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Put your data-hungry gadget on a diet

Nokia Lumia 900 in Black

Nokia

A friend and I were having lunch last week. She's an Angry Birds fanatic, so I asked if she had downloaded the new Angry Birds Space.

"I will tonight," she said, "when I get home."

I wondered if my friend had been taken over by an alien life form. She's the type who's always reaching for her Android smartphone faster than Billy the Kid to get directions or look up a bit of trivia online.

I must have looked puzzled, because she added, "I've put my phone on a data diet."

"Ah," I said, getting the picture. She didn't want to download the game while on her cellular network. She was waiting until she could connect to a Wi-Fi network.

To avoid hefty cellular overage charges and data throttling, millions of smartphone and tablet users are keeping close eyes on what their gadgets are eating.

Like weight-loss diets, the key to a successful data diet is replacing bad habits with good ones, while not getting too restrictive. After all, what's the point of having a smartphone if all you do is use it like a dumb phone?

The first step involves getting a handle on how much data you actually consume. Most people don't know - or greatly underestimate - what common activities cost them in terms of data use.

What's a typical day like in the life of your 4G Android? Let's say it's sending 25 emails, visiting 25 Web pages, streaming one hour of music and 10 minutes of video. That will add up to about 3.75GB of data in a month - not good if you're on Verizon's 2GB tier or AT&T's 3GB tier. For every 1GB you go over, you're charged an extra $10.

Each of the four major wireless carriers - AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile - has a data calculator on its site that will help you determine how much data you need. Once you know that, it's time to get smarter about how you use your smartphone.

The simplest and most effective way to trim cellular data calories is to use Wi-Fi whenever possible. You can set any Android or iOS gadget to automatically connect to known Wi-Fi networks.

Try to confine all streaming and downloading to when you're on a free Wi-Fi connection. You can watch downloaded video and music while you're on the go.

Did you know that you can download portions of Google Maps and refer to them offline? Navigate to the Labs section of Google Maps on your Android phone and enable the feature called Pre-cache map area. Now you can download 10-square-mile sections of maps. In addition to being a money-saver, that can be a real time-saver if you're going somewhere unfamiliar and aren't sure if you'll even have cellular coverage.

These tips will curb the appetites of the major data hogs in your life, but you probably have a few data nibblers lurking on your phone that could deal you an unpleasant surprise.

Do you use a lot of free ad-supported apps? If so, you need to know that they're constantly connecting to the Internet to download fresh ads. It might actually save you money in the long run to instead choose the paid version of these types of apps.

Your email and social networking apps are probably also connecting to the Internet in the background so you can stay in the loop. In Settings, you can choose to turn off automatic syncing and check for updates manually. Likewise, you can stop the camera and other apps from constantly using the phone's GPS to track location.

Finally, sign up to get your carrier's overage alerts and get in the habit of checking your data usage two or three times a week. If your carrier doesn’t offer a data-monitoring app or you'd like a more full-featured third-party app, look at My Data Manager and Onavo for Android. For iPhone, consider My Data Usage Pro or Onavo's innovative data-compressing app.

With just a little proactive monitoring, it can become almost easy to keep the hungry beast under control.

Kim Komando hosts the nation's largest talk radio show about consumer electronics, computers and the Internet. Get the podcast or find the station nearest you at www.komando.com/listen. Subscribe to Kim's free e-mail newsletters at www.komando.com/newsletters. Copyright 1995-2012, WestStar TalkRadio Network. All rights reserved.