Google's Project Fi handoffs: Is it magic?

When one of the first reviews of Google's Project Fi phone and service came out a little over a week ago, it was interesting to hear the reviewer's assessment of the handoffs. When making a call on home Wi-Fi and then moving into the streets of San Francisco, "the transition was seamless," said The Wall Street Journal's Nathan Olivarez-Giles. "But Google also allows for a seamless handoff between the T-Mobile and Sprint networks without you noticing. That's magic."

The handoffs are of particular interest because for years, the wireless industry has tried to hone the Wi-Fi handoffs to cellular and vice versa. After hearing the trials and tribulations of some wireless players over the years, it sure sounded like pure magic if you could make it work as seamlessly as Google apparently did. While I understand great strides have been made, it seems that handoffs from one technology to another always have been a challenge.

So when the Nexus 6 arrived at my household's door--thanks to my better half, whose main motivation is to save money on the monthly cell phone bill but who also has a certain penchant for trying new Google products and services--I was eager to see how the handoffs actually work.

For my first attempt, I will chalk that up to user error. I decided to call myself from my phone and walk out the front door, but observation No. 1: It's not that easy to talk on two phones at the same time and listen for the voice quality, especially if one of them is the size of a brick. (The Nexus 6 is about 6 inches tall and 3 inches wide.) I stumbled a little bit out the door and the Nexus practically flew out of my hand and onto the cement, something my beloved husband didn't need to hear after shelling out $500 for this slick, shiny device. The call I was trying to make dropped after a few steps out the door.

Subsequent attempts to make phone calls and keep them going from home Wi-Fi throughout our Portland, Ore., neighborhood produced far better results. Observation No. 2: It was difficult in the bright sun to see the screen and note if it was telling me which network it was using, but it also wasn't clear which network was being used for voice and which for data. But I can say this: Whatever handoffs were occurring for voice, it was definitely not noticeable. Bravo on that, Google, although I still have a lot of questions about how it's accomplished. Some folks have suggested the calls are mainly being carried on the cellular networks, so that would seem to diminish the accomplishment by a mile or two.

However, according to Google's FAQ page, when both network types are available, Project Fi will route your call over whichever network provides the strongest connection.

Whenever 4G LTE is available, Project Fi will move the user to whichever cellular network has the fastest 4G LTE at his or her location. When 4G LTE isn't available, it puts you on the fastest network type in your area (3G or 2G). For the Wi-Fi, Project Fi connects to free, open Wi-Fi networks that do not require any action to get connected (such as entering a password, watching an ad or checking in). "We use a network quality database to help determine which networks are high quality and reliable," Google says, and on public Wi-Fi, it automatically connects via VPN to add a level of security to the whole thing.

After spending a few days with the Nexus 6 and Project Fi, I've come up with a few impressions, and it's always worth noting the "Project" in front of this endeavor. It's limited right now to just one phone, and it's a big honking thing. I suspect the photo quality isn't as good as the Moto G or even Samsung Galaxy models that previously were used in our household, but I will reserve judgement. The Google Voice website that used to make it easy to organize voicemail is no longer there. Google is pushing everyone to use Google Plus, which, while I can see the point, isn't for everyone.

In the plus column, the price is right--$20 a month for Fi Basics, which include text and talk, Wi-Fi tethering and cellular coverage in 120 countries. Data is charged at a $10 per gigabit rates; Google provides a usage guide and gives credits for unused data. There's no throttling. Project Fi alerts people if they're getting close to their data budget. If you go over, you'll still get full-speed data and data is charged at the same $10 per GB rate. For example, if you go over your data budget by 350 MB, $3.50 gets added to your next bill. That's fairly simple to understand, unlike the great majority of cell phone/data plans you see from the large mobile carriers, IMHO.

And if the photo image quality doesn't turn out to be that great, the video quality more than makes up for that. "Scandal" on Netflix never looked so good, and the device's bigger screen certainly works to its advantage for viewing video--as well as the in-home Wi-Fi connection to keep tabs on the data consumption. And with Google's Chromecast, you can cast to a Chromecast-equipped TV from the Nexus 6, projecting what you see on the device to the larger screen TV. A local basketball game took a while to buffer on the TV, but it's a pretty slick trick.

As for customer service, I'm interested to see how that goes since Google isn't exactly known for its customer service. (Then again, who is?) At any rate, it's an interesting experiment, and if anyone has any insights on how it's accomplishing the "magic" handoffs, let me know in the comment section. --Monica

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