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Google's Project Fi a new option for cheap phone plans

Aaron Pressman

There are plenty of low-cost mobile phone plans out there, but most require so many compromises they're not worth the savings.

But Google 's (GOOGL) new Project Fi service is a little different.

I've been trying Google Fi for the past few weeks, pitting it against my reigning favorite cheap cell phone plan, one of T-Mobile's (TMUS) $30 a month prepaid options.

I can tell you how it stacks up, but you'll have to wait to try it yourself. Fi isn't yet generally available. You can sign up now, but it may take a month or more for Google to call your number.

Broader coverage, better billing
Google offers broader coverage than T-Mobile's plan, a big improvement, and the billing approach is so great hopefully it will become the new industry standard.

Fi costs $20 for unlimited talk and texting, add another $10 per gigabyte of broadband data used. Unlike other carriers, Fi  charges you for specifically for the data you use. Have a quiet month of emailing and use only 500 MB? You'll get charged $5 plus the $20 starting fee. Stream a bunch of Netflix movies and pile up 5.7 GB of usage? You'll pay $57 plus the $20 fee. No fuss, no muss.

The network
The Fi network doesn't work quite like the plans offered by T-Mobile and the other large carriers. Google didn't go out and buy billions of dollars worth of spectrum licenses and then spend billion more to build a network of cell towers. Instead, Google is just leasing airtime from T-Mobile and Sprint (S). As Fi customers move around, their phones seamlessly switch from T-Mobile's network to Sprint's, depending on which has the strongest signal in any particular location. The Fi phone can also make and receive calls and texts even when it has just a wifi connection, a godsend when you're traveling in remote areas.

I found that the system worked flawlessly as long as I was covered by at least one of the two networks or wifi. In big cities and other densely populated areas, the Fi phone was just as good as my T-Mobile phone and a Verizon (VZ) phone I use for work. In the suburbs around my house, Fi was noticeably better than the T-Mobile phone and about on par with Verizon. My town's athletic complex is a notorious T-Mobile dead spot (the better to let me concentrate on my kids' soccer games), but the Fi phone grabbed an LTE signal there.

In more remote areas — on a drive through central Massachusetts and a trip to upstate New York, for example — the Fi phone's dual network coverage didn't help much. It was just as dead as my T-Mobile phone, while the Verizon phone often got at least a minimal connection. None of the three phones connected on a trip to Mackinac Island in Michigan. It was AT&T (T) or the highway there.




No iPhone for you
There's one big limitation on the new Fi service and for some people, it's going to be a deal breaker. Right now, you can only use Fi with the Google Nexus 6 made by Motorola. The phone costs $500 direct, which you can pay in 24 installments of $20.79 each if you prefer.

It's a decent if oversized phone, with a bright and sharp 6-inch screen and the very latest version of Google's Android operating system. It's hard to work with just one hand, though, and the camera is only mediocre.

Google says more phones are coming later, but it hasn't specified yet which ones (the super cheap new Moto G seems like an obvious choice). For now, if you love Apple's (AAPL) iPhone, prefer a smaller screen or just plain don't like Moto's hardware, Fi isn't for you.

The Nexus 6 phone itself is pretty much a stock Android phone, free of any carrier bloatware and with the fastest access to software updates directly from Google. Project Fi added only a single unobtrusive app to show how much data I used and control features like call forwarding and voice mail. A phone kit ordered from Google also included a useful hard shell case, external battery pack and ear buds, all designed to match Fi's white, green, blue and yellow logo. The accessories came neatly, if a bit wastefully packaged, in a beautiful set of almost Apple-like plastic boxes.

Google includes a few accessories with the Nexus 6 phone on its Project Fi service.

Even if you love the Nexus 6, my T-Mobile $30 plan may still be a better deal.

That plan allows for the use of up to 5 GB of high speed data per month before getting throttled — which would cost a total of $70 a month on Fi, if you actually used all that data. I typically use 2 GB to 3 GB, so the $30 T-Mobile charge is still less than the $40 to $50 I'd pay on Fi.

The limitation on the T-Mobile plan, as the name suggests, is in the voice minutes. But here, in a Fi-like billing twist, you simply get billed for any additional minutes you use at a rate of 10 cents each. I rarely go over by more than 10 or 20 minutes, adding a modest dollar or two to the bottom line. And you can use pretty much any phone T-Mobile sells on the web, including all the latest models from Apple, Samsung and LG.

There's a lot to like about Project Fi, but for most people it might be worth holding out until Google adds a few more phones to the mix. Still, no harm in getting on the waiting list now -- maybe the new phones will arrive on Fi before your invite.