Hands-On Review of the Republic Wireless $19 ‘Unlimited’ Cell Phone Plan

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Hands-On Review of the Republic Wireless $19 'Unlimited' Cell Phone Plan

Back in early November I wrote about Republic Wireless, a company offering a compelling $19 a month unlimited plan with no contract. I ordered a phone the same day, and it arrived late in December. Let’s take a quick look at what they have to offer!

The Hype:
Newsflash: anything a cell network can do, the Internet can do better and cheaper.
So we think a truly smart smartphone should make a habit of using Wi-Fi for everything. Surfing. Texting. Sharing. And, yes, even talking.

There isn’t an app for this.
And you definitely shouldn’t have to download any special apps to get on the web instead of a cellular network. It should be automatic, built-in. You just use your phone.

Hybrid Calling™ is just like a hybrid car, only traditional carriers are the oil companies.
And if there isn’t any Wi-Fi around? No problem, your republic smartphone just switches itself over to cellular.

The Reality:
While the promise of Republic Wireless focusing on a low-cost unlimited Android smartphone experience seems enticing, it is worth noting that Republic remains intertwined with all of the normal issues facing mobile phone users. There are three critical aspects of a cell phone – the hardware, user experience (OS, UI and software) and the network.

The Hardware:
There is one phone provided by Republic Wireless, which is a LG Optimus S. This is a Sprint phone from 2010, and it is quite honestly the worst Android smartphone I have ever used. The bottom line problem is the touchscreen. It is laggy and unresponsive and sometimes seems more like an old resistive screen than a capacitive multi-touch!

Yet reviews I have seen are fairly positive on the Optimus – I mean, I am also reviewing the Samsung Repp and HTC Wildfire, both ‘free on contract’ phones, and neither of which has the screen issues I have seen. But looking at some user forum comments from the past tells me I don’t have a defective phone.

In fact, I actually got a second phone since I started writing this – my initial idea was to replace the $9.99/month (plus enough fees that it ended at $16.50) we were paying for ‘dumb’ phones for each of our kids with ‘unlimited’ phone, texting and data with Republic Wireless. That plan changed after spending time with the phone and particularly the service.

Although the LG isn’t meant to be a high-end camera replacement, I was interested to see how it would do compared to my Droid Pro. That phone was released in late 2010 along with the Droid 2, and honestly I have always thought it took mediocre images. But the quick comparison shows that the LG shots make the Droid look like a Pro Camera! Here is one comparison – LG first, Droid second … and there are more in the gallery at the end.

Hands-On Review of the Republic Wireless $19 'Unlimited' Cell Phone Plan

Hands-On Review of the Republic Wireless $19 'Unlimited' Cell Phone Plan

The Network:

If you look at the image above you see that the phone was essentially dead, and charging at 1% at 5:42AM. I had just plugged it in, after coming home at 5PM after it charged to full on my desk at work. I have full WiFi signal at home, but sketchy Sprint signal. The bottom line is that well before 12 hours of standby with NO use the phone was dead.

My point? Republic Wireless is vocal and highly insistent about the WiFi connection, and yet even when WiFi is full-on, the 3G antenna sucks down your power looking to maintain a connection.

I thought the whole point was to ‘be a WiFi’? I AM a WiFi, and therefore this phone should be perfect since 80% of my life is in my office or home, with great WiFi signal. But to reuse the Republic ‘hybrid’ analogy, this is like having a hybrid car that keeps burning gas even when you have a full battery.

Since I drive a hybrid vehicle, I will continue the analogy. I love how my car will seamlessly switch between gas and electric modes based on what is needed, and will even use the electric power to help boost the gas mileage and charge the battery when in gas mode. It is a symbiotic relationship.

As I said, our Sprint coverage throughout the entire region I live in is awful. That means that I really rely on WiFi for any sort of network performance. Sadly the call quality over WiFi on the LG Optimus is tinny and crackly – this is on a 10MB cable network that wonderfully supports Skype video at high quality! It really didn’t matter where I was located, the quality was mediocre at best – even compared to an older ‘dumb phone’.

To make matters worse, I consistently got failures when transitioning between networks. So if I was out in the yard with my kids and went across the street while talking on the phone, the call would break up and drop. Similarly if I was driving and talking on my Bluetooth headset and pulled into my driveway, the WiFi would kick in and the call would drop. It is a terrible system that Republic needs to fix.

Hands-On Review of the Republic Wireless $19 'Unlimited' Cell Phone Plan

User Experience:

It seems that a crappy phone would give a crappy experience, but that isn’t what I am talking about. Nor am I talking about network connectivity or other network-specific issues. I am talking here about what it is like living and working with Republic Wireless.

Republic Wireless is a small company that is attempting to change thing up by offering a contract-free smartphone with a full Android experience and low monthly rates. To do this they have integrated text and calling software that works over both WiFi and normal cellular networks.

Republic Wireless recently completely changed up their business model by declaring themselves ‘truly unlimited’. This is a pretty huge change.

Initially, Republic was based on the idea that most of us spend a large part of our time in WiFi covered areas, so they structure their add-on software to utilize WiFi as much as possible. In fact, they have a ‘ratio’ that looks at your network usage compared to WiFi usage and would rate you – they only wanted certain usage profiles hitting their network to avoid over-utilizing Sprint’s network … and said that they would ‘ask you to look elsewhere’ if you were a consistent ‘too much 3G’ user. Now they STILL push the WiFi connections, but won’t boot you if you don’t meet their usage profiles.

The upside as a user is that you simply set your WiFi networks, and then don’t worry about your usage. You simply get a full Android experience for $19 a month.

Conclusions:

Let me be blunt – there is no way I can recommend Republic Wireless. It is a seemingly great idea that is dreadful in execution.

The phone they chose is awful – it has a terrible touchscreen and is generally one of the worst phones I have ever used. I routinely got ~3-4 hours of battery life – which didn’t depend much on whether I used the phone at all! The 3G ‘hunting’ killed me all the time.

The Republic Wireless system is entirely dependant on the Sprint Network to an extent that really makes no sense. If a system wants you to ‘be a WiFi’, then in strong WiFi areas it shouldnt even worry about the 3G antenna. But it does, meaning that in poor signal areas you will get atrocious battery life.

And curiously, for a system that touts WiFi/3G interoperability, I never got it to work. Switching networks meant losing calls. And regardless of which network I was on the call quality was amongst the worst I have had on any cell phone of the digital era.

One of the first things that draws people in is the price – $19 a month. As some pointed out, T-Mobile and other carriers offer budget no-contract plans that rival this … and allow you to bring your own phone or buy one of their older smartphones for a reasonable price – most less than the $200 you pay for Republic’s LG phone. In the end, the seeming low price isn’t such a bargain after all.

Review: Republic Wireless

Where to Buy: Republic Wireless

Price: $199 plus $19/month

What I Like: Low monthly cost; unlimited talk, text and data; calls and text over WiFi as well as 3G

What Needs Improvement: Dreadful phone; dependence on 3G kills battery; lousy call quality; inability to jump between 3G and WiFi during calls.

Source: Personal Purchase

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About the Author

Michael Anderson
I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!