If you have been reading my site for the past few months, you know that I recently switched over to Project Fi after being an AT&T customer for over 17 years. You can read my review of Project Fi here but you can find all of my Project Fi related tips, tricks and How To’s at this link. One of the key advantages of the service is the ability to switch between T-Mobile and Sprint, the two providers that make up Google’s MNVO (Mobile Network Virtual Operator). In principle, the way it works is that whichever carrier has the stronger signal in your area is the one you will connect to but as you travel, you may switch from Sprint to T-Mobile or vise-versa. The challenge is that you never really know which network you are on at any given moment and that fact, along with several other key features, is why Signal Spy is a must have app for Fi users.
Signal Spy is an app you may have heard of before as it was know as Fi Spy up until a few weeks ago after what I think was a discussion between the developer Novvia and Google’s legal team. 🙂 The name aside, Signal Spy gives Fi users the ability to not only see what carrier they happen to be using but also what LTE band they are using with that carrier, their Wi-Fi information (if connected) and the ability to force your Nexus device to switch from one carrier to another. I have been using the app for several weeks now (I’m part of their beta program) and now that it is out and available for everyone, it should be an app that Fi users download right after the Project Fi app itself. Even if you are not on Fi, you can still get some really useful information out of Signal Spy that makes it worth the download for anyone.
For the purpose of this review I am going to assume that you are a Project Fi user so I can explain all the features and usefulness of the app. If you are a non-Fi user, keep in mind that your mileage will vary on what you can see in the app.
Signal Spy Installation and User Interface
The app itself is a small install of just under 5MB and requires that you have Android Lollipop or higher. Once the app is installed and open, you will see the basic information that the app provides to users. At the top of the display is the cellular network information that includes which carrier you are connected to at the time, the type of connection (HSDPA, EDGE, LTE, etc) and
below that is the Band you are using if you are on LTE. Below that is the GCI or tower identification information. This information isn’t particularly helpful for you as a user but should you need the support team at Novvia, it is important to them. Finally you will see your signal strength measured in decibel-milliwatts (dBm). As a general rule, your signal will be between -10 dBm to -100 dBm with the smaller the number the better (the stronger the signal). Below the cellular information, Signal Spy displays your Wi-Fi information if you are connected to a network. Here you will see the SSID, the frequency, channel and signal strength of your wireless signal plus the speed of that connection.
The information on the primary display of Signal Spy is helpful but the power of the app really comes in some of the other settings of the app. One of these settings is the ability to have a notification ever present in your Notification area of your phone. Here you can get a quick glance at your current network information without having to actually open the app. Further, you can configure this notification area to give you various options for changing your network connection or resetting it. In the settings of Signal Spy, you can enable dialer codes from the notification pane. In all you can have three of these that allow you to send dial codes to force your Nexus phone to go to T-Mobile or to Sprint for example. You can also send the dial code to reset your connection, repair your connection or give you information about it.
Once you have this feature enabled and configured, you can then perform a function without having to open up the app. In my case, I have the notification pane setup to return my network provider to auto (allow Fi to select it for me based on signal strength), T-Mobile (force my Nexus to use T-Mobile regardless of signal strength) and Sprint (again, forces my phone to use it). You should keep in mind that dial codes are a bit experimental and it could be that your phone doesn’t respond to a code. If that is the case, a soft reset will return everything back to automatic.
The amount of information and ability to manipulate my mobile carrier with Signal Spy is just the beginning of what the app provides. It also provides you a history of your connectivity, letting you see how often your Nexus switched between T-Mobile and Sprint as you moved around in your area. It will also provide you Wi-Fi connectivity information in the Network History page. While it doesn’t provide you what LTE band or frequency you connected with in the history (that would be a nice to see) you can at least get an idea of just how active Fi is in switching your phone between providers.
In addition, the app provides you quick links to a wealth of information about Project Fi including support forms and pages as well as the Google+ community. There are
also quick links to the Signal Spy Google+ community, the beta community and the Redit community so you can connect with fellow users of the app as well as provide feedback to the developers.
One of the things that has really impressed me with Signal Spy has been the developers of the app. They are very active in the Google+ communities, providing support, information and updates on what is coming next in the app. They have been amazingly transparent with the development of the app as well as known issues they have found or users have found and their plan to address them. I am involved in no less than a dozen different beta programs for apps for Android and this group of developers is by far the most active. That alone is refreshing in this day of shadow developers.
Signal Spy is a free app but the developers do take donations for the app ranging from .99 Cents to $3.99. There are plans to develop Pro level features in the app which will be available to those who donate. When that will happen exactly is not clear but those who have made various levels of donations will be notified and updated automatically when it happens.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, Signal Spy is really aimed at Project Fi users but that doesn’t mean you can’t use it with the likes of AT&T or Verizon. Obviously you are only going to get the basic information of your signal and connectivity information and won’t be able to take advantage of the dial codes for example. Given that the app is free, give it a try even if you are not on Fi to see if you find it helpful.
If you are a Project Fi subscriber, Signal Spy is really a must-have app. It provides you a lot of information but also gives you a lot of control, allowing you to select which network you are using at the time, giving you a history of your connectivity and giving you controls to manipulate your connection. For those who like to know the details of how Fi is working for you, this is the app that will provide that information.