Mobile data: how much do you need?

Finally, there’s YouTube. We have a ready-made test in the form of the 9mins 57secs Big Buck Bunny 1080p animation we use to test playback on netbooks. The quality over 3G wasn’t perfect, with constant artefacts and a lack of sharpness; the near-ten-minute clip consumed 18.9MB. Over Wi-Fi, the picture was crisp and flawless, making full use of the iPhone 5’s 1,136 x 640 display, and the same clip consumed 161MB. Stretch that over an hour and you’re looking at almost 1GB.

Faster speeds = more data

Of course, data requirements for video and audio streaming are only ever as high as your connection allows – if your videos are obviously coming across at low quality, you have less to worry about when it comes to data caps – but with EE promising an average 4G speed around 12Mbits/sec, these adaptive bit rates will have a greater effect. If you’re planning to move to 4G, it’s unwise to assume your data use will stay as it is; in many cases, the same applications will use more data automatically.

Maps was one service that a few people listed as a likely culprit for their high use, and if we take Google’s version as an example, they may be right. While planning a route from our GPS-detected location, with full satellite imagery enabled and some judicious scrolling and zooming involved, our phone sucked down 31MB in a few minutes. If you’re on the move and worried about your cap, stick to the basic line map.

What about less intensive uses, such as social networking and web browsing? These aren’t as bad for data, but they can still consume more than you might think. Loading five stories on the PC Pro website used 3.4MB. Opening a large Facebook photo album, allowing the thumbnails to populate, then opening five of them to full-screen consumed 6.1MB. Checking emails used a tiny amount, and you can always check the size of an attachment or set your client to not download images. Our advice if you’re suspicious of a particular app is to download a traffic monitor for yourself to see how much it’s using.

Measuring our readers

You can get an idea of the kind of allowance you need by looking at how many of those data-intensive apps you use, and how often – but don’t assume everyone uses a phone in the same way. For every high roller who mainlines Sky Go and Spotify Premium, there’s another who barely checks emails when out for the day.

Consumption averages are skewed upwards by a relatively small number of heavy users, and they use a lot of data

According to EE, the average monthly data consumption for an Orange customer with a 1GB data cap is only 380MB. The average for T-Mobile’s uncapped “Full Monty” package is a much higher 1.5GB, but 70% of those users don’t actually break the 1GB barrier. Our survey figures back up these findings – averages are skewed upwards by a relatively small number of heavy users, and they use a lot of data.

First, here’s a quick statistical breakdown of our willing 100: we had 74 Android users, 23 were on iOS, and three had BlackBerry or Windows Phone handsets. We converted the weekly figures to monthly so that they match the data caps available on phone contracts.

The consumption figures ran the full gamut. At the bottom end, a surprising 25 people would use less than 100MB in the month, with 14 of them using less than 30MB and five not even hitting 10MB. To show the lengths to which some people go to keep data use down, one used 3G mainly for email, but “waited until on Wi-Fi to download attachments”.

Monthly data use of 100 PC Pro readers

The number of people using very small amounts of data shows just how skewed any average will inevitably be by the heavier data users. From the graph shown above, you can see that 46 of the 100 users would be perfectly fine with a 250MB monthly limit, and 57 with a 500MB limit. The 1GB limit would be enough for 78 of the 100 users surveyed, and only nine users could legitimately claim to need an “unlimited” contract. Of course, which data caps are available will depend on your network.

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