Rhodri Marsden: Don’t be this year’s data-roaming mug

Cyberclinic

There's a disconcertingly familiar news story that tends to crop up every summer, featuring an unsuspecting holidaymaker who makes an inadvisable decision to watch a stack of YouTube videos on their mobile phone while, say, backpacking around Machu Picchu.

Two weeks later they wake up to a crippling monthly bill in excess of £2,000 and proceed to give a forlorn interview warning others of the dangers of data roaming, while pondering how much it actually cost their mobile network to push this supposed £2,000-worth of data through the air.

Do we take much notice of these distressed people? Not really. Such cases still occur with depressing regularity and our current enthusiasm for messing about on our smartphones in idle moments is, if anything, making another summer of gargantuan bills more likely. Every time we fire up our email, Google Maps, Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare or any number of other online services, we use precious bytes. At home, of course, we don't really need to worry about this. Even data-hogs like myself seem to come in well under our monthly limits (which are supposedly "unlimited", but hey, that's another story).

But dare to leave the country and the Oranges and Vodafones of this world begin to rub their hands with glee. A recent survey by Ofcom-approved service Billmonitor revealed that we spend £1.36bn a year on roaming charges – getting on for twice the amount on calling and texting premium rate services.

And while EU rules are in force to prevent colossal bills when holidaying in Europe (most networks simply cut our data facility off as soon as we spend around €50) no such safety net exists if we're moving between continents. T-Mobile customers, for example, will pay £7.50 per megabyte for any data they use while in the USA.

Maybe they'd be tempted to click on a link in an email to hear a song. After all, that's second nature to many of us these days. But if they do, that'll set them back £40. Ouch.

Traditionally, we've only had one weapon against this cosy arrangement between the mobile networks: finding the "mobile data" setting on our phones and turning it off.

But a new app launched last week called Onavo, which compresses email and web data to a fraction of its original size, giving you more bang for your buck. It's far from being a new idea; back in the days of wheezing 33.6k modems, similar services would filter all the data you received, compressing information and degrading picture quality to supposedly speed up your browsing to "broadband" levels. The mobile browser OperaMini works on a similar principle. But Onavo (currently free for iPhone and coming soon for iPad and Android) repositions that idea as a cash saver for jetsetting smartphone owners. It can compress emails by 80 per cent (and your data bill by a similar amount if you only use it for email.) It doesn't squash video traffic, however, or VoIP (like Skype), and there may well be questions to ask about the wisdom of allowing your browsing data to be collected and monitored by a third party we don't know much about. But while we continue the eternal wait for networks to stop being so mercenary, it's a handy app that will, with luck, cut the number of doleful interviews with people holding up their phone bill to the camera.

***

Just when you think that the Mac versus PC debate has finally run out of steam; that advocates of both platforms are now so bored with repeating themselves that they've taken voluntary retirement, someone manages to relight the fire.

The website hunch.com mined data from 700,000 users, and came up with some magnificently sweeping generalisations that succeeded in being both statistically dubious and highly inflammatory. Mac users tend, we're told, to be liberal city types who feel at home with technology, while PC users are more likely to sit unhappily in rural areas, consumed with loathing for their machines. While PC users love Pepsi, Mac users apparently prefer a San Pellegrino Limonata. Wonderfully, hunch.com managed to unite everyone against the study, with one glorious commenter saying: "100 per cent of people who judge others according to their preferred computing platform are douchebags."

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