Welcome to Tech-Knowledgy where your tech questions are answered!
Q. What does “data” mean and why would I want to download it? I’m still using a pre-2005 mobile, so go easy on me!
A. This question was asked to me by a brilliant Wonder of Tech reader (sorry for the redundancy) on Twitter in response to my tweet of a wonderful blog post, WI-Fi, Blue Tooth, 3G/4G, GPS, NFC – What’s it All Mean?, written by the esteemed tech writer, Gary Braley. The Twitter question is particular relevant because many articles in The Wonder of Tech have referred to data (see, Mind the Cap!), 3G data, Wi-Fi, streaming data, data plans, etc.
So what does “data” mean?
I could give you the technical definition of data, but I’m thinking you want something you can relate to, so here is how I suggest you think of data.
In the tech world, people use the term “data” a lot to mean downloading data over 3G, not Wi-Fi. That’s what tech folks are talking about when they discuss data plans, data usage, etc. (Tech people really do talk about that stuff. Yeah, I know. We’re weird.) It’s not technically correct, but that’s what they mean.
When I refer to data, I’m talking about information coming to your smartphone, iPad, computer, etc. from the Internet. If you didn’t have Internet, could you access the information?
- If you can only access the information when you have an Internet connection, then you are using data.
- If you can access the information whether or not you’re connected to the Internet, you’re not using data.
Here’s an example. Let’s say you want to play a game on your smartphone (I know, you said you didn’t have a smartphone, but you probably will someday). Angry Birds? Okay.
To get the game on your phone, you have to get it from the App Store or the Android Market. You go to your App Store or Market app and buy the game.
- When you open the app, you are using data to connect to the store.
- When you buy the game you are using data to complete the transaction.
- When you download the game you are using data to get the game on your phone.
- When you play the game you are not using data.
Twitter, Facebook, iTunes, Netflix, Safari, Pandora, Google+, etc. all use data. Apps such as Angry Birds, Be Confident!, Peggle, iPod, etc. don’t use data (except when you download them to your phone or iPad).
Some apps are a combination: Audible and Kindle apps use data to download files, such as audiobooks and ebooks. But when you use the apps you to read and listen to these books, you aren’t using data. The Civil War Today! app is a combination app as well. The app uses data to download the daily Civil War newspaper, but then you don’t need access to the Internet to read the paper later.
So how can you tell if you are using data or not? Disconnect from the Internet.
- iPhone/iPad: Settings => Airplane Mode => On
- Android: Settings => Wireless & Network => Airplane mode => Select
If you can’t open the app, such as App Store or Market, then the app uses data.
Another example is when you use a computer. If you are not connected to the Internet, then you aren’t using data, so anything you can do on your computer when you don’t have an Internet connection doesn’t use data.
When you’re shopping for your first smartphone and need to consider a data plan, think about which apps you will be using and how you will be using them. A storm cloud is on the tech horizon. More information is moving to the Cloud (iCloud from Apple is coming in September) but more cell phone carriers are limiting their data plans. People who don’t Mind the Cap! might discover some nasty cell phone bills in October if they access their data over 3G instead of Wi-Fi and don’t have unlimited data plans.
So when you get a smartphone and sign up for a data plan with your cell phone carrier, err on the side of getting more data than you think you’ll need. It’s better to have leftover data each month than to exceed your data limits and repeatedly have overage charges on your cell phone bills.
Do you pay attention to the data you use? Do you consider how much data you use before you download an app? Have you ever been charged for exceeding your data limit? Let us know in the Comments section below!
* Image by Tom Woodward
** Image by Potyike