New iPhone and iPad app can save up to 85% on global roaming costs

By danwarne, June 3 2011
New iPhone and iPad app can save up to 85% on global roaming costs

Onavo, the great iPhone app that can save you hundreds of dollars in data roaming charges, is now available for iPad as well.

The app can reduce the amount of data your iPhone or iPad consumes by up to 85% for common tasks like checking email, browsing the web and reading Twitter.

Sound like hokus pokus? It did to us too, until we investigated how it works.

When you install the Onavo app, it changes the configuration of your iPhone or iPad slightly and sets it to download data through Onavo's servers.

When you request a web page, like Australian Business Traveller, for example, the iPhone or iPad connects to Onavo's servers, rather than directly to Australian Business Traveller's servers.

Onavo then downloads the web page for you, compresses it, and sends it on to your phone or iPad. Pictures get reduced slightly in quality, but mostly the savings come from simply zipping up the text and HTML code of the web page -- a process that can cut the download dramatically.

The same goes for email -- when your phone or iPad goes to connect to your email server (Gmail, for example), it instead connects to Onavo's servers, which fetch your mail, compress it, and then send it on to your phone. Formatting is also stripped off the email -- you just get a plain text version, which is fine in exchange for saving potentially hundreds of dollars in roaming charges.

In Australian Business Traveller testing, we found that Onavo saved 85% of the data used to check email, 72% of the data used for web pages and 66% of the data used in the FaceBook app. (The screenshots below are provided by Onavo, so they don't match our figures exactly.)

In terms of actual cost savings, this could equate to large amounts of money. For example, Optus (the most expensive network for casual usage of global roaming data) charges $20 per megabyte, so if your email usage was 100MB on a trip, you'd be up for a $2,000 bill. With Onavo installed, that could reduce to $300.

Because of the heavy compression Onavo performs on your internet usage, it's not without occasional problems. We initially found The Sydney Morning Herald site wouldn't load properly with Onavo turned on, with the screen covered in website code that shouldn't be visible, as shown below.

However, shortly after we reported the issue to Onavo the app's developers responded to say they'd fixed the issue with the SMH site. That's impressively quick work, so if you find a similar problem with any other sites viewed through Onavo we're optimistic that a fix will be equally fast.

Image quality is also reduced with Onavo -- though that is by design; one of the ways Onavo saves so much data is by compressing good quality images down to a much lower quality JPEG level.

However, when using the internet at $20/MB, we suspect few travellers would mind reduced quality images.

It's also a bit slower than using the internet directly on your phone, as everything you do has to be passed via Onavo's servers.

In our testing on Telstra Next G, though, it was still a tolerable speed. (This may change if Onavo's service, which is free, becomes oversubscribed -- but you can turn off Onavo at any time by pressing the "Turn savings off" button in the app.)

Onavo also won't help with all types of internet usage. Video streaming, for example, is called out as one type it can't help with, so any videos you watch will use as much data as they normally do.

One thing to be aware of is that Onavo is not compatible with Apple's Visual Voicemail feature, available through some telcos -- in Australia, Telstra and Optus. To use Onavo while you're overseas, you'll want to disable Visual Voicemail before you go.

Finally, you should be aware that there is a privacy risk with having all your internet usage piped through a third party's servers. Because they are fetching every web page for you, accessing your email and FaceBook accounts, and so on, there is a greater risk that your private information could be leaked.

We're not suggesting that Onavo's intentions are anything but honourable, but the fact that your data is passed through their servers means that you're entrusting the security of your information entirely to them.

These concerns aside, Onavo is a fantastic way to very easily cut down your global roaming fees, if you don't want to get a cheaper SIM card while you're away.

Of course, you can combine Onavo with a cheaper global roaming SIM card, too, for even cheaper internet access while away.

For example, if you used a Tru SIM while in the UK, it would normally cost you 17c per megabyte. If you saved 85% of that data consumption by using Onavo, the effective cost per megabyte would drop to just 2.5c!

With a MaxRoam SIM in Europe, data would normally cost you $1.00 per megabyte. With Onavo's savings of 85%, that drops to an effective rate of just 15c per megabyte.

You can download the Onavo app free at the iTunes App Store (US link | AU link).

Onavo says it plans to start charging for the service at some point in the future, but for now, it's free.

Tip of the hat to Australian Business Traveller reader Raaj Menon for letting us know about this great app!

Opera already does this — and it works.

"Opera Mini, with more than 50 million users worldwide, enables fast mobile Web browsing by compressing data by up to 90 percent before sending content to the device, resulting in significantly improved page loading."


24 Oct 2010

Total posts 177

Yeah, but that's only the web browser. Onavo handles much more of the data coming into your phone -- email, Google Maps, FaceBook app, various Twitter apps, etc.

Fair enough though I can't see how it could compress email unless it looks for images etc inside the mail it can compress.

I'm wary of anything that intercepts or interferes with data which might contain sensitive material. Now that I've read the whole article I see that this is something you have also commented on.

This thing seems a bit "gimmicky" to me.

Best way to cut down on roaming costs is to simply not roam :)


24 Oct 2010

Total posts 177

Agreed about your last comment! Since looking into global roaming, I've firmly concluded that it's a total rort, and well worth the effort of buying a local SIM card.

I used not to be able to do it because I had a BlackBerry, and one of the big downsides of them is you can't swap the SIM card out and keep the BlackBerry data flowing, but now I'm on an iPhone it's easy enough. (I say "enough" because I still have to travel with a SIM cutter... Apple's use of micro-SIMs really is a pain in the arse.)

But on the point you raised about compressing email -- text is extremely compressible -- just think about what happens when you ZIP a folder of text files -- it can go down from 1MB to about 50KB.

It's kinda weird that email servers don't do any compression by themselves after all these years; seems like a waste of bandwidth that email gets sent uncompressed.

I thought Onavo was gimmicky too, until I actually tried it out and saw how well it works. I'm a convert now...!

16 May 2011

Total posts 4

I prefer a personal mifi to create a wireless network using local sim data packages. This way you can still get SMS, make or take calls if required and use viber on the iPhone for free calls via wifi and not worry about chopping up sim cards etc.


24 Oct 2010

Total posts 177

Yeah, I now travel with a MiFi AND one of these SIM cards ;-) The trouble with MiFis, of course, is that they run out of batteries quicker than your phone does... so they're not a foolproof solution if you always want to have Google Maps available to you, for example.

16 May 2011

Total posts 4

Yes true though I also have a battery bank which can keep it charged as well as other devices on the move. Of course with so many devices it is not as convenient as just a phone. The best result would be for a shake up of roaming charges whereby pricing comes back down to earth or at least earths orbit.

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