An unlimited, contract-free smartphone plan for $19 a month? Sounds too good to be true, but that's the promise from Republic Wireless, a new hybrid cellular/VoIP carrier from Bandwidth.com. You dish out $199 for an LG Optimus S Android phone upfront (the only model offered on the network right now), then sign up for its cheap monthly service. In return, Republic Wireless gives you an all-you-can-eat buffet of unlimited calls, texts and data. The catch? Republic Wireless assumes you'll be connected to a Wi-Fi network for most of the day, only using a cell network as backup. The service is still in beta (and trial slots are currently full), but Republic Wireless will supposedly let folks in by mid-2012. When it does, should you sign up for this ultra-low rate? Read on.
Although it's a budget smartphone, the LG Optimus S doesn't feel chintzy. It has a sturdy, candy bar build that feels good to hold. Charcoal gray with a rubberized, soft-touch finish and rounded edges, the Optimus S has a simple, unassuming look. (There's a purple model of the device, too, but Republic Wireless offers only the gray one.) Its 3.2-inch LCD is on the small side compared with many of today's 4.3-inch and larger Android handsets.
At 4.06 ounces and 4.2 x 2.3 x 0.5 inches, the Optimus S is easily pocketable. Right below the touchscreen, you'll find the standard Android keys trimmed in silver: Home, Menu, Back and Search. The bottom edge of the phone houses a microUSB port, while a 3.5-mm headphone jack and power button sit at the top. The right side contains a volume rocker toward the top, a dedicated camera and voice-dialing buttons toward the bottom; the left side contains a microSD slot.
On the back of the Optimus S is a 3.2-megapixel shooter, but there's no flash. There's also a Sprint logo, which is the network Republic Wireless defaults to when Wi-Fi isn't available.
The Optimus S features a 3.2-inch LCD display that supports 16.7 million colors at a resolution of 480 x 320 pixels. The Optimus S's screen measured an excellent 425 lux (the HTC Rezound, another $199 smartphone, measured 278 lux), and was bright enough to see in daylight without any fuss.
However, we weren't terribly impressed by the screen's quality. While its resolution might have been adequate when the device was first released back in October 2010, in today's age of Super AMOLED Plus displays, the Optimus S simply failed to impress. When we streamed the movie "Limitless" on Netflix, the image lacked detail. When the main protagonist, Eddie, jumps off a cliff, it was a glowing yellow shade, instead of a sun-kissed brown. The video's picture also had discernible cross-hatching.
On the upside, the multi-touch display on the Optimus S was accurate and responsive, and gestures such as pinch-to-zoom worked smoothly.
Given the phone's relatively small 3.2-inch screen, we wouldn't exactly call the standard Android keyboard on the Optimus S spacious, whether in landscape or portrait mode. Nevertheless, the handset registered our inputs with few typing errors.
Software and Interface
The Optimus S on Republic Wireless runs a slightly modified version of Android 2.3 Gingerbread. You'll notice the biggest change on the Wi-Fi indicator/wizard, but other than that, it's pretty much stock Android OS. While the Republic Wireless Optimus S uses Sprint's cellular network when it's out of range of a Wi-Fi network, it's not technically a Sprint phone, so consumers don't get pre-installed Sprint ID packs.
There are five customizable home screens, which you can dress up with apps, shortcuts and widgets. Right now, the Republic Wireless service is currently in beta, which means it's still missing some key features. Most notably, Google Voice isn't supported, since the functionality of the dialer was locked down tightly by manufacturers before the service went live. The complete list of other missing features is available via a blogpost called "State of the Beta."
Voice and Data Plans
As mentioned, Republic Wireless offers the LG Optimus S for $199, with users paying $19 per month for unlimited voice, data and texting. But is it truly unlimited? Republic Wireless says yes. While the company originally mandated that a certain percentage of your data be offloaded through a Wi-Fi network, it has since removed that restriction.
How good a deal is Republic Wireless? Counting the $199 for the LG Optimus S, you'll end up paying a total of $655 over the course of two years. On Virgin Mobile, when you get an LG Optimus V--essentially the same as the Optimus S except for cosmetic differences and the lack of a mobile hotspot--on the cheapest plan of 300 minutes with unlimited text and data, you'll pay $129 for the phone and $35 per month. Over the course of two years, that's a total of $969. On Cricket Wireless, the cheapest Android phone is $69 and it's $55 per month for a plan with 1000 minutes talk and unlimited text and data, which comes to $1,389 over two years. Finally, on Metro PCS the cheapest smartphone is $39 and plans start at $40 per month for unlimited talk, text and Web. That's $999 over two years.
Basically, if you chose Republic Wireless to be your new carrier, you'd save $314 on your Virgin Mobile plan, $734 on Cricket Wireless, and $344 on Metro PCS over the course of two years. It's worth noting, though, that none of these plans actually come with an annual contract, and you can use them without restrictions.
Using the stock Android browser, surfing the Web on the Optimus S was a painless experience. We used our Wi-Fi connection to load several mobile sites: CNN rendered in a zippy 2 seconds, while the mobile site for ESPN loaded in 14.7 seconds. The full website for The New York Times loaded completely after 4.4 seconds, while the LAPTOP Magazine homepage was viewable after 19.7 seconds. On Sprint's 3G network, CNN Mobile loaded in 9.7 seconds, ESPN Mobile took 16.6 seconds, The New York Times loaded in 8.7 seconds, and LAPTOP Magazine was viewable in 33.9 seconds.
One downside became apparent when we used Netflix to stream shows: Even over Wi-Fi, video lagged badly behind audio, making films unbearable to watch.
Specs and Performance
The Optimus S runs on a relatively slow 600-MHz Qualcomm MSM7627 CPU and comes equipped with only 170 MB of internal memory, but performance still felt snappy in everyday usage. We could navigate through menus quickly, and apps opened promptly with no observable delay. We did think the phone could have registered our double taps and pinch-to-zoom gestures more speedily, but this wasn't a dealbreaker.
On our synthetic benchmark tests, the Optimus S didn't fare so well. It scored 739 on the CPU portion of the Benchmark app, which is well below the category average of 2,227. The Optimus S also notched a rather low Linpack score of 5.31, presumably because of its outdated CPU. This score is significantly below the current category average of 34.
The phone comes with a 2GB microSD card, expandable up to 32GB for more storage.
Pictures taken with the Optimus S' 3.2-MP camera were decent, but well behind the 8-MP shooters on premium smartphones. Our pictures of some vendor jewelry out on a busy New York street were colorful, though not very sharp.
The device can record VGA, QVGA, and QCIF clips. It wasn't the best quality for a smartphone camera, but the motion on these videos was smooth and colors were accurate.
On the Republic Wireless service, call quality was best using either in-office or home Wi-Fi. You'll know Wi-Fi calling is enabled when the Republic Wireless logo (a green arc) toward the top of the screen is filled in. When connected to these networks, sound from the person at the other end of the line was mostly clear. Although the caller's voice was always accompanied by some faint static, we could make out the words fine. These Wi-Fi calls also had the most stable connections, although there was one time during our testing that a call with a friend dropped while we were connected to our home Wi-Fi network.
Unfortunately, the phone doesn't seamlessly switch from Wi-Fi to Sprint's cellular network. When we strayed out of Wi-Fi range during an active call, our caller's voice stuttered and warped--all we heard for awhile were some incoherent syllables, followed by a brief silence. Then the call dropped. The same happens in reverse when you walk into range of a Wi-Fi hotspot from Sprint's network. Republic Wireless told us that by the time its service rolls out to the public by early- to mid-2012, it would have a seamless in-call setup that toggles back and forth between Wi-Fi and cellular networks.
We were able to send texts on our review unit of the Optimus S without issue, whether we were connected through Wi-Fi or the cellular network. (Like calls, texting switches back and forth between these two depending on availability, with Wi-Fi being the primary choice of connection.)
During the LAPTOP Battery Test (which consists of continuous Web surfing until the charge runs out), the Optimus S's 1500 mAh lithium ion battery lasted a disappointing 4 hours and 55 minutes--well below the Android-phone average of 6 hours and 38 minutes.
The biggest draw of the Optimus S on Republic Wireless is its dirt-cheap plan. For $655 over the course of two years, you get a phone with decent performance, unlimited text, calls and data. Let's not forget that you aren't even tied to a 2-year plan, so you can opt out anytime you want. But does the service work well enough to jump ship from more established carriers? Right now, the answer is no. Dropped calls and shaky reception makes the overall experience too frustrating. But if Republic Wireless fixes some of our current complaints--in-call handoffs most of all--it could be a great option for Wi-Fi-bound, budget-conscious consumers.