My favourite new feature of iOS 9 is Wi-Fi Assist, a smart new setting – on by default on the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system – which allows the phone to gracefully fall back to cellular data when the Wi-Fi in the area flakes out. Admittedly, the fact that it’s my favourite says as much about the nuts-and-bolts nature of iOS 9 (and my own lack of desire to bother with Siri and Spotlight), but there it is.
In my own daily use of the operating system, on both an iPhone 6 and 6S, it’s closed a number of black spots in my daily routine. As I’m leaving work, for instance, my phone stays connected to the Guardian’s wifi network until I’m about 100m down the road, but that connection’s too weak for real use almost immediately.
Previously, that meant that streaming media cut out for the couple of minutes it took me to get down the stairs, out the building and down the road, but now my 4G picks up almost immediately. A similar hole has been patched as I leave my house in the morning.
All of which is to say that, if you have an iPhone, you shouldn’t necessarily follow press reports that tell you to “change this setting to avoid massive iPhone data bills”.
The reports largely cite one negative experience with Wi-Fi Assist, that of the Gizmodo journalist Chris Mills. Mills, who has been using iOS 9 since the beta version was released a few months ago, writes:
“Since downloading the iOS 9 beta that introduced Wi-Fi Assist, I’ve used around one-third more data a month (4GB vs my regular-as-clockwork 3GB).
“It’s impossible to say if that extra usage is directly related to Wi-Fi Assist, but I have my suspicions. On the iPhone 6s that I’ve only been using for three days, my data usage is at 950MB; half of that is from Netflix, which I make certain to never use when I’m on the go. In fact, the only time I’ve used it in the past couple days was at home, using what I thought was wifi.”
Others, including a Guardian colleague, have had a similar experience, with their phones consuming more data since updating to iOS 9.
To a certain degree, this is expected: the whole point of Wi-Fi Assist is that the iPhone will start to use mobile data where it wouldn’t have done before. But if you’re sitting in your home watching Netflix, something’s probably gone wrong if your phone falls back to cellular data (although, given some of the homes I have lived in, I’d have killed for something to patch the holes in terrible wifi).
At the same time, pre-emptively turning off Wi-Fi Assist will lose you access to one of the best new features of iOS 9 – and one which is fast becoming standard on other devices. Samsung, for instance, offers users “smart network switch”, a similar feature which allows seamless playback of streaming media.
If you are on a limited data plan, those features could be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Over-use charges are never pleasant, and if you’re happy with your phone as it is and can’t afford to get more bandwidth from your provider, it may be worth turning it off – after spending a while with it on, and monitoring your mobile usage in the iPhone’s settings.
More usefully, setting data-heavy apps such as Netflix to “wifi only” (in this case, found in the iPhone’s settings app) will let you keep your usage low while still benefiting from the feature in daily life.
But if you’ve got slack in your allowances, or are on an unlimited data package from a provider such as Three (and you should be on an unlimited data package, it’s 2015), leave Wi-Fi Assist on.
Predictably, the setting has been picked up as the whipping boy of the new operating system. Give it a few more days, and we’ll be hearing about “wifiassistgate”, and people will be demanding an apology from Apple. But, as ever, there’s a certain amount of feedback in the hype cycle, leading to people who otherwise wouldn’t have had an issue blaming Wi-Fi Assist for all their problems.
One user posted on the Apple support forums asking how to turn off Wi-Fi Assist on their iPhone 4S, blaming it for making their phone be “super slow, glitchy, and losing battery fast”. A few posts later, they got their answer: Wi-Fi Assist isn’t actually on the iPhone 4S.
So before you blame the latest bugbear for your issues, give it a go. It’s not as bad as all that.
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