New iPhone app can save up to 85 percent on global roaming costs

A new iPhone app could save you hundreds of dollars in global roaming charges on your next trip.

The app, Onavo, can reduce the amount of data your iPhone 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 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 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.

The same goes for email — when your phone 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.

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.

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 problems. We 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. (UPDATE – just a couple of hours after we posted this story, the developers of Onavo tweeted to say they’ve fixed the issue with the SMH site. Impressively quick work, guys!)

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.

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.

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