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