The Best Apps for Tracking and Managing Data

Getting your data usage under control

Smart Phone with Icons
Jeffrey Coolidge / Getty Images

How much data do you use each month? Do you only find out when you've gone over your limit? Or maybe you're one of the rare few that still has an unlimited plan. Even with no limits on data, you may want to cut down in order to save battery life. It's also a good way to reduce screen time for you or your children. (I know I can use that!) 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. I've also got tips on how to cut down on data and avoid overage charges as well as recommendations for the best data plans for power users.

How to Track Your Data Usage

If you have a relatively new Android smartphone running a newish version of the operating system (Lollipop or newer), you should be able to manage your data usage in your device's settings. Depending on your device and OS, you may be able to go directly into data usage from the main settings page or by going into wireless and networks. Here 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.

Here, 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. (I was able to move mine up to 20 GB with no signs of stopping.) Limiting 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.

Setting up alerts simply lets 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 gradually decrease usage.

The Top Two Data Tracking Apps

While each of the main wireless carriers offers their own data tracking apps, I've chosen to focus on two third-party apps: Data Usage and My Data Manager. These apps are well-rated in the Play Store and offer features beyond what your Android device offers.

When you first launch Data Usage (by oBytes) it prompts you to choose your settings. You can use this app to track both data and Wi-Fi usage and set limits on each. First, you set your quota, as the app calls it, and then whether you want to disable data when you approach or reach your limit. You can also set up your billing period as specified by your carrier. W hen your data resets at the end of your billing period, you can also set up the app to automatically re-enable mobile data again. There's 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 WiFi) 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 I 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. In order to use the app, you have to first give it permission to track your data usage in settings.

Next, you set up your plan (contract or prepaid) by providing the data limit and the first day of your billing cycle, which you can also get by texting Verizon. 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, such as an app store, that don't count against your data allotment. (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." You can also set custom alarms for when you reach a certain amount of data usage in megabytes or gigabytes. There's also an alarm for "daily budget reached," but you can't actually set that up, so I'm guessing it's just your total plan divided by your billing cycle length. 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.

Other Data Trackers

I had planned on including an app called Onavo Count in this roundup, but it's no longer available for download, according to their website.

Oddly, I was still able to download it from the Google Play Store, so I don't know what's going on here. FYI, the company is owned by Facebook if such things concern you.

There are several other top-rated apps in the Google Play Store that offer similar features, so if these two apps don't work for you, there are options. Be aware that some free apps, such as Data Usage Monitor, have paid features aka in-app purchases. Another popular app, 3G watchdog, has a long list of known issues, so be sure to read the description carefully before downloading. If you're a real data nerd, though, it does allow you to export your usage history into a CSV file.

Tips for Cutting Down Data Consumption

Whether you use the built-in data tracker or a separate app, you can easily reduce your usage if you find yourself going over your limit too often. Use Wi-Fi whenever it's available and only allow your apps to update when you're connected to Wi-Fi. Don't stream; download. Many apps, such as Spotify, let you listen offline so you don't eat up data. This also has the benefit of letting you listen to your tunes when you're on a subway or airplane. Be aware the ad-supported apps eat up a lot of data, and some apps, such as Words With Friends can't even be used without a web connection. Consider paying for your favorite apps in order to get rid of ads. Be sure to keep an eye on your most data-hungry apps, which are also likely draining your battery. 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 of time, such as when you're at the movies.

It's also a good way to take a break from distracting notifications.

Some carriers offer plans that don't count music or video streaming against you. T-Mobile's Binge On lets you stream HBO NOW, Netflix, YouTube, and many others, without eating into your data. You just have to sign up for a compatible plan. Boost Mobile offers unlimited music streaming from five services, including Pandora and Slacker, with any monthly plan. Here's hoping more carriers follow suit.

Go Unlimited

Maybe you don't want to cut down. Believe it or not, unlimited data plans still exist, though many are pricey. AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile each offer unlimited plans as do prepaid carriers Boost Mobile, Cricket Wireless, and MetroPCS. Nerdwallet has a great piece outlining these types of plans including monthly pricing and added fees. Their analysis shows that Sprint, Boost, and MetroPCS offer the best deals. As a bonus, it also includes the best plans that include the ability to use your device as a mobile hotspot.

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