Fi Assist.

iTunes and App Store Downloads

Another major data hog can be iTunes Store and App Store downloads. In general, having your purchases and app updates download automatically is a good thing, but when they’re doing it over your cellular connection, they can take a chunk out of your monthly data allowance. Fortunately, the fix for this is pretty simple: open up your Settings app, then tap iTunes & App Store, then find the setting that says Use Cellular Data, and turn it off. Now automatic downloads from the iTunes Store and App Store will only happen when you’re on a wifi connection.

Manage Background App Refresh

This is another useful feature that can also be a silent data hog. Background App Refresh is a feature that was introduced when Apple (finally) added multitasking to iOS a few years ago. When you exit an app, iOS puts it in a suspended state. With Background App Refresh, the app then wakes up periodically to update itself before going back into suspension. All things being equal, this is a great feature, but when the app is using cellular data to update itself, then that’s going to have an impact on your monthly usage.

With Background App Refresh, iOS gives you a few options. Open up your Settings app, tap General, then scroll down a bit until you see Background App Refresh. At the top of your screen is a menu labeled Background App Refresh. Tap that and you’ll be taken to a screen showing you three options: Off, Wi-Fi, and Wi-Fi & Cellular Data. The latter option is selected by default, but you can also switch to Wi-Fi or turn it off entirely. Back on the previous screen, you’ll see a list of every app that’s installed on your phone. If you’ve left Background App Refresh on, then you can go through these apps turn Background App Refresh on or off on an app-by-app basis.

Email Fetching

If you do a lot of emailing, then there’s a good chance that your Mail app is using a pretty sizable chunk of your data. Fortunately, there are some settings that you can adjust to make sure that your phone uses less data on email. If you go into your Settings app and scroll down to Accounts & Passwords. Tap that, then scroll down to the bottom of the screen, where you’ll see a menu labeled Fetch New Data. At the top of that menu screen, there’s a button simply labeled Push. With this setting on, any email account on your phone that’s push-compatible will automatically send new emails to your phone instantly, so that you get the notification as soon as the email comes through. Now, if you have an account where you regularly need to respond to email messages promptly, you might want to leave this turned on, but otherwise, you can turn it off to save data.

If you leave Push turned on, you can scroll through your accounts and make sure that only the accounts that really need it are set up to push emails to your phone. For the rest, you should set them to Fetch. You can set a fetch schedule at the bottom of the screen. You can set your phone to check your email every 15 minutes, every half hour, every hour, manually, or automatically. When you select Manually, your phone will only check for new emails when you open your Mail app. If you select Automatically, your phone will only check when its connected to power and a wifi network. Naturally, you’ll want to figure out the best setting for your personal situation, but the less often your phone checks for new emails, the less of your cellular data it will use.

Manage Cellular Data Usage

One very straightforward way to reduce your cellular data usage is to decide which apps get to access your cellular data at all. When you download an app, it has the ability to use your cellular data by default, but the truth is that not every app really needs that ability. Sure, you want the apps that bring you news, weather, sports scores, access to your social media, and so on to have access to cellular data, but why does a solitaire app need it? To take control of which apps can use your cellular data, open up your Settings app, then tap Cellular. At the top of the screen you’ll see a few options. At the very top, you’ve got the option to turn cellular data off entirely. When you do that, your phone will still be able to make calls and send texts, but no other apps or system services will be able to access your cellular network. Beneath that, you’ll see a menu that lets you turn data roaming on or off, which is mainly useful if you regularly travel outside the country, and adjust your LTE settings.

A bit farther down the screen, you’ll see a list of apps just like the one you saw on the Background App Refresh screen. This list lets you turn cellular data on or off on an app-by-app basis. The same screen also shows you which apps are using the most cellular data, which can help make your decision-making process a bit easier.

Download Content to Your Phone

In addition to all the standard communication tasks we use our phones for - calls, texts, emails, social media, etc. - most of us also use our phones for things like entertainment, navigation, and more. Some of us barely use our cars’ built-in radios these days except as a way to play the music from our phones over our speakers, and a lot of us use our phones to watch movies and TV shows. We also use our phones to navigate - when’s the last time you saw someone using a standalone GPS unit in their car? Or a paper map? The bad news is that all of that music, video, and map data streaming to our phones can eat up a ton of our cellular data. The good news is that a lot of these apps offer the option to save data by downloading that content to our phones.

If you like watching movies or shows on Netflix or Amazon Prime or Hulu, you can download most of their content directly to your device while you’re on a wifi connection, then watch it later. The same goes for the premium versions of music services like Spotify and Pandora.

When it comes to navigation, several apps like Google Maps and Waze offer you the option of downloading map data for a region to your phone so that you can navigate without using cellular data, while other apps like Maps.ME are designed to be fully offline navigation apps. Unfortunately, Apple has been slow in adding this feature to the Maps app, but you can still download some map data: when you get directions to a destination and tap Go, Maps automatically downloads that data to your phone. If you’re on a wifi connection when that happens, you can save yourself some cellular data.

Bonus: Better Performance and Battery Life!

Like we said above, all of these changes that we’re suggesting you make to your phone’s settings are meant to reduce your phone’s use of its cellular data connection, but they come with another benefit, too: improving your phone’s performance and battery life. As you might expect, everything you do on your phone that uses cellular data also uses other system resources, and it uses electricity. So, for example, if you have background app refresh turned on for a particular app, then when that app refreshes it’s going to use a certain amount of your cellular data allowance, but it’s also going to use your phone’s memory and processor. It’s also going to use up some battery power, since your phone’s processor, memory, and cellular antenna all require electricity to work. By turning off background app refresh for that app (and others), you free up system resources for other apps, and you reduce the amount of power that’s being drawn from your battery.


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