With their mahoosive screens and Web-sucking apps, smart phones such as the iPhone and the HTC Hero have taken mobile browsing to the people. But not every network offers unlimited mobile data, and going over your limit can be expensive. So how much data do you really need?
First, let's look at what you get. Most networks have jumped on the 'unlimited' bandwagon, ditching various data bundles for a simple model where your contract either includes Internet, or doesn't.
But those 'unlimited' scare-quotes are there for a reason. They all have a fair-use policy that gives them an out should you turn out to be the most prolific surfer that ever lived. Once you hit that limit, you'll start receiving texts, calls or letters telling you to ease off. If you don't, you'll be looking at a charge, or your data connection being throttled like Bart Simpson.
Here's a breakdown of what the networks offer. We'll rank them in order of awesomeness, most bodacious first. Keep in mind that we're not comparing bundles of minutes and texts here, which vary between contracts, just the allowance for getting your YouTube on. And this doesn't include browsing when you're abroad, which is insanely expensive and should only be done on your work phone.
Virgin's unlimited Internet has a fair-use limit of 3GB, the highest we found. That bumps it straight to the top of the wicked pile, although its out-of-bundle rates are rather steep.
If data isn't included in your contract, surfing on your phone will cost you 30p per day, but only on the days you access the Internet from your phone. There's even a fair-use policy on that, of 25MB per day. Above this limit, data is charged at £2 per MB.
We were thrilled when O2 scrapped its fair-use policy for the iPhone, but there's still a limit to what you can get away with. O2 is cagey about the fair-use limit on its unlimited Internet pckage, with fair use undefined in its terms & conditions, but we'll find out and update this story when we have the skinny.
If you're not on a contract that includes data, you're looking at 98p max per day for surfing.
T-Mobile's data bundle has a 1GB fair-use policy. Without it, it'll be £1 per day max for getting online.
3's fair-use limit is also 1GB, but it charges 30p per MB once you ignore three text-messaged warnings, with no daily max charge.
Orange loses awesomeness points for declining the unlimited option and instead offering just 500MB of mobile Internet browsing. If you don't have a data bundle, or you go over your 500MB, there's a relatively high charge of £1.47 max for a day of browsing.
So that's what you get, but what do you actually need? Comparing contracts is harder than taking the Mensa test, which is why we love sites such as BillMonitor that use maths and lasers and stuff to sort it out for us. But if you do compare, it can be easy to get caught up in the numbers -- do I need 1,000 texts a month, or only 750? The fact is, most of us never come close to our limits, although there are some notable exceptions.
In a straw poll of the Crave superfriends with smart phones, our use ranged from 20MB a month for someone who just uses their iPhone 2G to tweet at parties, to 300MB a month for a video-podcast downloading maniac. The rest were in the middle, coming in at 100MB and 220MB per month.
None of us came close to pushing 1GB -- which is no surprise, since networks tend to ban bandwidth-chomping features such as VoIP and streaming. Also, since we rock the Wi-Fi at Crave Towers, and at home, our big downloads often happen off the 3G mobile network.
So, assuming you're a data-happy surfer, but you're not running a MiFi mobile hotspot or an eBay empire off your SIM card, you probably won't have any problem with your limit, even on the paltry 500MB Orange plan. But for passionate downloaders who don't have easy access to Wi-Fi, it would be a smart move to go with one of the other operators, who offer at least 1GB and will warn you before they start charging you extra.
Update: Poor, neglected Vodafone -- its fair use
limit is 500MB. If you don't have Internet included in your plan,
you're looking at a max of 50p a day to access the Web, with a fair-use
limit of 25MB. That would put it just above Orange in our awesomeness rankings.
Update 2: We spoke to T-Mobile and it confirmed that it offers a Web-glutton plan called 'Internet Plus Booster' that ups the fair-use limit to 3GB per month. If you go over that limit, it won't charge you any more, but it will restrict your surfing -- or ask you to switch to the bigger package, if you're on the standard 'Internet Booster' deal. T-Mobile's Android phones, the G1 and the G2 Touch (aka the Hero) are sold on contracts that include the 3GB Internet Plus Booster.