Most smartphone users go the traditional post-paid route and sign up for contracts or installment plans to snag the newest phones on the cheap, but that's not the only way to experience Android. There are a plethora of pre-paid carriers in the US market, most of which license network access from one of the big carriers. You usually have to wrangle with either expensive new phones, or moderately expensive older ones. It can be every bit as tough to make a decision as the postpaid carriers with their two year contracts.
So here's what we're going to do: go over some of the top prepaid carriers that offer phones direct and tell you which one to get. In some cases there will be a premium suggestion, and a more budget-friendly one.
A Word Before We Get Started
This is not a guide for which unlocked phone to buy on eBay, Amazon, or Negri. There are innumerable options if you want to go that route, and it can get messy. What with sketchy band support and network types, it's easier to just get the phone you know will work from the prepaid carrier. This is also for carriers that are explicitly about prepaid, not national carriers that offer prepaid service on the side.
Additionally, buying a Nexus isn't an option right now -- the Nexus 4 is gone for good, and the next Nexus phone is still rumor. As such, this is an especially good time to take a look at the prepaid landscape.
This is an AT&T-owned prepaid brand, so it has a fairly robust network but phone choices could be better. The only high end device on offer for Aio is the Samsung Galaxy S4. This is a premium device with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600, 2GB of RAM, and a 5-inch 1080p Super AMOLED screen. The 13 MP camera takes amazing pictures, and the device is nice and light. It's a little on the plasticky side, though. Because this is a premium device, it comes with a premium price. If you want the best, this will run you $579.99.
Since there are limited choices at the high end, you might consider something a little more reasonably priced. At just $250 the Galaxy Express is a good choice as well. You take a major step down in hardware, but it's less than half the price. The Express has a 4.5-inch WVGA Super AMOLED Plus screen, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400, 1GB of RAM, and runs Android 4.1.
If you can swing it, the GS4 is a much better phone, but for the price, the Galaxy Express is acceptable.
Boost is a carrier that mostly relies on an array of entry-level devices, so you probably won't be rocking a hot new phone here. There is a Galaxy S III on offer, though, and that's still a reasonably good phone. It's been eclipsed by the GS4, but the GS3 runs on a 1.5 GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 2GB of RAM, and a 4.8-inch 720p Super AMOLED screen. This is also one of Boost's LTE devices, if you live in one of those markets. For $349 it's something to look into.
If that's too pricey, there's the LG Optimus F7 for $239.99. This is a mid-range device, but it has a leg up on a lot of the phones in this class. The F7 has a 1.5GHz dual-core processor, 1GB of RAM, and a 4.7-inch 720p LCD. It only has 8GB of storage to the GS3's 16GB, and the software is a bit less polished.
When you figure price in, this is actually a close call that comes down to personal preference.
T-Mobile and MetroPCS are merging, but the latter is still a good prepaid option with some LTE coverage. If you want a good Android device, the choice is a straightforward one -- Samsung's last-gen flagship or the current one.
The Galaxy S III is $399 through MetroPCS and the Galaxy S4 is $549. So is the GS4 worth a $150 increase in price? You go from a Snapdragon S4 to a Snapdragon 600, from Android 4.1 to 4.2, and from 720p to 1080p resolution.
Yes, $549 is a lot to pay for a phone, but that's actually a bit less than the off-contract price on many carriers. The extra $150 gets you a much nicer device and $399 is a bit too much for the GS3 anyway.
These two carriers are actually the same network with different branding, so I'm lumping them together. These are low-cost options, so don't expect any new phones -- both brands rely on a mix of entry-level and older devices.
In both cases, your top-of-the-line phone is the Samsung Galaxy S III. It still runs a fairly new version of Android, has a Snapdragon S4 processor, and 2GB of RAM. That 4.8-inch Super AMOLED is nothing to sneeze at either. Net10 and Straight talk both have the GS3 for $399.99. It's clearly more expensive than other carriers.
The cheaper phones are not great in the spec department -- to the point I suspect the experience will be negatively affected. If you're not bringing a phone in from outside, StraightTalk and Net10 aren't really the best for smartphone users.
This is a bit of an odd one -- Cricket has its own network, but it has limited phone selection unless you live in one of its LTE markets. The website simply won't sell you an LTE device outside of those areas. If you do live in a Cricket LTE zone, you're looking at a pretty clear choice.
Both the Samsung Galaxy S III and S4 are being offered, but the S3 costs a whopping $479.99. That's way too much for a year old phone when the current one is only $100 more. Your best bet is to splurge on the Galaxy S4 at $579.99.
There are several lower-priced devices, but they're a big step down in hardware. The $249.99 Samsung Galaxy Admire 2 and $279.99 HTC One SV are worth a look, though. Both these phones have WVGA screens and very little storage, but it's hard to justify almost $600 for the GS4. If you decide on one of these devices, just make sure you set your expectations appropriately.
Republic Wireless in an interesting option for prepaid phone service. It routes calls and texts over WiFi whenever it is available to save on usage fees. There are also multiple plan options that start at $5 per month for WiFi-only calls. If you're looking at Republic, don't buy anything yet. In November this carrier will have the Moto X and it's only going to cost $299 off-contract.
Republic Wireless is essentially eating the cost of the phone to get more customers on-board. That means you get the Moto X for half price. The Moto X is based on the Motorola X8 computing platform with touchless control for Google voice commands, 2GB of RAM, a 720p AMOLED, and 16GB of storage. When you look at the other devices available on Republic, this phone is definitely worth waiting for.
If you're looking at Ting, which runs on Sprint's network, you have a lot of good choices. The folks behind this company have endeavored to bring most of the top flagship devices to users. You have your choice of the Moto X, HTC One, or Samsung Galaxy S4 in the top-tier category. However, they're not cheap.
Between the top three devices, I lean toward the Moto X. The One and the GS4 both have slightly better specs, but the experience with the Moto X is better. There's nothing wrong with the software running on the GS4 or One, but Motorola has done something really compelling with Touchless Control in the Moto X. The 720p screen on the Moto X might concern some, but it's really not a problem. It looks nearly as good as the 1080p screens on the other top devices. All three phones are in the same price bracket of $500-600, with the Moto X at $565.
If you need a cheaper option, you might consider the LG Optimus F3 Titanium. It's an entry-level phone with a 4-inch WVGA screen, 4GB of storage, and older dual-core processor. The F3 isn't a bad device, but it's toward the top of reasonable at $255. The rest of the entry-level devices are either too pricey for what they offer, or simply aren't worth using at almost any price.
On Virgin Mobile, you're in a bit of a pickle for phone selection. This Sprint prepaid subsidiary offers a ton of entry-level Samsung and LG devices that aren't very good, and the Galaxy S III, which is still pretty good. However, the Galaxy S III sells for $399 (currently on sale for 15% off). It's more expensive than other carriers, so it's probably not worth it. If Virgin Mobile is your prepaid carrier of choice, take a look at the Virgin Mobile Supreme.
The Supreme is made by ZTE and has respectable specs. It runs a 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4, 1GB of RAM, and a 5-inch 720p LCD. It runs Android 4.1, which is getting long in the tooth, but it's only $250. The experience won't quite match up to the GS3, but it's close enough that the savings are worth it.