It just doesn’t seem to make any sense—your Android OS can function just fine without any mobile data—or Wi-Fi, for that matter. So why, when you go to examine what’s consuming data, would you find that it’s the operating system near the top of the list? It could be that there’s something wrong with the OS itself, but it might also be that which is perfectly normal. It helps to know how the Android OS works, before you make that call.
We’ll discuss why the OS uses data, and what could be considered unusual usage. Finally, we’ll talk about how consumption can be reduced, in case you don’t have an unlimited amount of data to plow through. It seems easy to understand and control individual apps, but not something as vast as the operating system. Operating systems do have a big job to do, but some of their functions can be broken down into parts that we can try to control.
How Android OS Works
Android is based on an older desktop operating system called Linux at its core, but its upper layers function very differently than Linux. Its bottom layer—inaccessible to apps directly—is responsible for memory, drivers, networking, and process management. Atop the Linux kernel are device libraries and Android Runtime. This is where we begin to see that applications and the operating system don’t exist in isolation to each other; they are interact constantly, but indirectly. Therefore, apps should have their own individual reporting in the Data Usage screen.
Android developers write their applications in the Java programming language. Despite the fact that these device libraries are written C/C++, they can be called upon using Java to communicate with the kernel. This level helps act as a liaison and to handle user input, application activities, hardware, and application resources. Android Runtime uses Java to compile applications, and contains the core Java libraries.
The next layer moving upward is the Application Framework, which is partially supplied by Google, but also utilizes services that app developers code. Java is typically viewed as the most practical language to use here and in the layer above. And finally, at the top is the Applications layer, which houses not only built-in applications, but also code from the third-party apps you download.
Your operating system is also responsible for checking for and coordinating updates, syncing, and backups. One thing about Android OS that makes it quite attractive to developers is that built-in Google apps don’t receive any special treatment when it comes to the API. They have to go through the same public API that all the other apps use. Additionally, Android OS’s open nature also paves the way for various manufacturers to alter it as they see fit on the devices they make to sell. This amounts to a lot of hands in the OS pot, so it might be true that the stats given aren’t necessarily exclusively those updates, syncing, backups, and Google apps.
Why the OS is Using Data
So the operating system handles a lot—you probably already knew that. But data usage is broken down by individual app, so each app’s usage should be reflected under that app. This is usually true, but it is a complicated system, as you can tell. The operating system and the applications don’t exist in a vacuum, and some apps constantly make calls on the OS. If you aren’t sure, try running the phone in Safe Mode for a while to see if it shows the OS consuming data at the same or similar rate.
Some functions that the operating system itself are responsible for, such as backups, also can be very demanding in terms of data usage. If the system is continuously trying to send your data to Google’s servers, it’s going to eat up some mobile data. The system is also constantly keeping an eye out for updates. Proprietary apps, such as Google Play and Google Services, are disproportionately reflected in the operating system stats compared to other apps.
In the past, some services—like the Improve Harmful App Detection feature in Google Settings Security—have inadvertently used far more data than what is expected or even seems reasonable. The process of syncing can also be a data hog. When it comes to third-party apps contributing to this issue, many have found Facebook to be a common culprit. Using an app like Lite Messenger for Facebook can help reduce some of the data usage, as well as cut down on battery and memory consumption.
Download: Lite Messenger for Facebook
Unusual OS Data Usage
So what’s considered normal OS data usage versus abnormal? If your Android is going through 2GB of data in a day, does it mean that you have a bug? It really depends on your behavior. If you are streaming a lot of Google Play or Netflix, odds are that the high data usage is at least partially related to the streaming. However, if you aren’t using your phone much at all, and you still have a huge amount of data use being attributed to the OS, it could be an issue with the software. Be sure to run any updates available for your system and apps.
It’s also possible that the Android OS may be getting framed for an individual app’s data. Android OS can sometimes end up being a sort of catch-all for other apps’ data. Try restarting your Android in Safe Mode, which disables third-party apps, and see if the high data usage remains a problem. If you see a significant decrease, it does indicate that a third-party app (or two) is causing the problem.
Even a small data leak can add up over time. It helps to know what types of apps, features, and behavior require a large amount of data so that you know what to avoid. Tethering can use a massive amount of data. Streaming apps like Netflix and YouTube still continue to gain in popularity, but can make your data skyrocket. Read on for more advice in this area.
How to Reduce Data Usage
When and where possible, use Wi-Fi. Turn off your Mobile Data altogether when you aren’t using it. Be cautious and wary of any apps you install. If an app seems like it might be sleazy, do some research before you download. Some apps not only consume your data, but also drain your battery like crazy.
Many carriers provide apps or widgets to help you track your data usage. Some third-party apps, like My Data Manager – Data Usage below, have options to track data usage by carrier plan as well. Also, the built-in Data Usage screen has several options to manage your data. Un-checking the Data Roaming option will limit the device to non-roaming networks. Restricting Background Data will help prevent apps and the system from using data when you are unaware. Apps using data in the background can be a huge contributor to high data use.
Download: My Data Manager – Data Usage
The Data Usage screen is also where you can monitor your usage, although you might find it helpful to specify your data plan’s billing cycle so that previous months don’t skew the results. If you have several devices on a single plan, your provider’s app is a better option. If you opt to disable the Auto-Sync option through the Data Usage screen, keep in mind that you will have to manually sync each of your apps as necessary. You can also check the Limit Mobile Data to set the red bar at the limit you desire, and the device will stop using the mobile data network when it reaches that point. For a warning, check the Alert me about data usage option and set the orange bar.
Another great way to reduce your mobile data is to download a firewall, which can help you manage apps’ Internet connections and data packets. Many of these firewall apps, like AFWall+, do require your phone to be rooted, but the Mobiwol link below doesn’t. If you still can’t figure out what’s using your data or how to stop it, a factory reset may be necessary. It’s important to note that a factory reset will wipe your Android back to its original state, so backup anything you want to keep.
Download: AFWall+ (Android Firewall +)
Download: Mobiwol: NoRoot Firewall
Updates can help fix bugs, so don’t neglect to update your apps. Remember to update them on Wi-Fi though! It’s also helpful to note that background data can be restricted on an individual app basis, so if you know that the problem is Google Play and Google Services. You can also use data compression on many web browsers.
What has helped you reduce your OS and overall data usage? Send us your thoughts.