The true cost of any smartphone is considerably more than the amount you shell out for the actual device. Free or deeply discounted smartphones won’t necessarily translate to savings in the long run.
When making a purchasing decision, it is essential to evaluate the carrier commitment, contract length, monthly subscription fee (including the data plan) and an assortment of other costs. And if you are loyal to a particular carrier or are willing to pay more for added coverage and reliability, it’s important to understand which devices are the best out of the dozens they are trying to give away in exchange for your long-term commitment.
So, all in, which smartphones offer the best bang for your buck? Here are some options currently available from the four major cellular carriers, as well as the best deals that don’t involve a long-term contract.
The best deals from higher-end carriers
While Verizon and AT&T are the most popular and reliable cellular networks in the United States, they are also the most expensive. Depending on your calling plan, text messaging frequency and data usage, your monthly bill will likely range between $80 and $100 for the duration of your required two-year contract.
If you are looking to subsidize this higher monthly cost with a free or highly discounted device worth owning, Verizon has compelling options for work, play and daily use. The best deal for busy professionals is a free, certified and pre-owned BlackBerry Curve 3G 9330. With a usual retail price of $299.99, the Curve 9330 offers enterprise-level messaging and productivity features cherished by new and long-term BlackBerry owners. The pre-installed Skype Mobile service could help heavy talkers shave a few minutes from their voice plans and enable them to go with a cheaper option. For gamers, the PlayStation-branded Xperia PLAY gives the iPhone 4 a run for its money. The device, which also has access to hundreds of thousands of Android apps, can be purchased for $99.99 with a two-year contract. While some users complain about its limited battery life, the Motorola Citrus is currently free for newly contracted Verizon subscribers. The all-purpose phone, which ordinarily retails for $249.99, is a great multi-use device that runs on the Android operating system.
While AT&T is no longer the exclusive carrier of iPhones, the network offers the best deals for older and refurbished models of Apple’s iconic smartphone. The iPhone 3GS may not be a cutting edge device, particularly with the likely debut of the iPhone 5 later this year. But for $49.99, the 3GS is still a great deal. Even older model iPhones have access to hundreds of thousands of great apps and games that Androids and the others don't. A fifty dollar price tag is a great reason for those on the fence to buy one. What AT&T and Verizon subscribers should note is that Apple is rumored to be releasing a lower-cost iPhone later this year that could ultimately be a better deal. Also available on AT&T for $9.99 is the refurbished Samsung Captivate with its 4-inch AMOLED-display. It might run an older version of Android, but it offers great bang for the buck with little initial outlay.
Sprint and T-Mobile
The third and fourth most popular carriers in the United States, Sprint and T-Mobile, both offer better pricing than their larger competitors, and can be great alternatives for people seeking to save on their monthly cell phone costs. A savings of $10 to $20 per month will keep hundreds of dollars in your pocket over the course of a two-year contract.
One additional advantage offered by Sprint is unlimited data usage on its network (as opposed to tiered plans recently implemented by the bigger carriers). This is great for people who want to stream a lot of data when away from a Wi-Fi connection. Far and away the best deal for new Sprint customers right now is the fast and powerful Nexus S 4G, which is manufactured by Samsung and available for as little as $29.99. The Nexus line of Android phones are more or less flagship Google devices and are among the best available for what is now the most popular mobile operating system for smartphones.
Meanwhile, T-Mobile is always pushing out good deals, like prepaid plans with unlimited talk, text and web for $50 a month. The carrier also offers cheaper standard plans compared to the big two. But remember to read the fine print as you may find you need to pay for certain extra features. In addition, the data-allocation plans offered each month can be limiting if you are a power user, so make sure you read all the small print. Still, T-Mobile’s Android cell phone bundles offer good value for money, providing you’re happy with a slightly older device like a Samsung Dart or HTC Wildfire S. The company’s individual rate plans also offer plenty of room for flexibility. With AT&T’s $39 billion bid for T-Mobile currently in doubt, it pays to check back frequently with the carrier to see what other new deals are in the works.
Prepay and save
It is possible to avoid the long contracts and higher prices that are required by the four major networks if you are OK dealing with a smaller, regional carrier. Sure, you might not get the latest and greatest smartphone, but usually their options are perfectly serviceable for most of us. And although some carriers might not offer the extensive wireless coverage of the big four, they all usually piggy-back on one of the above carriers and let you ‘roam’ if you’re somewhere with spotty service.
Cricket offers a good selection of prepaid Android and BlackBerry smartphones with nationwide coverage from anywhere between $30 and $150 per month. Free activation and no contracts mean flexibility to choose and move around as often as you please. The Samsung Suede, for example, is $109.99. Coupled with the carrier’s $55 per month smartphone plan (just 1GB of data, but that could easily be enough for many users) and you’ve got yourself quite a deal.
MetroPCS also offers a number of competent Android and BlackBerry devices. Their flat-rate cell phone plans are certainly competitively priced compared to the big four carriers. The BlackBerry Curve 8350 costs $199 here, certainly pricier than a pre-owned one on Verizon. But with MetroPCS’ Blackberry plan for $60 per month (including unlimited data), over the course of a contract, those savings will save you hundreds of dollars. Once again though, look closely at what you’re getting. Though cheaper, there could be some important features missing from your plan so tread carefully before buying.
Additional alternative carriers like Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile both offer prepaid, no-contract plans which mean you could get a nice Android smartphone in your hands for a good price. It’s worth noting however, if you have your heart set on the next shiny iPhone or state-of-the-art Android device, you’re not likely to find them on these smaller carriers anytime soon. Still, if you’re looking to save some money and avoid long-term obligations, these more niche providers could be your best option.