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Republic Wireless and Motorola Defy XT are a solid combo for just $19/month (review)

The fees for service from the top four US wireless carriers keep rising and MVNO options are getting more and more attractive. Republic Wireless offers a solid alternative with a decent Android smartphone for $19 per month.
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Republic Wireless retail package for the Motorola Defy XT

Republic Wireless initially launched its low-cost MVNO service at the end of 2011 and then had a few growing pains as it ironed out service and hardware issues. In December, they started over with a new piece of hardware and updated service definitions. For just $19 per month you can pick up a $259 Motorola Defy XT and get unlimited calling, texting, and data. While this type of service and limited device support won't appeal to the smartphone enthusiast, it may be just perfect for those wanting to save some serious cash and still enjoy many of the benefits of owning a smartphone without any form of contract.

I have been using the Republic Wireless service and the Motorola Defy XT for the past couple of weeks and wanted to share my thoughts and experiences. Overall, I think the device and service are a good value and will appeal to many people. If I had better Sprint coverage where I live and work and wasn't writing about all the latest and greatest smartphones then I would seriously consider this combo for myself.

Hardware: Motorola Defy XT

There is only one device that works with the Republic Wireless $19/month service and that is the Motorola Defy XT that you have to pay for in advance. The $259 fee includes the service start-up fee ($10) and shipping, but taxes are not included. The Defy XT is actually a pretty decent Android smartphone and the rugged design is a nice touch. Republic Wireless gives you 30 days to try out the device and service and if you are not satisfied then you can return the phone for a full refund. You can also cancel at anytime after 30 days, there are no service contracts, but you won't get the refund on the $259 charge after this trial period. Specifications of the Motorola Defy XT include:

  • Android 2.3 Gingerbread OS
  • Dual band CDMA support for Sprint's 3G network
  • 3.7 inch 480x854 display with Gorilla Glass
  • 1GB ROM/512MB RAM
  • 1 GHz processor
  • microSD card for expanded storage, comes with 2GB card
  • Bluetooth 3.0
  • 801.11 b/g/n WiFi
  • FM radio
  • Accelerometer, GPS receiver, and proximity sensor
  • 1,650 mAh user replaceable battery
  • 5 megapixel rear camera with LED flash
  • Front facing VGA camera
  • Dimensions of 115 x 58.5 x 11.95 mm and 115 grams

Yes, the version of Android used on this device is a few generations behind the latest and greatest smartphones. However, it is still a pretty solid OS with more functionality than what can be found on a feature phone. The processor and provided memory is acceptable and you can keep things up and running with removable storage and a replaceable battery. I like the rugged feel of the device, but it is also quite light and feels great in your hand.

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Opening up the Motorola Defy XT retail package

The front is mostly taken up by the 3.7 inch display with four hardware capacitive buttons (Menu, Home, Back, and Search) below the display and above a grid area. The 3.5mm headset jack (with rubber plug to keep it free from dust) and the power button are found on the top. A volume button is on the right with the standard microUSB port (again with a rubber cover) on the lower left. There is nothing on the bottom. On the back you will find a unique design that helps with the in-hand comfort. The camera and flash are up near the left top of the back. Centered at the bottom of the back is a lock switch that helps add an additional securing mechanism to keeping the back cover in place if you happen to drop the phone. This lock is one piece of the rugged outfitting with the Gorilla Glass display and port covers helping to keep the device safe from some elements.

The phone does not work via GSM so you cannot use it outside of the US unless you use it just to connect via WiFi. It doesn't connect to Sprint's new LTE network or older WiMAX network so is limited to CDMA connectivity when not connected via WiFi. Unfortunately, I get fairly poor Sprint coverage so my connectivity wasn't the best with the device. However, as you can read in my experiences below when I was connected I found the call quality and data to be decent.

Republic Wireless service

Republic Wireless has deals setup with Sprint to use their network when you are not connected via a WiFi access point. The service is designed to primarily make connections via WiFi and when you do so you will see the green Republic Wireless arc symbol appear in the top notification area. The arc turns gray when connected via Sprint's cellular network and cellular is really the secondary means of connectivity. I found other MVNOs to offer unlimited, but actually have "limits" in place. For example, with Straight Talk I quickly found they have a 2GB data limit and don't keep folks around that regularly exceed this level. Republic Wireless states the following on their website:

It really is just $19 for truly unlimited talk, text, and data with no contract. But nobody likes a data hog and we rely on the honor system. As long as you play nice, and try to use Wi-Fi as much as you can, we'll keep on doing what we do and can continue to offer you great wireless service on a network built for you.

Republic Wireless uses something similar to T-Mobile's WiFi Calling service to support calls made over the Internet when connected to a WiFi hotspot. This is different than the previous T-Mobile technology where UMA (Unlicensed Mobile Access) was used to properly hand off WiFi calls to the cellular network and thus when you leave a WiFi hotspot your call will drop. It is unlikely that Republic Wireless can do much about this network transfer since handsets have to be UMA-compatible and the network has to fully support it. Republic leases their network access from Sprint so they don't have this network control either. Their service does support handing off cellular to WiFi calls so when you come home the connection should transfer.

There are some limitations with Republic Wireless service at this time, including MMS (not that popular anyway), SMS over WiFi (works just fine over cellular), and 911 over WiFi. I understand that SMS and 911 over WiFi will be coming in an OTA update.

Experiences and closing thoughts

While the Motorola Defy XT isn't the highest end Android smartphone, it is a solid device. I liked the feel in my hand and the rugged aspects of the device. Android performed well and I was able to get all of my email, use social networking, browse the Internet, and more on the Defy XT. Phone calls sounded great over WiFi and the Sprint cellular network. Republic Wireless makes connecting to WiFi for calls easy and the green arc symbol in the top bar is a handy way to check WiFi connectivity. As WiFi networks continue to populate malls, airports, restaurants, and cities around us, the ability to use WiFi for mobile phone service is becoming more practical.

The minimum monthly fee for wireless service with unlimited voice, messaging, and data from most major carriers is $90+ and this still requires at least a two year contract. This makes the $19 monthly fee from Republic Wireless quite a compelling alternative for those looking to save money. We can't say for sure if Republic Wireless will be around in a few months with such a low cost model, but without a contract the only risk to you is the initial cost of the Defy XT. If you consider that three months of service on the major carriers covers the price of the Defy XT it seems there is little risk in giving Republic Wireless a try if you want to save a considerable amount of money on wireless service.

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Motorola Defy XT package contents

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The Defy XT feels great in my hand

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The battery and microSD card are removable

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The camera and flash are found on the top of the back

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The Defy XT is rugged and solidly built

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A cover protects the microUSB port

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A lock switch keeps the cover in place

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The power button and 3.5mm headset port are on the top

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Another view of the back of the Defy XT

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