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Smartphone Data Usage Explained

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If you aren’t familiar with data, it can be hard to decide exactly how much data you need for what you want to do. Minutes and text messages are much easier to measure and understand than GB and MB and kb. Companies capitalize on this and the fear of running out of a needed service to convince people to purchase more data than they actually need. Here are some explanations and examples to help you decide how much data (if any) you actually need to purchase with your smartphone.

How is data measured?

Going from smaller to larger, data is measured in kilobytes (kb), megabytes (MB) and gigabytes (GB). It takes 1024 kb to make 1 MB. Likewise, it takes 1024 MB to reach 1 GB.

But those are still pretty abstract numbers. The Citizens Utility Board has some pretty helpful explanations that will help us narrow this down. So let’s put it into perspective:

What can I do with 1 MB?

Here are some figures of what you can do with 1MB of data:

  • Send/receive 50 emails (without attachments, as downloading and uploading will take up more data)
  • Stream 2 minutes of music
  • View 1 web page
  • Post 3 photos to Facebook
  • Watch 30 seconds of YouTube

Most prepaid monthly plans that include data will come with 200 MB at the least. I have seen a couple with as low as 30 or 50, but for light users that might be more than enough. I mean, if you only browse the web a little bit away from home and do not stream video or music, then a small amount of data might work just fine.

What can I do with 1 GB?

Unsurprisingly, 1 GB of data goes a lot further than 1 MB of data. Here are the same examples as above, except using 1 GB instead of MB:

  • Send/receive 50,000 emails (without attachments)
  • Streaming 33 hours of music
  • View 1,000 web pages
  • Post 2,800 photos to Facebook
  • Watch more than 8 hours of YouTube

As you can see, unless you are constantly streaming videos/music or uploading photos, 1 GB really goes quite a way. I browse the internet and Facebook a lot on my personal phone when I’m not at home, and I don’t think I’ve ever exceeded 1 GB of data. In fact, I usually don’t go over 500 MB. So for a mid-range user who isn’t into streaming but likes browsing the web and uploading photos, lower amounts are probably just fine. Most prepaid plans start getting expensive if you add more than 1 GB of data, so make sure you’re likely to use it before you upgrade.

How much data do I actually need?

Well, that depends entirely on your habits. According to CTIA data, smartphone consumers used an average of 800 MB of data per month. And that’s just an average–I would expect most prepaid customers with data don’t use that much, as your average prepaid customer is probably a little more careful with their phone usage than postpaid customers. In contrast to that number, most carriers recommend 2 GB of data for their customers.

As for how much you actually need, ask yourself these questions about your data habits:

  1. Do you have WiFi at home?
    Using your WiFi to access the internet on your phone isn’t going to cost you anything, so whenever possible, you can set your phone to use any WiFi signal instead of data. Setting your apps and email to only sync with a WiFi connection will also help with keeping data down.
  2. Do you stream music or videos? How often?
    Streaming music and videos can eat up data pretty quick if you do it for long periods of time over several days. If you are a heavy music streamer, you should look into a carrier like Rok Mobile or T-Mobile that allows for free music streaming.
  3. How many times a day do you get on the web?
    Browsing the web takes up very little data, but if you are on the web all day, every day, it will add up (see the examples above). For light users, this will probably be a pretty small amount. If you are an avid Facebooker, look for a carrier that includes unlimited Facebook access for a minimum monthly fee.
  4. How many apps do you download a week?
    Downloading apps is a variable that it’s hard to generalize because game apps tend to be much larger than more functional apps, like notepad or a calculator. However for general purposes, apps tend to average out at about 50 – 70 MB per app. If you only have a few MB a month that can start to chew into your data, but remember that downloading apps is rarely something that has to be done on the go and downloading apps on WiFi is free.

One thing to keep in mind with data usage is that on most phones you can toggle it on and off to prevent apps from accessing your data and chewing it up for no reason. Combined with using WiFi signals, you probably don’t need as much data as you think you do. In fact, for most people 500 MB to 1 GB would be way more than sufficient.

Where can I get prepaid data?

I’m glad you asked! A lot of no-contract carriers have data offerings either with prepaid monthly plans or as limited add-ons to pay-as-you-go plans. Check out this article with a short list of a few of the options for carriers and how much data they offer. We’re still adding to it, and it isn’t comprehensive by any means, but it will give you somewhere to start!