How to Keep an Eye on Bandwidth-greedy Apps

There's more than one way to track and keep your cellphone Internet usage – and bills – under control.

It came as a real shock. I've always know that there are smartphone apps that consume large quantities of data, but I wasn't expecting the surprise I got from my cellphone provider, or rather, from their bill.

Three weeks ago, I spent about an hour and a half listening to different segments of American comedian Bill Maher's weekly HBO show "Real Time with Bill Maher" using Apple's podcast app. I have a software program that allows me to track the details of my Internet usage. I don't want to exceed my cellphone's Internet usage package, so I checked how much bandwidth I consumed while playing Maher's show. It was almost an entire gigabyte.

I couldn't believe it. I listen to music using another app, and from several tests I did I found that a minute of music requires approximately 1 megabyte of Internet usage. With that in mind, I had assumed that my Internet consumption for a Bill Maher show would be less than 100 megabytes. But in reality it was more than 10 times as much, and that revelation motivated me to take another look at what I know about Internet consumption on mobile devices. That goal turned out to be easier said than done.

First of all, Apple doesn't allow its users to determine how much Internet each app consumes separately. There is no app for that -- yet another reason to be annoyed by Apple's arrogant attitude. But then I discovered that Apple users have been complaining about its podcast app, saying it's slow, crashes and takes up way too much Internet. Don't expect to find any solace, though, or a straightforward answer from Apple.

So, how can you check how much Internet data each app uses? Start with apps that track Internet usage. The best one I have found is DataWiz, which was developed at Princeton University. It saves a detailed history of the user's Internet consumption and it pinpoints Internet consumption on a map to show exactly where the data were used. Best of all, it has a very convenient interface.

With this app's assistance, I learned how much Internet I would use by listening to music on the Web. The answer was one megabyte per minute, more or less. Playing a video clip from YouTube, though, consumed more data naturally, because of the audio and visual components. For example, a six-minute clip used up more than 200 megabytes, or roughly 35 megabytes per minute (that's approximately 35 times more data than playing music without video).

After these data checks, the picture becomes clearer. Videos apparently swallow up more Internet data than anything else on mobile devices. Podcasts come in second place for data usage and music rounds out the top three.

In March, PC World magazine ranked different types of Internet data usage based on its own research. It found the following ranking for data usage from highest to lowest: video, music, video games and video chats (using services like Skype). According to PC World's research, using social media sites also consumes a lot of data: loading images from Facebook, Twitter or Google+ requires, on average, transferring 6.8 megabytes of data and viewing images uses 1 megabyte on average.

One way to deal with apps that suck up Internet bandwidth is to simply avoid them. Another way to deal with the problem is to install apps that reduce your Internet usage by compressing data. The leading app for this is called Onavo Extend, developed by Israeli start-up Onavo. This means living with lower sound or video quality, but for YouTube junkies it's probably a price worth paying.