The Best Apps for Tracking and Managing Data

Getting your data usage under control

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How much data do you use each month? Do you only find out when you've gone over your limit? Even if you have an unlimited plan, you may want to cut down to cut down on battery life or reduce screen time. In any case, it's pretty easy to track and manage your data usage on an Android smartphone either using the built-in function or a third-party app. These apps also help you figure out why you're using so much data and warn you when you're approaching your limit. You can then use this information to determine if you need to reduce your data consumption.

How to Track Your Data Usage

You can manage your data usage without a third-party app if your Android smartphone runs Lollipop or later. Depending on your device and OS, you may be able to go directly into data usage from the main settings page or by going to the wireless and networks section. Then you can view how many gigabytes of data you've used in the past month as well as in previous months.

You can also move the start and end dates to match with your billing cycle. Scroll down to see which of your apps are using the most data and how much; this will include games that serve up ads, email and web browser apps, GPS apps, and other apps that may work in the background.

This section is where you can also turn mobile data on and off, limit mobile data, and set up alerts. Limits can be set down to less than 1 GB and as high as you want. Restricting your data usage this way means that your mobile data will turn off once you reach that threshold; you'll get a pop-up warning with the option to turn it back on, though. Alerts let you know, also via pop-up, when you've reached a specified limit. You can also set up both warnings and limits if you're looking to decrease usage gradually.

The Top Three Data Tracking Apps

While many wireless carriers offer data tracking apps, we've chosen to focus on three third-party apps: Data Usage, My Data Manager, and Onavo Protect. These apps are well-rated in the Play Store and offer features beyond what your Android device includes.

You can use the Data Usage (by oBytes) app to track both data and Wi-Fi usage and set limits on each. After you specify your quota, as the app calls it, you can opt to disable data when you approach or reach your limit. You can also set it up so that when your data resets at the end of the billing period, the app will automatically re-enable mobile data.

The app also an option to set up notifications at three different thresholds; for example, 50 percent, 75 percent, and 90 percent. The app has a progress bar that will turn yellow, and then red, the closer you get to your limit. There is a lot you can customize here.

Once you've chosen your settings, you can view statistics, including how much data (and Wi-Fi) you've used so far each month and how likely it is you'll exceed your limit as well as your history of usage each month so you can find patterns. Data Usage has a very basic looking, old-school interface, but it's easy to use, and we like all the customization options.

My Data Manager (by Mobidia Technology) has a much more modern looking interface than Data Usage, and it enables you to set up or join a shared data plan. That's pretty cool if you suspect someone's using more than their fair share or you want everyone to be aware of their usage. You can also track roaming plans, which is helpful if you travel abroad. The app can also detect your carrier and then will explain how to find out what your plan is if you don't know it. For example, you can text Verizon.

Next, you set up your plan (contract or prepaid) by providing the data limit and the first day of your billing cycle. My Data Manager has even more custom options than Data Usage. You can set your billing cycle down to the hour that it starts and ends, set up free usage time-blocks to account for periods when your carrier offers free data. For even more accuracy, you can select apps that don't count against your data allotment, such as an app store. (This is called zero-rating.) There's also an option to enable rollover if your carrier lets you carry over unused data from previous months.

You can also set up alarms for when you reach or near your limit, or if you have "lots of data left." There's a map view that shows where you've used your data and an app view that shows how much each is consuming in descending order.

Onavo Protect Free VPN+Data Manager is a third option, and as its name states, it doubles as a mobile VPN to protect your web browsing. In addition to encrypting your data and keeping it safe from hackers when you're on public Wi-Fi, Onavo also alerts users to data-heavy apps, limit apps to use Wi-Fi only, and prevent apps from running in the background--and running up your data usage. Note that the company is owned by Facebook if such things concern you.

Tips for Cutting Down Data Consumption

Whether you use the built-in data tracker or a separate app, you can reduce your usage in a few different ways: 

  • Use Wi-Fi whenever it's available and only allow your apps to update when your device connects to Wi-Fi.
  • Many apps, such as Spotify, let you download songs so you can listen offline.
  • Keep an eye on your most data-hungry apps, such as ad-supported games, which are also likely draining your battery.
  • Consider paying for your favorite apps to get rid of ads. 
  • Airplane mode, which disables all connections, can come in handy not just while flying, but also when you're in places where you won't be using your device for an extended period, such as when you're at the movies. 

Some carriers offer plans that don't count music or video streaming against you. For example, T-Mobile's Binge On plans let you stream HBO NOW, Netflix, YouTube, and many others, without eating into your data. Boost Mobile offers unlimited music streaming from five services, including Pandora and Slacker, with any monthly plan. Contact your carrier to see what they offer.