Who doesn’t want to pay less for their cell? You won’t find any bargains among the major carriers. But second-tier cellular service providers may offer a better deal. Prepaid plans with no long-term contracts and unlimited talk and text cost as little as $25 a month. But you get a limited selection of older handsets, spotty coverage and slower data service in some areas.
Straight talker. Wal-Mart has entered the prepaid-wireless market by selling TracFone’s Straight Talk cell service as its house brand. As you’d expect from a gargantuan retailer known for price cutting, Wal-Mart has some sweet deals on respectable (if unspectacular) phones. Our favorite is the Samsung R451C ($100), a “slider cell” with both a numeric keypad and a slide-out qwerty keyboard. Its raised keys are well spaced -- though a bit too flat and easy to miss while typing. Other essential features include a Web browser, Blue-tooth and a 1.3-megapixel camera. The phone’s color display is a tad small for gaming and surfing, but adequate for texting.
Wal-Mart offers two Straight Talk plans, each with no contract and low fees. The $30 monthly option buys 1,000 minutes, 1,000 texts and 30 megabytes of data. The $45-a-month package includes unlimited talk, text and data.
Messaging maven. Would you rather text than talk? The Motorola Clutch i465 ($100) from Boost Mobile has a full qwerty keyboard with good tactile feedback. The keys have a peaked design that makes typing surprisingly easy despite their small size. The 1.79-inch color screen is too small for lengthy Web browsing, and the camera is just so-so. But the Clutch’s durable build and stylishly curved edges compensate for its shortcomings.
Boost Mobile, a division of Sprint Nextel, offers several calling plans, none with a contract, roaming charges or a credit check. The $50 monthly package includes unlimited nationwide talk, text and Web access. Too pricey? Try the 10-cent-per-minute plan instead. But be careful. Text messages cost a dime each; multimedia messages run a quarter.
Chubby chatter box. Who says a cell phone must be long and lean? The Cricket TXTM8 (pronounced textmate; $110 online after a $50 rebate) goes wide with a squat, chubby design. The result is a text-friendly handset with a roomy, slide-out qwerty keyboard. The 2.2-inch color display is bright, but a bit small for Web use. Overall, the TXTM8 is a good choice for calling and texting, but not browsing.
Cricket’s unlimited talk and text plans start at $25 per month, with no contract. Roaming costs extra -- a whopping 39 cents per minute, although cheaper packages are available. The $40 monthly plan, which includes long distance, voice mail, Internet service and caller ID, is a smart choice for heavy users.
Great communicator. The LG Rumor2 ($130), a sleek slider from Virgin Mobile USA, bears a striking resemblance to TracFone’s Samsung R451C. Both handsets sport the de rigueur candy-bar design, a la the iPhone. Both have a 1.3-megapixel camera, a keypad for calling and a slide-out qwerty keyboard. The price for the Rumor2 is $130; it is sometimes offered for $100 on Virgin’s Web site.
Although Virgin offers three no-contract plans, none is all-inclusive. The $50-per-month plan is the only one that offers unlimited, anytime minutes. But it costs an extra $5 for 1,000 text messages, or $10 for unlimited texts. Web access adds $5 to $10 to your monthly cost.