Just a few hours ago, I unwrapped my new Moto X phone from Republic wireless. It’s the dazzlingly fancy new device that many current and potential Republic customers have been waiting for, so I figured this event warrants an early review.
If you read my original post about this wireless company from May 2013, you know that I’m already a fan. Back then, they were offering a basic smartphone with a $19/month unlimited-everything service plan.
The response was mixed: quite a few of us signed up, and I received mostly positive reviews from those who reported back. Republic’s sole phone at the time – the Motorola Defy XT – was definitely a step back in time, but somehow I managed to lead a happy and productive life with it for over 5 months. Call quality was usually fine, and email and text messages were pretty good too. I didn’t love that gadget, but I also didn’t hate it like Jim Collins did.
I took it to Canada for the summer and was pleased to note that calling and texts remained free for me even during that time. Took it to Ecuador and was able to keep in touch over Wi-fi as well as using it as a hiking navigator by caching a satellite map of the Otovalo area in Google Maps. Used it as a speedometer, altimeter, and E-book listener, and tuned it to Pandora’s Medeski Martin and Wood station one summer night and plugged it into an amplifier, where it rocked a party (pulling music out of thin air with the unlimited 3G data connection) without complaint. The user interface was definitely choppy and slow to the touch, and it didn’t take good pictures. The upside is that I spent far less time looking at my phone. “It’s the phone that gives you your life back!”, is the humorous marketing slogan a friend came up with.
But temptation called, and I was given the chance to evaluate the opposite end of the spectrum: A Samsung Galaxy S4 superphone (retail price about $600) running on a Ting Wireless plan – a direct competitor of Republic wireless. I accepted this challenge to make sure I wasn’t just becoming a complacent Republic spokesman, while not knowing what else was out there.
Going from the little Defy to the gigantic Galaxy was like stepping centuries into the future. Holy Shit, is that ever a nice phone. Every feature is incomparably better than the equivalent on any other device I’ve ever seen. The screen is astonishingly big, bright and clear. The camera takes images that look like you cut them out of Real Life and pasted them to your retinae. The sound and video recording, call quality, and smooth, fluid motion were other-worldly. I became addicted to telephone use again, and my wife and son were not pleased.
The neat thing about Ting is that they have a unique pricing model: you can bring your own Sprint-network phone (some people pick them up on eBay), or buy one directly from them. Then you use talk, text, and data as you see fit and they automatically adjust your plan based on a bucket system with six sizes: Small through XXL. You can add additional phones at $6 per month each and share the same pools.
I ran mine at full-bore for a month and came up halfway through the “Medium” bucket with a bill of $33. So theoretically Mrs. MM could add a line and share the bucket, and our joint family bill would be $39 per month. A big bonus for travelers is that this plan includes Wi-fi tethering, which is hard to come by without ridiculous fees.
All this Ting stuff is important, because Republic has now released a phone that beats the iPhone 5 and rivals the Galaxy S4 in most important usefulness measurements, while running on an ultra-competitive rate plan system.
- For five bucks a month ($5!?), you can use this phone in WiFi-only mode. Everything still works whenever you get wifi reception, you just can’t make calls from the middle of nowhere.
- 10 Bucks gets you the same WiFi access, plus unlimited talk and text nationwide. This is probably the most useful ultra-frugal plan I’ve ever seen.
- The $25 plan duplicates what the $19 plan offered before: unlimited everything, including 3G data. They had to raise the price slightly because they know that when your phone is awesome instead of crappy, you will naturally tend to use it more.
- The $40 plan adds up to 5GB of 4G data. This would be the road warrior fancypants plan. Since any internet access at all on a telephone is still thrilling to me, and my town doesn’t even have 4G towers, I would personally find this to be overkill. But for those using phones for work, it is still a mighty low price for what they are offering.
- All of this is based primarily on the Sprint network, but Republic phones will automatically roam (free of charge) to Verizon towers for both voice and data if you ever find yourself outside of Sprint’s coverage
And as if that wasn’t enough flexibility, you can also jump between any of these plans freely, up to twice each month. And by “jump”, I mean swipe down on your screen and select a new option, not make an arduous call to a telephone service representative. So you might stay on the frugal plan most of the time, and boost it to 4G mode for business or road trips.
It’s almost too cheap – I hope that the company can continue turn a profit while making service this affordable and subsidizing the phone. But from conversations with the management, it seems they are approaching things from the position of strength – put out a really good offering which depends in part on customers not abusing it, and hope that the resulting strong demand and customer loyalty counteracts the risk.
Both of these companies represent an amazing step forward for the typical US mobile phone customer. This week a reader and I had an amusing conversation with Verizon on Twitter. Verizon was trying valiantly to keep his business, but when I looked at their rate plans, I could see it was hopeless. To review the competitive landscape in three points for a hypothetical household of two:
- They could share an already-plentiful 500 minutes, 1000 texts, and 500MB of data on Ting for $39/month
- Or they could each have unlimited everything on Republic for a combined total of $50/month
- Or they could share unlimited talk and text and 1GB of data on Verizon for … $130/month!?
The battle between these new carriers and the old ones is so far from competitive that it is ridiculous.
This is the part we were all waiting to find out: Does the Motorola X live up to its promise of being one of the most advanced smartphones in production? And can it finally make calls over Wi-Fi that are reliable and clear every time? So far, I believe the answer might be yes.
We’ll start with the price: Republic is selling the phone at $299, which means they are subsidizing a good chunk of the purchase price, despite the fact that they have a no-contract service model. It’s still a lot of money, so if you’re using a Defy and it works well for you, keep up the good work. A better phone will not give you a happier life, but in my line of work, I do benefit from certain features – especially a better camera.
I rounded up the four phones that are currently residing in my house*: iPhone 4, Motorola Defy, Samsung Galaxy S4, and Motorola X. To keep the comparison brief, I took the same picture with all four phones: a low-light interior shot (with no flash) of my messy breakfast bar. This allows you to get a rough idea of phone size, camera quality and lens angle, screen size, and screen quality all in one shot.
Although it’s just one picture, this general theme sums up the capabilities of the four phones in all areas. The iPhone pretty much nailed the user experience back at version 4, and since then things have just been getting bigger and shinier. You can generally gauge a phone’s raw power and fanicness in all areas, simply by noting how huge it is.
For example, my experience over the past month with the Galaxy S4 has been pleasant, and it is a great device for taking pictures, sound recordings, and reading emails and even whole books. But it’s so big, I have to take it out of my pocket when squatting down to work on something for an extended period. It is also delicate: the phone developed a frequent-rebooting problem within two weeks of ownership. Later, I accidentally dropped it from chair height onto my driveway, and the entire glass sheet cracked to shards. So much for “Gorilla Glass” (note to self: better put a beefy rubber case on this new Motorola X before the next accident happens).
The Moto X has most of the advantages of the Galaxy, but with a less slippery exterior, and slightly more compact dimensions that fit better in a pocket. It feels more like a good phone, and less like a tablet. It still has a very large, incredibly bright and clear screen with pixels too fine for the eye to discern. The menus and motions and swiping and 3-D gaming graphics are fluid, like something from an amazing science fiction movie rather than something you and I actually get to own.
It runs a clean and up-to-date version of Android, which means it is easy to use and easily customizable: I’ve already updated its stock keyboard, camera, image viewer, sounds and ringtones, voice recorder app, calculator, wallpaper, notification tray, and added a one-touch flashlight widget, for example. I also prefer its wider-angle lens: in the picture above, you can see how much more of the room it captures when compared to the Galaxy. Note that in my photo, the Moto X screen appears a bit blurry and overexposed but this is just a byproduct my attempt to capture all four phones in the SLR I used to take that picture – in real life, color realism and clarity was very close to the Galaxy.
If you’re curious about where it lies in the phone landscape, our mutual friend Johnny Moneyseed put together this table of stats:
When it comes right down to it, the choice of smartphone depends heavily on personal taste. Because mine gets used almost entirely for blog-related stuff, my own preferences are good camera first, fast interface for reading emails second, big clear screen third, sound recording fourth, and then internet access, some other stuff, and phone calls somewhere near the bottom. But a plumber or salesman or software engineer might put things in a completely different order.
The bottom line for the purpose of this article, however, is that the Moto X is near the top of the pack in all of those areas, and when combined with Republic’s $5/10/25/40 rate plan, makes them almost unbeatable.
On the other hand, if the Ting plans line up better with your needs, you might want this link**.
An Update, 3 months later: I continue to use the Republic Moto X as my primary phone, and could not be happier with the phone and the company in general. Everything just works and blends in to the background of life as it should, just as it did when I got my first iPhone. Taking pictures, doing business, and making calls. The only difference is that the unlimited nature of the plan makes life simpler, and the ridiculously low price makes life less expensive.
Final Note: Republic and Ting represent only my own two favorites out of a growing range of options. Collectively, your fellow readers know far more than I do in this field and they have already started sharing their own tips in the comments section below. Let us know your own ultimate frugal mobile phone solution, or if there is anything I need to add to this post about Republic to make it more accurate and complete.
* Four phones!? You can blame this on the blog. People send me free ones these days, and I dutifully engage my old gadget addiction so you can benefit from my cluttered house.
** Both of these companies offer affiliate links, so I have provided those in this article. So if you use ’em, they benefit this blog – and thanks!
But if you are already a member, you might want to generate your own referral codes and share them with your friends privately – this will give you additional months of free phone service. Enjoy!