Google Project Fi Review

Posted on July 11, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Cloud, Mobile with 0

Google Project Fi Review

Google’s Project Fi is a near-perfect reinvention of what a wireless carrier can and should be, a great service with reasonable and fully transparent pricing. The one major issue—and this will be a blocker for some folks—is that it only works with a small selection of Nexus handsets and devices.

As you may recall, I signed up for Project Fi when I purchased the Google Nexus 6P last December. I filed a quick update in early January, and originally intended to publish the review you’re now reading later that month. (I’ve since reviewed the Nexus 6P, though. Mile-high view: It’s an amazing phone.)

What held me back was a planned mid-January trip to Paris, which we had to cancel when my son unexpectedly spent three nights in the hospital for a serious infection. (He’s fine.) I really wanted to experience Project Fi outside the United States, since it automatically provides inexpensive 3G-based data (plus unlimited text and inexpensive voice calls) when you travel internationally, with no special set up or plan required. I spend at least a month each year outside the U.S., so this is very important to me: AT&T’s international rates are pretty good compared to other major carriers, but that’s a low bar and it’s still very expensive. And getting an international SIM doesn’t make sense on shorter trips, and eliminates my ability to keep using my own phone number.

So I’ve been looking at Project Fi as a solution to this dilemma. The trouble is, I didn’t travel internationally at all during the first half of 2016. So I decided to push back this review.

Well, good news. I’m in Toronto this week. And that means I’ve had a chance to check out how well Project Fi works internationally. (I’m heading to Paris, France, next week as well.) So the wait is finally over.

As I noted in my first impressions articles 6 long months ago, Project Fi is designed to overcome the limitations of using a single wireless carrier, and it provides service less expensively and more transparently than any one (major) carrier. Based on my lengthy experience with Fi, it neatly accomplishes those goals, and if I could use it with my iPhone, I’d leave AT&T without a second thought.

And that’s the one and only downside to Project Fi: It only works with exactly three smart phones: The (2014 era) Nexus 6, the Nexus 6P (which I’m using), and the Nexus 5X. Those latter two devices are excellent. But that won’t help anyone using more mainstream devices like an iPhone or whatever Samsung.

The reason for this limitation is tied to Project Fi’s unique capabilities: Because Fi will seamlessly transition you between three wireless carriers in the U.S.—Sprint, T-Mobile, and U.S. Cellular—you’re pretty much always ensured the best possible connection speeds. (It does internationally as well, but that of course varies by country.) But this requires a special SIM card, multiple wireless radios in the handset, and support for this network switching in the OS. And only those three Nexus devices have all the required bits in place.

If you have and use a Nexus, you’re already in a good place—as you may recall, I strongly recommend Nexus-branded phones for numerous reasons—and choosing Project Fi will achieve a similar nerdvana for connectivity. It is nearly perfect.

Let’s start with pricing. The base Fi service, called Fi Basics, costs just $20 per month. That gives you unlimited phone calls and texts (including unlimited international texts).

Data costs $10 per gigabyte, and there’s no extra fee to use your phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot. You can sign up for the data you think you’ll use—say, 3 GB each month, or whatever—so your bill will be a known quantity. But this is the good part: You are refunded for any data you don’t use, every month (at that $10 per GB rate). And if you go over whatever threshold you set for yourself, your are only charged for exactly the amount of data you use (again, same rate). So there are never any surprises. It’s inexpensive and transparent, and Google does a great job of alerting you via pop-ups on your phone when you’re approaching your limits. Not that there are any literal limits.

Because the Nexus 6P is still my secondary phone, I simply signed up for the cheapest possible plan, which is $30 per month: $20 for unlimited calling and text, and $10 for 1 GB of data. On months where I’ve not used 1 GB of data, Google has refunded me the difference and my next bill was reduced.

Better still, you can pause or cancel service at any time. This isn’t a two-year commitment, it’s a one-month commitment. So it’s no risk, and if Project Fi doesn’t work out for you, you can simply walk away. That means it’s safe to try before you cancel your Verizon or AT&T service. Which I suspect most people will do, once they see what Fi is all about.

Going international? Google lets you use Project Fi in over 120 countries around the world. Texts are unlimited and included with your monthly fee. Phone calls are typically 20 cents per minute—they are in Canada, France, and The Netherlands, for example, three places I’ll be visiting this year. And your data usage simply goes against your monthly limit (at $10 per gigabyte), with one very reasonable caveat: You will achieve 3G speeds of about 256 Kbps only, instead of LTE/4G.

That last bit is the thing I’m most interested in. Here in Toronto this week, I’ve been amping up my Nexus 6P/Project Fi usage to see what that experience is like, since my prior experiments with T-Mobile’s free 2G international service was so negative. So far, it’s been excellent, and this is exactly the type of thing I’ve been looking for.

As pertinent is the pricing. At AT&T, I have 6 GB of data (3 GB plan plus 3 GB of rollover data) each month, absolutely none of which is usable outside the U.S. So I have typically purchased an international plan called Passport Gold for our three week home swaps each summer. This plan costs $100 and provides just 800 MB of data. That’s full 4G/LTE data, sure. But that much data would cost only $8 from Google. And overages on AT&T are 15 cents per MB, or $150 per GB. Project Fi is a clean $10 per GB.

Looking at phone and text, AT&T’s Passport Gold provides unlimited messages sent, and phone calls are 35 cents per minute. So Project Fi is a better deal on both counts. It’s not even close.

Assuming I don’t go over 800 MB—which will never happen—and I don’t make phone calls or texts—also impossible—Project Fi is saving me $92, and that’s before I ever leave for Europe (or wherever). And the savings multiple as I actuallyuse each service. At 2 GB of data usage, AT&T would set me back $118. Project Fi? Just $10, because the first 1 GB is already included in the bill I pay anyway.

You get the idea. Seriously, I can’t wait to leave AT&T.

(What about an international SIM? Ignoring issues about losing your phone number, I’ve used an Orange SIM in France that provides 1 GB of 4G/LTE data for about $25. At just $10, Project Fi costs a lot less, but it only provides 3G data, which I think is sufficient. Plus I get to keep my phone number, and the actual cost is less since that’s part of my normal allotment anyway. I will know for sure later this month when I pit Project Fi against an international SIM in France.)

Getting back to the United States for a moment, I’ve been testing Project Fi both at home, in and around Boston, and on the road, every time I take a trip. And as you may know, I travel pretty regularly: I’ve been to New York City multiple times this year already, plus Seattle/Redmond (twice), San Francisco, and Fort Collins, Colorado. And as I do so, I check signal strength against what I see on AT&T. I send text messages, check for app updates, whatever.

There will always be some differences, I guess, and depending on where you live or are at the time, one of the other network will be slightly better. But whether I’ve been between the tall buildings in New York in a cab or out in the wilds around Estes Park, Colorado, at an altitude of 7500 feet, Project Fi has stood proud. Coverage maps are of course works of modern fiction, but thanks to Project Fi’s ability to switch between three wireless carriers and Wi-Fi on the fly, and always choose the best connection, Google’s coverage claims ring truer than those of major networks. Short version: It’s been great.

Put simply, virtually everything about Project Fi is positive, and overwhelmingly so. But aside from the limited device compatibility issue, there is one other minor downside: You have to sign up with a Gmail (Google) account, and you cannot currently use a Google Apps account, meaning an account with a custom domain (like [email protected] or whatever). This won’t impact many people, I know, but for me it meant using a secondary (Gmail) account instead of my primary account. It’s not a big deal, but once Project Fi is available on Google Apps accounts, I’ll switch over.

For those looking at the switch, be sure to check out the Project Fi FAQ. Yes, you can bring an existing phone number to the service, though Google won’t be paying any termination fees, sorry. (I let it appropriate my Google Voice number instead.)

Should you switch?

If you’re using a Nexus 6P or 5X, or will be, and live in the U.S., the answer is simple: Obviously. And you can very easily test the service, make sure it’s right for you before diving in. Do so.

If you’re not using a compatible phone, your decision is more complex. Project Fi does offer data-only SIMs which you can “try in other devices,” meaning non-Nexus devices, and if it does work, you only pay for the data you really use, at that $10 per 1 GB rate. So that’s one way to test the waters.

But switching smartphone platforms can be difficult, and aside from any of the special advantages of Project Fi, you may need to deal with changes inherent to Android as well. I’ve not yet made this change myself, mostly because I still prefer the iPhone over Android, even with the latest Android N.

That may change. In fact, Project Fi is so good, it’s tempting me to switch regardless. I will reevaluate that when I can use my Google Apps account with the service and/or if iPhone is ever compatible.

Regardless, I will hold on to Project Fi, and am looking forward to using the service in Paris to get a better handle on how well it works internationally. I’ll do so this week in Toronto too, of course.

Project Fi is amazing. It’s the real anti-carrier, good in all the ways that most carriers are miserable. It’s a no-brainer for Nexus users. And reason enough to switch for the rest of us. Seriously. You need to check it out.

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