How to use as little cellular data as possible when tethering to your cellphone

Quick summary: Install the Opera browser and the TripMode applet. In Opera, enable ad-blocking and data compression, and disable images.

Note: I am a Mac user, but both Opera and TripMode are also available for Windows.

As someone who spends a lot of time working in coffee shops (mostly writing and editing), I prefer to spend as little time as I can worrying about my data connection. Occasionally, one happens on a decent open wifi connection, but all too often, coffee shop wifi is insecure (never do your banking over public wifi), slow, and unreliable, and demands signing up for services that spam you in exchange for just a few minutes or megabytes of access.

But the alternative — using cellular data — often seems too expensive. Or is it? I’ve recently found a combination of software and configuration options that allows me to radically reduce my cellular data usage, which means I can tether more often without anxiety. Hopefully, this configuration will work for you too.

Dangers of tethering

The problem with tethering is that unless you’re very careful and well-versed in the ways of your operating system, all kinds of things can happen in the background to trash your data balance without you even realising it’s happening. Your Mac, if it’s like mine, will try to download App Store and Google software updates, synchronise Contacts (small problem) and Photos (big problem): all without ever asking you. Some apps download huge updates the moment you launch them. Skype lurks in the background helping along other people’s calls without you knowing (that’s just how Skype does its thing).

Then there are the hazards of using a so-called modern web browser when it’s on default settings: web pages are now festooned with flash ads, embedded videos that infuriatingly auto-start, huge images… A single web page can now blow a substantial portion of your data cap. And as data speeds get faster, you can also blow your bundle or cap ever faster.

Configuring your Mac for the lowest possible cellular data use

So here are the steps I took to get my tethering data usage under control. I hope they work for you too.

  1. Install the Opera browser, and configure it as follows:
    • Opera comes with built-in ad-blocking and data compression options, so open your preferences and enable them(read about Opera Turbo). It’s also extremely light on energy consumption, with Battery Saver enabled, so will help you get the most out of your notebook’s battery. Opera is now based on the same software core as Google’s Chrome browser, but it’s lighter on energy use.
    • Within Opera, also disable auto-image downloading: “Preferences”: “Websites”: Select “Do not show any images”. From here onwards, you’ll only see the text of the web pages you visit, but mostly, if you’re actually working and not mucking around, this is all you need (so the bonus here is this configuration helps avoid distractions).
    • Install the ‘Images ON/OFF’ Opera add-on, so you can opt in to downloading images on a particular page if you really need them.
  2. Install TripMode. It’s an elegant little menu bar app built by some Swiss guys that activates automatically when you tether, alerts you whenever one of your apps or system services tries to phone home, and tells you how much data it’s using. You can either then let that app do its thing, or ban it permanently from connecting when you’re tethering. TripMode is well worth the $8 it will cost you. It’s not quite perfect – the developers need to do a little fine-tuning, but it’s already well the investment.

Now, by way of example, when I’m tethering, I allow only Opera, Telegram, Messages, Contacts and Calendar to connect. And Opera is set up to run very lean indeed.

I suspect this may be the leanest possible configuration that will still allow you to get stuff done, on the absolute minimum of data. My experience is that I can now spend several hours emailing, messaging, and referring to the occasional web page – and still use no more than 20 or 30 MB of data.

disableimagesinoper

Opera settings for stopping images loading

block-ads-in-opera-tripmodesettings

Blocking ads in Opera, and what TripMode looks like in operation

About David

I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.
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