Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Google Fi and the Nexus 6P for Humans

When it came time to replace my ailing phone, a Verizon Galaxy Nexus, I thought I'd give Google's fledgling phone service Project Fi a shot, along with the new Nexus 6P.

There are a lot of reviews of 6P, mostly positive but occasionally scary. There are fewer reviews for Fi, and they're pretty mixed. Now, I'm not a tech blogger juggling all the season's hottest phones: like most, I have one and it needs to work. And since it can be hard to sort out the good and the bad, I thought I'd share my experience with Project Fi and the Nexus 6P, from a user's perspective.


  • Spiffy Nexus phone: The Nexus 6P is mostly best-in-class, and relatively inexpensive for a flagship phone. It is also among the first with Android Marshmallow. 
  • Project Fi potentially awesome: Transparent switching from wifi to cellular calling. Using public wifi with automatic VPN through Google. This sounds like the future of mobile data and it's cool to get a preview.
  • Nothing to lose: No contract lock-in
  • Size: The Nexus 6P is enormous compared to my current Galaxy Nexus. I made a cardboard mockup to see how it felt. It's pretty big.

  • Quality?: There are some really scary reports out there about the quality of the Nexus 6P. They bend. The glass on the back shatters. The front glass shatters. Basically I am willing to accept that this is either bullshit or Google/Huawei will fix it. I mean, I bet I could bend my laptop, too... but I won't? As an aside, it pains me greatly to see these phone bending videos while I wait for weeks for my device.
  • Coverage?: Reviews of the Project Fi service are mixed. Gizmodo reviewers called it a disaster but soon decided that it was instead great and they would probably replace their current service. A lot of reviews say it's a great "second" phone service. Who does that!?
The bottom line is that for people who spend a lot of time on wifi/don't use a lot a lot of mobile data, a 5X/6P on Project Fi provides a cheaper alternative to other carriers. High-end phones are mostly in the $600 range, and typically not subsidized like they used to be. Other talk and data plans cost about the same as Fi, but often have an additional ~$20 charge per line, so you'd be paying $50/month for talk + 1 GB, as opposed to $30/month on Project Fi. Do the math based on your typical usage, which you can find in the settings of an existing phone.

Sign-up and Ordering

I headed over to fi.google.com/signup and asked for an invite. Six days later, I was in. Signing up was really, really easy. There were a few basic questions to the tune of:
  • Are you bringing your own phone or buying one? Project Fi only works with the Nexus 6 and the new Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P. If you buy a new phone, there is an option to buy it up front or finance it interest-free over two years.
  • How much data? You have to pick an integer number of GB, but they will reimburse/charge you if you go under/over. As far as I can tell this exists just as a guide to help you budget.
  • Connect to Google Voice? If you have Google Voice, Fi can eat your account. Or you can transfer a number from another carrier.
They've done a very nice job with the user experience. I clicked through some pretty pages and in 10 minutes I had a new service and a phone on the way. Even if the service doesn't pan out, I'd like to believe this was a glimpse at the future of phone/plan shopping, at least.

When the order is submitted, nothing changes. If applicable, a credit card isn't charged until the device ships, and they don't touch your Gvoice account until you activate. I got a friendly order confirmation, access to the Fi account website (currently rather boring), and a 50% off coupon for a phone case (although they seem to always be sold out of the best one).

At the time of order, my estimated lead time for the 32GB Graphite Nexus 6P was five weeks; ordered in mid-November and expected mid-December.


Ahead of schedule on Monday, December 1, I got word that my phone and Project Fi SIM were en route via FedEx ground. I quickly ran over to Amazon to pick up the well-reviewed Spigen 6P case since the nice-looking fuzzy Nexus 6P case on the Google Store was still out of stock. It all showed up that Friday:

Phone in a box, SIM in a folder.

I am an artist.

The setup is the usual business. Click through a few things, it updates itself, you decide whether to keep your Google Voice number of not. In my case, it defaulted to no, and if I hadn't changed it I would have lost my number. Beware!

At some point, you can transfer settings from another device, which worked well. I opened Google Settings on my old Galaxy Nexus, picked the 6P, and magic ensued. Amusingly, the My Verizon app showed up on the 6P. I appreciated that since I finally know the satisfaction of deleting it.

You have to activate the Fi service, and it warned me that this could take a day or so, during which the device couldn't make or take calls. I went for it, and it actually took less than five minutes. Hooray!

First Impressions

In short, it's pretty great. There are tons of details and specs in proper reviews, so this is more about feelings.

  • Performance: Nothing to say. It's so fast it doesn't matter.
  • Camera: Quite good. Quick focus, well-balanced colors, and exceptional low-light performance. I can actually take one picture and it's good, as opposed to the five I needed to take on the Gnex to get something halfway decent. Side-by-side, I think it's a bit better than the Droid Turbo, despite having lower resolution; certainly less noise in the shadows.
  • OS: A major selling point for me was the pure Android OS, and it doesn't disappoint. Thoughtfully designed everywhere, Marshmallow is perfectly matched to this phone. I find Google Now On Tap is hit-or-miss: sometimes super-handy, sometimes has nothing to say. Hopefully they continue to improve it.
  • Fingerprint Scanner: Fingerprint unlocking is super cool. The scanner is in a natural position for me and it takes about as long to work as it does to lift up the phone, so it's quite seamless.
  • Battery: With reasonable use, the 6P lasts me over two days. I charge it every other night.
  • A/V: The display is crisp, well-saturated, and huge. There are speakers at the top and bottom, for stereo sound in landscape orientation. They're pretty loud, and pretty good for a phone.
Camera: Cat helping with dissertation.

Camera: I can see the pixels on that science!

Camera: Low light

Project Fi:
  • Project Fi App: The app is well-designed and intuitive, and the whole experience feels way more simple and transparent than dealing with traditional carriers.
  • Phone Calls: I called on WiFi. I called not on WiFi. It worked fine.
  • LTE: Mobile data around town? Great. Drive from Philadelphia to Bethlehem, PA rocking out to some Google Music? Also fine.
  • WiFi: At a coffee shop, I automatically connected to the public WiFi and a little key showed up, presumably to indicate that I was using Google's VPN as expected. Cool.
  • Nexus Protect: Recently Google launched Nexus Protect, a repair/replacement plan, which adds $5/month to the Fi service. They'll replace the device twice, fix broken screens, etc. I went for it.
I was prepared for a disaster: dropped calls, no service outside major cities, constantly switching networks and losing connection. Nope. It's all good. Driving through campus would destroy my Galaxy Nexus as it wavered between 4G and WiFi. Not so with the 6P, which seems a lot more intelligent about deciding which networks to use/avoid. The only time I had a poor signal was driving through the mountains of West Virginia on I-70 (where a Verizon phone did indeed had much better service). Elsewhere, including outside cities, it was fine and typically 4G.

Ever the thoughtful wireless provider, Google/Project Fi sent me a Christmas present, a set of legos with instructions to build a phone holder or cable organizer, and an extra USB cable.

Verizon never sent me toys...


So far so good! About a month in and the phone hasn't shattered into a thousand pieces yet, and Project Fi really feels like the carrier of the future, not a beta test.

So far, I have experienced none of the issues with hardware build quality, software problems, service quality, etc., that I read about in reviews and blogs. Hopefully it stays that way, but I'll update this if I run into trouble!

I'd recommend both the 6P and Project Fi to anyone. Indeed it seems especially well-suited to the not-so-tech savvy crowd: it's simpler to understand what you're paying for than with most traditional carriers (even when they're not cheating you) and there is in-person 24/7 support.