Republic Relay hands-on: A fantastic take on a kid-friendly 'phone'

Relay (Image credit: Relay)

My 9-year-old came home from the first day of school this year and asked for a phone of his very own, and I laughed. His 13-year-old sister doesn't even have her own phone yet, and I didn't have one until I was much older that they are now. But as we talked, he explained many of the kids in his class had a phone, mostly for emergencies. At the end of the conversation I still wasn't ready to give him something he could call his own, but for things like field trips out of state I did find myself wanting him to have something.

I found myself unsatisfied with most of the solutions available at the time. The cellular "kid watches" available through carriers felt more like unstylish ankle monitors, and while Google's parental features in Gmail have improved dramatically this year, a full Android phone requires a ton of work to set up for someone like my son. Republic Wireless caught my attention not long ago when it announced Relay, a cellular device with most of the important smart and phone features without actually being a smartphone. After using a pair of them with my kids this week, I'm excited to see where this tech leads.

See at Republic Wireless

The anti-smartphone

Relay looks more like a portable Amazon Echo than it does a phone. There's a speaker grille covering the whole top of the device, with a single button on top and two buttons on the side. It charges through a proprietary magnetic connector on the bottom, and the only "display" on this rounded square is a glowing ring around the central button. The combination of this light up ring, simple vibrations, and a system voice through the speaker comprise the entire interface. And it works, this system is both intuitive and incredibly easy to navigate once you learn all of the shortcuts.

Relay is a simple communication tool kids actually want to use, with just enough smarts baked in to help keep them safe when you aren't around.

At its core, Relay works like a walkie-talkie. Press and hold the center button, and you can send a short message to the other Relay devices in your channel. The speaker is reasonably loud, but a headphone jack gives you another option if you're in a noisy place. If I have the Relay app open on my phone, I can send and receive voice commands to the channel as well.

When the app is closed, however, I don't get those messages. If one of the kids needs to get my attention, holding down the volume button for a couple of seconds gives me a notification telling me I need to check in on the Relay channel. But for the people holding the Relay speakers, it's unlimited two-way communication over both cellular and wireless with no interface needed to choose a network or anything. These speakers are connected in some way all the time.

A big part of how that always-on system works has a lot to do with a combination of the service Republic Wireless offers and a partnership with iPass. Republic Wireless pioneered the cellular network that offloads to WiFi whenever possible, and iPass gives Relay access to over 64 million hotspots across the globe. The Relay user never needs to know or care about what kind of network it is on, so long as it is connected to something so it can send or receive messages. In that respect, Relay is a massive success in our testing.

Privacy and safety first

Relay units have no personal information on them, are identified with random markers in the app, and for the moment can only communicate with the apps and Relays in the channel you create at set up. The smartphone app helps distinguish the Relay units through color and clever nicknames, but never any concrete personal identifiers. I know at the beginning of the day my daughter has the teal Relay and my son has the white Relay, and so I can choose to interact with one or the other if needed. When a Relay user pings the Relay channel, the speaker identifies who is in the channel through these nicknames, and never actual names or account information.

At the same time, the Relay app offers location data for parents to keep an eye on where their kids are. Location data can be observed historically or in real time, so you can see if someone has wandered off where they maybe shouldn't have. The Relay app doesn't currently offer a geofence with an alert system for when a Relay drifts outside of what you consider to be a safe area, a common feature among kid-tracking hardware these days, but the Republic team is responding well to feedback and adding features quickly.

The mission statement for Republic here couldn't be more clear: this system is being built from the kid's perspective instead of the parent. When you build from the parent's eye, you get cellular watches that look like ankle monitors and aren't any fun to use. Relay, on the other hand, has had the opposite effect on my kids. They love having these gadgets nearby, enjoy being able to communicate quickly with me and one another, and the safety features don't feel like they impose on the user in any significant way.

Fun, but way more useful in the future

There is a LOT to like about what Republic Wireless is offering right now. Relay is a simple communication tool kids actually want to use with just enough smarts baked in to help keep them safe when you aren't around. And there's a fun component as well, the "Echo" channel built in to Relay takes anything you say into it and repeats it back to you with a random voice filter. I didn't think much of it when I first used it, but when my 9-year old discovered the feature he played with it for hours and laughed the entire time. A perfect example of something built for kids instead of parents.

For my kids, especially the younger ones, Relay is an impressive effort to keep us connected without involving a full-featured phone.

In my opinion, the price is right, too. For $150, you get a pair of Relays in whatever color you choose, and for $7/month per unit you have unlimited access to the network. There are other bundles available if you have more people in your group, or you can add on as you see fit for $99/Relay. Because it is available in five colors, there's a lot of flexibility in choosing which you'd prefer. And if multiple people choose the same color, Relay comes with a sticker pack so you can better identify one as your own.

But the most interesting part about Relay, at least for me, is that it's not fully baked yet. Republic Wireless has been sourcing feedback from early testers and current customers for future features, and the list of things it hopes to implement is impressive. These speakers are already great at what they do, but if Republic is able to add promised features like Google Assistant and streaming music, the age group these things will appeal to goes up considerably.

While I certainly don't need one more gadget to carry around every day, I could certainly see myself preferring to grab a Relay off the charger instead of my distraction-heavy phone for a day at the beach or a trip to an amusement park with the family. For my kids, especially the younger ones, Relay is an impressive effort to keep us connected without involving a full-featured phone I have to lock down myself.

See at Republic Wireless

More: The best smartwatches for kids

Russell Holly

Russell is a Contributing Editor at Android Central. He's a former server admin who has been using Android since the HTC G1, and quite literally wrote the book on Android tablets. You can usually find him chasing the next tech trend, much to the pain of his wallet. Find him on Facebook and Twitter

  • This is super cool! My 6 y/o is already asking for a phone and I'm dreading the day already. Having something like this to give for emergencies is super awesome. Can't wait to see how the service & features improve over time as well.
  • Really? My 5 and 4 year old already know how to work a smart phone, I would never give them some cheap crap like this.
  • Each parent has to choose what's appropriate for their children. These might be "cheap crap" to you, but they might be perfect for someone else. Personally my daughter got my free S9 when I bought a S9+.
  • 4 and 5 year olds shouldn't be using smart phones. Some of us believe the studies that show smart phones are addictive and basically ruin developing children for the future. This product is welcome and necessary.
  • 4-5yo using a smartphone? Parent of the year award right there.... Not
  • Ok.
  • I was also interested in this when I heard of it. Seems super cool. How is the cell coverage with it? Have you had any issues with dead spots? And, what about when they are in class? If someone says something to the group, is the whole class going to hear it? Can you leave them messages for them to hear later? I'd love to be able to say, "call me when you get out of class." And, out of state field trips, how cool is that!
  • This works on sprint's network. so you would need to look at that coverage. but it also works on wifi so at home or school (most have public wifi now). In reference to hearing in school. they would need to turn the volume down. as of right now there isn't a way to leave a message. i don't have one yet but this was my concern too. would love the same feature.
  • Hey attereb200, Jon from Relay here. Just a heads up, we are working on the feature you described, so that you could leave a message for others to pick up later.
  • I would never buy my kids some cheap crap I wouldn't use myself. My 9 year old has a S8+ and she's about to get my S9+ when the Note 9 comes out. My other kids have a two Note 8's and S9+.
  • Are you my ex? She accused me of child abuse for wanting to buy the children used bicycles when she couldn't pay her bills. SMH
  • Some of us believe the studies that show smart phones are addictive and basically ruin developing children for the future. This product is welcome and necessary.
  • I don't see how kids having a cell phone ruins development I've had a Smartphone since I was 10 years old and it hasn't ruined my development
  • Bet you bought them a copy of Bonestorm each?
  • Good choice. My 2 year old has my Galaxy S7E, just got her the Lenovo Tab4 10 plus tablet. Great tablet btw. Snap 626, battery lasts forever.
  • Is the S7 to teach her patients?
  • wow! your kids have 5 phones? I'll take one please. And you get a phone and you get a phone and you get a phone!
  • This is a great device. I bought a Galaxy J7 for my 9 year old and added it to my plan for only $8 a month on AT&T. Even when she's bitter with me, as long as she has her phone, I know where it is and have remote access to it via Google Family Link.
  • 13 years old without a phone? Seriously?
  • Check this out as an option.
  • I was 28 when I got my first cell phone and it was a bag phone. Believe it or not but there was life before smartphones. My kids got there first phone at 16 when it became more convenient for ME that they have one!
  • Great software
  • Thanks for this software it is very helpfull
  • It is very helpfull
  • Rtyioop
  • This is amazing. Kids have absolutely no business having a smartphone let alone a top of the line model with all the bells and whistles under the age of 13. Horrible parenting. Keep up the great work, relay team!
  • This is why sub $100 cheap smartphones were made for kids if your buying your kid a phone just buy ones of these cheap $100 phones they don't need anything more then that and probably a $15 monthly plan I guess if you want
  • Instead of knocking parents who get their children cellphones or give them their hand-me-downs maybe you should understand that some families respect their children and their responsibility levels and allow them to have cell phones because they've proven themselves worthy of owning a cell phone. Not to mention someone like myself whose ex does not have a home phone, without a cell phone for my children, I wouldn't be able to talk to my children because he does not have a home phone... so maybe don't knock parents who actually want their children to have as much as they deserve and that is the reason most parents work as hard as they do is provide children with the things we didn't have growing up.
  • How about an article with suggestions on setting up and locking down Android devices for kids? I think these Relay devices are excellent for younger and early teen children.
  • I would agree this is a good idea