Not long ago, if you wanted a high-end smartphone, you had to sign a contract with a major wireless carrier and play by their rules. That meant multi-year service agreements, expensive monthly bills and new fees. Now, Verizon is forcing even more expensive shared data plans on new subscribers, and AT&T is preparing to tout similar plans.
Fortunately, these days you can avoid the big guys and still get some of the best smartphones, with no contract, and save money in the long run by paying a lower monthly bill.
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Here are three of the best phones you can get without a traditional $70-and-up monthly bill. They’re not the only low-cost options, but all three are also currently available on major wireless carriers at a higher monthly price. Consider these alternatives if you’re on an individual plan and want to save some cash by paying a little more up-front:
Unlocked Samsung Galaxy Nexus with T-Mobile Value Plan
Specs: 4.65-inch display (1280-by-720 resolution), dual-core processor, 5-megapixel camera, 16 GB storage; runs Android 4.1
Phone Price: $349
Service Cost: $45 per month for unlimited data (slowed down after 2 GB), 500 minutes, pay-per-text
Total Two-Year Cost: $1429 (Compare to $1830 on Verizon with 2GB of data and 450 minutes)
The unlocked Galaxy Nexus is still one of the best Android phones around, for one simple reason: It runs the latest version of Google’s software (Android 4.1, or Jelly Bean), and will likely be one of the first phones in line for future updates. That’s not always the case for carrier-specific versions of Nexus phones. Jelly Bean is smooth and fast, and includes Google Now, a virtual assistant to rival Apple’s Siri. With T-Mobile, you get a big discount on the cost of service by bringing your own phone, and you’re not bound by a contract, either. Grab the Galaxy Nexus from the Google Play Store, and throw in a T-Mobile Value Plan SIM card.
Samsung Galaxy S II with Ting
Specs: 4.5-inch display (800-by-480 resolution), dual-core processor, 8-megapixel camera, 16 GB storage; runs Android 2.3
Phone Price: $435 (white model)
Service Cost: $57 per month for 2 GB of data, 500 minutes, pay-per-text (estimated)
Total Two-Year Cost: $1,803 (Compare to $2,020 on Sprint with 450 minutes, unlimited data and text)
The interesting thing about Ting is that you only pay for the minutes, text and data that you actually use. Consume less than the amount you signed up for, and your bill drops. Use more, and it goes up. There are no crazy overage charges, nothing gets wasted, and mobile hotspot use is included for free. (I picked the $57 combination of data and minutes above because it compares well to other carriers’ plans, but conservative users will pay much less.) As for the Galaxy S II, it’s an excellent Android phone with a slim design and a top-notch camera. Ting uses Sprint’s network, so it’s a similar experience for less money.
Apple iPhone 4S (16 GB) with Virgin Mobile
Specs: 3.5-inch display (960-by-640 resolution), dual-core processor, 8-megapixel camera, 16 GB storage; runs iOS 5
Phone Price: $650
Service Cost: $35 per month for unlimited data (slowed down after 2.5 GB), 300 minutes and unlimited text
Total Two-Year Cost: $1,490 (Compare to $2,020 on Sprint with 450 minutes, unlimited data and text)
Don’t be scared of the astronomical sticker price. Virgin Mobile’s service is so cheap that it pays off big-time in the long run. The carrier is owned by Sprint, so it’s the same network without the fully-unlimited data. (There are no data overage charges on Virgin, but you’ll get 2G speeds of 256 kbps or less after using 2.5 GB in a month.) If you need more minutes, $10 more per month gets you 1,200 minutes total, or $20 more gets you unlimited talk time.