How to save on data when watching YouTube videos on mobile

YouTube, that necessary evil. We watch over a billion hours of YouTube content daily, after all. It’s my drug when I am having a long day. It’s my go-to TV because I don’t usually watch TV, who’s got time for that? It’s my radio when Spotify is acting up (it’s easy to get it to behave).

Satisfying as it may be to watch crispy HD video on mobile, that comes at a cost. Like any video streaming service, launching the YouTube app and watching content while on a mobile network can be punitive if you never planned for it. So, what do you do to make sure you don’t miss out on Eric Omondi’s next impersonation of a local celebrity while at the same time not decimating your monthly data bundles in a day?

It can be tricky but it can be done. I’ve been doing it for quite some time even though I at times throw caution to the wind and just use my mobile data to watch ongoing events as it was the case recently when Google I/O 2017 got underway and I was stuck in the back seat of a cab with no hopes of ever beating the then seemingly endless evening snarl up.

1. Save video offline for viewing later

I remember back in 2013 when I attended the Google Africa Communities Summit and was blown away when we were shown the then upcoming feature, YouTube offline viewing. The feature was to be implemented in several countries Google had picked where network connectivity issues were high. As it turned out to be a few years later when the feature went live for most people in emerging markets, Kenya was one of those countries.

As such, when using the standard YouTube app to view a video, one gets to see this small button (see screenshot below) that when clicked, eligible* videos get saved to a device’s internal or external storage (one can change in the app settings). *Some videos, like music, cannot be saved offline.

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Being able to save videos and viewing them at one’s convenience later when offline is a great thing as it allows users to save as much as they can when on free Wi-Fi for watching later without incurring an extra expense. They just need to make sure they get what they need and not more since the saved videos expire after 2 days. The good news is that even after expiry, the videos are automatically saved again when one is on Wi-Fi.

2. Lower the video resolution

If you are on mobile data, more of your data bundles will be used up if you are watching HD video throughout. My workaround is usually setting 480p as the default resolution for the YouTube apps on my phones. That sounds unfair when you remember that a device like the Samsung Galaxy S8 and its inviting Infinity Display has a pixel-packed Quad HD panel on the ready but hey, I don’t want to burn 4GB data just watching a former FBI director testifying thousands of miles away in front of his country’s Senate committee.

How to do it: just click the 3 dots on the upper right side of the video, click the Quality menu and choose the desired video resolution. The lower the better.

3. Use YouTube Go

YouTube Go, which started rolling out this year and was a key highlight of Google I/O 2017 as one of the features of Android Go, is a God-send. It is an alternative YouTube application built from the ground up with only one focus: to help users save on data while still not missing out on all the fun that YouTube offers in the form of interesting shows like The Real Housewives of Kawangware, comedy from the likes of Chipukeezy, Eric Omondi, Baha etc and Ndani ndaani ndaaaani theatrics.

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YouTube Go app for Android screen grabs

YouTube Go is a simple application with a simple user interface. Unlike the many menus and tabs that one gets on the standard YouTube app, on YouTube Go there are only two tabs: Home and Downloads. The former is where all videos are listed, in no particular order, while the latter is where any downloaded videos are shown. From here, users can select any downloaded clips and share them with friends who have installed YouTube Go and are nearby, thus eliminating the need for such friends having to download/save the same videos using their critical mobile data, hence saving it.

This ability to share downloaded content with nearby friends comes at a privacy cost. Users have to provide their phone number when they launch YouTube Go for the very first time so that the app is able to provide this functionality.

When one clicks on a video, they are presented with at least two options: download or play the video in standard quality or in basic quality. Basic is borderline grainy while the standard is what will pass as something just below 480p on the standard YouTube app.

Unlike the second option that you can use to save on your data bundles, with YouTube Go, content doesn’t expire after 48 hours. It stays for a month.

The only downside to YouTube Go at the moment is that you really can’t have it without going out of your way to get it. The video is still not listed on the Play Store in Kenya and users will have to use the tried and tested APKMirror or APKPure to grab the YouTube Go application package.

Emmanuel Chenze

Let's just say I know my stuff. I have 7 years experience handling, tinkering with and then writing extensively about Android stuff. Sometimes it is exciting, sometimes it is not; things can get stale with nothing new to show but I live for each one of those moments. Have something Android-related that you believe I need to have a look at? Hit me up: echenze@androidkenya.com