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Is iOS 5 a data vampire?

I have mixed feelings about iOS 5, and I could probably write another article based on my meandering anecdotal experiences with Apple’s latest mobile OS, but this one is about the data usage, and in particular that of iCloud, iMessage and Location Services.

iCloud is enchanting, and maybe one day when I can afford an unlimited data plan, I can fully enjoy its wonders, but for now I’d like to share my experience — a cautionary tale perhaps — to give you an idea of what you can expect should you choose to ascend into the cloud.

I have a modest 300MB data bundle which I’ve been using with my iPhone 4, for almost a year now. Although I have strayed over the limit at times, I have never extravagantly done so. In most cases when I have used more than my allotment, I did so consciously. When my data bundle is depleted, my flexible voice plan allows me to further convert talk time into data — albeit at out of bundle rates — and has always been a stalwart buffer in cases where I splurged on a YouTube video or couldn’t wait to download an app over WiFi.

I had a handle on things until October 12th, at which point I installed iOS 5.

At the end of October I was billed an extra data charge of R264.48 ($32.90). Using the relevant out of bundle rate for my service provider, I calculated that I had used approximately 530MB of data, beyond my allotment, in 15 days. In other words, in 15 days I had used more data than I usually do in an entire month.

My iCloud settings were decidedly modest. I had enabled Contacts, Calendars, Reminders, Bookmarks and Find My iPhone. My Documents & Data setting was enabled, but the option to “Use Cellular” was disabled. I also switched off Photostream — the biggest data hog in my mind –, Mail and Notes.

On the 27th — the start of my billing cycle — my data bundle was automatically reset as usual. In the name of science, I left my iCloud settings unchanged and watched as my data usage rocketed to 225MB, 6 days later.

At this point, it was clear that it would be costly to remain part of Apple’s next evolution. At this rate I would end up using more than 1GB for the month of November. Googling I found numerous other iOS 5 users coming to the same conclusion.

I started by gradually switching off all iCloud functionality except Find My iPhone. Sadly, the data carnage continued. At one point I noticed that my phone used 7MB in one hour, even though I had left it alone completely during that period.

It wasn’t until I deleted my iCloud account that things started returning to normal.

My Location Services settings were still the same as they were on iOS 4, but I was on a roll, so I fine tuned location services for apps, as well as System Services which now only have “Cell Network Search” and “Compass Calibration” enabled.

I also did some tests on iMessage and found that it used 2KB to send my test message “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”, while Whatsapp used only 1KB. It seems iMessage uses twice as much data as the new “messaging titan”. In the end I disabled iMessage altogether by going into Settings > Messages > iMessage.

In my experience, it seems that you’d need at least a 2GB data bundle to fully enjoy all the benefits of iOS 5’s new iCloud, iMessage and Location Services. Maybe I’m completely wrong, and there’s some kind of settings sweet spot I’ve yet to discover, but things got pretty wild for a moment there.

Sans iCloud, things are now seemingly back to normal, even my phone’s battery life has improved, and yet, I find myself dreaming about upgrading to a new data package; or moving to another country.

Author | Martin Carstens

Martin Carstens
Obsessed with technology and the future, I write words for machines and people. Born in South Africa, now living in the United States. More
  • I’ve seen a lot of complaints around this, but on my end everything seems fine. I’ve got iCloud syncing across my Macbook, iMac and iPhone 4, with all services turned on, push notifications on about 20 apps and i”m probably what you’d call a power user. Aside from that I’ve also jailbroken my iPhone and have various iOS tweaks running that eat data, but I haven’t seen my phone bill make any significant jumps. What I do have to admit is that the moment I arrive home the phone uses my Wifi and the same applies at work. I think in a way this is how the iPhone is designed to work, it’s a data hog that is supposed to eat your wifi and use your 3G on the road

  • Rowan Puttergill

    Indeed. And its getting worse. With Siri sending a voice recording for every command you utter out onto the Internet, you can watch your data usage rocket upward. The ‘cloud’ is hungry for your bandwidth, and mobile networks are notoriously expensive providers. Pretty much any smartphone is ultimately going to be a data vampire.

  • Awesome comment Jakes, thanks. As you rightly say, WiFi has a lot to do with regulating data usage, and I feel it’s almost etiquette to hook up to WiFi whenever you can. You can see Republic Wireless pushing for exactly that. Unfortunately I don’t have WiFi at work, and I’m locked down to capped LAN data usage in a big corporate.

  • You’re so right Rowan. I feel like we can live in the future, today, if the cellular providers were evolving as rapidly as consumer electronics, but it’s a lovely dream.

  • Are you using the iCloud backup option, or just the regular sync services?

  • Rich

    Your logic is flawed when it comes to evaluating data usage for the likes of iMessage. iMessage like email and any instant messager apps uses data even if you don’t send or receive messages. I needs to establish connections and poll the server to check if there are any messages for you. So even if one doesn’t send or receive an iMessage or eMail data is consumed for those services. 

    On the subject of background (or silent) data usage you don’t make mention of notifications which also keep polling the app server. From what I’ve seen in some cases an app downloads data twice, once for the notification and another time by the app itself. An example of this is Twitter. If your phone is locked, the Twitter service keeps getting polled for any new mentions or DMs, when a notification appears, you’ll open that notification and get presented with the Twitter app which then downloads that mention or DM again.

    Luckily one can disable many services to minimise data usage as you said you’ve also done. This at least allows more control than Android which has many apps which run in the background sucking data without the user knowing – Android is slightly better with Ice Cream Sandwich. 

    Generally though as more and more phone functions requested by users run in the background most of which rely on data, the more we’ll have to deal with data hogging.

  • Hey Rich, thank you for taking the time to comment.

    What I did was reset my data usage counters, send a message, and check my usage immediately. For iMessage it was 2KB for the first message. For Whatsapp it was 1KB. You’re right, there’s of course a lot of server communication that occurs between the actual messages we senf, but I didn’t factor that in. I believe iMessage is more data intensive in that aspect as well, though. It was just a simple, concrete test, I could do with tangible results.

    I have to disagree with you on on notifications as it was present in iOS 4 as well, just not in the elegant pull down incarnation that it is now in iOS 5. So the data usage between OS versions should be the same for me (and I believe it is mostly), though they absolutely contribute to data usage.

    On Twitter, I use Tweetbot, and I don’t get sent push notifications. I’ve tried, but my version can’t for some reason. I receive notifications by e-mail, which does support push (I did an Exchange setup for Gmail).

    It’s a bummer because ideally, I’d like to do what I want, when I want, as much as I want without worrying about battery life and data charges.

    I used about 10 to 15MB a day on iOS 4, and post iOS 5 tweaks later, I’m more or less back on track.

    Here’s to a future of unlimited everything and Cold Fusion — or something.


  • Hey Stuart! I’m not using that option. What’s your experience been like?

  • Mariette Hurter

    Incredible! I have a 2GB bundle, upgraded this month, and got a call from my service provider. R5500!

  • Just got my bill from Vodacom, looking about normal, I’m using an iPad and an iPhone, I have very few iCloud sync services turned on, basically enough to allow me to iMessage and sync Todo list app… Everything else comes through Google’s exchange stuff..

  • Just got my bill from Vodacom, looking about normal, I’m using an iPad and an iPhone, I have very few iCloud sync services turned on, basically enough to allow me to iMessage and sync Todo list app… Everything else comes through Google’s exchange stuff..

  • JJ Retief

    Probably way too late to post this,but…

    According to me, you might as well leave iMessage on.  If you get sms’ed by another iphone user, it is automatically an iMessage.  One sms reply to another iphone user saves you the 80c sms charge (if you have no bundle or your bundle is empty).  That accounts for a few 2KB mesages.  Even if you have a bundle, it does not deplete the total amount of sms’s available.

    Just my two cents. :)

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