Project Fi - One Month Review

Austin Haedicke bio photo By Austin Haedicke Comment

About a month ago I got an invitation from Google to take part in their MVNO mobile carrier Project Fi, a service that is now open to the public. I decided to ditch Verizon, suck up the early termination fee ($120), throw down for a Nexus 6p on eBay ($430), and give Project Fi a whirl.

So, here is a review and some data aboutmy first month using the service. For future reference this is a map of my coverage area. I spend a lot of time on the interstates, but also a good bit in the mountains so there is a bit of variety in where I travel.

Reception:

To start things off, I used Open Signal to monitor signal reception and network type.

One Week Results Verizon Project Fi
Time w/o signal 1% 1.45%
Time on 4G 96% 92%
Time on 3G 6.55% 3%
One Month Results Project Fi
Time w/o signal 0.91%
Time on 4G 94%
Time on 3G 2-3%

According to my records I had three dropped calls. One appeared to be legit, the last two came at the end of the month and seemed to be related to a funky transition between WiFi Calling and cellular signal as I was walking in and out of WiFi range while talking.

Data - Speed:

For these comparisons note that the Verizon tests were conducted with an HTC One Remix while the Project Fi tests were conducted on a Nexus 6p. Also, all posted speeds are the mean of three successive test results.

I tested my home location and a randomly selected location. The “random” location was an area that I frequent for work, and once selected, the approximate same location was used for all tests.

  Verizon Project Fi
Home 4G Down (Mbps) 4.4 16.27 (Sprint)
Home 4G Up (Mbps) 1.9 6.43 (Sprint)
Random 4G Down (Mbps) 41.13 33.97 (Tmobile)
Random 4G Up (Mbps) 10.57 24.4 (Tmobile)

When connected to Sprint’s network at my home location Project Fi was significantly faster than Verizon both uploading and downloading. However, when connected to T-Mobile’s network, Project Fi was ~20% slower on downloads though twice as fast on uploads compared to Verizon.

Data - Usage:

My previous Verizon plan was for 2 GB of data, of which I averaged 1.55 GB used per month. In short, I used 0.82 GB of my 1 GB Project Fi “plan.” More on financials below. I’m sure there was a bit of observer effect, but generally I felt like I used my phone about the same. The one major exception was that I typically refrained from using social media when not on WiFi. I feel like this was equal efforts to improve productivity during work hours and conserve mobile data.

Most of my data use comes from things that can’t be compressed (e.g. Maps, Voice Commands, Encrypted Email, etc…). However, here are the procedures I used to try and save data where I could:

  • Offline Maps: To download the coverage map linked above took about 357 MB of storage space, but it means that Google only needs to use mobile data to update traffic info, not queue an entire route and load the map.
  • Data Compression Apps: I typically set everything to block mobile data except the things I know I will need to use on the go. If I notice something not working properly I’ll whitelist it, but my default preference is to stop anything from slurping data in the background. I have reviewed Opera Max, Onavo, and Data Eye here in the past.
  • Chrome Data Saver: Google Chrome has it’s own data saving procedure (instructions). In my testing, Chrome reports data savings of 20% by this procedure.
  • Common Sense: There is no point to having a high end, or even a mobile phone if you feel confined to WiFi. However, you should know that certain things are notorious data hogs. Streaming music and video (I have a large local music library anyway) are especially bad, but also downloading apps and OTA updates can eat up data quickly.

Price:

One of the big draws of Project Fi is that you only pay for the data you use. I averaged about 1.5 / 2 GB on Verizon so I prepaid for 1 GB on Fi. Though they call this a “plan” there is no need to fear hefty overages. Should you use more data than the amount you pre-pay for, there are no penalties nor throttling. You simply pay the same rate ($10 / GB billed on your next statement) as your pre-paid data.

My first bill was $34 after tax. I only used 0.82 of my 1 GB so I got a credit to my account and my second month’s bill came to about $32. So, for two months of slightly less reception (see above), comparable or better data speeds, hotspot and international calling (both of which would be additional charges on Verizon) I paid almost exactly what I would have paid for one month on Verizon!

Miscellaneous:

  • Device Cost and Termination Fee: All in all, according to my calculations, over a projected two year period I’ll only be saving a marginal amount of money on Project Fi (not accounting for refunds for unused data though). However, I am much happier paying less for the same service and more for better equipment even if it is the same sum total in the end.
  • Customer Service: I don’t remember what wait times were with Verizon, but I’m going be generous and say at least 30 minutes. That is for someone who may or may not speak my native language fluently and may or may not prove more useful than a clever Google search and cup of coffee. I had a couple kinks getting my number ported over to Project Fi so I called the support line. The exact numbers don’t matter because I can tell you for certain that my hold time was less than five minutes for both calls. Both representatives spoke English perfectly fine. When they couldn’t call me back (due to the number getting ported over and me not having another line) they left a detailed voicemail (that got transcribed - free on Fi, additional charge on Verizon) anyway as well as sent a follow up email within 15 minutes. Now that’s service!
  • Carrier App: The Project Fi app is clear, simple, and informative. Verizon’s account app has similar functionality and many more “features”, but it is quite cluttered and was always absurdly slow (no thanks to all those features) to start up.
  • Security Updates: The March security patch rolled out to my Nexus 6p around the middle of the month. I’m not sure how this compares as I’ve never owned a Nexus device before. Really though, a monthly security patch is an awesome bonus regardless if it comes down day 1 or day 31.
  • Sluggish SMS: I don’t know if this is a Fi, Messenger, or Nexus 6p thing but I have noticed that while typing on Google Keyboard in Google Messenger there is a very bad lag when a new SMS arrives. I’ve only noticed this being a problem when you’re inside the app and a new message arrives, not (for example) when receiving or sending messages asynchronously.

Conclusion:

I can’t think of a reason not to switch to, stay with, or at least try Google’s Project Fi other than if you use a large amount of data (e.g. >8 GB). The numbers tend to show that Project Fi may actually end up costing you more at that level. However, as this post details, there are many other factors involved in choosing a mobile carrier.

Project Fi isn’t perfect. T-Mobile plus Sprint plus WiFi still doesn’t equal Verizon coverage, especially when it comes to the far out places where you’ll be lucky to have one bar on any carrier. And Google has some ironing out to do in the transitions between WiFi and cellular network use, particularly mid-call.

However, the bottom line for me is a choice between A) a flagship device I own outright from the start with monthly updates and a KISS carrier or B) a leased device with fewer per price features and a notorious PITA.

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