We were all given a bunch of exciting stuff to drool over following the Windows Phone 8 reveal back in October. In the avalanche of information about a fundamental change to the kernel, new hardware support, additional features and new UI enhancements, it was a given that a few things would slip through the cracks. Things like enterprise support, remote device management, Kid’s Corner … and a new utility called Data Sense.
Data Sense is a Microsoft-developed app intended to help users reduce overage charges incurred by using too much cellular data. It’s also presumably attractive to wireless carriers for its potential to reduce data traffic -and therefore capacity issues- on their networks. Carriers are actually a crucial piece of the puzzle when it comes to Data Sense: though the app will run on any Windows Phone 8 device, its inclusion is contingent on wireless operator support. That’s why the app doesn’t show up on my Nokia Lumia 920 here in the States; the AT&T-branded device is beholden to its carrier overlords, who don’t yet support the feature.
While it’s often frustrating to see carriers meddling with stock software, this is one of those cases where it’s justified: part of Data Sense’s promised utility is that it isn’t just a kilobit-counter. According to Microsoft, the app actually compresses some web content so your device consumes less data. It also offers maps of nearby WiFi hotspots (more on this later). The former is a feature that requires carrier cooperation, and the latter is one that carriers, some of whom also run WiFi networks, no doubt want a say in, so the involvement of wireless operators is less egregious here than it might otherwise be.
Fortunately, we just recently reviewed the Lumia 822, a Windows Phone 8 device custom built for Verizon Wireless by Nokia. Microsoft indicated at the WP8 announcement that Verizon would be the first American carrier to offer Data Sense to its customers, and we were delighted to confirm that when we first powered on the smartphone. Here’s a few thoughts after several days of use.
The app is included out-of-the-box on the Lumia 822 as part of Verizon’s custom software package, but unlike the rest of Big Red’s bloatware, it can’t be easily removed. Tapping and holding the Data Sense icon in the application menu only offers the ability to “pin to start,” with no uninstall option available. That may irk the most ardent fans of pure stock operating systems, but Data Sense isn’t your typical bloat; like Nokia’s custom app suite, it’s more a genuine value-add than an unwelcome intrusion. Furthermore, that live tile is actually pretty useful: it provides a running tally of your data consumption, relative to a limit you define in the app’s settings.
It’s that data limit that’s the most visible of Data Sense’s offerings. The web compression magic happens in the background, with no user-definable parameters anywhere in the software that I could find, so most of your interaction with Data Sense will be telling it what kind of alerts you need. You can set data limits on a one-time or monthly basis; selecting the former allows you to choose how many days until the limit expires, and choosing the latter prompts you to input your bill cycle date.
In either case, you can specify how many MB/GB are included in your plan, and your usage will be reflected both within the app and on its Live Tile, if you’ve chosen to activate it. As your usage approaches your defined threshold, Data Sense can be programmed to restrict background data, favoring WiFi connectivity over cellular.
Speaking of WiFi, the app has another trick up its sleeve: in the WiFi Networking section of the Lumia 822’s Settings menu, I discovered a shortcut called “find nearby WiFi – map with Data Sense.” (Don’t bother looking for it, non-Verizon Americans; it’s not on your AT&T or T-Mobile devices.) Activating this toggle brought up a Nokia map of my local area, on which was overlaid a handful of markers denoting free or open WiFi hotspots. Tapping on any one of them presented more information, like the hotspot’s SSID and options for getting directions to its location. Handy.
Lastly, the app offers a useful breakdown of data consumption divided by app, much like the native power-consumption information in Android’s stock Battery application. Called simply “usage,” this section of Data Sense shows a circular chart denoting how much data has been passed over cellular versus WiFi. Beneath that, a scrollable list calls out every single data-eating app on the device, and how many kilo/mega/gigabits it’s scarfed down, from Internet Explorer to Twitter to the simply-named “System.”
Data Sense isn’t a game-changer. There are apps that offer similar functionality on other platforms, and anyway, a bit-tracking utility isn’t going to serve as the deciding factor for someone trying to decide between a Nexus and a Lumia at a carrier store. Plus, its carrier-dependent nature means that most users won’t even see it on their phones for quite a while yet. It remains, at the moment, one of the more forgettable aspects of Windows Phone 8.
But it’s also a simple, powerful, well-thought-out addition to a platform that we’ve occasionally called out -in reviews and on the Pocketnow Weekly– as being a bit too bare-bones. Data Sense is smart, it’s customer-friendly, and it’s included out-of-the-box on at least some Windows Phone 8 devices. That might be a tiny step forward, maybe a smaller and slower move than we’d prefer to see from the platform, but like the Sticky Bandits’ Marv said, “every little bit helps.”