Hands-On with Google Fi and iPhone

Posted on December 12, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Cloud, iOS, Mobile with 26 Comments

Last week, I wrote about my experiences using Google Fi with the OnePlus 6T. This morning, I switched the service over to an iPhone.

To be clear, this is temporary. And yes, I did finally buy an iPhone that I’ll keep. But it’s not a $1250 iPhone XS Max or an $800 iPhone XR. Instead, I spent $320 on a refurbished iPhone 7 at Amazon.com. (It was on sale and is now $344.)

I suppose that bears a bit of explanation.

With Google making Fi compatible with virtually any modern smartphone, there’s been some speculation that I might use this as an opportunity to switch back to Apple’s platform. And while I’ll admit to some temptation, the truth is that all personal computing platforms have issues, and in moving from an Android to iPhone, I would simply be swapping out Android problems for iOS/iPhone problems. I don’t personally see a huge benefit to that. Both platforms have advantages and disadvantages. And I happen to prefer Android overall.

But as I’ve written previously, I do need an iPhone for testing purposes. And having evaluated both the iPhone XS and iPhone XR, I feel that I can wait until next year’s generation, especially when this won’t be a phone I’ll be using every day. I’ve always promoted Apple’s excellent refurbished store as a way to save money on the firm’s expensive gear, and have purchased many items there myself in the past. But the 128 GB iPhone 7 I purchased from Amazon costs $469 at the refurbished store. So I saved about $125, and I can take advantage of Amazon’s liberal return policies on refurbished phones if anything goes wrong.

Anyway, with my refurbished iPhone in hand, I set out to get it up and running on Google Fi.

The first step, as with the OnePlus 6T, was to download and install the new Google Fi app for iPhone and then sign-in to it with my Google account. With that completed, I shut down the both the iPhone and the OnePlus 6T, swapped the Google Fi SIM from the 6T to the iPhone, and turned the latter handset back on.

 

After sitting on “No Service” for an uncomfortable 5-10 seconds—something I’ve experienced on subsequent reboots, too—the iPhone finally reported in its status bar that it was using “Project Fi,” the previous name of Google Fi; I assume this is related to the fact that I got my SIM well before the name change.

 

Next, I needed to make some configuration changes in Settings: As you may recall, iPhone support for Google Fi is currently in beta, and you need to change the APN and MMSC settings in Settings > Cellular > Cellular Data before text messaging with non-iMessage users (e.g. the world) will work. (Note that iMessage just works, automatically.) I did this manually, following the instructions on the Google Fi website. But if I had launched the Google Fi app up-front, I would have been stepped through this process right on the phone.

 

With that done and the phone rebooted again, I made a few tests. I texted my wife and asked her to reply. I called my wife and asked her to pick up the phone. I texted the iPhone/Google Fi from my secondary (Consumer Cellular-based) phone number and replied to that. And then I called the iPhone/Google Fi from that secondary number and left a voicemail, since that works differently on the iPhone than it does on Fi-certified and Android phones.

 

Text messaging works normally, and as expected. So did the phone calls.

 

Voice messages are interesting. When I received a voice message, there was a notification on the icons for both the Phone app and the Messages app. That’s because Google Fi isn’t compatible with visual voicemail on iPhone, as it was on the OnePlus 6T (and on the Pixel handsets I’ve used). So Google sends you a text message-based transcription of the voicemail so you can see it.

 

That’s a nice touch. But if you want to actually hear the voicemail—which is important, because Google’s voicemail transcription routinely screws up phone numbers that people leave for me—you need to call the voice mail service like it’s 2006 all over again. Sorry. (I have had to do this with Google Fi before, however, when someone leaves a phone number; I don’t think it’s ever been right.)

 

The Google Fi mobile app does a nice job of explaining what you get, and what is unique on iPhone.

 

Beyond that, it works much like it does on Android: I was asked whether I wanted to activate a new SIM or use my existing SIM (the latter), and it walked me through the iPhone-specific configuration settings. I should have just done this first.

 

I’ve not used the phone around town yet, as I literally just installed and configured the Google Fi SIM and service. But it should work much like it does on Android, with T-Mobile connectivity in the U.S., international roaming, and so on. I’ll try to use the iPhone 7 as my normal day-to-day phone through at least the weekend to be sure. But so far, so good.

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Comments (26)

26 responses to “Hands-On with Google Fi and iPhone”

  1. Scott Ross

    I am interested. My question is with the iphone its T-Mobile Only? I thought with other devices like the pixel and nexus that they bounce between sprint and t-mobile. I would be willing to try T-mobile because my experience with sprint was god awful. Does the backbone carrier vary area to area on the iphone?



    • DaddyBrownJr

      In reply to SRRLX1986:

      Phones "designed for Fi", such as Pixels, switch automatically between T-Mobile, Sprint and US Cellular. Phones "compatible with Fi", such as the iPhone, stay on T-Mobile. I don't understand why anyone would want to use the service on a crippled phone, but I guess everyone's different.

      • Paul Thurrott

        In reply to DaddyBrownJr:

        A crippled phone? I don't understand what you mean. Project Fi is excellent for many reasons and network-switching is just one of those reasons. With Fi, you only pay for what you use, that price is reasonable, and you pay no more (for data and text, calls are cheap) when you use the phone normally while traveling internationally. You don't get any of that on T-Mobile directly.

        • DaddyBrownJr

          In reply to paul-thurrott:

          There are a number of features that are not available to non-Fi phones in addition to the network-switching: The ugly voicemail issue is one.


          These are not available:

          • Automatically connect to secure, high-quality public Wi-Fi networks
          • Switch faster from Wi-Fi to data when Wi-Fi is poor
          • Protect sensitive information through a Fi VPN
          • Make Wi-Fi calls


          Not having these features is what I call "crippled". Someone else may see it differently. That's why I typed the last phrase of the last sentence of my original reply.

    • Paul Thurrott

      In reply to SRRLX1986:

      It's T-Mobile only if you use a non-compatible phone like iPhone. If you use a Pixel or other Fi-compatible phone, Google Fi will auto-switch on the fly between T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular, depending on which gives you the best reception.

  2. james_wilson

    How does Google Fi deal with the scourge of international roaming - Airline / Cruise ship mobile data (not Wifi). I got caught out with that recently where, if you leave your phone on roaming (as you'd expect as you have a service like fi right?), you auto-connect to the nearest cell. In this case, it was an airline mini-cell (but could be a cruise ship on-board cell). Your phone then goes into overdrive and starts using mobile data in the backgroud - at $5 / MB. I was unaware of this as it just happens. Luckily my service has a roaming cap of $60 but I was livid I didn't have a choice. i've had to go back to switching off roaming data again, and only enabling it when I know I'm not in range of one of these premium services. How does Fi deal with this?

  3. baskinrobbin

    How has the experience been 3 days in? I'm thinking of getting my wife an iphone to replace her 5X. Any issues when texting android phones?

  4. soomld

    Here's a referral code to get a $20 credit when you join Google Fi! 2NF175

    Happy holidays :)

  5. Jeffsters

    Say good bye to privacy!

  6. Davor Radman

    Can anyone tell me..


    Are USA carrier plans so terrible that Google Fi is good by comparison?


    Because to me, it looks like a complete ripoff.

  7. Daniel Kay

    Why are some of these paragraphs content editable on this page? I'm assuming this is a mistake?

  8. bgoodbody

    FWIW, 1st attempts to sign up for Google FI failed due to checking of address with POSTAL DB which does not have anything for 2 zip codes here as they do not deliver mail, but UPS and FEDEX have no trouble here. I had to sign up a day later using the address as a friends in next town,


    1st SIM card can't be read by new phone, but Verizon SIM has no problem, new SIM due here next week.

  9. wosully

    I just did this with my son's iPhone 7 and asked for a new SIM from Google, so we had no problems at all, and the phone booted with the Google Fi monicker in the top left. We are saving quite a bit over Verizon, and I have used Fi on the Pixels for a few years.

  10. garetmg

    I've been a happy Fi customer for a couple years now. I love how my text messages come in on Hangouts, and how the conversation history is always available whether using my sim in my Pixel 1 or in my Moto X4 (both Fi-approved phones), as well as in Gmail. It's also convenient to respond to texts from within Gmail on the desktop every now and then.


    Can you talk about how this experience would differ using Fi with an iPhone? You mentioned something about iMessages just working. Does that mean texts sent and received with a particular # while using the sim in an iPhone would not appear in my Hangouts history for said # when viewing on Gmail or when you switch back to a Fi-approved phone? Is there a chance some texts would get lost if was routed to your iMessages but you'd already switched your sim back over to an Android device?


    Thanks!

  11. Bob Shutts

    If you keep the iPhone you can test Apple Watch 4.0. Just sayin'. ;)

  12. fp0n

    My daughter is traveling for a semester in Europe (mostly Italy) and we have Verizon and I was thinking of supplementing the Verizon data service with GigSky or Truphone using the eSIM support with the new iPhones - I guess Project Fi would also be an option but was wondering if anyone had an opinion about those other two services instead. Thanks

  13. RossNWirth

    "text messaging with non-iMessage users (e.g. the world) will work." Should be i.e. not e.g. right? in other words vs. example given?

  14. JaseCutler

    I've been using my iPhone now on Google Fi for coming up on two weeks now. Curious if you run into two issues:


    • Text messages from Lyft/Amazon/automated services are often delayed or jumbled together. Rather annoying for services I've set up for 2FA or in Lyft's case telling me my driver is there.
    • Phone call volumes seem just a tad lower volume than they did on Verizon. Both from other Verizon customers and Sprint customers. It wouldn't be an issue if the other end didn't use speaker phone, but it becomes many "I didn't catch that" as what used to be 'just loud enough' to understand is now inaudible.


    And yeah... it's super 2006 to dial into voicemail. I'm not sure I'm enjoying my experience, only the bill.

  15. nexsoft

    FYI guys - I was able to get Google Fi to work on my old Windows phone : Lumia 950 XL. I wanted to test out Fi before committing to it. To do so i had to cheat a bit by registering it 1st on my Note 8 then putting the sim in the 950. After a restart i was able to text ,call and use data.

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