Mobile phone contracts suck. Everyone knows it, but we accept them because often we don’t seem to have much choice. The selection of pre-paid phones is poor and off-contract phones are expensive.
But perhaps you simply aren’t willing to accept a contract, however, or simply don’t use much mobile data or many cell minutes. If that’s the case, a pre-paid phone makes a lot of sense even when compared to a non-contract monthly plan. So what are the best options?
T-Mobile offers numerous pre-paid plans including monthly, daily and pay-as-you-go options. You can also purchase smartphones directly from T-Mobile even if you just want a pay-as-you-go option.
For those looking for the cream of the crop, Samsung’s Galaxy S (available refurbished) and the T-Mobile Sidekick are the best options. The Galaxy S is a solid flagship 4” Android smartphone, while the T-Mobile Sidekick is the perfect phone for frequent texters. Both phones are over $300, however.
A more affordable option is the LG Optimus T, which typically costs $179.99. CNET called it one of the best entry-level smartphones due to its combination of performance and affordability. The 3.2” touchscreen is small by the standards of today’s flagship phones, but it works well enough.
Pickings are slimmer at AT&T, which offers prepaid under the brand name of GoPhone. Plan options are not bad, however, and include monthly, daily and pay-by-the-minute options.
The best phone option is certainly the Samsung Captivate, an aging 4” Android smartphone that still appears reasonably modern. It’s nearly $500, however, which is a difficult price to pay for hardware that’s not cutting edge.
Unfortunately, there are not any affordable smartphone options sold for pre-paid users. The $349.99 Palm Pixi is the least expensive offering, but spending that much for a device with limited future support seems dubious. You’ll want to look at another carrier if you want a solid but inexpensive pre-paid smartphone.
You’ll only find monthly and daily pre-paid plans at Verzion, and if you go for the monthly unlimited or daily plan, your phone selection is reduced to “basic phones” – either flip-phones or feature phones. This is obviously not going to be acceptable to many geeks.
The only way to grab a decent phone is to select a monthly 3G plan. If you do that, you’ll be able to select from a number of quality options including the Droid X2, the Droid 3, and the Xperia Play. Prices aren’t outrageous, either – the Play is about $250 and the Droid X2 is just a hair under $300. This is arguably the best selection of off-contract phones available directly from a carrier.
However, you’ll be paying for a monthly minute allowance regardless of how often you use them. If you want to go pre-paid because you don’t use many minutes or much mobile data, these plans aren’t going to save you any money.
Created specifically as a low-cost, no-contract carrier, Boost Mobile offers a number of plans with monthly, daily and pay-as-you-go options. However, the pay-as-your-go and standard monthly options lock you into basic and feature phones. You need to go for a daily or Android/BlackBerry monthly plan to obtain a smartphone.
Unfortunately the phone options aren’t going to blow you away. There’s only a few smartphones to choose from regardless of plan, the best being the Samsung Transformer Ultra, an Android 2.3 phone with a slide-out keyboard and an okay display size of 3.5 inches. This will set you back $229.99.
Less expensive is the Samsung Galaxy Prevail, is $149.99. But you’re downgraded to Android 2.2, have to do with a 3.2” touchscreen, and don’t receive a keyboard. Though this phone is decent for the price, but the LG Optimus T available through T-Mobile is better.
This low-cost carrier only offers no-contract monthly plans. Virgin Mobile’s PayLo plan is the least expensive, offering 1,500 minutes for $30/month, but the phone choices are terrible.
If you go with a regular plan, however, you can buy some of the best value-oriented Android phones on the market. These include the LG Optimus Slider for $199.99 and the LG Optimus V for $129.99. Rates are good for the plans, as well.
Notably missing from this comparison is Sprint. I could not find any pre-paid options for the carrier. This is probably because they own Boost Mobile and have a contract with Virgin Mobile allowing the smaller carrier access to Sprint’s network.
Depending on where you live, there may be a regional carrier offering additional prepaid smartphones. In my area, for example, we have Cricket Wireless. These options are worth looking at before buying, but check customer reviews of the service.
Another option worth considering is the purchase of a used or new off-contract phone through a third party. Though this is often the most expensive way to obtain a phone, you can use that phone on any network supported by the phone’s cellular radio without signing up for a contract. You might even be able to use it on a daily or per-minute basis. Call the carriers you’re considering to make sure the phone you want to use is compatible with their network and pre-paid plans.