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The best in prepaid smartphones

When this site opened its doors, the idea of a prepaid smartphone was laughable. Prepaid wireless carriers were more concerned with offering pay-as-you-go rates and cheap phones. That satisfied the bottom end of the cellular market, a portion that big contract carriers had ignored. Since then the environment has changed dramatically. Prepaid carriers now cater to more varied demographics and offer plans that mimic postpaid ones. This development has necessarily led to the introduction of smartphones on prepaid carriers.
 
Here’s a rundown of what you can find in terms of smartphone on current prepaid carriers.
 

BlackBerry Curve
 
While the BlackBerry has slipped in public stature since its height in the mid-00s, it is still often the best smartphone you’ll find on a prepaid carrier. Most prepaid carriers prefer the BlackBerry Curve to the flagship models. They’re typically cheaper, which always plays a role for prepaid carriers. Since they don’t subsidize handsets to the same level as contract carriers, it’s important that they find the cheapest possible handsets. Every dollar counts when it comes to prepaid handsets.
 
The BlackBerry Curve 8530 appears on many different carriers. It came out in the summer of 2009, two years after the original Curves debuted. It was certainly time for an upgrade, but the 8530 was just a minor one. There have been a series of Curves since the 8530, including some brand new models. But chances are that we won’t see these on prepaid carriers for quite some time. Again, the focus is on affordable models, and with smartphones that often involves older handsets.
 
You can get the BlackBerry Curve 8530 from the following carriers: MetroPCS ($199), Cricket ($159.99), Virgin Mobile ($179.99), Boost Mobile ($149.99), and T-Mobile prepaid ($187.49).
 
Additionally, Boost Mobile carries a much newer BlackBerry model, the Style 9670. It is a full-sized BlackBerry flip phone that came out last October. It wasn’t received with much fanfare, but it’s a bit more modern than the Curve 8530. It’s also a bit more expensive, checking in at $199.99. Verizon prepaid also carries a pair of BlackBerry models with its monthly plans. One is the BlackBerry Curve, though that is the more updated 9930 model, which runs BlackBerry OS 6. It is predictably more expensive than the older Curves, checking in at $274.99. There is also the touchscreen Storm 2, which runs $394.99.
 
Android smartphones
 
It took a while for Android to make its impact on the mobile world, but since late 2009 it has been one of the most popular smartphone platforms. While prepaid carriers took a while to get in on the game, they’re now carrying Android smartphones in droves. As with the BlackBerry Curve, these are mostly older and mid-level models, not to be confused with the top of the line models that postpaid carriers are releasing with rapidity. Here’s what kind of Android you can expect from a prepaid carrier.
 
The easiest way to break this down is by price range, since there are so many different handsets on so many different carriers. Typically the less expensive models are the least impressive feature-wise, but there are exceptions. Here’s the best in each price range.
 
Free to $100
 
LG Optimus M: $99.99 from MetroPCS. It might be the best bang for your buck handset on the market. LG released an Optimus model for nearly every carrier, but MetroPCS sells it for the cheapest price. The screen is a bit small at 3.2 inches, and since its from MetroPCS it runs on a slow 1xRTT network. That takes away from the overall experience, but it still leaves the Optimus M as the best value in the under $100 range.
 
$100 to $120
 

 
Samsung Intercept: $119.99 from PlatinumTel. Virgin Mobile actually jumped ahead of the market with the Intercept, which it released earlier in 2011. PlatinumTel picked it up as a refurbished model, and therefore sells it at a lower price point. Like the Optimus M’s, the Intercept’s screen is just 3.2 inches. But behind that screen is a slide-out keboard, which appeals to many users who aren’t used to the full touchscreen. It also has an 800MHz processor, which puts it a tick below the upper tier phones, but definitely a level above the lower-tier ones.
 
$120 to $150
 
Samsung Admire: $129 from MetroPCS. Recently released as a back-to-school item, the Admire brings the latest version of Android, 2.3. It brings a slightly larger screen, measuring 3.5 inches diagonally. At the same time, its processor is the same clock speed as the Intercept. That renders it a bit underwhelming, since it’s in a higher price range (though really it’s just $10 more expensive). Where the Admire shines through is the competition. There are many overpriced low-tier handsets in the $120 to $150 range. The Admire definitely provides the best bang for the buck.
 
$150 to $200
 
Samsung Prevail: $179.99 from Boost Mobile. Boost has only one Android handset, but it’s a worthy one. The Prevail is basically the prepaid model in the Samsung Galaxy S line, which is one of the most heralded lines of Android smartphones. It’s on the smaller end, with a 3.2 inch screen, but it does bring some faster processing speeds. As with the Admire, the Galaxy Prevail benefits from a low level of competition in the price range. Overpriced, low-tier handsets seem to live in this range.
 
$200 and up
 
Motorola Triumph: $299.99 from Virgin Mobile. Many marketing dollars were spent on the Triumph which is now Virgin’s flagship Android handset. It definitely matches the hype, as it has most of the latest features. The 1GHz processor kicks the competitors to the ground. The 4.1-inch screen gives you plenty of room to type and swipe. The resolution is also significantly better than the other handsets on this lit. In fact, the Triumph is the closest thing that prepaid has to a top of the line Android device. That is to say, the price definitely matches the quality.
 
There were many other handsets in this range, but many of them were unsubsidized units from postpaid carriers. For instance, AT&T carries the Samsung Captivate, which is a relatively high-end Android, perhaps trumping the Triumph. But it costs $500. That’s above $200, of course, but it’s also well out of a reasonable price range.