Republic Wireless has been kicking around in beta form for about a year now, and they have recently allowed me to spend some time with their phone and their service. I'll admit, I went into it all a bit skeptical. I understand the phone choice (the lowly Motorola Defy XT) is far from ideal for an Android power user, but that's not what had me scrutinizing things so closely. It was the whole idea of unlimited calls, texts, and data for just 20 bucks a month using a Wifi connection when available, and how well things would work when one wasn't.
Republic is doing something that I love to see -- shaking up the status quo that the carriers in the United States have worked so hard to build. Delivering something different is important, and if it turns out to be more consumer friendly then we all win. I really wanted this to be a worthwhile service that provides an alternative for the value conscious smart phone buyer. Hit the break and see what I think.
Here's the part that most folks reading Android Central won't like. Because Republic uses special software, you can only use their approved phones on the service. Right now, the only approved phone is the Motorola Defy XT. It's far from a powerhouse. It wasn't a powerhouse when it first hit the scene last year, and it was never supposed to be a powerhouse.
What the Defy XT is, is a rugged (literally -- it's water resistant, dust-proof and scratch-proof) low-end smart phone that will take the beating of riding around in your pocket and not complain about it. You don't have the latest version of Android, and you never will.
I'm not going to review the phone itself, but I will give a quick overview. A look at the specs:
- 3.7-inch LCD at 480 x 854 resolution
- Android 2.3 (Gingerbread)
- Qualcomm 1GHz Snapdragon (MSM7227A)
- Adreno 200 GPU
- 512MB RAM
- 1GB internal storage
- SD card slot
- 1650 mAh battery
- 5MP rear camera with LED flash
Everything on the phone works as you would expect it to. Calls (more on that later), GPS, Bluetooth, etc. etc. When you move into Google Play and start to try and push the envelope, you'll certainly find yourself in situations where things get slow and laggy. My ultimate benchmark -- Riptide GP -- actually played fairly well on the little Defy XT, but this thing wasn't designed to play immersive 3D games..
Battery life was very much dependent on how I was using the phone. Sitting in my office and on Wifi the battery was excellent (as expected) because it's never looking for a cellular signal, and not connected via a cell radio for voice calling. On 3G things weren't quite as rosy. General use as a communications device -- email, phone calls, messaging -- will leave you with a dead battery by evening.
You shouldn't be choosing your service provider by the hardware they offer, and the lure of using Republic isn't the phone. Having said that, Republic has indicated that they will be releasing more compelling phones soon.
This is the important part. There are two ways to get started. You can pay $249 up front for the phone, and pay $19 monthly for completely unlimited service. Alternatively, you can buy in at $99 for the phone and pay $29 monthly for your service. There no hidden fees, no contracts, and no surprises. In addition, Motorola is offering $50 in Google Play credit with the purchase of the Defy XT on Republic Wireless. Either option sounds like a fine choice, as it will take you 20 months of service for the cheaper priced plan to give a savings over the more expensive one.
The phone acts just like any other Android phone. You sign into your Wifi access point and it drops the 3G data connection to use it. We're all used to how that works. But in this case, it also drops voice service and uses Republic's VoIP service for calls. When you're not in range of a Wifi access point, the phone uses Sprint's service for voice and 3G data. If you're in the middle of a call and leave Wifi range, the call drops, you connect to cellular, and the phone automatically redials. Because you can use Wifi for calling, you'll want to. It's better on the battery, offers better voice service, and you know where the dead spots are at home or work. Republic counts on users utilizing Wifi, and that's what keeps costs down.
To the end-user, the experience is mostly seamless. You use the same dialer to make calls whether you're on Wifi or 3G. The calls were nice and clear, but there is a slight echo sometimes, just like you'll hear with T-Mobile's Wifi calling. The receiving party doesn't hear it, and it's not horrible -- but it's there. Text messages are done the same way, and with the latest update from Republic, are now able to be sent and received on Wifi. One big possible drawback is the lack of MMS messages. There's no way to attach a picture to a text, and when someone sends you one you'll never receive it. That's not a big deal if everyone you know uses a smart phone, but makes sharing images with folks not using a smart phone a bit difficult.
I tested the phone in the country where I live, in the suburbs of Harrisburg, PA, and around the DC metro area. I couldn't find anything wrong with the service. Inside a home or business where I could use Wifi things were great, away from an access point things were as I would expect from Sprint -- decent in some places and spotty in others.
It's been mentioned around the web that Republic offers little in the way of customer service. The word of a reviewer means little here. I have a contact who is quick to answer any questions when I'm reviewing a device, and that isn't anything like the customer service you or I get from our carrier or device manufacturer. I can't speak to the customer service of Republic wireless, but I know from experience that no-contract plans usually get you very little of it. Maybe the folks complaining online are wrong, and Republic will offer you excellent customer care. All I know for sure is that it's worth mentioning -- and worth you mulling it over if you're thinking of trying out Republic or any other pre-paid service.
If you just looked at the pictures then jumped to the end, you need to go back and read the rest this time. This isn't a normal review of a phone, it's about a new way of thinking in the world of wireless carriers.
If you need the best smart phone, or depend on your phone for Internet, watching movies, and gaming, Republic isn't going to work for you right now. The Defy XT is plenty capable as a phone and communication device, but you don't want to make it your sole access to the Internet. You should keep an eye on the service though, because things could get interesting if they release more phones over the summer. This service on a phone like the Galaxy S II would be a whole different animal.
If you're not the type who is dependent on your Android phone for all your entertainment needs, and especially if you're using a Sprint MVNO like Boost or Virgin Mobile right now, you should have a long look at what Republic has to offer. The service is actually better than any of the Sprint based pre-paid carriers with the inclusion of using Wifi for calls, and the price makes it a no-brainer. I could easily see someone who uses a tablet for their Android fix using this as their phone, and being completely happy saving about $50 a month doing it. In fact, I'll go out on a limb and recommend just that for folks on a budget.