Hands-on with the Republic Wireless Moto X

With no contract and monthly plans starting at just $5, this could really shake things up.

Republic Wireless sells the Moto X for $299, no contract required.
Republic Wireless sells the Moto X for $299, no contract required. Photo by Rick Broida/CNET

Cellular provider Republic Wireless, best known for offering $19-per-month service with low-end Android handsets , recently announced plans to carry the Motorola Moto X , a decidedly high-end handset (and a widely loved one at that). Although the $19 plan is no more, you can operate the Moto for as little as $5 per month, or as much as $40. Additional options fall in between.

Too good to be true? Or bargain of the century? Over the weekend I was able to put the Moto X through some preliminary paces. Though I did encounter a few bumps along the way, I was ultimately left with one conclusion:

This is a game-changer.

The buy-in

Republic Wireless will sell the Moto X for $299 (as early as Wednesday, according to a company rep). That's an unsubsidized price, meaning you're not locked into a two-year contract like with the big carriers. If you were to purchase the phone directly from Motorola, unlocked and without a contract, it would cost you $599.99.

Needless to say, this is an incredible deal, but there's one small catch: The phone is inextricably linked to Republic's ecosystem, so you can't take it elsewhere for service. Whether or not you'd want to remains to be seen (more on that below).

After you pony up $299 for the hardware, you're given a choice of four monthly plans:

Monthly plans for the Moto X range from $5-40, no contract required.
Monthly plans for the Moto X range from $5-40, no contract required. Republic Wireless
  • $5: Unlimited talk, text, and data on Wi-Fi only
  • $10: Unlimited talk and text on cellular, unlimited data on Wi-Fi only
  • $25: Unlimited talk, text, and data on Wi-Fi and 3G
  • $40: Unlimited talk, text, and data on Wi-Fi and 4G LTE

So there's an option for just about every user need. Interestingly, Republic will allow you to switch plans (which you can do right on the phone) up to two times per month, and will prorate your bill accordingly. (So I was told by a Republic rep, although the prorating isn't mentioned anywhere on the company's FAQ page.)

So, for example, as someone who works from home and spends most of his time blanketed by Wi-Fi, I could choose the $5 or $10 plan. If I'm going on a trip and know I'll need high-speed data, I could bump up to the $$25 or $40 plan, then back down again when I get home.

Of course, even the top-end $40 plan costs considerably less than what Sprint charges for unlimited 4G LTE service: $80 monthly as part of a two-year contract.

The service

How can Republic Wireless offer such low rates? As with its previous phones, a custom ROM inside the Moto X makes use of any available Wi-Fi network -- not just for data, but also for calls and text messages. No Wi-Fi? Only then does the phone tap Sprint's cellular network.

Yep, Sprint. And there's the rub, at least for me: In my neck of the woods (the fringes of metro Detroit), Sprint coverage is terrible. There's no 4G, and 3G data speeds (based on my tests with the SpeedTest app) were a woeful 0.18 Mbps (download) and 0.24 Mbps (upload).

Your mileage will almost certainly vary, of course. And when I drove just a few miles up the road, I found myself in a lovely 4G pocket and enjoyed vastly superior data performance. This inconsistency doesn't bother me much because, as I mentioned, I spend most of my time connected to Wi-Fi anyway.

One key area where Republic Wireless needed improvement was in hand-offs between Wi-Fi and cellular. Specifically, if you were on a Wi-Fi-powered call and then moved out of range of the network, your call dropped. The Moto X promises a seamless hand-off between networks, and in my tests, dang if it didn't actually work.

The phone

The Moto X from Republic Wireless.
The Moto X from Republic Wireless. Republic Wireless

This was my first encounter with the Moto X, and I quickly came to understand why it's such a popular model. It's remarkably thin and light, with a gorgeous screen and some truly nifty features -- especially the always-on Google Now voice control. You don't have to pick up the phone or activate the screen or anything; just say, "OK, Google Now," then your command or query, and the phone handles the rest. That's some space-age magic at work right there.

Unfortunately, you can't get any of the celebrated Moto Maker customization options , and for now Republic Wireless offers only the 16GB model -- which has no microSD slot for extra storage. That's a bummer, though at least you can use USB OTG to connect external drives .

I should note that although most reviews have praised the Moto X's battery life, my review unit seemed battery-challenged. I'd go to bed seeing a half-full battery gauge and wake up to either a dead or near-dead phone. I'm sure some tweaking of the power and perhaps notification settings would help, but ultimately I was expecting much better battery performance.

I'm in

This is the phone (and phone service) I've been waiting for. After two years of squinting at my iPhone 4S and paying AT&T $80 per month for service, I'm ready to make a change. But no way am I getting roped into another two-year contract, especially at that rate.

As it happens, I just switched the 4S over to Walmart's Straight Talk service, which costs $45 monthly. So I may give that a little time before making the move. But as of right now, I'm planning to make the Republic Wireless Moto X my next phone. In terms of pure bang for the buck, no major carrier offers anything close. (No smaller carrier does, either.) This is one cheapskate who's looking forward to a much lower monthly bill -- and a state-of-the-art phone.

 

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