Google Fi Review – Is the network switching that seemless?

by Robb Sutton
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Awhile back, Google sent me over a Pixel 4a and a month free of the Google Fi cellular network to try out. I was interested to see what Google could bring to the already crowded cellular market so I decided to activate the phone with the service and give it a shot for 30 days. Let’s get into how it performed and the key feature that might just set Google Fi above the rest…but with a huge catch.

What is Google Fi?

Obviously Google is not setting up cell phone towers all over the United States. Google Fi is what is considered a MVNO (mobile network virtual operator). What they are essentially doing is partnering up with other carriers and renting time on their towers to provide their service. It is a basically a reseller agreement to consume time on those tower and resell that time to their customers. In the case of Google, they are using T-Mobile, Sprint and US Cellular.

Their pricing is essentially in the middle of the plans I looked at with both a pay as you go ($20/ea + $10 for data) and an unlimited plan ($70/ea). There are discounts for multiple users. I would rather not go into detail as you can find out all of that information here.

Outside of that, Google Fi acts like a normal cell phone service. You can get one of their phones or bring your own. You can also bring your own number or get a new one.

Where does Google Fi win?

First, their online experience is next to none when it comes to your account and setup. This should be expected from Google who has pioneered a lot of backend UX. Setting up this phone was as easy as installing an app and adding my information. It was SIMPLE on the Google Pixel 4a.

Once you have an account setup, the management of that account online and on the phone is a thousand times better experience than I have had with any of the major carriers. Most of their back end account management is a horrible experience even just to get your bill paid.

Where Google Fi really takes things to a new level is with their tower/service shifting feature. According to Google…

Stay connected wherever you are, coast to coast. A phone designed for Fi keeps you on the best signal by intelligently shifting between multiple mobile networks and millions of secure Wi-Fi connections. If your designed for Fi phone is 5G-compatible, you’ll also get 5G coverage included with any plan for a faster connection nationwide. 

fi.google.com

This is where I really wanted to put Google Fi to the test. Would it really work that much better than the other 4 phones we have in this house when it came to coverage?

Testing the Google Fi Intelligent Switching

My son has been in virtual school because of COVID. We decided since we could work from anywhere…so could he! We set off for a quiet beach trip to get some better scenery to work and had 3 phones tethering (my personal line, my wife’s personal line and then the Pixel 4a for virtual school). We were also using 2 other work phones for calls between my wife and me. If we don’t have cancer from all of that we will be lucky!

So how did it go? Great as long as we were on a highway or near a city of more than 200 people. What was interesting is when we got into the national forests at the south end of Alabama and the Florida panhandle. All 4 of the other phones lost signal completely for over 20 minutes. The Google Fi Pixel 4a? My son was still streaming his class through the hotspot on Microsoft Teams. The phone had switched from the major carriers to the US Cellular local carriers and picked up a signal he could use while we were dead in the water. It was actually pretty amazing.

Now that doesn’t mean it will work that well everywhere. This was a test in the southeastern United states and results can vary.

Where does Google Fi get it wrong?

Google Fi is really built around the phones that Google has approved for their network to get all of the features…and this includes the intelligent switching. What are those phones?

  • Google Pixel 5
  • Google Pixel 4a
  • Moto G Stylus
  • Moto G Power

So what happens if you have an iPhone? You default to T-Mobile but that isn’t where the story stops. You also have to do some settings tweaks to get iMessages to work correctly. It won’t work out of the box. You also have to use the Google Fi app to access your voice messages. Another thing you would not have to do if you just went with T-Mobile.

Android phones that are not on the list? This includes phones like the Pixel 3a and Pixel 4XL. Somewhat of the same story. You do not get the switching so you default to either Sprint or T-Mobile.

Overall Thoughts on Google Fi

If you have one of the 4 devices Google Fi has approved for all of the features of their network, it is a pretty good sell. The setup, backend management and account management is the easiest to use the industry. The real selling point is the intelligent switching which I have found works very well in even the most extreme conditions.

If you are an iPhone user or even a user of another Android device, I am not sure that just having a better account management backend is compelling enough to switch. It isn’t something that I use more than once a month unless I have an issue or I am setting up a new line. Also, if you are a person that likes to have hands on help at a store…you are out of luck there as well.

I would really only recommend this service to people with an approved phone that are not looking for the cheapest plan out there. You can find cheaper plans if that is what you are looking for. The one main feature that does actually set Google Fi apart is extremely limited when it comes to devices currently.

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