Back in April, Google announced Project Fi, an innovative and inexpensive new approach to smart phone connectivity. At that time, Fi only worked with the woeful Nexus 6, but now that access has been expanded to better devices like the Nexus 6P and 5X, I decided to give it a shot.
My testbed for the service will be a Huawei-made Google Nexus 6P, which I purchased as part of the service. But before getting to that, let’s take a quick look at the Project Fi promise.
According to Google, Project Fi seeks to overcome some of the basic limitations of mobile device connectivity today. That is, because of technical issues and cost, users often find themselves without connectivity. And transitioning between network types—from cellular to Wi-Fi, for example—is either non-seamless or, in the case of phone calls and text messaging, not possible.
So Google partnered with the smaller (and thus more aggressive) two of the biggest U.S.-based wireless carriers, T-Mobile and Sprint, to create a new wireless service that can span both networks and Wi-Fi, and do so seamlessly, even for phone calls and text messaging.
The theory here is that you should never have to worry about connectivity. When you’re out in the world, your phone will switch to whatever connectivity is best/strongest, on the fly, including both T-Mobile- and Sprint-based cellular connectivity and Wi-Fi, which can be networks “known” to your phone (like at home or work) or Google-verified open, public hotspots. Your data is always encrypted, and your connectivity is optimized so that you’re always on the fastest/most reliable network.
As important, Fi is less expensive than traditional wireless carrier access, and that’s true whether you’re bringing your own phone or not. (That said, Fi only works with a very limited set of Google Nexus-branded phones currently.)
So how much does Fi cost? You pay $20 per month for Fi Basics, which includes unlimited domestic talk and text, and the ability to use your phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot. Data is $10 per GB, so the least you could pay for Fi is $30 per month.
So far so good, right? But check these benefits out. If you use less than the data you paid for in a month, you get the difference back in a refund. If you use more, you just pay for what you use.
Wait, there’s more. If you travel internationally, you get unlimited international texts at no additional cost, phone calls are 20 cents per minute, and your data usage costs the same $10 per GB as it does in the U.S., though bandwidth is limited to 3G speeds, or about 256 kbps.
What about phones?
Currently, Project Fi is limited to just three phones: Last year’s terrible Nexus 6 and this year’s incredible Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P. l already own a Nexus 5X, but I wanted to test the Nexux 6P and, as important, another neat Fi benefit: The ability to fold a new phone payment into my monthly bill.
“Neat benefit,” you ask? But wireless carriers have been doing this for years. Right?
Sure. But with Fi, you can get a high-end Nexus handset for a very low monthly fee. Recall that in Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program is Brilliant, I described Apple’s new installment plan for iPhones and explained why the pricing was in fact reasonable. How consider this.
On the iPhone Upgrade Program, I pay Apple $42.45 a month for a 64 GB iPhone 6S Plus, a price that is based on two years of installments. On Fi, adding a 64 GB Nexus 6P—which is absolutely the equivalent device from a quality perspective, see below—costs … wait for it … $20 per month. Put another way, for just $7 more than the cost of the iPhone each month, I get a Nexus 6P, Fi Basics (unlimited domestic talk and text, the ability to use the phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot), and 1 GB of data, which I can use internationally to boot. Are you kidding me?
Best of all—I know, there seems to be no end to the benefits—there are no spurious additional charges on your bill, and you can cancel (or change your plan) at any time: Fi is month-to-month. T-Mobile calls itself the anti-carrier. But Fi really is the anti-carrier … assuming of course that this all works in real life.
So I’ll find out.
The Fi package—which included the SIM card, the phone, and a goofy set of LEGOs for making a cute docking station (yes, really)—arrived yesterday.
Because I chose to port my Google Voice number over, phone and text won’t work for another couple of days, so I haven’t been able to test connectivity out in the world yet. Another limitation: Fi only works with Gmail addresses right now, so if you’re using a custom domain on Google Apps, you will need to sign-in to the Fi app on the phone using a different Gmail account.
That Fi app, by the way, looks super-simple, and provides a live view of your current “cycle” (for me, January 2 to February 2, so there’s nothing to see yet), your plan, your payment method, and plan features like voicemail, call forwarding, alerts, and billing and service. Very nicely done.
As for the phone … wow.
In the Android space, there’s a race of sorts to see which handset maker can out-Apple the iPhone. Some have come close: The Samsung Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, and S6 Plus all approach Apple levels of craftsmanship and have until recently represented, perhaps, the apex of this goal. But the Nexus 6P outdoes them all.
It is a beautiful device which comes in aluminum (gray), graphite (black) or frost (white), and I went for the graphite version with 64 GB of (non-expandable) storage. The build quality is superb: The body is made of a wonderful, high-quality aluminum that virtually anyone would mistake for an iPhone, especially from the front. In fact, the 6P even features the same little antenna gaps you see on the iPhone 6/6S series, accentuating the similarity.
If the Nexus 6P were simply an iPhone clone, I’d be unimpressed. But Huawei differs from—sometimes improves on—Apple’s design in a number of ways. The rear camera is certainly unique, but it’s not as ugly or protruding as it appeared when the device was first introduced. Better, the Nexus 6P fingerprint reader—like that on the Nexus 5X–is ideally positioned on the back of the phone, so your finger naturally falls on it when you pick it up. It is as good as the one on iPhone, meaning it is as fast and reliable.
The Nexus 6P screen also improves on what Apple provides: It’s 5.7-inches in size, compared to 5.5 for the iPhone 6S Plus, and yet the Nexus 6P is, overall, a bit smaller than the Apple device (and the exact same thickness). It’s also of much higher resolution—WQHD 2560 x 1440, as opposed to 1080p, or 1920 x 1080 on the 6S Plus—and is AMOLED, of it offers the darkest blacks and rich contrast.
The performance, so far, has been superb, thanks to its 2 GHz octa-core Snapdragon 810 processor, Adreno 430 GPU, and 3 GB of RAM. This is a flagship all the way.
And I should mention Android 6.0 Marshmallow, briefly. Over the past few Android releases, Google has really improved Android dramatically, and while the back user experience—the “whack a mole” grid of icons I always complain about—is nothing special, Google’s Material Design is actually pretty special. With Android 6, we’re seeing the wonderful, flat Material Design UI everywhere throughout the system, and it just works. It’s weird to write this, but Google almost certainly has the best overall UX design in smart phones today.
On that note, the Nexus 6P—like all Nexus devices—comes with a “pure” version of Android that I really prefer. As with Microsoft’s Signature edition PCs, this is the way to go on Android, I think.
So I need to wait a few days before my Fi account is up and running with voice and text. And then I need to actually use this thing out in the world, and probably for some amount of time, including business trips, so I can assess reliability and performance. As such, my Fi account—and the Nexus 6P—won’t be my daily driver, and I’ll be sticking with my Lumia 950—and AT&T—for at least the short term.
And of course I understand that buying a Nexus phone—or even an Android phone—is not for everyone. I’d love to see Fi expanded to more phones, and even iPhone. But that’s for the future. For now, I’m just happy to test this as it is. And I’m hopeful that it will turn out to be the bargain I believe it to be.