Register Hardware has just published a useful roundup of data charges in Europe. These are still, in my view, pretty pricey – and given that the same networks operate across the continent, it’s a bit rich to hear the customer services people offer the excuse that they have to pay extra to use a foreign network, even when it’s owned by the same people. To avoid getting stung, you need to make sure you know what you’re doing when it comes to using data on your mobile phone.
Further down this article, I’ll look at some general tips for cutting back on data usage but first, hidden away in the depths of the Orange website is an option that they introduced earlier this year but don’t seem to have made a big fuss about. Called Travel Data Daily, the option that I’d recommend for many people is Travel Data Daily Europe 50MB. That costs £8.50 per day (or £7 plus VAT if you’re a business customer) and gives you an allowance of 50 megabytes, after which you get charged the usual fees.
There’s no recurring charge; once you have this added to your account, it kicks in automatically when you use data abroad, in any period from midnight-midnight, based on local time. If you don’t use any data at all on a particular day, then you don’t pay anything.
That’s the theory at least, though I have to say when I had this added to my account, they screwed it up and I had to spend ages on the phone getting the charges adjusted. To be fair, though, I did ask for it to be added the very first day it was available, so perhaps they hadn’t quite got everything sorted out. My general rule with phone companies is to check the bill carefully, because they certainly won’t spot mistakes. And never give a phone company a Direct Debit, unless you’re a masochist or a millionaire.
Cut down on your data
Back to Travel Data Daily. It’s a pretty good deal if you’re using Orange within Europe, but you do need to bear a couple of things in mind. If you really only do use data occasionally, remember that if you were to send a single tweet, or a short email, taking up a few kilobytes, just after midnight and then not use any more data for the next 24 hours, you’d still pay the £8.50. In other words, for very small usage, it could be better to just pay per MB.
If you want to be absolutely sure you don’t just get hit with the daily charge for a few little bits of data here and there, go through the options on your phone, and any apps that you have installed. Make sure nothing’s set to connect automatically – not RSS feeds in your web browser, or weather widgets, or software update checks, or anything like that. If any of those fires up, you’ll trigger the daily data usage.
Of course, if you’re using data every day, checking emails and so on, then it probably is a good idea, and at least you’ll know what you’re spending. Don’t go overboard, and don’t believe the phone companies when they say “Oh X megabytes is equivalent to Y web pages,” because they’re woefully out of date. Access a news item on Register Hardware, for example, and your phone will download about 800k. Go to a story on the Guardian, and it’s a similar amount, or even more on some pages.
So, if you want news, I’d advise going for the full text Guardian RSS feed, so you have all the stories, and none of the pictures, or using mobile versions of web sites. If you do have to look at full sites, reckon on a megabyte per page, rather than the 200k that Orange optimistically suggests for a page with images.
Use IMAP for email
Another thing you should do, if you use your mobile phone for email, is switch to IMAP. Many people still use POP3 for their email, and it really is a bad idea, especially when it comes to mobile access.
That’s because POP3 is pretty dumb; it knows nothing of how emails are made up. With a POP 3 email program about all you can do is see the headers of a message, or get just a few lines from the top, or get the whole thing. That puts you at the mercy of how the email was composed – if someone’s sent a picture, and then a few words underneath it, then the only way a POP3 email program can show you the words is by reading the whole message to get to them. Now imagine someone’s sent you a 10Mb picture, with a few words underneath, and you’re paying three quid a megabyte for data. You’d be pretty annoyed, wouldn’t you?
IMAP is a much more clever way to access email; it can do really clever stuff, like allowing you to store mail folders on the server, and synchronising them between devices, so you can read messages on your phone or your PC, and keep everything in sync.
But in terms of roaming, the clever thing is that it understands the structure of emails. So where there’s an attachment, and text, with IMAP, your phone can just grab the text, and not have to touch the attachment at all, regardless of whether it appears before or after the text in the message.
If you’re using email on your phone via POP3, I strongly urge you to ask your email provider if they provide IMAP access and switch to that, as long as your mobile phone supports it (most do). And if you need a good email program that works on Windows or Symbian phones, I recommend ProfiMail, which handles IMAP and POP3 very well.