12 ways to reduce data use on your Mac

If you are working remotely and reaching a data cap or in the field using your phone as a hotspot, you may want to cut data use on your Mac. Here are some ideas on how to do so.

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Remote workers using Macs on high-cost capped data plans or in the field using a smartphone to get online may need to reduce the data they use. Here are some ideas to help you achieve that.  

Disable automatic macOS updates

For the purposes of this piece, I’ll assume you’ve already updated your Mac to the latest version of macOS. That’s the right thing to do, but it can devour your remaining data, which is why your should disable automatic macOS updates. Your Mac will automatically download and install macOS updates. That’s good most of the time, but as you come to the end of your monthly data allowance or when using a Mac to work from the middle of nowhere, it’s a potential no-no. This is how to disable automatic downloads on your Mac:

  • Open System Preferences>Software Updates
  • Choose Advanced and uncheck Download new updates when available.
  • Click on OK.

What this means is that you’ll need to manually download and install Mac software updates when they are made available using System Preferences>Software Update, which gives you the chance to do it at a time more convenient to you.

Disable automatic app updates

Apps you download via the App Store do get updated and by default will be updated automatically. You can put a stop to this.

  • Open the App Store on your Mac
  • Open App Store Preferences (Command-,) in the app menu.
  • Uncheck Automatic Updates.
  • If you think you may be exploring the App Store while dealing with constrained bandwidth, you may also want to disable Video Autoplay.

Open Activity Monitor and Force Quit apps

Tap Command-Space and search for "Activity Monitor," or find the application tucked away inside Utilities in your Applications folder. When Activity Monitor opens, go to the Network tab and quickly scan the list of apps in the Process Name list. If you see any application names you recognize that you know you have already quit, select the app name and then tap the X button up top, to the left of the circled i. This will quit that process.

It’s quite possible you’ll see no recognized application name that you are not actively using, but at times you might find an app you have quit that continues working in a suspended state in the background. Don’t spend too much time on this; just review the software that is consuming large amounts of data.

You should also be certain to quit any applications you are not using, as many of these now send and receive small quantities of data during use.

NB: Activity Monitor is also a useful tool to monitor Network usage across all the Applications on your Mac. Just click on Sent and/or Rcvd Bytes to identify which applications are devouring data.

Check for Mail manually

At home, I like to check for Mail automatically, but not when I’m working to conserve bandwidth.

  • Open Mail>Preferences (Command-,) and open the General pane.
  • Now set the "Check for new messages" drop down menu to Manually.

While you will still use bandwidth when you do check for Mail, you will at least be in control of when you need to use that data. In extremis, it makes sense to use Web-based mail systems via your browser, leaving your Mail application switched off. Webmail still uses some bandwidth, but doesn’t helpfully download document attachments until told to do so.

Take control of iCloud

iCloud sync is one of the big selling points across the Apple ecosystem. It’s what makes sure all your data remains available across all your devices. I think it’s great, but when you want to save a little bandwidth, you can turn this off for the most data-hungry functions. (If you use iCloud Drive for work, you may want to keep this on. But you must consider the data created and up-/down-loaded for anything you create on your Mac.)

Open System Preferences and select Apple ID. Select iCloud and go through the list of apps that use iCloud. You should uncheck sync for the most data hungry apps. I tend to maintain Contacts, Calendars, and Reminders as a minimum as the functionality can exceed the small cost of data.

Reduce video quality

If using your Mac for business, the advice may be water off a duck’s back, but you will reduce bandwidth by avoiding video streaming. That means turning off auto-play in the apps you are using (how to do this varies by app). It also means reducing video quality where you can.

In Music open Preferences>Playback and set Video Playback Quality to Good (smallest files).

Disable Notifications

Notifications use data, too. Disable these in System Preferences>and set Show Previews to Never. You should also Option-click the clock in your Mac’s Menu bar to put your computer into Do Not Disturb mode. It’s not a huge data-slimmer, but may help.

Disable Siri

Those Siri requests usually require data that's uploaded and downloaded between your Mac and Apple’s Siri servers. If you want to reduce data use, you’ll want to disable Ask Siri, no matter which fantastic voice you’ve chosen. Open System Preferences>Siri and uncheck "Enable Ask Siri" under the Siri icon there.

Stop your Mac sending data home

Apple collects Diagnostics & Usage data from Macs. Apple, which recently delayed launch of its controversial CSAM protection measures, says this is perfectly safe. It also says the collection of this data is designed to help developers and Apple itself build better apps. However, the process uses bandwidth, so you may want to stop it.

  • Open System Preferences;
  • Tap the Privacy pane;
  • In the Diagnostics & Usage section uncheck Send diagnostic & usage data to Apple and also uncheck Share crash data with app developers.

Scan for malware

If you are unlucky enough to have caught one of the Mac’s ever-growing army of malware infections, you may find that the amount of data you are using seems to be spiking, despite what you do to control it. That’s why you should run a malware removal tool to detect and destroy these things. Malwarebytes, Sophos Home, and Avast Security all offer free versions of their tools which should help keep your Mac in good shape.

Avoid social media (particularly Facebook)

Social media apps love to grab data about you which they then magically transform into dollars. Facebook seems particularly keen to do this. If you must check your social media, do so. But don’t forget to quit the webpage once you’re done. Better yet, restart your browser to protect against any social media related "background processes" that may "enhance" your experience.

Advanced tip: Use Content Caching

If you have multiple devices on your bandwidth-constrained network, you may want to try using Content Caching. This reduces bandwidth use by storing software updates, apps, and other content on your Mac that can then be accessed by other Macs (and sometimes iOS devices) on the same wired or Wi-Fi network. (That Mac software update may only need to be downloaded once to share across all your families machines.) As you may expect, you’ll find this feature in System Preferences:

  • Open Sharing;
  • Check Content Caching from the list of services;
  • You’ll need to restart all your devices.

You’ll also be able to monitor how much cached content local networked devices have uploaded and downloaded over time in Activity Monitor.

Once your bandwidth recovers, don't forget to switch all these features back on again to regain the full functionality of your computer.

Do you have additional tips to help prune data use on a Mac? Please let me know via one of the social media feeds below.

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Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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