Before we went cruising, we took unlimited internet access for granted. Traveling full time means relying on pre-paid plans for internet, which is almost always metered data, and that data can be really expensive sometimes. [above: Jamie gives lessons on a new computer to islanders in Papua New Guinea. Computers and the internet are part of life, even in the disconnected Hermit islands]
It’s been a somewhat painful stretch in Seychelles as we’ve spent a multiple of our usual monthly expenditure for typical activity online. Hearing the frustrations of a my friend Melissa (check out her blog: Little Cunning Plan!), who was dinged with the painful cost of international access when she and Mike sailed their beautiful Olympic 47 ketch, Galapagos north of the border to cruise in Canada recently, pushed me to organize a few notes on how we deal with reducing data to keep expenses down.
Jamie would say that he knows a great way to keep internet costs down: don’t use it! (HAHAHA! The sound of my maniac cackling in response). Since that’s not going to happen, the tips below that we use may benefit others too. The context is for limiting data with typical land-based service, although some tricks apply for at-sea access.
To use less data browsing from a computer:
Your choice of browser and the settings in in your browser affect data use. For the biggest impact, turn off images- a lot of the data burden comes from graphics loaded with pages. Chrome, Firefox, and IE all have settings/options/preferences to stop this extra load; I use Chrome, and it’s a quick settings > advanced > turn off images. You can also turn off Java script, which runs in the background to push updates to you- like new notifications on Facebook. I don’t think this is a big data suck, so I don’t worry about it.
Use a browser with offer data compression, like Opera (or with an option in Chrome Beta). Opera settings give you a range to adjust how much you want your normal browsing experience to be affected in exchange for data savings. Cruiser tip from Utopia: reserve a different browser for low-data use only. Andrew has one tuned for minimizing data to use with his sat phone at sea, and another for land-based internet, so he doesn’t have to switch settings back and forth.
To reduce data consumed by email:
For everyday mail, we use Outlook. Any mail over 50k is held at the server until we request it (or delete it), which is usually good for a chunk of data saved on content we didn’t want anyway.
At sea, we get email via SSB radio with Pactor modem to our Winlink address and to Iridium address over the Iridium GO! Because the Airmail client for our Winlink email can also use “normal” internet access, the features that make Winlink useful for minimizing data at sea are also helpful on land – but they’re restricted to our Winlink address, and that’s not one we want to use broadly. Iridium’s email doesn’t play at all with “normal” internet currently, but a web client is supposed to be in the works.
Cruisers who REALLY need to minimize data (say, those relying on sat phone minutes for connections) do well with a paid compression service like UUplus (the crew of Denali Rose are big fans). Mailasail offers similar compression, as well as services to tune your PC to be a bandwidth miser.
Today, we make sure that any updates to our computer are selected manually. Russ Altendorf (who has a very readable cruising blog and also a marine tech site) highly recommends WinPatrol Plus to keep auto updates from Windows based programs in control, and is a big fan of mailasail. If you go back and forth from metered and non-metered connections and don’t want your computer locked down like we do, Windows 8 users can right-click on the network connection and select ‘set as metered connection’ – that will help turn off automatic backups and cloud syncing (thanks to Carolyn from The Boat Galley for the great tip!). Some apps still sneak data through, though, so if in doubt- just make sure ALL push notifications are off.
Unfortunately, there’s trouble coming for control over auto updates. Windows users are being heavily encouraged (strongarmed?) to install Windows 10. We’ve already heard cruisers grumbling about the forced “update” back to desktop Skype as Windows 8 and associated apps get mothballed had a distasteful preview of the obligatory ‘upgrade’. The big, fat problem is that Windows 10 will force users to install system updates. [UPDATE, Dec. 2015: we did finally take the plunge and used the very helpful guidance on groovypost.com to manage data use and avoid unwanted downloads. I’m still going to leave in my rant below, because seriously Microsoft, that sucked.]
That’s a HUGE issue for anyone on costly metered data- thanks bunches, Microsoft! To put a number on this, we recently went about three weeks between doing updates for our Windows 8 laptop. In the interim, 330 megabytes worth of “important” updates had accrued. It’s like having Microsoft force us to pay for continued use. Ugh.
Worse, we find ourselves in places where we can’t get a connection that could even handle a download that size – it would gum everything up. I think they’ll have to back down from this- it just screams downstream headaches- but for now, all we can do is avoid migrating.
To use less data on a mobile device:
As above, choose a data-stingy browser. I cut back on the amount of data consumed while browsing the internet from our iPad used by using the mobile version of Opera, OperaMini (there’s an Android app too).
The key is to eliminate as many background processes (which may be pulling internet data) as possible. iPad / iPhone users… Apple likes to think they know better and many apps access the internet, when it’s available, in their default settings. Some apps can even use data when they’re not even running in the background, which I think is an evil trick!
If you use an iPad or iPhone, make sure that 1) all apps that might use data are closed (e.g., not running in the background) and 2) get all notifications turned off. The simplest way to do this is Settings > Do Not Disturb, which I believe disables any active notification settings. But you might want to be selective, which you can’t with Do Not Disturb.
Here are a few places to check:
- Settings > Notifications: this has a list of all apps that want to send push notifications; turn them off.
- Settings > Mail, Contacts: these default to push notifications… but (sneaky!) aren’t in the general notifications list.
- Settings > iTunes and App Store: make sure you don’t have any apps set for automatic downloads.
- Settings > iCloud: make sure any apps that want to sync with cloud storage are disabled! Ditto for any sync apps you might have, like photos or Dropbox.
Android users… this is not nearly as much of a problem for you, but you still have to take a few steps to avoid surprises.
- Choose when and how you update apps: Google Play store > Menu > Settings
- Avoid sync surprises: look at Settings > Accounts > Google and de-select any apps you don’t want to sync.
- Wonder what’s actually using enough data to care about? You can check at Settings > Data Usage (later versions of Android only!) to see statistics by app…then,
- Update settings for any apps that sync to the cloud (photos? Dropbox?) so that they’re manual instead of automatic.
Basically…if you are used to unlimited data or love streaming media… brace yourself! We have yet to find ourselves in a country with affordable access to stream big data; these tactics are what we use to help keep data use in control. Did I miss anything you find essential? Let me know in comments here / Facebook, and I’ll put any additions to this post with a link out to say gracias.
You don’t have to be a techie to know we appreciate it when you read this on Sailfeed.