Since it launched in 2015, Google’s Project Fi has quietly been one of the best deals in tech. An alternative to mainstream carriers, it offers simplified data plans, easy international use, and a slew of other perks. The catch: Only Google’s Nexus and Pixel phones—and, more recently, a smattering of third-party Android options—have worked on it. That changes Wednesday, when the slightly renamed Google Fi will begin accepting most recent Android smartphones and iPhones running iOS 11 or higher.
As always, there’s a catch, the size of which depends on what smartphone you bring over. It’s helpful, though, to talk through why you might want to in the first place, especially if you’re not familiar with Google Fi.
Unlike the big four US carriers you’ve heard of, the Verizons and Sprints of the world, Google Fi doesn’t operate its own network. Instead, it piggybacks on those of T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular, handing your phone off to whichever one offers the strongest connection at any given time. That makes it a “mobile virtual network operator,” rather than a carrier proper. In practice, this doesn’t mean much for you, other than hypothetically more consistently strong coverage wherever you are.
Where you will notice a difference is the straightforward pricing. On Google Fi, you get unlimited calls and texting for $20 per month, while data costs $10 per gigabyte, up to 6 GB. That’s likely the most you’ll pay; any data over that limit is free, although Google will start throttling you at 15 GB. (You can cough up $10 per gigabyte again at that point to restore full speeds.) The other wrinkle: You pay only for the data you use. If you hit 2.5 GB, for example, you get five bucks back.
Which is maybe a complicated way of explaining how simple it all is. Google Fi also has no long-term contracts; you pay month to month and can go as you please. And data costs the same internationally as it does at home, at least in most countries.
But as great as Google Fi has been this whole time, its device selection has disappointed. Google’s Pixel line is consistently terrific but expensive. And the non-Pixel options on Project Fi have been paltry—a couple of LG and Motorola handsets. Most of all, it has left millions of iPhone owners out in the cold.
They’ll finally get the chance to join Google Fi on Wednesday, but here come the caveats. iOS compatibility is technically in beta, so anticipate a less-than-smooth experience. It also leaves out some important secondary features, like visual voicemail, calls and texts over Wi-Fi, automated spam detection, and international tethering.
Similarly, Android smartphones that aren’t built specifically for Google Fi—so anything other than Pixels and those LG and Motorola handsets—won’t be able to seamlessly switch between, say, T-Mobile and Sprint, or between Wi-Fi and cellular. They’ll lack spam blocking and Wi-Fi calls and texts, too. And if you’re stuck on a device running anything older than Android 7.0, you’re out of luck. That’s about half of all Android smartphones currently in use.
That sounds grim, but it’s probably helpful to think of it in terms of how many of those features your current carrier offers in the first place. And even more helpful to think of how much they charge you for it. The real appeal of Google Fi has always been its simplicity and affordability, both of which remain no matter what device you bring on board.