Last month I described my hunt for a good international data roaming solution: International Roaming: AT&T / Verizon vs. Project Fi vs. T-Mobile vs. Sprint vs. SIMS vs. Hotspots. I’ve been using AT&T for years and service has been very good, but their international plan is expensive if used frequently ($10 per day per phone adds up quickly especially when traveling as a family). Ultimately I decided to give Google Fi phone service a try. At home, Google Fi appears to be similarly priced to its major competitors, especially if you tend to use a lot of data. Fi’s killer feature is that it supports high speed data roaming around the world at no additional cost.
As I reported previously, I was able to activate Google Fi service and get a Fi compatible Android phone for only $200. And, this came with $70 in Google Fi service credit ($50 with the phone + $20 for using a referral). It looks like I should have waited a bit, though, since the same phone now comes with $75 service credit.
If you combine that with $20 credit from accepting a friend referral (here’s mine), it’s now possible to get started for the same price I paid, but with $95 in service credit. That’s a great deal, especially if you need a phone.
In my case, I’m perfectly happy with the phone I currently use (an iPhone 7 Plus), but I needed a Fi compatible phone to activate Google Fi service. Once service is activated, Fi works reasonably well in my iPhone (more on that below). Of course, I could have found a friend with a Fi compatible phone to activate my service. That would have saved me about $150 (I’d get the $20 referral credit either way), but then I wouldn’t have an Android phone…
A little background… I’m a bit of a gadget freak. I don’t necessarily rush out to get the latest gadgets, but I’m always interested in them. And, I kid you not, I even have a mini gadget museum in my house containing things like my first internet enabled phone (T-Mobile Sidekick), the first iPhone, a flip phone, a Windows phone, my first e-book reader, my first GPS device, my first video-enabled MP3 player, a few digital wallet cards, etc. What’s not there is an Android phone. Somehow, through all the years, I’ve never owned an Android phone. If Google Fi offers nothing else, it at least offered me an excuse to pickup an Android phone at very low cost. And now, if I also get a Samsung Gear watch, I can use Samsung Pay by pairing the watch with this Android phone.
The phone is surprisingly good
Given that it costs only $200, the Moto G6 is a surprisingly nice phone. It runs well, it seems to have great battery life, and it has a big, bright, and gorgeous screen.
There are negatives, of course. This model has limited storage (32GB), a mediocre camera, and it’s a bit sluggish at times. That said, it’s good enough for most purposes and if you care about looks over substance, you won’t be disappointed.
Domestic service is surprisingly good
Domestically, Google Fi has access to three networks: T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular. A Fi compatible phone is able to automatically switch to whichever carrier has the fastest service. When using Fi with an iPhone, though, it sticks with T-Mobile. In my tests so far, that’s not a problem.
In one of my first tests, I ran Speedtest on my laptop in four scenarios: 1) Connected to Comcast internet via wifi; 2) Connected to AT&T using my iPhone as a hotspot; 3) Connected to T-Mobile using the Moto G6 as a hotspot; and 4) Connected to Sprint using the Moto G6 as a hotspot.
The ability to use my phone to connect my laptop to wifi is important to me. The above tests showed that, from my home, Google Fi could easily handle my needs.
How about around town or away from home?
|AT&T||Google Fi on T-Mobile|
|Ann Arbor Downtown||Download: 26.3 Mbps
Upload: 7.91 Mbps
|Download: 1.31 Mbps (Sprint)
Upload: 0.21 Mbps (Sprint)
|Ann Arbor Kerrytown||Download: 75.0 Mbps
Upload: 3.64 Mbps
|Download: 45.4 Mbps
Upload: 6.56 Mbps
|Charlottesville (inside hotel)||Download: 3.98 Mbps
Upload: 11.1 Mbps
|Download: 12.2 Mbps
Upload: 12.9 Mbps
|Charlottesville (upon a mountain)||Download: 4.28 Mbps
Upload: 3.38 Mbps
|Download: 19.6 Mbps
Upload: 0.06 Mbps
My first experience with Google Fi outside of my home was really bad. I was at a restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor and I found that AT&T speeds were very good whereas Google Fi was awful. Luckily, I later discovered that I hadn’t switched the phone off of Sprint (I had previously forced the switch to Sprint to run tests at home). All other tests were with T-Mobile, which worked much better.
Not counting my one Sprint fiasco, I found that Google Fi on T-Mobile tended to be just as good or better than AT&T in most places. Shown above are only the places where I explicitly compared the two. In many other places I spot checked Fi to see if it was working well, and it usually was.
I did run into a Fi failure at Whole Foods in Ann Arbor. Internet speeds were so poor that it was virtually unusable. I don’t have Speedtest data for this experience because the app couldn’t even find the server. Luckily for Fi, AT&T service was just as bad.
Using Fi on an iPhone (Does that make it a FiPhone?)
I’m not currently planning to change my primary phone — I’m happy with my iPhone 7 Plus. So, if I’m going to change my wireless service, I want it to work well with my iPhone. Luckily I had an old iPhone 6 Plus that I could use to test with while I continued to use my primary phone as needed. Here’s what I found when I put my Fi SIM into my old iPhone:
- Carrier: T-Mobile. Apparently you can’t switch to Sprint or U.S. Cellular, but that hasn’t proven to be an issue at all yet.
- Phone service quality: Very good
- Data speeds: Very good
- Use as hotspot (connect laptop to phone data over wifi): Very good
- iMessage: No problems for sending/receiving text, images, etc.
- Text message from Android phone: Works but includes random looking text at the end (e.g. “~wbc91gAJ/Z8B9wg”)
- Emoji sent from Android phone: Same as above. It works, but includes random text at the end.
- MMS from Android phone: Doesn’t work. I found various posts that describe how to setup your iPhone to receive MMS messages and I tried a few approaches, but nothing worked so far. It’s possible (likely even) that I had entered some info incorrectly. This warrants more investigation.
Short answer: Everything worked fine except MMS messages sent from Android phones. This issue can probably be fixed with the right settings, but honestly it’s not something that comes up very often so I’m not too worried about it.
A unique Google Fi feature is that you can order extra data-only SIMs for free. These SIM cards use the same data plan as your phone so they’ll increase your data charges (up to a max data price), but otherwise won’t cost you more. I ordered a couple of these and tried one out long enough to prove that it works, but that’s all I’ve done with it so far.
Theoretically a family could share a single-person Fi phone plan by using these data-only SIMs in different phones as long as each person uses VOIP calling/texting with a service like Google Hangouts. There are two issues with this approach that I can think of:
- Data-only SIMs cannot be used as hotspots (for wifi tethering)
- Data speeds may be throttled after 6 Gig is used up each month
Next test: International service
I’ll be in London in a few weeks and that will be my first chance to test Google Fi’s international data service. I expect it will be quite good, but I’ll let you know.
So far, I’m really happy with Google Fi service. In most cases Fi over T-Mobile has proven to be as good or better than AT&T. Will I switch over completely? Yes, I’m going to give that a try. If my Google Fi experience then continues to go well I’ll stay with Fi. Otherwise, I’ll go back to AT&T (or to T-Mobile) and I’ll pause Google Fi service. I could then use Fi only when traveling abroad. If that happens, my new Moto G6 can act as my go-everywhere hot-spot. That’s not a bad solution either.
For more about Google Fi, see this post from Running With Miles: The Ultimate FAQ Guide About Google Project Fi – An Awesome Choice for International Travel!