Going over your monthly broadband data usage limit can be a costly lesson. If you're a heavy data user, unless you're lucky enough to be on a plan with near-unrestricted usage, you'll find yourself faced with the threat of additional expenses on top of your monthly charge.
New ways to stream content from the Internet -- from online TV like the BBC's iPlayer to gaming services such as OnLive and Steam -- mean data is an increasingly precious commodity. It will disappear faster than a leaky boat on a lake unless you regularly monitor and control it.
This guide will help you track your data usage on a month-by-month basis on computers and laptops only.
We want to get a clear picture of your desktop usage, so if you download lots using mobile devices, either refrain from doing so for a month or switch to your network's 3G connection rather than your home Wi-Fi. If you download demos, games and updates on your games console, jot down the size of the files or updates in megabytes so you can add them to the final tally.
Some ways of tracking usage incurred from all devices in the home involve flashing custom firmware on routers -- a process that can be time-consuming, complicated and risky. Instead, the following method is intended as a quick, simple and efficient means of tracking your monthly data usage.
Tracking data usage on Windows
Installing and checking basic settings:
1. To track your usage on Windows we're going to use a free program called ShaPlus Bandwidth Meter. Download it from here. It's important to remember every computer connected to the Internet in your house will deduct from your monthly data allowance, so you'll need to install the program on each machine.
2. Run the program once it's installed. You'll see this icon -- -- in the system tray at the bottom right of your screen when it's running. Right-click the icon and choose 'Enable IE Flash' and 'Show in MegaBytes (MB)'. The monitor needs to be running all of the time on any computer you want to monitor. To ensure this, right-click on the system tray icon and click Settings.
3. Make sure there's a tick in the box next to 'Run this program on Windows start up'. Go down the screen to where it says 'Month Start day' and in the box enter the day of the month that your broadband data usage resets. This varies depending on your ISP and when you signed up to your service -- give them a ring if you're unsure.
If your ISP allows you to download an unlimited amount of data during a certain period of the day, for example between midnight and 8am, then check the Enable box next to 'Don't track between these times'. If not, or if you're unsure, leave it unchecked. Click OK.
Finding the name of your network interface (Windows 7)
In Settings you'll have seen a list of network interfaces with tick boxes -- all currently checked. We need to find out exactly which interface your computer is using to connect to the Internet before we can pick the one we need.
You'll either be using a Local Area Connection (where one end of an Ethernet cable is plugged into your computer and the other end into a router), or a wireless connection (no cable from your computer to the router).
1. Click on Start and type Network into the search box under All Programs. The very top icon will say Network. Click it. Click on the words 'Network and Sharing Center'. In the left-hand panel, click 'Change adaptor settings'. Right-click on the icon for the corresponding adaptor that you're using and click Properties.
2. Make a note of the name of the adaptor that's written under 'Connect using' and click OK.
3. Right-click on the ShaPlus icon in the system tray and click Settings. Uncheck all of the boxes for the devices listed next to 'Select the Network Interfaces to monitor'. Now find the name of the interface that you noted down and check the box next to it. Click OK.
Checking your current and monthly usage
1. Double-click on the ShaPlus icon in your system tray. It has a self-explanatory interface, the only two of interest being Today (data downloaded that day), and This Month (data downloaded over the month). Click on the pin icon next to the Close button in its top-right corner to stop it from disappearing.
2. To view your monthly data usage in a grid, right-click on the ShaPlus system tray icon and click 'Monthly Totals...'. You'll then notice the following grid that you can keep checking throughout the month to see the amount of data you've used.
Checking your usage on a Mac
1. To track usage on a Mac, we're going to use the free app SurplusMeter. As the app only monitors data on that particular Mac, you'll have to install it on all of the Macs in your house that you want to monitor. Grab it from here. Note, for it to work properly, you have to copy the app itself to your applications folder before running it rather than mounting it from a volume.
2. Click on the Apple logo in your Mac's menu bar, open System Preferences, click on 'Users & Groups', click on your account and click 'Login Items'. Scroll down and check that SurplusMeterAgent is in the list and that the box to the left of it's checked. This now means you can close SurplusMeter and your data usage will still be monitored in the background.
3. Run SurplusMeter. Under 'Month starts on' enter the day that your monthly data usage is reset. Under 'Download limit' enter what your monthly data limit is. Under 'Connection type' select the option of how your computer connects to the Internet -- AirPort if you're using a wireless method or Ethernet port if a physical cable goes from your Mac to your router.
4. To view your monthly data usage, open SurplusMeter, click on Controls in the menu bar and select View Archive. After the first full month, you will start to see the recorded results of data used.
Adding up the data
It's easier (and more accurate) to use Megabytes when totting up your total amount of usage at the end of the month. If you're using ShaPlus Bandwidth Meter, find the total in 'Monthly Tools'. If you're using SurplusMeter, have a peek in 'View Archive' or next to Total in the main window.
It's also useful to write the data down in grid form like this:
|Device|| Megabyte usage|
Feed this figure into the handy Megabyte to Gigabyte converter on this page, and we're left with a total usage of 27.614GB for the month.