Hands-On with Google Fi and OnePlus 6T

Posted on December 9, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Cloud, Mobile with 22 Comments

Google Fi’s new compatibility with most iPhones and Android handsets is a potential game-changer. But what’s the experience really like?

To find out, I activated the service on the OnePlus 6T I’m currently reviewing. (That review will be up shortly, but the short version is that it is the single best value in flagship-class smartphones and is highly recommended.) To do this, I needed to have a Google Fi SIM on-hand, which I do. Otherwise, I would have to order one from Google, which is free.

Regarding Google Fi, which until very recently was named Project Fi, I assume you understand my feelings about this service. The short version: I value its transparent and inexpensive non-contract pricing and international functionality most of all; when I travel outside the U.S., which I do for at least one month every year, I can simply use my phone normally, including data, with no extra fees. (Well, phone calls have a small per-minute charge, but I rarely use that.)

But Google Fi had always had one downside, and it was a major one for me personally since I need to test so many different devices: It was compatible only with Google’s own phones—Nexus 5X and 6P, and Pixel—at first. And then, more recently, with a very small selection of third-party handsets.

This became an even bigger problem this past year when the Google Pixel 2 XL I purchased kept failing, necessitating multiple support calls and device replacements. Given my issues with Pixel, I spent much of 2018 thinking about moving on to another type of handset. But I love the Pixel’s camera. And of course, I love Google Fi as well.

But thanks to the recent changes at Fi, moving past Pixel won’t be a problem should I ever decide to pull that trigger. Assuming, of course, that Google Fi works well enough on non-Pixel (e.g. specifically Fi-compatible) handsets. But at the very least, this new compatibility will make testing smartphones easier. Now I can really use them on the network I actually use, with my real phone number.

The question, of course, is what that experience is like. And while there are a few things you won’t get with a Fi-compatible phone, the biggest missing piece is that you will no longer be able to take advantage of the service’s seamless network switching functionality.

That requires a bit of explanation.

Google Fi is a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), but it’s a special kind of MVNO. Where traditional MVNOs like Mint Mobile and Consumer Cellular essentially resell access to a major carrier—say, T-Mobile or AT&T—Google Fi uses multiple networks and will seamlessly switch between them, using whichever offers the best connectivity on the fly. In the U.S., those carriers are T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular.

Doing this requires special networking hardware that most phones do not include. So when you use Google Fi on a non-compatible phone, like the OnePlus 6T, you can’t switch between networks. Instead, you will use one network, as you would with a traditional MVNO. Here in the U.S., that network is T-Mobile.

Which is fine: T-Mobile offers excellent coverage in my experience. And while I’ll never really know how well Fi’s networking-switching capabilities worked over the past few years on Pixel and Nexus handsets, I’ve had zero issues using Fi with the OnePlus 6T at home and around the Lehigh Valley. It’s a matter of timing that I wasn’t able to travel further during this time, but I’ll test that as soon as I can.

Beyond the seamless network-switching, and some new enhanced networking features I had enabled but can’t say really made any noticeable impact from a user experience perspective, using Fi with the OnePlus 6T has otherwise offered what I’d call a representative Fi experience. It supports Fi’s group plans, international data coverage (which I’ve not used, of course), and there are no changes to the low rates that Google charges, and no contracts. It’s just worked.

Setup was simple, too, with no manual configuration required. (This is not the case with some MVNOs, by the way.) I had previously installed the Google Fi app. So I just shut down the OnePlus 6T, removed the Consumer Cellular SIM card I had been using with the device, and inserted my Google Fi SIM. Then I put it all back together again and turned on the OnePlus 6T. Once it had booted up, I was prompted immediately via a notification that “Google Fi is not fully activated.”

Tapping that, I was presented with a nice explanatory display telling me what I would and would not get with this non-Google Fi handset.

I could see someone being a big worried about the warning that I “may have trouble connecting in some spots,” since this phone can’t do seamless network switching. But that’s why I’m testing it. I’m not super-worried. T-Mobile-only access, which is curiously not mentioned here, should be fine, and has been so far.

After that, you’re prompted to “move number” or “don’t move number,” because Google Fi knows I was previously using the service on a different handset. Since I intended to use this as my daily-use phone, I chose “Move number.”

Activation took a few minutes. But when it was complete, the Google Fi app loaded so I could see where I was in the billing and usage cycle. From there, I quickly tested sending and receiving phone calls and text messages with my wife. All was well. So … I just used it.

As noted, so far so good.

Later this week, I’ll begin testing Google Fi with an Apple iPhone. This will require some manual configuration, as is typical with MVNOs. And there are a few other limits with this device, which I’ll discuss in whatever write-up I make about that experience.

More soon. But It looks like this is going to work out wonderfully for me. For those who need the international travel bit, Google Fi is likewise an incredible option. And if you’d like to stick with your current carrier, I’ll point out that you can sign-up for Google Fi at any time, put the account to sleep when you’re not using, so you won’t get charged, and then activate it only when you’re traveling. That’s a great option if you’re still squeamish about switching for some reason.

 

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Comments (22)

22 responses to “Hands-On with Google Fi and OnePlus 6T”

  1. dcdevito

    I understand why people love it, in this case Paul, who travels frequently. I just wish their pricing was more competitive with other MVNOs. I had Fi for almost an entire year, and did travel internationally over the summer on vacation, and it worked wonderfully. But when I came back to the States I realized how expensive it is. I also turned myself in a data saving wacko. I was heavily using Datally and trying to save data, all so I can save $20 a month. It just wasn't worth it.

    I switched back to Straight Talk and glad I did. For $50/month (they discount an extra $5 if you use autopay) I get unlimited data, and they don't throttle you until you reach 60GB, plus I use Verizon's network. So using ~2GB/month vs using 30GB+/month just wasn't a fair comparison. I'll go back to Fi if/when their pricing drops.

  2. jbinaz

    I wish their bandwidth didn't come from T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular. In Phoenix, TMO was great, But now in Tennessee, the coverage isn't all that great.

  3. wocowboy

    I used Project Fi in the past and found it to be quite a capable and economic service. T-Mobile is the only one of the Fi-partner carriers to offer service in the western half of Oklahoma (except for a VERY narrow string of Sprint along I-40), so I have no experience on how well it works with US Cellular or Sprint as they aren't around to switch to, but it works great on T-Mobile and with their new 600 MHz spectrum they have installed all over western Oklahoma, coverage is wonderful and data is very fast, the same as if one were a regular T-Mobile customer. I would recommend Google Fi to anyone as a way to keep their cellular costs down while having a non-restricted or throttled service.

  4. Davor Radman

    Paul, would it be possible for you to write an article about google fi, american carriers, and how does it compare to some european carriers?


    Because you keep saying how google fi is awesome, but to me, it looks like a complete ripoff.

  5. jlmerrill

    One thing I like about Fi is that you can pause the service.

  6. Simard57

    Paul - perhaps I am being lazy but what advantage does FI have over T-Mobile? when international, does it get full LTE instead of TMo 3G offering?


  7. ericdnoriz1

    You don't actually have to use the SIM card you can leave it in the pixel. I have an LG G6 and an iPhone as well as my pixel. I simply use Hangouts and Hangouts dialer on the other two phones and I get my phone calls and text messages to those devices. The data-only Sim is also on T-Mobile only. So if you're going to use an non fi phone just use the data Sim. My phone bills usually between 35 and 45 bucks with all those devices. And they all work just fine. While traveling though the pixel shines. Period

  8. whgb

    I love the idea of this, but the pricing is not even close to competitive in Australia. I bought my phone outright but only pay $12.50 (USD9) per month for 13GB of data which is more than enough. Unlimited calls and text too. Kogan Mobile uses the Vodafone network which is the weakest of the top three here but adequate, including for travel. So even if Google Fi becomes available here I doubt it would sell well.

    • melinau

      In reply to whgb:
      Here in UK we also get some pretty competitive Sim-only deals, some of which now include excellent no-surcharge roaming in most European, and many other countries (Brexit may screw this up, though).
      By our standards, Fi looks a bit pricey, which I find strange in the home of Global Capitalism and "Free" Markets.. Ho-hum.


  9. hdeditor

    One small correction: the service also is fully functional on the Nexus 6, as well as the 6P.

  10. obarthelemy

    Interesting, thank you.

  11. thumperyz69

    Just an FYI because I have been on Fi for over 2 years and when you move your phone number from handset to another handset using the Fi app I have had to "Clear storage" on the device I was switching to every time. Not a big deal but just beware.

  12. smfx

    Considering it's just T mobile, do you see the potential data rate limits and prioritization they advertise to their own clients?

  13. evequefou

    And from a OnePlus on T-Mobile user - does the OnePlus Wi-Fi Calling work? If so, does it work while roaming?

    • Paul Thurrott

      In reply to evequefou:

      It does VOLTE. Not sure about Wi-Fi calling. Will try to find out.


      Update. According to the Google Fi FAQ...


      "If you’re not using a designed for Fi device or you’ve opted-in to use your number to talk and text on other devices, you can make calls over Wi-Fi using your number through Google Hangouts. If your call is connected over Wi-Fi, at the top of the screen you’ll see a Wi-Fi icon and the name of the network you’re connected to."


      Will need to test this then. Elsewhere, Google Support likewise notes that "if your call is connected over WiFi, at the top of the screen you'll see [a] Wi-Fi [symbol] and the name of the network you're connected to.

      • sevillatl

        In reply to paul-thurrott:


        Based on the FAQ that you referenced, it would seem that traditional WiFi calling is not really supported but that you can use hangouts instead. On the other hand, there is this reference in their help section:


        OnePlus models compatible with Fi

        You'll have calls, texts, and data on T-Mobile's network as well as international roaming. You might be able to make calls or text over WiFi.

        • OnePlus 6T
        • OnePlus 6
        • OnePlus 5T
        • OnePlus 5
        • OnePlus 3T*
        • OnePlus 3*

        All models must run Android 7.0 and have LTE bands 2 and 4.

         

        You MIGHT be able to make calls or text over WiFi. Hmmmm.

    • sevillatl

      In reply to evequefou:


      I would also like to know if WiFi Calling works on the OnePlus. I currently have a 5T on Mint Mobile which uses the T-Mobile network. I would like to move to Google Fi for the international roaming. But, T-Mobile is weak inside my house and I have been using WiFi calling at home. I can see no reason why it wouldn't work on Google Fi, but who knows. So, I'm hoping someone can confirm that WiFI calling does indeed work on a OnePlus device with Google Fi.

    • smfx

      In reply to evequefou:

      Considering it works with Hangouts even, I would hope it would work, but I'd like to hear confirmation as well. I'm on Fi but should prob replace my Moto g6.

  14. rwhans007

    Was there a follow up review about the combination of OnePlus 6t and Google Fi? I have had google Fi for a couple of years, but I just lost my LG7 phone. I wouldike to use the OnePlus 6T but this review seemed not quite finished?

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