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Does Apple’s Podcasts App Suck Cellular Data?

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On a trip from Seattle to Portland this weekend, I managed to consume about 150 MB of data from my AT&T cellular plan in the space of a couple of hours while driving. The only app that could possibly be consuming data was the Podcasts app, which was active and playing back podcasts that I thought were previously downloaded.


This is a maddening reminder of how hard it is to gauge the interaction of moving parts when you have third-party app providers (warned by Apple against excessive data consumption), Apple (which created the buggy and somewhat awful Podcasts app), and a cellular firm like AT&T. At least AT&T now offers a detailed accounting of data usage. (The ongoing report seems to automatically break into chunks of 20 MB or less, perhaps due to vagaries in an accounting system.)

There’s no way, of course, for me to figure out which app consumed the data, nor to be warned of excessive ongoing data consumption. Apple and carriers once set a limit of 20 MB for downloadable items like apps, music, movies, and podcasts over cellular networks. That was later raised to 50 MB per item. And Apple includes in iOS 5 switches to turn on and off certain activities over a mobile broadband network, like playing iCloud-hosted music. More such switches are coming in iOS 6.

Because the Podcasts app, unlike the Music app, doesn’t show a comprehensive list of what it’s downloading, I suspect it was polling and retrieving a number of podcasts that had been updated, even though I had launched and left the app running over Wi-Fi for a bit before I hit the road to make sure it didn’t carry out such tasks. There’s no switch to turn off cellular downloads for the Podcasts app, as it’s add-on software and not part of the basic iOS setup, like the Music app. The Podcasts app does include a switch to turn Auto-Download off or on for individual podcasts, but there’s no app-wide preference to disable this.


[Update: Hallelujah! The Podcasts 1.1 update that appeared 19 September 2012 alongside the release of iOS 6 includes a switch to limit downloads to Wi-Fi connections only. It also syncs subscriptions via iCloud, and offers pull-to-update. Too late for me. I’ve switched to another app, and will provide a review of it at a later date. —GF]

Have any of you seen the same mystery where you can pinpoint the time? AT&T used to dump its billing information nightly, leading some subscribers to wonder how they’d downloaded 100 MB at 11 p.m. With this hourly breakdown, we can refine our usage more closely, and possibly guess as to what app caused us heartbreak.

On my return trip, I killed the Podcasts app from the app tray, and used the Music app to handle listening to podcasts that were already downloaded. Data usage was minimal for that drive. The Music app no longer downloads podcasts, but you can use its interface to play them. You can also still use iTunes on the desktop to keep podcasts up to date and then use iTunes sync to copy those to iOS devices.

In iOS 6, the Music app removes podcasts altogether, which means that I have to find an alternative so that I can delete the Podcasts app permanently from my iPhone. At one point, Apple banned podcasting apps that downloaded (rather than streamed) audio recordings. That’s changed, and I haven’t surveyed the field. Which ones do you all like?

 

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Comments about Does Apple’s Podcasts App Suck Cellular Data?

Jeff Porten  2012-09-17 12:24
So you think that it's safe to keep the Podcasts app so long as it's not in the recently-run list? I'd be concerned about a background thread launching it at pseudorandom.

Also worth asking: possible that the Podcasts app sucks less under iOS 6? I presume it's still a bolt-on, but that doesn't preclude a rev.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-09-17 12:38
I'm running the now-pulled version of DataMan Pro, which breaks data usage down by time, app, and even location. The Podcasts app is the smoking gun in excessive data use, though it relies on processes with different names (Media Server, for instance).

I haven't deleted the Podcasts app yet, under the hope that Apple will make it usable, but I certainly never use it any more and instead rely on the Music app. When that is no longer possible in iOS 6, I'll have to look for some other app, like Downcast or Instacast.
JohnB (SciFiOne)   2012-09-17 13:40
Thanks. Keep us informed as you always do and include cellular iPads too since that is what I use during travel. For now I'll use my Nano instead of the iPad 3rd (no iPhone - contract to expensive).
Jerry Sarfati  2012-09-17 13:58
My wife's iPhone used 3x her monthly average with the apple podcast app installed.

After 2 months we removed the app, and added podcasts via iTunes. Now data usage is back to normal.

A coinsidence? I think not...
Ted Peters  2012-09-17 15:46
Same issue here: large, unexplained use of 3G data by my iPhone that I can only attribute to the Podcasts app. I went over my 300MB quota last month, but had never previously used as much as 200MB since the release of the very first iPhone. Apple, you owe me $30!
I've observed more or less the same issue. Podcasts that I've listened to show up as unplayed, and the Podcasts app decides to download them.

You can see currently downloading podcasts in the Downloads section of the iTunes app—at least, it works for me. But frequently, they're already downloaded before I realize this is going on.

Separate from automatic downloads, the Podcast app will also start playing the next Podcast in a list when you finish he previous one, and if it's not downloaded, it seems to stream it.

My data use has gone up since installing the Podcast app.
Eric Therrien  2012-09-17 16:32
I am experiencing issues with the Podcast app all the time. Seem like its downloading new podcast less than half the time and flagging podcast I have already listen too as not listened multiple time a day. Clicking on the download button doesn't seem to do anything most of the time. I am giving until iOS 6 to have this fix, after that, I am going to find another app.
Tepuku  2012-09-17 22:27
I have encountered this problem with both Apple's Podcasts app and Downcast. It was maddening as I'd never gone over my cap becore. I deleted both apps but reinstalled Downcast but disabled "automatically download" in Settings
Joel Hall  2012-09-17 23:08
My wife came home yesterday with a quite similar looking usage of data on her iPhone. Almost identical number of almost identical 19+++ kb data usages. Hers was over a 4 hour period, several just minutes apart. She did listen to one podcast on iCatcher, but I did not get the story if it was downloaded or streamed. But I don't think it was almost 200 MB for the one podcast.

It was strange to see this story right after looking at my ATT report for the first time after changing to a shared data plan- we generally use about 1- 1.5 GB in a month, but I wanted to track to see how we were doing and found this amazing amount of data in just half a day!
Instacast, Pocket Casts and Downcast are the three big apps I think. I've used them all and liked them all. I'm currently using Instacast after sticking with Pocket Casts for a long time. Instacast and Downcast have more options and flexibility than Pocket Casts, but if you like to keep things relatively simple then I'd definitely recommend Pocket Casts.
M. Perry  2012-09-18 09:37
You've explain one reason among many why I've already got a copy of Downcast. When they release an OS X version that lets me manage my playlists like iTunes does, I'll be shifting over from the Music app.

I don't really know why Apple created the Podcast app. There are third-party apps that work so much better.
David Anderson  2012-09-19 09:51
I use an app called "Casts" (or Pocket Casts by full name) - allows me to download (when on Wifi). My allowance with O2 is only 100MB a month!
Does anyone know if the third party podcasting apps play well with other apps such as those used to track running?
Michael Weinmayr  2012-09-19 12:28
Podcasts 1.1 released today, has an "Update only on WiFi" setting
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-09-19 12:56
That's an excellent update! I, however, will never become aware of it, as I plan to never install Podcasts on my iPhone again. (Never say never.)
Randolph Peters  2012-09-20 20:51
"Podcasts" is still buggy and slow. And it prevents the Music app from letting you add podcasts to playlists. This is VERY important for running, car trips, and listening in the dark.
Ashley Ward  2012-09-20 03:44
It took me a while to find the setting. Go to the iPhone home screen, choose Settings, and scroll down to find "Podcasts". It's grouped together with iTunes, iBooks etc (I looked under "P" in the third party app settings at the bottom and couldn't find it). In those settings, there is a switch for "Use Cellular Data".
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-09-23 10:25
For what it's worth, I believe Podcasts is still sucking data. I use DataMan Pro, and it identifies a number of media/store processes, along with Podcasts, as using cellular data even though I have that setting off.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-09-23 11:28
I believe that's correct.
I have Podcasts 1.1.1 on ios6 and it appears to have used 93 mb of data while playing podcasts during a trip yesterday. However I have the "auto-download": use cellular data set to "off". Apparently this setting does nothing.
John Hoffoss  2012-11-02 09:58
I've seen the same thing--the switch doesn't prevent the podcasts app from using cellular data.

Simple test: turn off wi-fi, switch cellular to off (Settings->Podcasts), go play a podcast that isn't downloaded.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-11-02 12:03
Yes, that's absolutely true. As noted in the article, that switch applies only to auto-downloading of podcasts, not playing of them - two very different actions.

Personally, I think the switch needs to apply to all cell data usage in Podcasts...
Just got hit by $15 extra charge by this stupid podcast app. There should be a class action lawsuit against apple for all these charges.
I have auto-download turned off over cellular and it still did that!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-02 11:06
I wouldn't be surprised if someone did file a class action suit on this one - it seems like there have been way too many unwarranted charges.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-02 11:40
Unless AT&T (or Apple) does the right thing and refunds charges. Hm. I should apply for that, too, since I went over this month due to Podcasts (first half of September).

Verizon isn't charging its customers for excess usage this month that took place because of an apparent iPhone 5/iOS 6 configuration bug. We haven't heard a peep yet from whether AT&T has the same issue in place. This is separate from Podcasts, but the same principle.
Colin Turtle  2012-10-02 12:48
As I right this I'm streaming a podcast over wifi and tracking the usage in DataMan. The podcast is listed as 45mb. The data usage over wifi started at 515mb (recieved) and jumped to 642mb (recieved). Keeping those numbers in mind it was around 11pm last night that I downloaded DataMan. Thankfully I was on wifi for that one.

However I have not been fortunate enough to be on wifi when this happens. Last week I tested turn by turn in maps and for ten minutes of use I used over 150mb, is that normal?

All in all I'm now on my third iPhone 5 (because of hardware faults) and from September 21st I've used a combined total of somewhere in the range of 3/4 gb of data.

I recently switch to a Verizon's family shared plan. Ported my number from an AT&T account that I had since the first generation iPhone where I averaged 1.5gb a month.

Verizon they told me to take it up with Apple and and a employee told me that Verizon use apple as "crutch" because the the buildings Are in close proximity.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-02 15:01
What buildings?
Colin Turtle  2012-10-02 17:25
In Boston the two store (Apple/Verizon) are a block apart of each other.

To add to my comment:

I'm also seeing strange activity with the Tethering information within the Cellular Usage of the Settings app.

Sometime it display a reading of relatively low data consumption and other times I won't see anything.

To this date I have not activated tethering.

As it stands right now I've switched to using 3G on the iPhone 5, Deleted the Podcast app, Restored as New (3 times) Turned off some location aware apps in the hopes that another carrier setting or General iOS patch will come out cause I'm an fresh out of ideas here.

Thoughts?

Correction regarding Tethering location:
Settings/General/Usage/Cellular
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-10-02 17:32
Did you follow the steps for fixing the iCloud/Safari bookmark sync problem? It can apparently affect people who aren't intending to sync bookmarks via iCloud (see Adam's linked article).

I'd talk to Verizon more in light of its updating carrier settings. It's very difficult to figure out how to establish responsibility. But if you're not intentionally using data and you see your phone consuming it, it hardly seems you should be paying for it.

Proving it will be a different matter. You might contact the attorney general's office in your state. In the past, AGs in various states have pursued action against cellular carriers based on terms of service. (AGs can't go after them for pricing and so forth, but can if they don't meet obligations.)
Colin Turtle  2012-10-02 17:39
Thanks Glenn. I'll look in that link.
John Hoffoss  2012-11-02 09:56
I was able to get credit for every overage charge from AT&T. Mentioning the podcasts app, explaining most of the largest data chunks were overnight, while plugged into a charger and connected to WiFi. Oh, and I got those credits before the charges even showed up--they knew this was an issue a few days in already.
I went over my limit last month and somehow downloaded 21GB, at first it was because I foolishly allowed tbe podcasts to autodownload over 3G. I've turned it off but even leaving subscriptions turned on seems to cause a leap in data usage especially once I've left the house and my iPhone 4S switches to 3G. I'm using version 1.1.1 of Podcasts. My carrier has been completely unhelpful, although they have no problem aski g for money for my overages.

I have a case open with Apple and they seem to think there's something in my backup that's causing the issue.

I've restored my phone to factory settings and used the podcasts app and it seems to behave. Its only if i use it with my restored data is it ever an issue.

Right now, i just have the podcasts app and my data restored and while on my way to work I watched my 3G data usage jump 250MB! Only think is Subscriptions is on,what is subscriptions doing????!!!

My case after last night's call with Apple had been given to engineers.